Bear Creek. I won’t lie, I might have avoided this course in the past. I’ve heard… things. Last year when National Championships was hosted there, practically in my backyard at a mere hour and a half away, I chose not to go. At the time, I thought it surpassed my level of experience and that I was not equipped with the proper technical skills to ride, let alone race, there. I may have been right. Actually, I’m sure I was right. I am not sure, however, that I did myself any favors by sitting it out.

It’s not always the wisest choice to avoid things that are outside of your comfort zone or above your head. If you don’t participate in some races because you’ve heard they’re super technical or because you’re not sure you’ll be able to ride everything on the course, you’re doing yourself a disservice, denying yourself the chance to exceed your own expectations. In my experience, some of the best learning I have done on a mountain bike took place on the trails in race situations. During those high-pressure moments, I’m much more likely to attempt something (and often times clear it) than I might be in training. After I’ve done it once, doing it again on a training ride isn’t as daunting. There are great advantages to putting yourself into unfamiliar territory, one of which is that you are almost certain to learn something from the experience.

This brings me back to Bear Creek. For 2015, I have made the commitment to race all of the MASS events with the exception of Granogue, which is on the same day as Nationals, and this year I am not sitting out Nationals just because it is almost certainly over my head in terms of experience and skill. I’m going to fly to California and get lapped and pulled, because I know that it’s somehow important to this process. I digress. Bear Creek is part of MASS and so it was an unavoidable stop on my trajectory. I did not have an opportunity to preview the course, and I have never ridden the trails there before so when I showed up to the race I was slightly nervous (just slightly… it’s also sometimes a relief to race a course where I know I’m going to be awful, therefore zero pressure). Not because I thought I’d do badly, but because I was afraid of getting hurt and ending my season early. I realize the sage advice in these situations is “walk anything you’re uncomfortable riding” and “go your own pace, smooth is fast.” I know these are pieces of masterful wisdom… but I’m a little hard to reign in once I get going. I wasn’t scared of the course as much as I was scared of myself on the course. I don’t like walking. I don’t like riding slow. I am a liability… to myself. LOL.

We line up at the start. I love start line situations. I love laughing with my competitors. This is probably one of my favorite parts of racing. Everyone is nervous and excited and we all want to kick each other’s heads in once we get out there, but for a few moments before the battle, we settle our nerves as much as we can manage with humor. And then we go. I skip my pedal off the line, but I’m fine with this; I’m not really looking to throttle this course as much as I am to survive it. I go in 6th.

The start was on a hill and it was a little slower than I would have liked, not what I’m used to at the MASS events, but there was nowhere to pass, especially going into the course blind, and therefore nothing to be done about it. I knew the gnarliness was coming, and after a few unsuccessful attempts to pass and move up, I settled into my position. I really didn’t have much choice but to “race my own pace” due to the abundantly technical terrain, but I did grab some very nice flow on a few of the rocky descents, and had a near perfect showing on one of the ultra-techy climbs. By lap two, I felt comfortable enough, figured out some of the lines, and was able to ride just about everything with the exception of one particularly rough switchback. Lap 3: I was mentally fried from being so focused on dealing with the rocks but I was still riding well enough, considering my expectations. The biggest debacle I had to deal with was that somehow tape had fallen down from the side of the trail and I mistakenly made a wrong turn and ended up on the Enduro course from the previous day’s race. I was spun around, disoriented, and couldn’t find my way back for quite some time. Thankfully, I saw a guy riding the race course through the woods and sped over to him. Not so thankfully, I found myself further back than I was before. I took solace in the fact that I had not accidentally cheated and cut the course (cheaters suck as much as dopers). Hoping that none of the girls behind me had got in front, I stayed behind him for a while, trying to let him pace me through. It didn’t work out. He was a little slower than I wanted to be and botched a rock garden in front of me. I rode past him, alone again. That was the last I saw anyone until the finish, where I discovered that none of the girls behind me had passed during my explorations of the Enduro course, and that one of the women in front ending up a DNF, landing me 4th in the pro race.

Never mind the result – I FINISHED. Last year I would have been walking a huge portion of that course, this year I was able to ride nearly all of it. Not only that, but I could ride it at a decent pace (decent for me!), despite being there for the first time, and 100% clean: no crashes, no mechanicals.

The moral of the story: get out of the frying pan and into the fire! There’s rad stuff in the fire, there are things to be learned in the heat, and you will feel better having walked through the scariness. Most importantly, you’ll surprise yourself and gain priceless experience.

Next year, I’ll be back at Bear Creek, but with an entire off-season of practicing and honing my technical abilities behind me… and some pre-rides of the race course!

Embrace the gnar. Love the gnar. Ride bikes, always.

(Huge thanks to P J Freeman Photography for the photos!)

Laura Slavin's 3rd Degree Berms | Wednesday, June 10th, 2015