Athletes sit in the garage, tuning the race engine all winter, and now finally the opportunity is here to flex the muscles at a real MTB race — the season starts NOW.

The Stewart race course is considered the region’s singlespeed racing mecca with relentless short power climbs and ridiculous nirvana flow.

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James Pearl’s goal was to finish the race within 15 minutes of the leaders. He was worried that with the longer course the margins would be even bigger, but this was his goal and he was committed to achieving it.

He lined up third row and nodded at some teammates, confident MTBNJ was ready to go.

And boom, the group roared off into the dust of the open dirt road.

James chose a smaller gear, and at 25 mph he was spinning wildly, trying to relax and pedal in smooth circles. Riders were very aggressive and swerving in and muscling for position.

James followed a teammate’s lead and slipped around some riders on the grass. He knew at any moment, if riders swerved into his lane, or if someone cut him, that accelerating up around the outside could be disastrous, but he was confident in his fitness and skills.

James slipped in behind Utah Joe, the team’s strongest rider, and powered up the first incline. “I felt good with my gear here,” James said, “up the steady incline, keeping a good pace going.

This was the pattern of the day — strong on the climbs, smooth in the flowy singletrack, trying to limit losses in the gnarly mudpits and screaming fast downhills, where his build and riding style and small gearing exposed his weakpoints.

The group moved closer to the woods, through a series of mudpits — James’ chain began to skip, and alarm bells were panging, this was something new, but once out of the mud, the chain was smooth again.

The race was fast and steady hard. Ahead of the main pack, a select group of the day’s strongest riders were just ahead. James felt very strong on the climbs, light and powerful and in control, but on the downhills he was spinning very quickly, a lightweight in terms of both weight and gearing. James tucked in and tried to stay with the pack.

As the pack ripped further into the course, the group around him began to burn off, and James continued to stay in a smooth groove, spinning well on the faster sections.

“I’m not being passed,” James said, “and I feel for about 45 minutes that I’m by myself in this race.”

James was passed by a Bicycle Depot rider like he was standing still — was he falling asleep here? James kept on the gas up the 46 Ford steep uphill, able to pass a rider running, but was then immediately passed by two riders who rode it. James dismounted and ran the remainder of the grade, it was too steep.

Down the trail, James was committed to the chase, head down and jackhammering. He passed one of the riders who had passed him on the side of hte trail — the rider was off the bike and fixing a flat. James kept the throttle pinned.

Pedaling up to a trail crossing, he could see a blur of people, and there was his wife, Mandi.

“11th!” she shouted. “Your top-10 is right ahead of you!”

James was excited. All the riders who had splintered off the front group were pros, huge local talent, and heavyweights.

James carved through Oscar’s pallet trail, and he spotted three riders ahead. Once we got out of the mud and onto the open section, James was able to accelerate and pass two of them. James looked over and both riders were not in a happy place, both mentioned they are cooked.

James was not cooked. He was feeling strong and kept his own personal rhythm, pedaling hard, able to ride up to Igor, who is a singlespeed monster.

James stayed with Igor, wondering if he could keep pace with him, and as they hit the base of the small gravel climb before Schofield, Igor waved him by. James didn’t delay and pushed hard tempo up the hill, motoring. He peeked back and opened a small gap.

“I know he would close it at the top when it flattened out,” James said, “so I stood up at the top of the climb and wiggled my skinny ass a little bit to make the gap larger just so he has more to close.”

Igor still closed it, and James moved over to let him lead. James had a severe time holding his wheel, but he’s able to stay with him.

James was in a great position on-course, and he was racing very actively not passively, displaying many attributes of a successful veteran MTB racer — 200 feet before the entrance to Schofield, Igor reached for his bottle and grabbed a swig.

And James Pearl knew now was the time.

He roared around and lead the charge into the Schofield climb. The 32×17 was perfect, James could sit and powerfully spin a comfortable cadence, opening a gap.

The gap gew and grew. Up the second-to-last steep hill, he drilled it, out of the saddle and giving everything to the pedals.

As he came around a wide turn, now able to fully see the trail behind him, the rider was gone.

James knew he had less than a mile to go, some mud pits and a steep climb to clear before the finish line. He knew he could ride hard and ride clean and maintain his lead.

But, racing is never so easy.

“I came around a corner after some mud and hit a rock with my front tire,” James said. “I slid out and went Superman-style over the bars and onto the ground.”

Boom, just like that, panicked dust settling around him. James saw he snapped the Garmin zipties, the wind knocked out of him. The moment was surreal, all he wanted to do was finish the race strong and error-free and now he is on the ground, trying to scream frustration and he has zero air in his chest. As he picked himself up, he looked around, not seeing Igor but expecting him to roar up at any moment.

And as James suffered through the final mudpit, panicked and frustrated and dead-tired and taking a bad line that put him in a bush, he heard, “On your right.”

Igor is a strong rider and a strong competitor — he has clawed himself back and made this a knife-fight to the line. He powered away.

“I pretty much have zero chance at passing him after this,” James said, “but I chase anyway and I’m able to get back to a bike length of him before the last little punch of a climb.”

The gap was just enough for him to look back. Igor was there first, James coasted into the finish just behind, only a handful of muddy bicycle racers standing around.

“I couldn’t have imagined I’d finish 9th in January,” James said. “It just didn’t seem possible. I was amazed at how good I felt and how not exhausted I was after this race. I felt like a well-oiled machine. I was happy I didn’t go 2:1. I think next year I will have to just because. I can’t wait to cut this singlespeed chain off my bike, take my bar-ends off and put them in a bag for the next 12 months.”

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James Pearl races Cat-1 MTB races for MTBNJ and in the autumn he races cyclocross for TEAM Elite Endurance.

Here is a preview of James Pearl’s athlete interview:

Childhood Heroes: “The Ninja Turtles.”

Hobbies and Interests: “Motor vehicles and going fast. Sleeping on the beach. Playing with the laser pointer with our cat.”

Favorite Band: “The Roots.”

Favorite Meal: “Burritos. Mexican food is my weakness.”

Favorite Breakfast Cereal: “Double Scoop Raisin Bran! No milk. Milk on the side.”

Favorite Pre-Race Meal: “Waffles with speculoos. NOM.”

Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: “Vanilla Froyo with all the chocolate toppings they have.”

Childhood Dream: “To be a meteorologist or be a bike messenger in Boston.”

First Car: “1981 El Camino, did great burnouts. My dad loved that.”

First Job: “I worked at a farm when I was 16. I was really good at throwing rotten tomatoes.”

Favorite Vacation Spot: “Wherever the cruise ship is going, or Cape Cod…”

Pre-Race Feeling: “Let’s make as many jokes as possible to calm the nerves, which usually pisses off all the serious people.”

Early Racing Memory: “Wondering how the faster categories did TWO laps of a race course. I could barely do one.”

Funny Racing Memory: “Seeing some guy in a ‘cross race barrel through a section of caution tape at the start and keep on rolling. Looked like he had streamers all over his bike.”

Most Painful Moment in Life: “Oh man, this is tough. I have to think about that. Maybe losing my dog when I never knew living without her, that was a long time ago, but tough.”

Closest Racing Friends: “My MTBNJ crew, for sure.”

Favorite Race: “A toss-up between the Stoopid 50 and Singlespeed-a-Palooza.”

Toughest Competitors: “Jeremy Short on the MTB. Barely puts time in and still kicks butt. Trying to beat Utah Joe in ‘cross was fun last year. I’m finding new rivalries; I have outgrown my old ones.”

Qualities You Most Admire in People: “Kindness, regardless of whom. I admire people who treat everyone the same.”

What You Love Most About Riding Your Bicycle: “Being outside, traveling to places I have never seen or always driven by without enjoying… The views from mountain biking… Being unplugged from everything…”