SMITH, WHITMORE WIN THE ULTIMATE MUD-IN-YOUR-EYE XTERRA
The XTERRA creed that "Mother Nature is your toughest competitor" rang true once again. After several days of beautiful weather along Milwaukee's scenic lakefront a fast moving storm rolled through McKinley Beach just a half-hour before the scheduled 8:30am race start. It dumped an inch of rain on the city in the span of a couple hours, creating treacherously slippery conditions on the dirt - turned mud - bike trails. More to the point, the mud was flying all over the place, and right in the riders' eyes. The predicament - where glasses that will get covered in mud and you can't see or don't where them and the mud goes straight in your eye. Either way, you can't see. To make matters worse, it clogged up the tires and nobody could use their brakes.
"Close your eyes and hope you don't hit a tree," was how Melissa Thomas explained the situation, followed by "It was epic!"
The booms and bolts of lightening near the swim beach caused the first leg of the event to be cancelled for safety reasons. The decision was a no-brainer, and taken in stride by the 400+ participants who swapped out their goggles for trail running shoes. The swim was replaced by a flat two-mile out-and-back run over a combination of sand and sidewalk.
Not having a swim and adding hard driving rain completely changed the dynamics of the race. It gave an edge to racers that don't normally swim well while taking valuable time away from the strong swimmers. Based on the results, no one benefited more than XTERRA up-and-comer Brian Smith.
Through the first three championship races of '06 Smith got out of the water and onto the bike 9-minutes (Temecula), 6-minutes (Pelham), and 5-minutes (Richmond) behind the swim leader Brent McMahon, which meant he'd have to weave his way through as many as 150 riders to get to the front. Today, he went out onto the bike with the lead pack. Smith's mountain biking skills rival those of the great Conrad Stoltz and once he passed the suffering XTERRA World Champ halfway through the first of two muddy laps - it was all over.
"I've never done a duathlon before, but I have some background in running and my cycling is as good as its been all season," said Smith, who ran cross-country for Western State College and has been a NORBA XC Pro since 2001. "Starting with the run I just wanted to stay in contact with the leaders because I knew it was going to be a pack ride out of transition. Everyone was in contact until half way through the first lap before things started splitting up. Dom (Dominic Gillen) wiped out right in front of me and then I got up on Conrad who was having issues. I went by him and didn't have anybody in sight the rest of the way."
That's because Smith posted the fastest bike split by more than a minute over Andrew Noble. He has, in fact, had the fastest or second-fastest-behind-Conrad bike split in all four races this year. It's Smith's first big XTERRA win (previous best finish was 5th at Alabama) and catapults him from No. 7 to No. 3 in the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series standings.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," smiled Smith. "It still hasn't sunk in yet, really. And I love Milwaukee. It's my fist time here and it's one of the coolest towns with a great atmosphere, great course, and great people. It's been a fun, fun time."
Today's runner-up, the 40-year-young Andrew Noble, also has something to smile about. He had the best 1st run, the second-best bike, and the sixth best 2nd run for his best showing of the year and fourth straight top 5. Not surprising at all for the 1996 Duathlon World Champ, but awfully impressive.
"I'm having a good year, training well and trying not to get too old," joked Noble, who is now in second behind McMahon in the Pro Series.
So what happened to the big guns, Stoltz and McMahon? Well, Stoltz day started off on the wrong foot (err, ankle) when he stepped into a hole covered over by grass during his warm-up run and rolled over his ankle. Sore and swollen he still charged hard and was leading on the bike until "I ran straight into a tree and got a hematoma on my leg".
"For a moment I thought I may have broken my femur," said Stoltz. "I crashed another time and hit my head on the bridge. My chain got stuck, my gears stopped working, my tires were wrong. I wasn't having fun."
He still had the sixth fastest bike and gutted out the 10k with a swollen ankle and bruised thigh. Despite the pain, Stoltz finished 8th on the day.
Misery loves company, and Stoltz had a full house today. McMahon was a prime example, slipping while carrying his bike down a mandatory dismount section and landing his knee straight onto a sharp rock jutting out of the dirt. His knee split wide open, and required 16 stitches post-race (including two in the patellar tendon).
"It didn't bother me while I was riding and I got off on the run and had to pin it (go hard) and see what I could do," said McMahon, who had the fastest run of the day and caught Gillen and Francisco Serrano to finish third.
"It was insane, like a skating rink," described McMahon, who's still in the driver's seat of the Pro Series. "It got muddier and muddier and more and more slippery. It was tough, but tough for everyone and it was still a fun day to be out in the rain".
The conditions were nothing new to Gillen who's been riding on wet trails all year up in the Northeast. He credits a last minute tire change for saving his day.
"When the swim was cancelled I had time during the delay to change my tires from the semi-slicks I had on," said Gillen. "The course was so much different from yesterday and so much different from one lap to the next. You were just bouncing from rocks to roots. It was cool, and it was a good thing I changed the tires."
Serrano, who won the XTERRA Mexico title a few weeks ago and was second here in Milwaukee last year, put together a steady race to round out the podium in 5th place and Ryan Ignatz matched his career-best by coming in 6th.
Tires. Tires. Tires.
"Tire selection makes all the difference and people laughed at my selection but they were the best thing out there," said Whitmore, who won her second straight in the U.S. Series on Michelin sprints - a narrow tire that "doesn't clump up with mud and has more clearance when the wheel goes through where the frame is."
"I was laughing at Jamie's choice of tires but she was riding really well," said the gracious runner-up Melanie McQuaid. "I had too fat a tire that just turned into a big slider."
The Jamie-Melanie battle was in strong form for this one, as they ran the first 2-miles to start the race side-by-side then traded leads through most of the bike. The key moment seemed to be McQuaid's last of three crashes.
"I was trying to get rid of Jamie in the forest and was too aggressive, went over the bars and hit my head on a rock and it hurt.I was in pain, and riding slow after that. I should have slowed down and relaxed," she said.
The win puts Whitmore 20 points ahead of McQuaid in the XTERRA Pro Series with just two races left - the Mountain Championship in Ogden, Utah on August 19 and the finale in Nevada on October 1.
"I've learned that you've got to expect the unexpected, and Wisconsin so holds true to that," said Whitmore. "It was a fabulous race. I think the mud really added to it. Everyone was crashing. I had no brakes and was going all over the place; Mel was going all over the place, some people ended up in the river. I had so much mud in my eye and mud all over the place, it was a blast." (and you'll know she was telling the truth about having mud all over the place when you see these pictures!)
As consistent as Jamie and Melanie have finished 1st and 2nd, Candy Angle has been 3rd. The bummer for her about today's race was that she had a brilliant bike (second to Jamie and just a little more than a minute back) but didn't have the chance to put time on the top two during the swim like she normally does.
"I don't think I could have ridden much better," said Angle. "We've had a lot of rain in New England so I was comfortable out there. The fact that there was no swim really hurt me, but what are you going to do? You can't put people at risk."
After nursing injuries earlier in the year Melissa Thomas is feeling better and back on the podium with a 4th place finish today, and Jennifer Smith - wife of the men's winner - was solid all around for 5th. Ingrid Rolles, who's originally from South Africa but lives in Hawaii, matched her best pro finish in the U.S. Series with a 6th (which happened here last year). Jenny Tobin had the fastest run and finished 7th.
All in all the weather was part of the experience, part of the adventure, and part of the excitement. The Milwaukee County trails are incredible, and they're tucked away like a hidden jewel right in the heart of a really magnificent city. Witness the smiles, listen in on some of the stories riders are telling, and it's easy to see that this place truly belongs in the world of XTERRA.
"When you can go to an urban setting like this and there are mountain biking trails this good people need to take advantage of that. It's a great thing," said Whitmore. "We've been in mountains where courses haven't been as technical, and on the way back on the run when you ran alongside the water you got this really cold front with fog and haziness and it was really cool, just a neat experience."
Note: It's the first-time since the 2003 East Championship in Richmond that an XTERRA swim has been cancelled. That year the James River turned into class V rapids. Some 400 athletes representing 35 states and eight countries competed in the event. Doug Stahl from Shorewood, Wisconsin was the state's top finisher (37th overall and 3rd in 40-44 division), and David Henderson was Milwaukee's best, winning the 20-24 age group division. On the women's side Milwaukee's Cathy Diamond was 26th (4th in 35-39 division).
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