Race Report by Dylan Vanek, member of The Path Bike Shop Race Team
I remember when I was little my dad told me about the Vision Quest because he raced it right before I was born. Ever since hearing my Dad’s stories about this race, it was my goal to compete in it. When I was 12 years old, we tried to sign up for the Counting Coup, which is a shorter version of the Vision Quest. The Counting Coup is 44 miles with 8,000 feet of elevation gain. In comparison, the Vision Quest is 56.5 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation gain. Unfortunately, the Counting Coup sold out before I could sign up that year. I was very upset. The following year we were successful in signing up for the race. Unfortunately, the race was canceled that year due to weather conditions. The race was set for the next year in October of 2016. In 2016 I was fourteen years old, and I finished in 28th place in the Counting Coup. At the end of that race, I felt like I still had more in the tank, so we decided that next year I would race the Vision Quest, which was scheduled a week after my fifteenth birthday. The day before the race I heard there was a chance of rain, but I was not worried. I continued through my day preparing my bike and creating a nutrition plan for the race. I also planned to wear a ¾ sleeve jersey and baggy shorts in the spirit of enduro! (laughs).
The day of the race I woke up at 4:00 am, giving myself time to eat breakfast and do a final check on my bike before the 5:30 am race start. We left the house at 4:45 am. As we drove to the starting line, it started to rain. Once we I arrived I got dressed in my gear inside the car, and then got out to check my tire pressure before the race started. There was a steady drizzle coming down, and I regretted not bringing a rain jacket. I was certain it would clear up in a couple hours. The thought of a muddy race never crossed my mind.
I lined up at the start and the rain was still coming down as they set us off. The first 20 minutes of the race was fine. As we got higher up Blackstar, the first climb, the rain started coming down harder. The fire road soon turned into a muddy mess. Many people were stopping to clean the mud off their bike. They had no idea this would not be the worst of it. I kept on climbing the fire road in my easiest gear as the mud slowly accumulated on my bike. It soon got so bad that I was using all of my power to ride on flat sections, because the mud was preventing my tires from spinning. I pulled over to clean the mud so the wheels would spin, and I was successful. I soon realized that within 30 seconds, the mud would prevent my wheels from spinning again. I came to the conclusion that stopping to clean it every minute was not going to be very efficient, so I decided to carrying my bike up the hills. There was one point that I tried to ride one of the downhill sections on Blackstar, but even the downhills were unrideable due to the mud. It was quite humorous watching people stopping and clean their bike every minute, only to have to settle on carrying their bikes downhill. I continued carrying my bike for about half a mile, until the road became actually rideable again. I then stopped and found a stick to clean my bike enough for my tires to spin again. Once I was back riding, the going was still slow, as I had about ten pounds of mud on my bike. I knew this was going to be a hard day on the bike!
We transitioned onto Main Divide, which traverses the Santa Ana Mountains. The dirt on Main Divide consists mostly of decomposed shale, which is good for rain, because it tends to not be as muddy. It was still raining and windy at this point. Main Divide has several exposed sections where the wind would come up from the canyon blasting the ridge we were riding on with rain. It felt like someone was throwing gravel at me. Main Divide also has some downhill sections. I found I could not go fast during those sections because the mud from my bike and the rain would fly up in my eyes. I learned my lesson after the first descent when I had to stop and clean out my eyes. My hands were mostly numb at this point due to the cold rain and wind, so it proved difficult to clean out my eyes enough to see clearly.
After Main Divide, we turned onto Silverado Motorway, the first single track of the day! Silverado Motorway is a high-speed descent, and it is composed of the same type of dirt as Main Divide, with many rocky sections. I knew it was my turn to start passing people, considering I was racing on my enduro bike, a Santa Cruz Bronson with 150mm of travel. I still had to be careful though, as I had crashed on this section during the Counting Coup, because I was trying to gap over the water bars they had built to maintain the trail. The gaps were about four feet, and you had to be going pretty fast to clear them. I think the trail had about 20 water bars and it was bound for something to go wrong (laughs). I was lucky to pass 10 or 15 people during this descent, and it felt good to gain a little ground.
I pulled into the first aid station at the bottom of Silverado Motorway, and saw my dad there. He gave me some beef jerky for my salt intake and energy level, and tried (mostly in vain) to clean the mud off my bike. I probably stopped for about two or three minutes, before I was ready to continue. I really wanted to keep moving, to achieve the best time possible. I knew I was not going to win, but I still was pushing to do my best.
My dad told me that it was 8:30 am at the Aid Station, a full hour later than when I had made it to this point during the Counting Coup. I knew I was only 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff time, so I had to put in a solid effort to make the next cutoff time of 12:00 pm at the bottom of Holy Jim, the next descent. I still had the long climb up Maple Springs to four corners, then some of the most difficult fireroad climbing from four corners to the peak, and down to the start of Holy Jim. Maple Springs was very muddy, though not as bad as Blackstar had been. I knew slogging through the mud was sapping my energy, but I got to the aid station right before the peak, and it was 10:00 am. I had gone up Maple Spring in an hour and a half. That was a decent pace considering the mud.
Once I got to the aid station my legs were not feeling so good. I shoveled as much food in my mouth that I could eat in two minutes, and felt ready to go (laughs). The climb from that point to the peak is very chunky, loose, and steep. As soon as I started pedaling, I knew I had to get into a good rhythm to make the next cutoff time at the bottom of Holy Jim. I probably put in my best effort of the entire race and made it to the top of the peak in 40 minutes. At this point, it was all downhill for a while.
The descent from the top of the peak down the top of Holy Jim is a very steep and chunky fire road, I mostly tried to find my flow going down it, trying to rest a little bit and make up some time and places passing people. I eventually reached the top of Holy Jim and saw my good friend, Keith Eckstein, who is a member of the Warriors Society. The Warriors Society is the mountain bike club that runs Vision Quest, and does the majority of the maintenance to the trails in the Santa Ana Mountains. Keith is great trail builder and super cool dude. He taught me everything I know about building and maintaining trails and a strong rider who is always fun to ride with. With Keith’s encouragement and a few bites to eat, I was ready for another singletrack descent!
I was stoked to ride down Holy Jim. It’s a super fun descent that I don’t usually ride down, as I always use it as a climbing trail to access some of the steeper descents in the Santa Ana Mountains. I knew that if I could just have fun down it, I could make up several spots. I came across a racer who had just gone over the bars on a rooty section riding a fully rigid bike. I helped him up and kept going. I never got his name and was hoping he would finish, but I left the finish line before the last racer came through. Props to him anyway, a fully rigid bike is way too gnarly for me (laughs).
I got to the bottom and was stoked I made the cutoff time by 30 minutes. My excitement at making the cutoff distracted me a bit, and I did not eat anything, which was a mistake. At this point, the climbing gets steep and narrow up Trabuco Trail, until West Horsethief, which is a steep and loose hike a bike for most people. Right before the turn onto West Horsethief I ran into Carl Bauer, who was not racing, but was going up to the top of West Horsethief for a burger (laughs). He could tell I was bonking and suggested that I have some food before I started up West Horsethief. Not having ridden West Horsethief before, I listened to his advice. He kept going, and I grabbed a Clif bar out of my pocket and devoured it and drank some water.
I reached the top of West Horsethief and Carl was up there to greet me. He is seriously one of the nicest and most enthusiastic people you will ever meet. He told me to have some oranges and energy chews and Coke to help digest the food, which I did.
I still had a 20 minute climb on Main Divide, until I reached the top of the last descent. That climb seemed to take forever. I eventually made it to the top of the Trabuco Trail. Trabuco is a fast and loose descent composed of decomposed shale. I was so stoked for this descent because I hadn’t gone down it since I was about ten years old, as I usually use it as a climb, being one of the less steep trails in the area. Carl had told me to be careful down it, but I couldn’t resist going fast (laughs). It was the best way to cap off the day. Some of the high-speed corners that were super loose had me smiling the whole way down. I made it down and passed three more racers. It was honestly such a fun way to end the race. Even though I was 50 miles in and bonking, I still had a great time.
I pedaled the last fire road from the bottom of Trabuco to the finish in high spirits. I crossed the finish line in 8 hours and 30 minutes and finished in 20th place. I couldn’t believe earlier that day I was hating life pushing through the mud and wanting to quit. I came such a long way, and this race tested me mentally and physically. I came in, gave my dad a hug, and began to tell him the same story I told you today.
Although this race is more of a cross country endurance event, since I only have one bike, I rode the race on that. I considered trying to get something lighter, or with 29” wheels, but in the end decided that the bike that I ride everyday would be what I would be most comfortable on. I think it was a good choice, as it was familiar to me, and my bike did not break or malfunction during the entire race. My Santa Cruz Bronson was the most fun bike for this race. It is the most versatile bike I’ve ever ridden. Although I may have been faster on a cross country bike, it would not have had been nearly as fun. The Bronson can turn into a hardtail and then turn back into a rock munching machine that smashes descents. Just lock out the Fox X2 shock, and it turns into a hardtail that is a climbing machine. I am super impressed with all my equipment. I did not have one bike issue this entire race. My Magura Mt7s handled 10,000 feet of descending in the rain and mud with no problems at all. I think that is the ultimate test for any brakes. My tire combo with a Maxxis DHF up front and Highroller II in the back was the perfect combo for my needs. It is the same setup as for all enduro races this year. It provides tons of grip and with little rolling resistance. My Revolution Suspension Grips saved my hands the entire race. Most people don’t believe me when I say they are life changing. They survived three rough descents and made my hands feel fresh after all that rock smashing. I’d also like to give a special shout out to everyone at The Path Bike Shop, their mechanics helped set up my bike for my needs, and are always there to solve any problems that I might have, and have great advice on the right equipment for my riding style. They have taught me so much about how to work on bikes over the years. Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who has read my story about the race. It was the biggest challenge of my life and I can’t wait for next year’s race.