There’s a racing phenomena known as “target fixation.” In mountain biking, target fixation happens when a rider becomes so completely focused on a particular obstacle that the rest of the world is ignored, and the rider actually steers toward the obstacle, instead of away from it.
Stated more simply, look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go. The body often follows the gaze. A crash usually results.
Target fixation also occurs in daily life. We all know someone who has, for example, focused so heavily on a project for their job that their family life falls apart.
I must admit, I suffer from target fixation myself. Particularly when the obstacle is new or unusual. Last weekend was a great example of this.
Joe, Paul, and I all headed to Grand Rapids Michigan for a three-hour fat bike race. Our teammates Kate, Shannon, and Tom joined us there. In all, there were five of us from the Breakaway Quickdirt Team. Great showing for Ohio!
Along the way, Joe revealed that he has become engrossed in the TV series "Sons of Anarchy." We decided that our race team was exactly like the motorcycle gang. (Except for the murders, gun smuggling, drugs, motorcycles, and felonies).
Exactly the same.
Naturally we decided that Paul, who is the newest team member and doesn't have a kit was a "prospect" who hadn't "patched in."
Accordingly, throughout the trip, there were a number of orders to the Prospect to clean our bikes, fetch our beer, and cover up the murder scene. (Just kidding, we never wash our bikes).
The race, the Farm Hand Brewery Vivant Fat Bike Race is part of the 45NRTH Great Lakes Fat Bike Series. The race course is a four-plus mile loop at the Cannonburg Ski Resort. Racers would complete as many laps as possible within three hours.
The race promised groomed snow and a beer sponsor. Sounds great, right?
Of course, I was a little nervous. Ohio has had an extremely mild winter, and I hadn’t had a chance to ride in snow since last winter. The time and distance didn’t worry me though. I have been riding a lot and wasn’t worried about the miles.
The weather was getting sketchy as we headed out. It had snowed in Michigan the days before, but Friday was unusually warm, with temperatures in the upper 30s and steady rain all day. But at night, the temperature was to drop into the teens, with around 24 degrees for the race start.
Snow followed by warm and rain, followed by freezing is a nightmare for me. It means ice.
Anyway, after some shitty traffic, Joe, Paul, and I arrived at Grand Rapids Bicycle Company around 7:00 Friday night to pick up our race packets. It was a cool shop, with a huge selection of fat bikes on hand.
And, they proudly displayed their love for WMMBA, the local IMBA Chapter that builds and maintains the local trails. Gotta love a local shop that supports its local trailbuilders!
Moreover, there was plenty of Brewery Vivant beer on hand, in tall boys, natch. My favorite was the dark brew "Undertaker."
After that, we met up with Kate for a pizza dinner to get fully carb loaded for the race. Or something like that.
In the morning, we were happy to find that a dust of snow had fallen, meaning that the trails would have a little ground cover. After stopping for a quick fast food breakfast, we were on our way to the race.
Paul decided not to wait for the race, and chose to preemptively crash in the parking lot. This was a foreboding of things to come.
We met up with Shannon and Tom, and after scoping out the ski resort (nice!) and the “fat bike flyover” that we had to cross on each lap, we headed out to do a quick preride of the course.
We only got to ride a mile or so before the meeting, but it proved that there was a lot of ice on the course, covered by a thin layer of snow. Shit. I crashed once on the preride and kept getting passed. My mood started to darken and I knew my head wasn’t in the right place for a race, but I couldn’t shake the anxious mood.
After the race instructions, we lined up and it was time to go.
Joe took off, but I was a little slower. I was riding in a bunch and went down a couple times in the first lap. This meant I had to stand and watch while others passed me until I could get back on the bike. My mood wasn’t improving.
At around 45 minutes, I finished the first lap and was starting the second. This is where “second lap syndrome” hit me. Let me explain. Second lap syndrome refers to the feeling you get on a longer race, when you have completed a substantial portion, but still have a long way to go. Thoughts start running through your mind like “why am I doing this?” “There’s still a lot of race left, I wonder if I can make it.” And “what if I just quit now.” Second lap syndrome isn’t limited to lap races – it often sets in in during the first third of any race. But it usually doesn’t last, and often it’s a sign that you need to eat.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t shaking it this time. And, when I went down again midway through the second lap, I started cursing.
This race was beating me. It wasn’t the cold or the competition. Nor was it the physical effort. Indeed, on a race like this, your speed is seriously limited by the conditions. Or rather, whether your bike handling is up to the conditions. And mine clearly wasn’t. This is still only my first year racing, and I still have a lot to learn about bike handling.
Here’s where the target fixation comes in again. I was so focused on each patch of ice, that I was actually steering towards them. My body was rigid and, when I saw ice, I slowed down and tensed up – the opposite of what you should do. A “helpful” Michigander called out to me; “Don’t stare at the ice!” Yeah, thanks. I could see the crash coming, and so it happened. But I couldn’t change the course.
So, I decided to change my mind instead. Around this time, I took race mode off, and just decided to enjoy the day and enjoy the ride. I had let go of my other “target fixation” – that of being competitive in the race.
I passed Paul at the end of the second lap, while he stopped to eat some bacon. Well, at least I’d have bragging rights on him.
Funny thing is, as I learned the course and relaxed a little, I started going faster, although I continued to wipe out. But soon I was in the fourth and final lap, and I was finally enjoying myself. Joe lapped me midway through this leg. “Hurry u sandbagger” I yelled. (Joe finished in sixth place). I crossed the finish line for the fourth lap in something like 2 hours and 40 minutes. A “respectable” 30 place finish out of 50 in the men’s masters category.
After the race it was time for a COLD change of clothes in the parking lot. We met up with Paul, then Kate, Shannon, and Tom, and partied down with some more fine Brewery Viivant beer.
We went to the brewery itself for dinner, where I had a delicious steak and fries.
Then, back to the crash pad, where Joe, Paul, and I cracked each other up for a while with some 13-year old humor. We bro-ed it out big time.
Sunday morning was even colder that Saturday, but we had planned to ride some local trails, so after whipping up some grub in the pad, we headed out into the Michigan cold.
We first rode on the Merrell Trails, only about 15 minutes from Grand Rapids. Although the trail was slick, there was some snow cover, so it was okay to ride. Within the first half mile, I found myself grinning. This trail is flowy and groomed for snow. I was well built and super fun. I want to go back!
Also, on this trip, I came up with a great system for food and hand warmth. I used my Bar Mitts, and dropped a hand warmer inside, along with my food. This kept my hands toasty, and kept my Clif Blocks from becoming ice cubes. Highly recommended! Didn’t do as well with the liquid though- midway through I was drinking Gatoraid slushies, and by the end, I had a Gatoraid ice block.
After freezing our nards off in the parking lot again, we grabbed some gas station grub and headed off to our next ride at Yankee Springs in Middleville Michigan, some 45 minutes away.
I'm not saying who, but during this drive, someone who had either been eating too much protein, or too many race gels, released the worst fart ever. My mouth was open, and I could taste it. It was so bad that we put the car windows down. In 12 degree weather. On the freeway. Dammit.
These trails were also groomed for snow and were a ton of fun. We found the grooming equipment around halfway through the trail, a small snowmobile, pulling a tire on a rope. Looks like fun!
Prospect, get off that snowmobile!
WMMBA does a great job with these trails and it’s awesome that the riding season is in full swing in January in Michigan. What a great way to enjoy the outdoors! The more I visit Michigan to ride, the more I fall in love with it.
Yankee Springs was a little more “old school” than Merrell, with more technical and cross country features than flow. And it was a lot icier. We knew we were in for it when the car slid on the turn in to the parking lot and almost took out the park sign.
I think we all wrecked at least twice. And Joe had a tremendous parking lot fall. I guess I have better parking lot handling skills than Joe and Paul, so there’s that.
Joe and I are looking down the road for another fat bike race like this. I was to try again. Am I fixated?
Be brave, just don’t crash over it!