Wow, what another great trip up to Dahlonega for the Southern Cross bike race, and the trip is not even over yet! On Friday, I biked into work, taught class, biked home and put my road bike directly into the already packed car for a 4 hour drive to the beautiful mountains of North Georgia. I arrived at the Hiker Hostel with just enough time to get in a short road ride. It was really windy, but I thoroughly enjoyed a nice relaxing ride climbing Woody Gap from two different starting points. I finished about 20 minutes after sunset so it was pretty dark by the end. I’m going to save the pictures and videos for that ride for another post (although there is one video at the end showing how windy it was on friday night after I finished the ride and made it back to the hiker hostel)
But first, here is a race report from today’s race where I was very happy to finish third knocking more than 4 minutes off of my time from last year even though most of the times that I saw seemed to be a bit slower than last year due to the incredible winds up on the mountains today. The big difference for me was that I raced a much better mountain bike than last year, an aluminum StumpJumper Comp 29 with lockout suspension. Before the report, check out this video of people finishing up their 50 mile race on the close to max 100% gradient (45 degrees) run-up through the Monte Luce winery.
By this point in the race, I was so tired that I had to turn this entire run-up into a series of switchbacks. How did I get there? By way of an awesome combination of cyclocross course, paved roads, lots and lots of forest service roads, and even a tiny bit of single-track at the end. Here’s how the race played out:
The opening 1.6 mile cyclocross course
Timing chips were used this year to help with scoring and timing. While a good idea in principle, it had one slightly negative consequence – rather than starting in a wide open grassy field, we had to start on a narrow road so that the entire 300 person field could cross the timing strip. I didn’t cut my warm-up ride off soon enough, so I ended up starting on the 4th or 5th row after a very kind Joseph Dabbs let me squeeze into the spot in front of him even though people were already stacked maybe 20 rows deep? The course was nearly identical to the one from last year, and my big 2″ mountain bike tires floated over the deep grass allowing me to pass a bunch of people through the opening grassy section. Before the first run-up, a tree had fallen across the trail so this was a new obstacle for this year requiring dismount. The guy in front of me tried not to dismount and promptly endo-ed over the tree. Ouch. This year I had more confidence to ride the run-up and was able to shoot up the first 40% gradient out of the ditch and then ride the remaining 20% gradient. Of course I’m not sure how much time it saved as there were a couple guys who chose to run it and passed me as I was riding. That is definitely a first for me – I’ve never been passed by someone running while I was riding. As soon as we made it to the pavement, I locked out the front fork and flew out of the winery catching and passing everyone with Thomas Turner and Stephen Hyde in my sight just up the road (maybe 15-20 seconds?). Here is a map of the opening cyclocross section:
The chase group
It was a crazy head/sidewind, though, and it was an awfully big group (maybe close to 15 riders) so I opted to settle into the chase group rather than trying to bridge. The group worked well together although I ended up throwing my chain over the top of the front chainring and dropped to the back of the group as I tried to get it back on and back up into the big chainring. By the time I made it back up to the front of the group, we had just turned onto the first gravel road. Right away, one of the strong Specialized riders flatted (Garth) – the first of four flats for him for his rather unlucky day. Thomas and Stephen were still just ahead of us and still in sight, but we never could get into a cohesive chase once we hit the gravel. There were several surges and we would lose riders out the back who would then catch back up and not want to work for fear of getting shelled again.
Springer Mountain – the first climb
As the road got steeper, I realized that the chase group was pretty much done and began to settle into about as fast a pace as I wanted to go up the climb. Fortunately, there were two other riders who wanted to go slightly faster so this helped push me to dig deeper and work with them up the climb. The two riders were Nicholas Nichols and Charlie Storm. We traded pace a bit, but as it got steeper towards the top Charlie took over all of the pace-making with me hanging on … barely. Nicholas came off somewhere in the middle. Once we made it to the top, I came to the front and rallied the pace again through the long headwind section and into the first downhill. This downhill was super, super fast and fun last year. It was fun this year, too, but not fast because there was a crazy 30+mph headwind blowing back up the forest road. It was literally holding you up on the downhill – no braking required and lots of pedaling over what was a 40+mph downhill last year.
High House Mountain descent
We made it through the rolling section and to the High House Mountain descent, which was the first really long descent. Charlie was flying down the mountain, and I was having trouble keeping up on some of the super tight turns. In one of these, we ended up catching a pick-up truck. Charlie was able to make it around cleanly, but I had to wait just a second or two for the road to open up to squeeze around. That meant that the rest of the descent was crazy fast as I was trying to keep Charlie in sight. I ended up catching him at the very bottom just as we were making it back out onto the short pavement section.
Hawk Mountain – climb #2
We traded pace well on the pavement and then into the next climb, which is the long, gradual climb that gets steeper as you get closer to the top. I started to struggle having to dig pretty deep to keep up with Charlie’s pulls but he still seemed content to go with my slower pace when it was my turn to pull. Once we got close to the aid station where it is really steep, I switched into just hang on mode and Charlie pulled the last 1/2 mile up the climb. He was out of water and had to stop, though. I still had half a bottle so I continued on desperately wanting/needing some gels/calories. It was really rough across the top though so it was hard to find a good time to reach into my pocket to get a gel – fortunately over the next mile or two I found two gels in my pocket and was able to get them both down before the descent. There were some pretty bad headwinds and steep climbs through this section, and I was going so slow I expected Charlie to catch and blow by me at any minute. But I found out after the race that he had gotten a flat while trying to chase back up to me. He still managed to fix the flat and finish 4th.
Sassafras Mountain descent
This descent was super steep and fast – definitely the funnest part of the course this year. There were several switchbacks that you could see through and ride a straight line going from one inside line to the next. It was awesome! I beat my time from last year on this descent by nearly a minute – which is crazy considering how crazy fast I thought the descent was trying to hold Gerry Pflug’s rear wheel last year.
Agonizing paved section back to the winery
What made this agonizing wasn’t the course or even the wind, but rather how bonked/tired I was by this point – plus, I kept looking back thinking that I would see Charlie and/or a small group closing in to take away the final spot on the podium so I couldn’t let up. I had to just keep going as hard as I could go. Fortunately, I still couldn’t see anybody when I made it to the winery for the final cyclocross section of the race
The final cyclocross section
I knew the final cyclocross section would start out with the crazy steep run-up, but it certainly seemed like it was even steeper than last year. And I mean impossibly steep like maybe 100% max gradient coming out of the ditch (45 degree angle). I don’t see how anyone could ride up it, but I know that Thomas and Zach (the guy who got 5th place) both rode up it! I not only didn’t ride up it, I didn’t even run straight up it. Instead I switchbacked the entire thing (check out this zoomed in satellite view of my run-up). Once I made it to the top of this hill and still hadn’t seen anybody I felt pretty good that I was going to hold on for third – but even then I couldn’t let up. The return course was pretty much the same as last year diving back down the hill on the other side of the grapevines and then climbing up the super steep paved road that we descended at the beginning of the race. Then it was down through the woods in a short single track section, but rather than taking us back across the bridge, this time we had to ride through two creek crossings. I made it across the first one, but I was in the wrong gear and couldn’t make it up the grassy section across the top. This turned out to be OK though b/c the next crossing was not rideable (for me) so I just ran all the way across it. And at this point I just kept on running. I didn’t even want to get back on my bike for the next steep grassy hill so I decided to run up it instead. Finally, once I made it to the very top of the grassy hill with nobody in sight behind me, I knew that I had it so I eased up and crossed the line in third … tired and very hungry!
Cold at the start – at the last minute I opted to dump the full-fingered gloves for short-fingered gloves. And this was a great decision except for one point on the first long descent where we were heading into a crazy headwind and the temperature was only in the 30s. Definitely got some cold fingers there for a few miles.
Lots of wind at the hiker hostel on the woody gap ridge line