Racing – Southern Cross Ultra-endurance Cyclocross 2011
You could not pick a more perfect setting for any kind of bike race than Dahlonega, Georgia. Nestled right at the base of the North Georgia mountains is the home of the Six Gap Century, tons of climbing, and for the third year in a row – the Southern Cross Ultra-endurance Cyclocross race. This year’s race attracted over 200 people and was held in the most perfect weather conditions you could ever imagine. This also happened to be my first time to race my mountain bike in close to 15 years. Yes, I did say mountain bike. I raced a 1999 Specialized Rock Hopper with shoes given to me as a birthday present (thanks Steve) over 10 years ago. Check out the annotated picture below:
Annotated picture of my 1999 mountain bike. (photo credit: chines37)
The race started out with a traditional cylocross course including some crazy run-ups through the steep hills of the Montaluce Winery just outside of Dahlonega (“Daw-lawn-eh-guh” in case you were wondering…). I knew that my skills would be lacking, but the course traversed some pretty deep grass which my mountain bike wheels floated over. This helped me to make it to the first run-up just behind the first few guys who were able to ride the 30+% pitch out of a ditch. I couldn’t ride it so I hopped off and ran up the slope. I knew that I could ride the next part which was only about 15% so I tried to remount rather than exercising my non-existent running skills. Unfortunately, starting on a 15% pitch in deep grass isn’t the same as starting on a 15% pitch with a road bike. I tried to clip in and pedal, but I couldn’t get enough momentum to balance and so I fell over – in front of everyone who was running up the climb. I felt bad as people had to veer around me, but I picked up my bike quickly and then proceeded to run the rest of the way up the climb (over 1/10th of a mile).
The end of the run-up was a paved road so I remounted, flew down it to the main road which exited the winery on a climb, trying to catch the leaders. By this point I was maybe 20-25 riders back from the very front of the race. I passed about 10 people in the winery itself and then another few on the road outside the winery as it continued to climb. I made it to the very front of all the riders behind the lead group of about 3 or 4 riders who were almost out of sight by this point. Having spent the past five seasons racing pretty much exclusively on the road, I knew that my strong point would be hammering the road sections as hard as possible. I pulled for about 2 miles pedaling my largest gear as fast as possible. Then I realized I had a pretty strong group of riders with me and pulled off to let them help with the chase. We worked very well together rotating through the paved road section. I would guesstimate that there were maybe 8-10 of us?
As soon as we hit the first gravel/dirt section, the pace didn’t really slacken at all. We just kept hammering and surprisingly continued to paceline albeit pulling over and letting somebody around was a bit tricker on the dirt roads. By the time we had hit the bottom of the first climb, we had lost 1 or 2 riders and I had slid to the back of the group. We were climbing fast, and I had a hard time trying to find the right gear to be in as I would alternate between too easy and too hard of a gear as the terrain and pitch changed. In the end, I got dropped about 1/3rd of the way up the climb with another guy who was riding a mountain bike (but with cyclocross wheels). We just couldn’t keep up with the lighter, stiffer cross bikes. Still, the two of us worked very well together, and I can tell you for sure that I would not have done as well as I ended up doing if I had gotten dropped by myself in this section.
Instead, the two of us continued riding together literally inches behind each other going something like 5-7mph up this climb. I think we were both afraid to let any kind of gap open up because that would spell the end of being able to keep up with each other. When I would get tired, I would slow down just a tiny bit and move out of the way to let the other guy come to the front. Then I would hop right on his wheel, and when he got tired he would do the same. This was all happening over a sometimes loose/rocky dirt road at 5-7mph. What an amazing motivator that was though to have someone else there suffering with you and who wouldn’t let you slow down! I was able to keep my heartrate several beats above threshold for over 30 minutes of the climb!
Finally, we made it to the first crest of the climb to get a breather for starting the final kick to the top. About halfway up this kick, some guy on a green bike rode up to us! It caught me completely by surprise because I had periodically been looking back and hadn’t seen anyone. Well, when he came up, he was going quite a bit faster than us and dropped us almost immediately. Fortunately, though the terrain was much more undulating across the true summit and before the long descent. This guy would drop us on each uphill, and we would nearly catch him on the downhill or the start of the next uphill. Once we made it to the long descent, our mountain bikes were able to handle the downhill better than his cross bike, and we flew down the mountain.
Towards the bottom of the descent, the course came back out onto a paved road, and I drilled it for a few minutes with us sustaining close to 35mph. By the time the course made it back onto the dirt road to start the final climb, we had caught three more riders from the original group that we had been with. So for the very bottom of the climb, the group I was with had swelled to about 5 riders. I was feeling great and bothered a bit by our slow pace, but I kept anticipating that the climb would get steeper and I didn’t want to blow up. But the climb wasn’t getting much steeper, and I just felt like we weren’t going hard enough so I turned on the gas again. Only one rider was able to keep up. He and I traded pace together as we started to catch two more riders we would periodically see in the distance in front of us. As we got closer, the guy I was with fell off the pace and so I finished the bridge to the two riders in front of me by myself. I believe this picture below was taken during that part of the race, but I don’t know for sure. My second water bottle looks like it might be empty so I think that would put it about that time as I ran out of water shortly before the top.
I would guess that this was about a mile or so from the top. The two riders I caught were Jayfer Beizer (Locos) and Gerry Pflug. I knew Jayfer a bit from road racing, but I didn’t know Gerry at all. All I remember is that he was one of the guys who looked really strong in the original group before I got dropped on the first climb.
The three of us worked well together over the top of the second climb and then into the next steep uphill sections before the long descent. Jayfer was struggling a bit on the first uphill section, but made it up that one and was still with us until about halfway up the final steep uphill before the long descent. Gerry led the way down the descent at breakneck speed on his cross bike. I was having a bit of trouble keeping up on my mountain bike, but we were together when the descent went back out onto the road. I went to the front and drilled it again hoping to stay ahead of Jayfer since there were only three guys in front of us meaning a top 5 finish. Little did I know that we were actually gaining on 2nd and 3rd place! We were passing all the 30 milers on the road and saw up ahead somebody else passing riders. We knew he must be a 50 miler and redoubled our efforts right about the time we made it back to the winery.
The final run-up was awesome – easily 40+% gradient to start out with then a nice 20% section. I was tired by this point and had run out of water before the long descent (almost 15 miles before the winery). I couldn’t do the run up by running straight up it. Instead, I had to “crawl” it at an angle before straightening out. Fearing a cramp, I pretty much walked the rest of the run-up, resigned myself to 5th place and cruised through the rest of the course as fast as I could, but still at a more leisurely pace than on the way out of the winery at the start of the race. The long grassy sections including the steep hill were rideable in my granny gear, and I didn’t see anyone behind me so I enjoyed the last few hundred meters rather than trying to crush it.
When I finished, the 2nd (Brendan), 3rd (Stephen), and 4th (Gerry) place riders had also just crossed the line – but the winner, Thomas Turner (Jamis), had finished over 10 minutes earlier. Wow! It was fun rehashing the last bit of the race and how for such a long race, the finish times for 2nd – 5th place were really close together with us all on some part of the finishing cylocross course at the same time.
Riding and climbing
I took my road bike with me for the weekend and got some really epic climbs in on Friday and Sunday. I’m going to save that for another day though and close this blog with my heartrate data and more pictures from Southern Cross. What a great way to start the season, and awesome training for Rouge Roubaix – first big road race of the season!