This weekend my wife and I headed out to Pennsylvania for some camping and 'cross racing. The race was called Iron Cross and it's billed as "America's longest cyclocross race" at 63 miles. I didn't do much (none) research to confirm that claim, but since most races are usually an hour long there's a good chance this ~4hr minimum race is what it says it is.
We decided to camp for a final dose of nature before the cold winter settled in the Northeast so we stayed at Mountain Creek campgrounds about 1.5 miles from the start of the race. It was a mix of mostly motor homes and trailers with what appeared to be people actually living in the trailers year round - wasn't confirmed though - and a small tents only section on an island surrounded by a forked stream. Our little backpacking tent did not fit in but no one bothered us so all was good.
Stinky pink. That's the name of the color on my Specialized Crux cross bike I built up and finished Friday evening, the day before we headed to PA. I hoped it fit and functioned properly. I ride a 56cm road bike so bought a 56cm specialized frameset. Later, after ordering, I found out often times 'cross bikes are sized 2cm smaller. Oops. I decided to stick with the decision since I saw the geometry and it looked OK, and I have really long legs so even if it was more like a 58cm I'd be OK. Luckily Specialized sizes their 'cross bike by the TT length so the bike fit exactly as anticipated and minimal adjustments were needed to make it work. I moved most the parts over from the Champion System bike so it was decked out in full dura-ace 7900 with an ultegra crankset. I decided to convert the Ksyrium Elite wheels to tubeless with Vittoria XG pro tires even though I read lots of negative posts on forums regarding 'cross setups tubeless. I've always enjoyed jumping in head first to events like this with minimal preparation and learning to swim. In an event like this I'd manage to iron out any sizing, body, or bike kinks and be ready to kick some butt at those silly 1 hour 'cross races coming up.
Sunday AM at 9 was the designated start time for Iron cross rev VIII. It was a balmy 40F upon waking at 7am. I wolfed down some granola and half a PB&J then prepped my bottles and food for the race. By 8:30 I was idling about in the sunshine near the start, staying reasonably warm, and mentally preparing myself for what was sure to be an epic event. Shortly before 9am, the race announcer explained how we would be starting, and tried to convince the slowest riders to go in the back and allow the faster riders to start up front. It seemed to work. I was a few rows back on the gravel road and it turned out to be a non-issue. The start was unusual, to say the least. We went through "the death spiral" before heading out on the course. What the hell is a death spiral??? Yeah, well, it's the weirdest thing I've ever had to ride through and I hope I get to do it again. Near where the race started there's a large field, a bit smaller than a football field, and it was completely taped off with a giant spiral which started us from the outside and worked it's way to a small middle then spit us out the side and sent us on our way. To my amazement, it really worked. I expected mass mayhem, but it was fluid and surreal and really cool seeing hundreds of bikers going in all different directions all at the same time.
After the death spiral, we popped on to a gravel road. I was in the lead group of about 20 riders and we were going at a pace that's...not the same as what I've been experiencing in cat 1 road races. It felt lethargic and my itchy trigger foot wanted to GO! So eventually I decided to hop on the front and upped the pace to around my own FTP. It quickly chopped the 20 or so riders down to around 10. We then rode through a beach...yes, really, a beach that had water bordering it, and everything else a beach usually touts. We wobbled and slid our way through the sand for 100m and the few riders still with us on mountain bikes floated over the sand and pulled away. Fortunately, after that we were back on fire roads for what was to be the first climb of the day. At only a few miles climb, it was easy in comparison to what was to come, but the pace stayed high and riders fell off one after another. By the top, it was down to about 6 riders and two of them were on mtb's. One a full suspension 29er.
After the climb we had a ripping descent on gravel/road and had a few rolling hills on road through farm land. We were down to 5 by this time I think. It was then we hit one of the bigger climbs which was also the KOM/QOM of the day. This was a longer grind of 4 or 5 miles but not terribly steep. I broke away with one other guy and we kept a steady pace a little below my threshold and crossed the KOM together at the top. He sprinted right before the line so got the KOM - had I known it was the KOM at the time, I probably would've tried as well. He then immediately dropped off during the descent and when I noticed I was alone I thought I had maybe missed a turn. I stopped, checked the situation, turned around and started riding back down the trail, and then almost immediately saw the few others who had crested the climb near us. I turned back around and soft pedaled and let them catch me and hopped back in to the line.
We rode together for the next few miles before the notorious very technical single track descent called Lippencote trail. I had read on a few blogs that this trail was treacherous on a cross bike, and have to mostly agree. It was certainly challenging, and not ideal with skinny tires and poor brakes on a drop bar. The two guys on the mtb's blasted by us weenies on the cross bikes and we didn't see them again until a few miles later. I went down fairly fast, and felt comfortable until a really steep and rocky section. This is where I developed a new technique, for me anyways, of using the front brake on the hood with a few fingers, and having my right hand locked around the hood with a death grip not using the rear brake. The trail was very technical with no clear line through the rocks, and I was going too fast to control my bike, so I was forced to grab what little front brake I could in a desperate attempt to keep the bike's speed under control while the right hand kept me a bit under control and pointed in the proper direction. It worked and I didn't crash. I came very close a few times to doing a superman over the bars, though. After clearing this nasty section it was back to some nice, smooth asphalt.
I emerged with one other cross biker, a guy by the name of Gary Pflug who's apparently notorious for kicking butt on a single speed on the NUE 100 mile mtb series, and we worked together to catch those pesky mtb'ers. It was easy. After 5 or so minutes we were back together along with one other cross biker who had managed to catch up as well. And then another gravel road climb began. One of the mtb'ers appeared to have run out of steam and he dropped away never to be seen. And then there were four.
During the climb, we 'cross bikers managed to dump the last mtb'er, temporarily, and it was up to us three to hold it to the finish. After the climb, I recall another ripping fast gravel descent. We then hit a double track trail and I saw way up high some power lines and a wall of rock and I could only come to the conclusion that this was the famed "wigwam" run up. Run up is laughable, truly a joke, and if you run up this you are a better man than I or the three others with me. We walked. Pflug had a trick up his sleeve, literally, a small pad stuck to his shoulder, I learned later on and moved a bit faster than us but not enough to worry anyone. Me and the other crosser kept the same pace while the mtb'er fell behind due to his bulky bike. So, this trail was a true hiking trail. There's no way you could ride up it seeing it was around a 40% grade. It was nearly vertical with loose gravel, sand and rock completely exposed to the sun and nearly a half mile long. If you were having problems before this climb, I'm sure they were suddenly amplified by 10. Quads tight? Let the cramps begin! Dehydrated? now you are truly sweating! I ambled on up the hill feeling decent, but hot from the sun, and finally hit a section that was ridable. It descended a bit then hit some sand so I got to slide around a bit before hitting another walkup. Up top were some folks heckling us or cheering us a long, however your mood is probably how you perceived it, and it was also a checkpoint with a bag drop so I resupplied my ammo.
Me and the other cross bike guy high tailed it after Mr Pflug and caught him fairly fast. The three of us rode together descending a nice gravel section and eventually came to another single track secition.
Now, this is true single track we speak of. Not some wimpy, smooth cruise with grandpa on a groomed gravel path. This trail was ideal for a mountain bike. Not A 32c cross tire with a gearing of 38x26. The three of us plugged along at a grumpy pace weaving and dodging all the nasty terrain. I was number two in line behind Mr Pflug, and at some point we lost number three. I learned after the race his wheel got messed up and then he flatted. So, and then there were two. We trucked along through the single track getting bounced all over the place, climbing the majority of the time, and eventually popped out on a gravel road. Ahead of us was another wicked descent.
I followed my partner in crime for a little while, and the pitch really went DOWN so I let go of the brakes and flew past him. After a minute or so I turned around and he was gone. Hmm. I know I didn't miss a turn since I was still passing arrows marking the course, so I figured he got a flat or crashed. After the descent I saw my moto pace dirt biker and told him he disappeared. He quickly rode back up and found out he flatted while I continued on a rolling paved road through the middle of nowhere country farms. And then there was one.
So, I'm all alone out front in a cross race on a bike I've ridden never before in a position I definitely did not expect to be in. Before this race I was just hoping to finish, and if I finished I was hoping for top twenty. I had not ridden at all for nearly a month and was unsure how my endurance would stack up against guys training specifically for this race. Never mind the fact I hadn't been on a trail since last August when I broke my ribs. Anyways...
I failed to mention, about an hour before this point my legs felt like cramps were coming their way. They never came out in full force but were a presence off and on. As I rode along the rolling road, I felt twinges here and there but nothing significant manifested so all seemed OK. I could not go as fast as I would have liked, but what can you do?? At some point I came across a check point and refueled and was told I was in store for a five mile climb up a gravel road. O, Joy. This climb was a true grind with my gearing. It was really steep, repetitively, and I was spinning away at a ridiculously low leg press-like cadence. Near the top I was caught by the eventual winner. We rode together for a while until he pulled away, and I apparently kept him within about a minute of me till about 8 miles to go before that dreaded section of single track and that even nastier walkup (run up!) and that extra gravel climb and then that rolling....yeah. Get the point? truly epic!
Again, I was all alone, this time in 2nd place. All alone in the woods with nothing but a tiny yellow sign and black arrow pointing me which direction to go. Had they not been there, I'd have been totally lost. That's how dense these trails were. At some points, I had to get off my bike and look around as no discernible trail was in sight. Had a few others gone through, it probably would've been easier, but I was numero dos, and things were very clean still. I hopped around, suffered around, cleared a million logs, hopped off and jumped over a few logs, nailed a few billion rocks, rode through a few creeks and got wet and muddy. It was awesome.
At some point, I emerged from this moving experience, and came upon the final run up. I walked it. I was hot, miserable, and didn't really care at this point. I felt sick having developed a cough and my stomach was a bit queasy. I was passed by a cross biker, and then by the full suspension mtb'er before emerging from the jungle and near the home stretch. All that was left were some rolling gravel hills and a final road section and the game was over!
I pedaled along at a less than ideal pace, and eventually came to the road where I saw my wife cheering me along, a big surprise, what was she doing there?, and I hit the road. I did not try very hard to go fast as there was no one in site in either direction. I limped along at a respectable pace and finished alone four minutes behind first place and a minute behind 2nd and 3rd for a 4th place finish around 4 hours and 7 minutes.
Overall, Iron Cross was a great experience. I hope I can do it again! The race organization was impressive from start to finish. The course markings were flawless, and the moto pacer was a huge help. If you like to suffer and own a cross bike make a note to DO THIS RACE next year. You won't regret it.