George Berger, the first member of the new em:pwr cycling team. He’s on his way to be a good cyclist…well, a good shortish, stoutish, strongish mid-40′s Flemish ‘cross racer. George resides in Davidson, NC with wife and daughter.
Southern Cross 2011, at Dahlonega Georgia’s Montaluce Winery; the first race of the American Ultra CX Championship Series
I’ve never raced an endurance cyclocross event before; and, frankly, even though I’ve raced both cyclocross and mountain bike, this was going to be something decidedly different…tough, hilly, non-American type (grass crit) cyclocross course at the start and again at the end with some HUGE run-ups; a few miles of paved county road after that; gravel/chert/pumice fire road; STEEP and LONG rocky dirt fire road (if you could call it that); and screamin’ fast descents on those same fire roads. At the call-ups, co-organizer Eddie O’Dea said it best: “this is not a CX race; it’s not short and painful, it’s gonna be long and painful. So try to finish—it’s an enduuuuurance race, not a sprint race.”
Goals for the Southern Cross
My goals were right in line with that: 1) to finish the race; 2) to have some fun doing it; and 3) to use it to judge my early season fitness in this, my first year back to cycling after a layoff of over 10 years (I’m now 9 months into it, have lost over 15 lbs., and although I have a long way further to go, I’m getting there).
I signed up for the 40+ Citizen Race—the shorter version, which was only 30-something miles—20 miles shorter than the full Pro/1/2/3/4 race, with one or two fewer steep climbs. First time in this type of racing, and me still a ‘stout’ and older guy, it wasn’t my purpose to kill myself. There were a few people I knew—I finally met Namrita and Eddie O’Dea, the race promoters from Atlanta’s 55nine Performance (two really nice folks, and whom I knew only from Facebook at that point); and Stephanie Cole from Charlotte, who I met at last January’s Greensboro Cyclocross race, who came down. She was also racing the Citizen race, and I saw later finished with a really good time! I met a few guys (from upstate New York, for God’s sake!) when I was pre-riding the course on Friday afternoon, and more at Dahlonega Wheelworks—a really FANTASTIC bike shop where Jon and Zack fixed me up after a little mechanical snafu, and hooked me up with a free High Life while we talked. Oh, and BTW—they’re wheelbuilders to the stars, so I’m thinking about having them do some 29er wheels for me later this year.
As I said, the start was a hilly, off-camber cyclocross course in tough, high grass that hadn’t been ridden much; not much of a problem, but at the end of it was a very steep, 300-foot “run-up” that even Namrita described before the race as a ‘trudge-up.’ Overcoming hyperventilation at the top was the critical element there, so I’m glad I did it on Friday and knew about it beforehand. Then we left the winery development and headed out for a few miles of paved county roads before heading into the gravel and dirt fire road. Catching someone’s wheel to draft was pretty critical in this early section, getting as much speed on the CX bike as you could while conserving as much energy as possible.
The climbs started with a few miles of decent rollers, trending uphill, but a lot of fun since even with a CX cassette I was able to climb with some of the faster male 29er riders. But then the real climb started…the slog up Winding Stair, a 9-mile steep climb up some of the worst fire track I’ve been on…soft, powdery pumice on top of unpacked mountain sandstone gravel and loose stones. You could call it double-track, but when we witnessed a full-on endure motorcycle spin out at only 10 mph and crash on an uphill section, you knew it wasn’t easy to get traction. I’ll admit it—I walked the steeper pitches since I just didn’t have the gears to spin, nor the tires to get any traction. My Maxxis Raze clinchers were great for most of the race, but not enough read knob or width for this climb. Strangely, I found that I was hiking it faster than some of the other racers were riding it. Reaching the top of Winding Stair Gap and stopping at the aid station for more water for the CamelBack was a relief…looking around off the top of the ridge, it was an absolutely beautiful day…but after a couple minutes, a picture, the water and a ClifBlock for some energy, I was off again.
When you go up, you gotta come down. And the back side of Winding Stair was the best part of the whole race for me. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to be a bigger guy who can still pick a fast line while gravity does most of the work. Eddie had warned the racers beforehand that the roads were open to vehicle traffic, and that there were a lot of blind curves…but still, it’s fun to bomb downhill! So, knowing my health and disability insurance were pretty good, I took off from the top and tried to catch some of the folks who I’d had to let go on the climb. In the drops, I clocked over 42mph on the rutted clay or relatively hard-packed long gravel downhill, passed one guy on a 29er like he was standing still, and…just as soon as I hit the bottom, pinch-flatted going over a rutted section. Big bummer. Fixing it (only losing a few places) I started back up again; this time, the climb up Sassafras Mountain didn’t seem as bad (after Winding Gap, not much could), and there was another long flying downhill section that I had a white-knuckle blast on, making up another place and seeing lost water bottles all over the road from where they’d been shaken loose from their cages.
At the bottom, I was all by myself from then until almost the end, and found myself back on pavement at the ranger station…a long stretch of pretty, rolling county road, then some steep little paved hills with about five or six miles left brought us back up into the Montaluce property and the course went back into the cyclocross course again. There was nobody in sight behind me, and I was almost catching a younger guy that I’d been trading places with throughout the race; but another super-steep and long “run-up” caught me instead. I’d just been passed by the leader of the ‘full’ race, and we started up the hill together…except he didn’t dismount. Holy S*it, I thought—he’s gonna try to ride it!?! I was so shocked (this guy had some serious legs and stamina to do this) that when I got up to the top a good bit later after hooting for him spinning up the whole damn thing, I almost crashed…chain suck city. I lost all my momentum, had to get off and fix that, and just couldn’t get back into the rhythm.
The last mile or so inside the winery property was a mix of CX course and paved road hill climb; not that hard, but by that point I’d pretty much left it all out there already, and just couldn’t catch up to that one guy at the end. The finish was through a chute right at the food tent, with a picture for everyone. I was pretty spent, but nothing that a couple cans of (real) Coke and a couple of bottles of water couldn’t help. I finished in 17th place overall in the Citizen race, and 10th in the 40+ category, at 3:06:49.
Who knew!?! I coulda been a little faster if I’d been in better shape and could have pedaled more of the hills (especially that second big climb), and hadn’t had the two mechanicals. But the race could not have been more fun. Next year, I’m gonna do it again, and will probably change a couple things on the bike… It was easy to see that the 29ers had the advantage going uphill, but the CX bikes had a huge overall advantage (at least with the course conditions as they were—fast and mostly dry). So a cassette change (maybe to a 12-32), and some wider tires to get more uphill traction and downhill flat protection, and I think we’d have a winner setup. I’ll be doing the Three Peaks USA in September (a Pirate Race Productions event by Andrew Stackhouse), so we’ll see how that works out.
Rear View Mirror
The wrap-up? I could have finished the longer race, but it woulda been far less pretty at the end. So my fitness was ok, but not great—I’m still fat and mostly old; comparatively, anyway. But I finished what I’d started, and had a lot of fun doing it. The first time doing anything is always tough because of the unexpected, and I can’t wait to do it again next year. I couldn’t stay for the after-party and awards (and raffle…bummer), but had to head back to NC so I could put my daughter to bed. Four hours later, a beer down the hatch, and I was ready to sleep like a baby, too. And here it is, Monday, and I’m ready to get back on the bike for a little lunchtime spin.