We snagged some spectacular weather this weekend for racing on a little dirt. I had planned to try a hardtail at Ironcross this year. As I showed in my previous post, my frame is cracked, and I had no choice but to revert back to my Ridley 'cross bike. This left me in a bit of a lurch, however. One reason I wanted the MTB was the lower gearing options it afforded. There are some seriously steep climbs in Ironcross. I didn't discover the crack in my frame until late on Friday night, and I was heading to PA the next morning. Then Dave Penney shows up at my house with his Yeti 'cross bike sporting a MTB cassette on the back. I just couldn't psychologically handle that. After all, he can mash. He beat me at the SM100 on a singlespeed. If he was going for low gears at Ironcross, I had to go lower. Silly kids. So what did I do? I threw a brand new cassette, chain, chain pins, cable and XTR derailleur with tools in a bag and tossed them in the car with my bike. Late night motel room major bike mods aren't risky, are they?
We get to Carlisle without any hindrances from the PA staties this time. They sure were out there though. We hit the race venue first, grabbed bib numbers and feasted on the pasta dinner. Then it was rush mode to motel so Hill Junkie's mobile bike shop can spring into action. I wasn't exactly swapping out for a huge change. I already had a 50/34 compact on the front with a 28t cassette on the back. Traditional CXers may quip WTF, why on earth would you need lower than that? Ironcross ain't your typical CX course. More on that later. My plan was to put a 32t cassette on back, getting down to nearly 1:1 ratio. That's only 4t easier, not a huge jump, but I spent a lot of time in the 28t cog last year. Because the chain was slightly worn, I did not want to risk chain hop, so that had to be swapped. Then the Ultegra derailleur couldn't handle the 32t cog without excessive teeth-to-teeth grinding, the so XTR derailleur had to go on. Before I knew it, I had nearly swapped out my entire drivetrain the night before an "A" race in a motel room. Smart, really smart. To my horror, when I went outside to test ride it, there were no barrel adjusters anywhere on the rear derailleur cable. I had to loosen the cable clamp a million times to get it right. STI levers don't have adjusters, XTR derailleurs don't have them. Never thought about that before the swap. If it needed a tweak during the race, I would hemorrhage places.
That's not all that's risky going into this race. I was using a new sport drink for the first time ever, EFS. I mixed up Camelbak to start with, then had two bottles dropped at CP2 to grab mid-race. I have a long history of not getting along with sport drinks but was at my witt's end to solve my cramping problems.
So race report, finally. After pre-race instructions, I actually got a call-up! Now mind you, this isn't a Verge race, but I placed well enough apparently to grant me a front of the masses starting position. All of the men went off in one wave, around 250 of us, into one lap around a tradition 'cross course used the day before. Since this is a four hour race for the fastest racers, it's not as much mayhem as you would think. Still though, the pace went ballistic and stayed there.
I got through the taped-off course in about 30th position. We pop out onto this hiker-biker path, an old rail trail I think. It is extremely important to hang on with the lead pack as long as possible in this race, as it affords big drafting benefits, at least until the first climb. We closed up gaps to leaders. I was safe. Then we hit this beach area I forgot about. Most of the leaders cleaned it. A few didn't, and I got boxed in. Train gone. That sucked. I stayed with the leaders all the way over the first climb last year.
This year was different though. Jeremiah Bishop and several other elites were racing. This drove the pace off the charts. I killed myself on that first climb, a paved one, to bridge back up, but they pulled away instead. The course turns off the pavement, goes around a gate, and continues climbing on a rocky fireroad for a couple more miles. Riders were getting shelled out of the lead pack, so I had increasing numbers of riders to hang with. Eventually we bomb down and pop back out on pavement again.
We caught most of the lead pack, but Bishop and a few others were gone. The pace did not settle down. We begin the next climb, which caused a remix of the riders in the pack I was hanging with. Near the top of this one up on a ridgeline, we passed the first checkpoint. Nobody needed water. Just after this, we cut into the woods for the first singletrack section, a bony singletrack that many would find challenging even on a mountain bike. This was the stuff I wanted my hardtail for. One of the young guys in our group couldn't ride over a rock to save his life. I was hanging with masters rider Andy Ruiz (CCC/Keltic) at this point and wondered how he would do since he's doesn't ride off-road as much as I. He did amazingly well. Near the bottom of this two mile plummet was a section I really wanted to clean on a 'cross bike. It is in the middle of nowhere, yet there must have been 30 spectators and EMTs there. I wussed out again. Big ledgy steps. I took Andy's lead and hoofed it.
Back on pavement, Andy and I worked together. One other rider bridged to us. Gunnar Shogren (Cannondale Factory) was just up the road, waiting for us. He needed a "lift." Gunnar races singlespeed and readily wins the category here. We had about five miles of slightly downhill pavement before getting back on dirt. We hauled-A here, Gunnar spinning at 32mph to stay with us. Mighty impressive. I knew full well he was taking advantage of our pulling and would crush us on the next climb.
I'm leading the main chase group up the second, easier section of the powerline run-up. The first uber nasty section is where the power lines drop over the edge in the distance. Big gap to next rider.
The next climb was the infamous powerline "run-up." A few more riders bridged up to us at this point. The only masters (40+) in our group of 10 or so were me, Andy and Gunnar. We speculated that the only other master ahead of us was Andy Applegate. This was looking to be a good race for me. When were turned off the pavement onto the ATV trail, I led out. I didn't want roadie skills getting in my way. I was feeling good and set a stiff pace. We pop out under the power lines and bear right. The horror of horrors appears before your eyes. A couple of the guys hadn't done the race before and muttered "Oh shit!" I let out a "Yeah, baby!", something only Dave and Brett Rutledge might understand. This course goes right up the fall line, something at least 45 degrees, or 100% grade. One hand shoulders the bike, the other is needed to frequently catch yourself from sliding back down. 30 minutes of this in two installments. Good times. Despite not doing any running, I never seem to lose time here. It is deeply anaerobic, going all out at 2.5mph. I led our main chase group for 30 minutes or so the whole way to the top, where CP2 awaited. Volunteers said we were something like 8-15 to come though. Totally cool, still in contention for a top-10 overall finish.
The next bits of the course get fuzzy. I still had Andy Ruiz and Gunnar Shogren with me. Andy concerned me, as I've seen him solo the Sunapee Road Race in the masters 35+ before from start to finish for a win. We drop, then another long, drawn out climb. It is on this climb I got popped from the faster guys in this select group. Gunnar went with them. A few of us got shelled, including Andy I believe. Andy commented just prior to this how ballistic the pace was for the first two hours. It was way harder than last year, as hard as any sub-2hr MTB race I've done, yet Ironcross takes 4hrs. I thought surely cramps were imminent. I was no more than 30sec back over the top of this 600ft climb, about 35 miles into the race. I wondered what the odds were they'd just sit up on the five mile rocky descent. Zero. They drilled it. I killed myself the whole way down, in a 50x11 gear. I hit speeds of over 40mph, scaring myself silly the whole time. There were so many big rocks sticking up, and it was so rough I couldn't focus on anything. It was a hold on and pray situation. I have big blisters on my hands to prove it. The reason I wanted to catch them so badly was I knew another fast paved section was coming up. If they hit that and worked together, I would loose several minutes working by myself. I first caught one rider that got shelled on this descent, then another, and finally the rest of this diminishing pack. Ruiz was gone now, and Gunnar still with us, also a masters, but registered as a singlespeeder. So that potentially meant I was looking at a podium position if I didn blow it and my last minute bike mods didn't fail me and and my new sport drink didn't tear my insides out. Lot of if's.
We get to the second to last climb of the race, a 1000ft dirt ball buster. We now had 45 miles of dirt climbing in our legs, and I was definitely cooked. Gunnar bolted at this point, not be seen again. I was quite a ways back from Gunnar last year, so either he was having a bad day or I was having a very good day. I suspected the latter. This climb sorted us out into one-zees for the most part. The descent was another hairball gravel deal with washboard bumps just before sharp switchbacks. Way too easy to overcook these corners, and you might encounter a redneck coming up in a pickup at the same time.
Much of the remainder of the race was on double/singletrack, including another hike-a-bike section. The group I hung with for much of the race completely fragmented here. I spent the next 30 minutes of the race without seeing another person. I also suddenly went into cramping mode. Sucked, but it was much later in the race than last year, and I thought there was good chance I could still hold my position if the cramping became serious. I wanted that podium spot. I had no idea how close Ruiz was behind me, and I wasn't sure if it was just Applegate ahead of me. As I reached the ridgeline, a lone spectator there told me I was 12th and 13th was 10 seconds behind me. What? I look back, and at first I thought it was Ruiz. I ramped it up and immediately seized up. That wasn't going to work. I was surely caught by whoever it was. This guy came blasting by me. It was not Ruiz, but I believe a Kenda Pro rider that I passed earlier fixing a flat. He was not a masters, so no worries.
Once you hit pavement after this climb, it is largely down hill to the finish, except for a couple irritating rollers a mile out, all paved. I never looked over my shoulder so many times before. Nobody was coming though. They left part of the traditional cross course in the race at the finish, so I had to suffer a sand pit and one barrier just before the finish. I did not have the energy to remount and walked over the line in 4:09, three minutes faster than last year, in 13th position overall out of nearly 300 starters. I was quite pleased. A few minutes later, the first few results were posted. I snagged third place masters, scoring cash, prizes and an iron cross medal. This was a clearly a stronger finish than last year in a stronger field.
It was nice to sit right at the line to watch riders come in. There were minutes between riders for a while, then the masses started coming in. Andy Ruiz and Dave Penney both took much longer than I expected. Turns out they both flatted twice. I was going to run 50-55psi but up'd this to 60psi front, 65psi rear in 35mm Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires. I think Andy ran higher and he is smaller. Lot of flats out there. Time for somebody to make tubeless 'cross tires, me thinks. Dave plans to run bigger tires next year, maybe 38mm. In hind sight, maybe not being able to use my hardtail was blessing in disguise. Conditions were perfect after recent rain, and I really benefited by being more aero on the road sections. The bike mods? Guess I keep my job as Hill Junkie's chief mechanic until the next race. EFS sport drink? I still cramped, and after race GI distress suggests this one's not for me either. Needs more experimentation.
Ironcross VII was certainly one of the high points of my season. Interestingly, I started the season with Battenkill, a 60ish mile road race with lots of dirt. I placed third in a stacked masters 40+ field. Ironcross may well be my last race of the season, and I placed third again in the masters 40+ field with some of the same guys that were at Battenkill. I have an affinity to these fast, 60 mile dirt road climbing races.
If you study the origins of cyclocross, Ironcross bears much more resemblance than today's metro park races. 'Cross has taken on a life of it's own, finding a spectator friendly niche with party atmosphere. Nothing wrong with that. I enjoy the aspect of adventure with a single loop through the mountains. Throw in 30 minute leg searing climbs, adrenaline inducing plummets, unknown course obstacles, pack dynamics throughout and even solitude late in the race, you have the makings of something epic.