This past Sunday, I headed out to Williamsport for Iron Cross XIII. It was the first time the race would be out there after the twelve previous versions were held in Michaux. I didn't know what to expect from the new course, although I'd been hearing that it was "more cyclocross friendly" than Michaux.
Turns out that is not an entirely accurate description.
When I arrived in Williamsport around 8:00 am, it was cloudy and in the high 30's. That wasn't too bad. I figured it would warm up as the day went on. The Start/Finish was set up right in the center of town on a street that was blocked off for the whole day. Parking was easy - we could just grab a spot in any of the local municipal lots that surrounded the Start/Finish area. I got registered, set up and went for a ride around town to loosen up. That didn't go so well.
A few weeks ago, I crashed on a ride and really banged up my right forearm and one of the fingers on my right hand. At the time, the forearm really hurt and I thought i might have broken it. I didn't think too much about my hand, but since then it's proven to be the more serious injury. Eventually, my forearm just bruised up really bad and now I have a weird bump above my wrist, but otherwise no issues. My one finger, though, has been excruciating. I have no lateral movement in it and I'm absolutely convinced I broke it. On Sunday, when the cold air hit it on the pre-ride, I went through the roof. I had to ride back to my car and sit in it with the heat on for a ten minutes before the pain settled down.
|Ready to race!|
The race started promptly at 9 am with a four mile neutral roll-out. The "official" start to the racing was just outside of town and, in typical Kuhn race fashion, involved a large gun blast (this time, it was literally a cannon.)
Once the racing started in earnest, I was immediately put on my heels by the charging cross bike riders in the front group. We were still rolling on pavement and their advantage was huge. I soon found myself in an effective no-man's land just off the back of a large group I would have to do too much work to bridge to. So I settled in and decided to just roll my own pace. That was fine for the most part -- once the first dirt road climb hit, I started to feel pretty good. It was still pretty cold, but the initial push had heated me up enough where, in particular, I was starting to wonder if my knee warmers were too much.
I rode along for a while with another SSer - he was riding a mountain bike with cross tires and I kind of thought he was going to leave me behind at any moment. I had no idea who was in front of me or behind me in my class at that point and I didn't really care. Every inch forward was further into the unknown, so that was enough to deal with without thinking about where I was in the SS line. for most of the first 10 miles, we were going up and that was fine by me, but I noticed something odd: for a "cross-friendly" course, it was awfully rocky, even on the dirt road sections. Everything was loose and required pretty ready attention to pick the right line to stay efficient. I was pretty happy I was on the mountain bike, and even regretting a little bit that I'd left the hard tail at home in favor of the rigid. (Later on, I'd be happy I had the lighter rigid bike, but more on that later.)
|On the climb ...|
After that, we hit a more gradual climbing section and this was when the sun finally came out. That was the one time all day when I felt really in a groove. I caught the other SSer and dropped him on the subsequent dirt road climb, leaving him behind for good. I still didn't care where I was in the field, which was good because I had no idea either way.
I don't recall a whole lot about the middle section of the race up to the rest stop. I do remember that it started to get colder, and the sun went away for good. And then it started to snow. At that point, I was really glad I'd worn and extra base layer. My extremities were definitely cold, but nothing too bad, and I just stayed on the gas as much as I could to stay warm.
It seemed that most of the race to this point had been either steep uphill climbs on pavement or dirt road, or else tech, loose single or double track with a few very steep descents thrown in here and there. I was convinced at that point that the "cross friendly" description was way off. It was just a lot of work all the time. And I was fine with that. I wasn't hurting too bad. And even though my legs didn't feel 100%, they certainly weren't giving me any problems. I'd done enough Mike Kuhn races to know that "difficult" in just what you're signing up for, so I just kept my head down and kept plugging away.
And that was a good thing, because after the rest stop, we started one of the most soul-suckingly long switchback climbs I think I've ever done. It was rough: it was never too steep to ride, but it was techy and loose (which sucks for a SS) and it was steepest at each turn. In fact, it would kind of level off as you'd approach the next turn and then you'd look to your right and see another rider a hundred feet ahead of you and 50 feet above. By the fourth or fifth switchback, that started to feel demoralizing. But eventually, the climb ended and then we started a long, grassy section of double track with lots of mud holes to ride through or around. This was definitely a spot where I felt a distinct advantage being on the mountain bike. I passed probably a dozen cross bike riders on that section because it was technical enough to force those folks to be really careful. To be honest, it was tough on the mountain bike, but it was about to get a lot tougher.
After the long double track section, we popped across a dirt road and started this year's walk-up section. I was able to ride the bottom part for a bit, but then I saw it looming ahead of me and, well, it was quite a shock to the system.
While waiting for the start, I'd been chatting with another rider about the course and he told me that the walk up was relatively late in the course here - around 45 miles in. So the shock of the walk up wasn't because fit was a surprise. It was because it looked, well, really, really long. I couldn't see an end from where I was starting. I could see a few riders way up ahead walking, and they looked tiny in the distance. I started the drudging climb and soon realized it was even worse than I thought. It switched back on itself a few times, so it was even longer than it looked. I was hiking with another rider and at one point he said that he could see a rider re-mounting ahead of us. I thought that was a good sign, but it turned out to be a false ending - right around the bend, that same rider was back off the bike. Ultimately, the walk-up in Williamsport had to be at least 3 times longer than the one in Michaux and even a little steeper, but without the trees to grab on to like there were at Michaux. And the last gut punch of the walk-up was that the very last section was actually a rock scramble where I had to use my hands to help me scale it.
|Surviving the walk-up|
After that, I was kind of thinking that the worst was behind me. The dirt road roll-out from Larry's Tavern was steady and pretty smooth, and then there was an insanely fast descent down a paved road. I think I hit just about 50 mph on that descent. It was both fun and scary!
But then, a new factor entered the picture.
After the crazy descent, we took a hard right and began a long slog of a paved climb. At one point not hat climb, my legs finally gave out. I started to feel a cramp settling in to my right quad, so to forestall that I hopped off and walked for a bit. I thought that maybe I should just work out the cramp and then ride again, but I really didn't want to spend any time not moving forward. And besides, it was pretty cold - colder than it was at the start for sure - so I worried that stopping would be bad all around.
As I was walking, I lost my third place spot when a SSer on a cross bike came rolling by. I thought to myself that I'd try to catch him after I recovered a bit, but ultimately, that wasn't going to happen since the course was paved almost the whole rest of the way form there, and there was no way I'd be able to move as fast as him on those roads even if I could catch him on the climb. I remounted after a while and rode the rest of the long climb, and that's when the new factor introduced itself.
It started hailing bb-sized pellets as I was getting close to the top of the climb and soon it was pouring hail. That wouldn't have been too bad, except following the climb was another long twisting paved descent. I headed down that descent at about 40 mph with hail whipping me in my face. Between that and the wet roads, it made for some exciting moments. But I survived to the bottom and from there, it was just a long flat roll back into town. The hail even stopped just as I hit the last stretch into town.
I never got caught by anyone else but I also never caught my SS rabbit ahead of me, so I crossed the line in 4th place. Ultimately, another rider from the open who rode on a SS had his class switched after the race, so in the end I was fifth in 5:15. I was happy to finish in that time, too - I felt really wrecked a few times during the race, so that was a surprise.
All in all, I loved this race. It was hard as hell, but there is some pretty epic riding out in Williamsport. It was one of those races where just finishing feels like a victory. It was cold, snowy, hailing, and had lots of brutally tough sections. I can't wait to do it again next year!