Iron Cross…What Was I Thinking?
My racing season is over, or so I thought after the 24 Hours of Seven Springs. Long quiet nights of pizza, beer and ice cream. Aaaahhh. It was well deserved you know. After all those hours on the bike, my lazyboy was ready for a workout and I was ready to give it one. Rep # 1. Grab the handle. Pull. Lean back. Pop top. Lift and swallow. Nice work that’s one. Now repeat, but not till tomorrow, I don’t want to burn out . I was about 4 weeks into my lazyboy workout routine and had managed only 4 bikes rides in the time frame. I was rapidly atrophying to my natural level of flubbering goosh. It felt pretty good actually. Fat. Lazy. Eating cookies. Hey there’s something to this lifestyle. Then it happened. I got an email from Nick my Seven Springs partner. “Hey Mike there’s a little race near Carlisle PA. Do you want to meet and do the race. It’s about ½ way for both of us.” He lives in Connecticut. I’m near Pittsburgh PA. OK. What the heck I can handle an hour long leisurely ride in the woods and maybe Nick and I can share a few beers. Sounds good. Then Nick sends me the flyer for the race. Uh Oh. I’m pretty sure I didn’t remember agreeing to any of the fine print. Hell I didn’t even read the big print. Here’s a snippet from the flyer I should have read BEFORE saying yes. Course designer Dr. David Albright notes, "We designed this course with one thing in mind, ...you can never punish bicycle riders enough." What have I gotten myself into?
Anyhow the race is billed as the nation’s longest Cyclocross Race. Cyclocross bikes are basically road type frames, although usually beefier with tiny little knobby tires designed to go fast on fire roads, dirt roads and easy single track. They roll fast on the flats and can still handle some challenging trails. The race estimate was somewhere between 50 & 60 miles with over 6,000’ of elevation gain up and down the ridges of Michaux State Park. That’s gonna hurt.
Several days before the race, as my anguish rose, I started coming down with a cold. Maybe I wasn’t getting sick, subconsciously my body was trying to arrange a way out for itself. Obviously I’m more intelligent on a subconscious level. When we arrived in Carlisle the day before the race I collapsed in the hotel bed and I drifted in and out of a fitful nap, shivering one minute and sweating the next. DAMN. My body is pretty good at this. It conjured up a fever and some big chunks of lung butter to hack out sporadically as well. Maybe I can show up for breakfast tomorrow morning looking all sickly and stuff and Nick will tell me I shouldn’t race.
The next morning came way too soon. I staggered over to the Waffle House to meet Nick and his buddies Nate and Doug. Nate and Doug have both done major races with Nick and have partnered with him for the Trans Rockies Race in Canada over the last several years. In addition to the queasy feeling in my stomach, now I’m severely outclassed here and we haven’t even reached the race site. Nate and Doug will be riding cross bikes while Nick and I are riding mountain bikes. My bike is dualie with suspension front and back. Although this is an advantage on really rough terrain. On smooth surfaces the inefficiencies of the suspension bobbing with each pedal stroke illicit a huge penalty. The additional friction caused by mountain bike tires is one other drawback in their design for such races. Oh yeah and extra suspension means more weight. Lots more. Amid Nate’s amusing stories of chicks in Waffle Houses, I’m planning my escape from the race. Hey Doug, leave a key where I can find it in case I beat you back to the car. Wink wink Nudge nudge. I can ride to the first check point and then turn around. Make an easy day of it. Now that’s a plan. Or maybe I can puke on command at the table to gain some sympathy and get out of this silly competition all together. Otherwise it’s gonna be a long day.
No luck. I’m on the starting line with the likes of Trek’s Pro team riders Chris Eatough and Jeremiah Bishop. Can I please go home now? The horn sounds and the race is off. Here we go. The race begins with a mini cyclocross style loop in the park with barriers and quick turns. No problems just keep it upright. No need to go nuts now we still got 55 miles or so to go. We leave the park loop and enter a roughly paved road. The advantage of the cyclocross bikes is immediately apparent as they begin to pull away from almost all of the ill prepared mountain bikers. I better latch onto someone before I get tossed and I find Nick’s wheel as he bridges up to a group of 4 crossers. I’m working hard to hang on the back of the train spinning 140 rpm’s or more frantically trying to maintain the draft. This continues for 2-3 miles and we come to a gate in the road. Nick goes right and I go left. Somehow I latch back on, but Nick misses the train. I’m frantically working to keep the wheel in front of me and somehow I’m in slot 2 of 5 in the cross train. The first guys peels off and they expect me to pull. You got to be kidding! I work as hard as I can for about 1 minute and slide off the front. I’m about spent and I don’t have the energy to catch the last wheel as I watch them ride off. But only for a moment. The smooth road turns to a gas well/fire road and the terrain erodes quickly. Big ruts, roots and lots of beautiful asymmetrical rocks everywhere. I’m in heaven. Now I’m flying past the cross bikes. Torching them on the downhills. Smoking them on the flats. And out climbing them on the technical rocky sections. Sweet! After about 7-8 miles of this joy I think; damn this is gonna be a long day if the terrain stays like this, but the cross bike is the wrong tool. I’ve got the advantage. As I come around a sweeping turn I see an upturned cross bike and a rider down in obvious distress. I pullover to offer assistance. Stupid morals. He’s got a nasty gash in his shin about down to the bone and he’s in some serious pain. People are whizzing past. Hold on. Time out. Wait for me. But no. I’ve already stopped as everyone else shoots past. There goes Deirdre Winfield the eventual ladies champion. There goes my buddy Doug. Dr. David Albright stops and offers some advice about riding out for assistance and says he will send someone back to help. One of the victim’s teammates arrives and I feel confident in leaving the injured in good hands. So it’s back on the bike. It stays technical for a while and I catch Dr. Dave. I swap a couple of pulls with him after it turns to smoother road again and he tells me with an evil grin how the concession to the mountain bikers is over and it’s all about cross bikes from here on out. Then he rides away from me on his sweet Waterford cross bike. How discouraging.
I continue to work hard as I catch riders and some catch me. There is lots of time to think in a multi hour event like this. Why is the race called Iron Cross. Are they comparing it to a triathlete’s Ironman event? Is there an iron foundry nearby. Some religious relic tucked in the hills? Somewhere around mile 20 it becomes all too clear why the name was chosen. Someone had a serious prognostication. A vision. Unfortunately the vision would reveal itself to me all too soon. As a clearing opens up in front of us I see a power line in the distance. A series of ants are shuttling sticks to the top of the hill. As we ride closer its obvious there are riders carrying their bikes to the top of a ridge that’s so steep in most places you had to have a hand out touching the ground in order to keep your balance. After about 800-900 feet straight up this wall I could see the top. As I looked over my shoulder the view was awe inspiring. An incredible vista complete with a sparkling lake lay over my right shoulder. Hell I’m almost to the top. The worst part is over. Things are looking brighter. YEAH. This ain’t so bad. That is till I reach the top and see the next ridge. Deja vue all over again. Almost the exact same view awaited us. The same ants carrying the same sticks up a look alike climb on the next ridge, only ¼ away.
About ½ way up this next hike-a-bike I was struck with quad cramps like none I’ve ever experienced. My thighs were firing so strenuously, I was sure they were going to rip my kneecaps off. The pain was amazing. Somewhere near shock induced unconsciousness, I was cursed with an out of body experience, a vision that will haunt my dreams for years to come. Looking down I saw myself struggling up this cliff. My beautiful Santa Cruz Superlight had been transformed into a Santacruzifix made of solid iron, strapped to my back as onlookers mocked and jeered. Young children cast stones while skinny tired foes flew past me and laughed at the IRON CROSS on my back. The pain and humiliation will not soon be forgotten. I’m guessing in about 11 and ½ months or so. Just in time for next year’s email; from Nick. “Hey Mike there’s this little race…”