Thursday, January 29, 2009

Southern Cross

Last Saturday Faster Mustache Race Team represented at the first edition of Southern Cross, the unholy mutant offspring of cyclocross and endurance mountain bike racing. It was fantastic.

The race was put on by Fool's Gold MTB race organizers and FM allies Eddie and Namrita O'Dea and for its first year the field was kept fairly small at 65 riders. Gabriel and yours truly (Emily) drove up the night before to the race venue, Mulberry Gap, and were joined the next morning by Bob, Kurt, Aaron, and Shawn who were there to volunteer and to watch the insanity unfold. When everyone woke up it had been raining for a while and everything had gotten good and muddy overnight. I was racing on my cyclocross bike and was hoping the handling wouldn’t suffer too much in the mud.

The race started with a parade lap of the cyclocross course, then in his last-minute instructions Eddie rescinded the “parade” part of parade lap and it was pretty much anything goes. It was pretty tight through the first few turns as an entire field of riders tried to handle the barriers at once. There were a couple run-ups and some dismounts, all made tougher by the number of racers. The cross course spit us out onto a gravel road and the field spread out pretty fast on some short rolling hills. Little did I know that Gabriel had broken his chain on this section and was busy doing some frantic field repair behind me.

end of the parade lap, photo by Kurt

About a mile into the first gravel section of the race route the rain cleared up, which seemed great, but by the time the seven-mile pavement section of the course came the wind was blowing pretty strong across the farm fields. I worked with another rider to get through this section pretty fast—the cross bikes definitely had the advantage over the mountain bikes here. We would have finished the paved section faster with more people to work the draft with, but the only two guys near us at that point, one on a single speed and one on a full-suspension mountain bike, could not keep the same pace as us.

After riding past the teeming metropolis of Crandall the route thankfully took a turn towards the woods again. Pretty soon we left the pavement behind us as we rode onto the gravel U.S. Forest Service road 630. As soon as the grade kicked up I was riding by myself and it was time to settle in with the iPod for the beginning of a 12-mile sustained climb. The gravel for the first few miles was not extremely steep or rutted, but pretty muddy and studded with loose rocks. I could tell the mud was going to take a little extra out of me before the day was over. The first few miles follow a really nice little creek, then the route veers to the left and keeps climbing continuously. I was riding pretty hard through this part but I knew the grade kicks up to nine percent in the second half so I didn’t want to blow up. About halfway up the climb is the intersection of 630 and 17, where the non-racing Faster Mustache crew were manning the sag vehicle with racers’ extra bottles. I was feeling pretty good and just took a second to swap out the bottle of energy drink that was making me want to puke for a bottle of plain water. I was climbing well and didn’t want to slow down, so I just got some words of encouragement from the FM crew, babbled something incoherent at them, and left.

Immediately after the sag stop with the turn onto the less-maintained FS17, the grade kicked up to nine-percent, there was more erosion of the road, and it somehow got both rockier and muddier. I had definitely ridden all of this the weekend before but I barely recognized it, since on the pre-ride it had been snowing lightly and the road had been icy, while the deep mud I was racing in rode a lot different. The ground had been frozen the day before but the rain and the warming temps had started to thaw it out. There were sections of frozen mud, deep potholes filled with icy water, and giant muddy ruts created by trucks. It was almost always possible to pick a line where you wouldn’t bog down in the steep muck, which meant there was never any point where I had to get off the bike and push it.

I kept my rhythm going pretty well and didn’t pass or get passed by anyone for almost the entire climb. On the last section of the climb the mud was especially deep and I was near my limit, when I passed two guys in blue kits who were walking their bikes. I am pretty sure they were actually there and not hallucinations because when I said hi they said hi back.

Soon after that the road started to point down. The descent was fast and sketchy, with plenty of switchbacks, surprise potholes, and sections of thick mud that threatened to wash you out if you took a turn too hard. Descending in the drops was made even sketchier due to the crappy traction my gloves were getting on the brake levers. I was tired enough that I completely forgot it was an open course, but luckily I didn’t get nailed on any corners and end up on the hood of a giant pickup truck.

another photo by Kurt

Then the descent was over, but there was still a couple more miles of rolling dirt road to go before the route ended. Totally covered in mud, head down and riding as hard as I could down the middle of the road, I made it back tired but feeling pretty good. My lower back is still not 100% after disc surgery last summer, and had been hurting some on the climb and killing me on the descent. But I had been able to stretch it out on the bike during the last few miles and was fine by the time I got back to Mulberry Gap.

Then it was time for the second cyclocross section. A volunteer stood at the edge of the road pointing up a steep hillside covered with trees. I could just make out the taped off outline of a cross course, except it was heading straight upwards. I stalled and chatted with her a few seconds until I heard Eddie somewhere down on the course yelling for me to GO. I shouldered my bike and staggered slowly up the slope. With no one breathing down my neck I wasn’t really feeling the CX fire and strolled through the course pretty slow. My dismounts were like a five-year-old’s and my remounts were like a ninety-year-old’s. My main goal at that point was just to get to the keg of Yazoo beer, which was six inches past the finish line (which would also be nice to get to). Everyone was in a great mood at the finish line thanks to giant bowls of chili, delicious beer, many many cookies, and a warm barn to chill out in.

Gabriel had lost a lot of time with his broken chain, and unfortunately the sweeper pulled him from the race while he was nearing the top of the climb. Even though I am bummed he got swept I am glad he still got to experience most of the delightful 12 mile climb. I ended up being 37th overall and fourth among the women, which was also last among the women since only four of us finished. (Well, Cara Applegate was stoker on the only tandem entry too. Yes, a tandem in cyclocross. I would have liked to see their running remounts but I was busy riding my bike just then.) I got some nice schwag for my fourth-slash-last place finish. Score. Nothing like racing in a small category.

Staying at Mulberry Gap meant that after the awards and the chili there was just enough time for showers before eating again. A couple hours in the hot tub under the stars before crashing on bunks in the log cabins ended the day.

While I was still riding out the last bits of the cross course I told Eddie to sign me up for next year. It was a perfect mix of pain, insanity, and fun.

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