Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dowlonega Nights...

So we really went to Dahlonega, GA and its really pronounced Dah-lon-ah-ga but since we were headed deep into the heart of Nascar Country, it seems only fitting that I stick with the title I thought of long before we departed WV.

Originally, I had March 18th circled on my calendar as the anticipated kickoff to the 2012 race season, but that changed in mid January when JR threw out an invite to the team to join him at Southern Cross on February 25th. It was the final installment of the 2011 Ultra Cross Series and the first event of the 2012 series as well. Since I made excuses to not do the Hillybilly Roubaix this past year (and have kicked my own butt for doing so ever since), I knew that I had to make the commitment to take on this challenge or feel even worse about myself for not trying it.

The plan was to depart Thursday, pre-ride Friday, race Saturday, and travel home Sunday. Mike Vanderberg, JR Petsko, and James Braswell were already loading the totally pimp Pathfinder of WV van when I arrived at the meeting place. Im almost 40 and I must admit, I felt like a little kid, beaming with pride as we rolled down the interstate and I would catch other motorists checking out our sweet ride. A huge, I MEAN HUGE, thank-you to the awesome folks at the Pathfinder shop for their generosity. I’ve done other big races in far away places but I was super nervous as we started our trip south. This was my first trip with the new crew and I was so afraid they weren’t going to stop often enough for me to eat. Seriously, I wasn’t concerned about the race or about my performance, I was honestly worried that I was going to be eating nuts and berries and whatever else I could manage to scrape out of the carpet of the van for the 10 hour trip. I begged Amy to bake a double batch of chocolate chip cookies to take along for the ride (and being the best girlfriend in the world, she did…). I had my backpack stuffed with extra Honey Stinger Strawberry Waffles, Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies, a pound of fudge, 5 Chocolate bars, fruit chews, crackers, and whatever else I grabbed on my way out of the kitchen. I was the fat kid at summer camp with a footlocker full of junk food.

The trip south proved to be uneventful. We stopped in Princeton for lunch around 1:30 which made me very happy. I ate 3 crispy chicken sandwiches, 3 cheesy cheddar burgers, a small fry and a Dr. Pepper…. Good to go for about 4 hours I figured. We made a final stop in Bristol for fuel (almost cost as much as my lunch) and we arrived in Dahlonega, Georgia at 7:30 PM to 76* temps. We checked in at the Hiker Hostel and headed out to town for dinner at Caruso's and the bottomless bowl of pasta. Yeah, I officially survived day 1!

Friday morning, hosts Josh and Leigh, started the day with a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, Belgian waffles, oatmeal, grits (if you chose to partake which I didn’t), OJ, apple juice, and coffee. We shared the tables with a mixed crew of cyclists and hikers and it was interesting to listen to the stories that were being shared. After breakfast, the transport vehicles were shuttling the hikers to various drop offs and when things settled down, it provided the perfect opportunity to have a look around. The Hiker Hostel was a new construction log cabin in a hardwood forest just off the highway. You really could not ask for a nicer location to spend the weekend at. By 10am we were off to the start area to do a little reconnaissance of first part of the course. The cross course was staked out, so we decided to try to figure it out to get the full effect. Less than a mile into the ride, I watched Mike catch a little air off a little lip (and thought “I wish I had those kind of balls”) and proceed to involve himself in an acrobatic aerial crash where rider flew one direction and bike flew in the other direction (and I thought to myself “that’s why I don’t”). He hit the ground hard enough to open the can of coke he had stashed in his back jersey pocket. Later he noted that he crushed his coke but didn’t even bruise his banana in the pocket next to it. Having an up close and personal view of the event, he was very lucky to manage to survive with no real injury or mechanical malformation. We rode an hour out on the course and managed to climb 2500’ in the first 12 miles. We turned around and made it back in just 40 minutes… ahh the benefits of gravity. We headed back to the Hostel and cleaned up and headed back to town for lunch. Smokin' Gold BBQ was, in my opinion, some of the best barbeque I’ve ever eaten. Back to the hostel for a little R&R and bike cleaning and preparation. Dinner that night was at Pueblo's and I think we were all pleasantly surprised at how tasty the food was. I knew going into the restaurant that I was likely giving up any opportunity to have reliable drafting help all day but man do I love Mexican cuisine. We were 4 for 4 with delicious meals so far and I had officially survived my second day on the road.

Saturday came early and the temps had dropped significantly since the evening we arrived. Breakfast was again delicious and the French toast and oatmeal was perfect fuel for what laid ahead. At this point, the guests at the hostel were all cyclists with almost all of us in town for Southern Cross. Again, the conversations were entertaining to say the least but you could sense a level of nervousness around the table. For me, I was ready to go, it was race day and I had yet to feel the hunger I feared, so all was right with the world. We turned a lot of heads as we rolled into the parking lot at Montaluce Winery Saturday morning. We set up our Cannondale Team Tent next to some of the Pittsburgh crew and their Dirt Rag Magazine tent. Literally within minutes, riders were stopping by to get advice and tech support as if we were the lead out train for Jeremiah Bishop or Tim Johnson. We LOOKED pro, even if I WAS eating cosmic brownies and fruit chews by the handful. We all talked about what to wear in the brisk temps and whether it was better to be warm climbing or cold descending. I opted for long sleeve jersey and base layer and just my bibs on my legs. (perfect option for me as I never felt too hot and was always able to spin a little on the descents to keep from getting too cold). I threw an extra tube in one pocket, my cellphone in another, and 6 Strawberry Honey Stinger waffles in the middle and pedaled over to the starting area. I was a little late to the starting area so I was mired in the back of the field. I knew I wasn’t going to win the race in the CX section so I figured I would just be patient and try to make up the ground out on the road. I knew there was a lot of climbing to be done so I just kept my tempo a little higher than the rest and slowly started picking people off as we went. I lost track somewhere after 50 as to the number of people who I passed. I felt surprisingly good on the climb, especially the steeper parts that we avoided on Friday. The 10.4 miles and 2550’ seemed to pass by and I was amazed at how good I felt. I’d hoped I would catch up to one of my teammates on the long climb for company, but even though I thought I saw one coming back a time or two, it was always just another rider in a similar blue kit. We started descending and I found myself to be very cautious. Too cautious to be honest as 3 of the people I had just passed as we topped the climb caught and dropped me on the early part of the downhill. Towards the very bottom, I was caught by a 4th rider just as we hit the pavement and we hammered it out along the paved downhill section. We swapped the lead a few times and on an ever so slight roller I swung off to let him have a pull and he was gone. Not sure where he went or what he did but he was gone from sight. I put my head down and started pedaling again and caught the first of the 3 riders from the top of the hill. We hit the base of the second hill and the reappearance of the dirt roads working together. He’d lead and work his way through a group of riders then I would take the lead and work through some more. After about 15 minutes we caught the other 2 riders who dropped me and the back rider told his partner “watch out, here comes “horsepower”. Inside I just kind of laughed because I’m usually only associated with the posterior portion of a horse. The 4 of us started working together just as I recognized the distinct blue jersey with 1 black and 1 white sleeve. No mistaking it, this was a teammate I’d finally caught up with. James jumped on and worked with us for a little while as we started catching more and more groups of riders. I suspect he went a little hard in the early part because he finally settled into his own pace and the 4 of us went on without him. Within a few minutes I had lost 2 others on the climb but worked my way up to a guy on a single speed and we climbed on. On a particularly heavily graveled section the last of the guys to drop me on the downhill got dropped and I did my best to hold the wheel of the SS rider just in front of me. After topping the second big climb I pulled away a little bit on the ridge and thought I recognized JR up ahead. Every bend I seemed to be closing ground and I finally caught up to him on the top of the final climb. Try as I might, there was no staying close to the guy on the SS mtb with skinny tires. He bombed down the hill like a man possessed. I was atleast close enough to see him at the bottom as we left the last of the dirt roads behind and got to ride the pavement all the way back to the winery. Just in front of me were a pair of teammates and a quick look over my shoulder showed me that JR was not far behind. I knew I could jump on their wheel and ride with them all the way but I sat up a little and JR closed it down and we hooked up for the final push to the finish. We pedaled on and caught the 2 teammates and another rider or two and we worked together as best we could. But like the rest of them, JR and slowly put them behind us and started closing ground on the riders in front of us. A few quick turns and all of a sudden we were greeted by a bastard of a hill. It was short and not that steep, but for some reason it just broke my spirit and I had to dig deep to not get frustrated and get off the bike. JR was hurting and he told me not to wait but I was hurting too and I knew that I was still better off working with him than out in front of him alone so we climbed together. Putting that hill behind us finally, we pushed on, catching a few more riders and finally the entrance to the winery was in sight. We made the turn with about 50 miles of racing in our legs but we knew the worst was still ahead. As you leave the road one last time, there was an absurdly steep run up. (I saw video on Youtube of someone riding it but that point it was hard enough for me to walk the bike up let alone pedal up.) The only good thing about the hill was that this is where they chose to have the beer hand ups. Never has a beer tasted so good on the palette as that one did. JR and I rode/pushed the CX course together. It hurt like hell to climb but I realized just how much it hurt to remount every time, so on the last little kicker, I decided that I was either riding the hill or walk all the way to the finish. JR opted to run up the hill which was the reason I finished just ahead of him in the final standings in 54th place out of 300 registered entrants. Mike was already finished (33rd) and was holding and empty beer can that he had somehow managed to snag at the beer hand up. I thought I should have done that but I guess he’d proved the day before he bigger balls than me and to the winners go the spoils. JR (55th) was right behind me and the 3 of us headed to the van for some fresh water. When we got to the van, our tents looked like I felt, total wrecks. I guess we weren't the only things that suffered in the wind that day.  A few minutes after we finished James (75th) rolled in and we had all successfully completed the 52 mile race in under 4 hours. All and all, I think we represented the Dynamic Physical Therapy powered by Pathfinder team well and hopefully these early successes are a sign of more to come as the racing picks up later this spring. We left early on Sunday morning, before breakfast was even served, and we headed on down the highway. We stopped a couple of times for fuel, once to eat (it was ok, I still had my leftover pizza from dinner the night before), and we were back home in the mountain state by dinner. I couldn’t believe I made it home and didn’t look or feel malnourished, SUCCESS!!! Although extremely tired and sore, I can’t wait to go back and do it again next year. What a blast!