Sunday, December 1, 2013

Got Gravel but Norman, Indiana ain't flat...

This past weekend, as de facto man in charge of the American UltraCross Series, I headed west for the final round in Norman, Indiana to take part in the event and handle the series awards.  Dave Cornett and Ms. Stephanie Swan were my travel companions and cabin buddies for the weekend adventure to the Midwest

As we left West Pennsylginia and headed west, the landscape got pancake flat.  With 2013 being the first year the Gravel Grovel is part of the American UltraCX Series, we really wondered what it was going to be like.  On the event's website it stated 62 miles and 2800 ft of climbing..  We all kinda laughed, as that amount of climbing is kinda flat in our world, compared to say 72 miles and 8900 ft of climbing in the Hilly Billy Roubaix.  Still, we were excited!

We pulled into the Midwest Trail Ride Horseman's Camp around 2 o'clock on Friday, just in time to unpack to our cozy cabin home for the weekend.  We had enough time to get in a quick scouting ride of the course.  As we looked around, it was not as flat as we expected, "so much for easy" we said to each other. We mounted our steeds (get it, we were staying at a horse camp) and headed out to see what was out there. The first 5 miles were paved, narrow and FAST.  The road really reminded me of our tar and chip roads back home, but flatter. The three of us looked at each other and said, "this is going to be a screaming fast start!"  We ended up scouting about 15 or so miles of the course and it had, from what we saw, some punchy rollers, lots of freshie deep gravel and some really nice scenery.  I had debated all week on what bike to bring as the course also had a total of 7 miles of single track, but I decided on the cross bike with 32 cm tires.  After seeing all the fresh gravel, I thought to myself, "should have put on the 40 cm tires like you thought"..  Oh well, run what ya brung! 

Back to the cabin, dinner then sleep.
(inside our cabin)
We awoke the next morning to COLD temperatures and everything was frozen.  The grass outside was white with ice crystals and when folks spoke, it looked like they were all exhaling smoke.  I wanted to just stay in the warm cabin and drink beers, but ya, that wasn't going to happen.  Like a high school girl going to the prom, the debate in my head started,  "what do I wear"?  Too much and I'd fry, too little and I'd  freeze. To compound the dilemma more, it was to reach a high of 48 that day, decisions, decisions.  Dave and I bounced choices off each other and finally we both decided on our attire.
What and what not to wear

At the start I was surrounded by familiar faces in this strange land they call Indiana.  George Lowe, Jason Samonds, Scott Green, Pflug, Swan and Dave were all there, just to name a few..  As the race started, it was just like we predicted the day before. The first 5 miles were fast, and I was having a hard time just sitting in. Oh hell, I thought to myself, this ain't good!  I was started to dangle off the lead group, even though it was a flat section.  

At 5.5 miles in, we hit the first climb, which was more like a steep pitch about 500 yards long.  I got up it still in contact with the lead group, but my legs felt heavy and slow.  Nothing like what was about to come up, a deep gravel descent.  I felt myself backing off just a bit, trying to figure out what was going on with my body. After another 10 or 20 minutes my legs continued to fail me.  I was alone now in no where land, off the front
Combs Road
group but ahead of the the next.  30 minutes in and I felt like it was over and it seemed like 200 racers were up the road and I was stuck in quick sand.  Regardless, I kept pushing on as best I could and every so often a rider would come up or back and I worked with them a bit.  Around mile 15 we hit a county road that would fit right in with some of the Hilly Billy Roubaix roads, even with my legs and body not working it was a blast.  Stream crossings, roots, mud and a few down trees, what's not to love?!  Towards the end of the "road" I saw Swan on the side, "you ok Swan?", I yelled. She replied that she was but had a hard fall.  She was just getting back on her bike so I felt comfortable to keep going.

It wasn't to much further down the road, after come around a fast corner, I show my buddy George "Michael" Lowe(no not that George "Michael") pushing his bike.   George had sheared off two chainring bolts on his singlespeed. To make matter even sadder, he needed to only finish the race to take third overall in the series.  With many more miles to go and no way to repair what was broken, third wasn't going to happen.  Next year sir!

Back on the road, it was more pedaling on flat pavement alone.  Dread set in, I thought to myself, "those
How I felt the first half of the race
guys are in a big group pace lining they're gone!".  Nothing I can do but pedal I guess.  Finally I bridged up to a local, his name was Matt if I recall.  Matt was strong on the road and we worked well together for a few miles.  Trucking down the road, I see a group of 20 riders or so headed right at us.  I thought, someone is going the wrong way, but then I remembered there was a out and back section of the course.  What was coming at us were the leaders.  "Well, I wonder how far away that turnaround is?", I thought to myself.  Then a second group going the other direction passed by me including Cornett, Mike Janeiro and Samonds.  I yelled work of encouragement and kept going.  A few minutes up the road I saw the turn around..  Crap, I am less than 15 minutes down on them!  I was shocked cause I thought it would be much much bigger.

Correct tool for the job!
Feeling as bad as I did and still being that close rejuvenated me a bit.  After the turn around, it was back the way we came for just a few miles than we hit the first true single track section of the course.  This also worked in my favor as I figured I could handle my cross bike better than a lot of the folks in front of me.. The trails there are not like here in WV, we would call them smooth, and you could really get going! Also to my benefit on the singletrack was that,  I had decided to run Kenda Kwicker Pro for the race that morning. Their aggressive tread pattern made it much easier to navigate the damp, leaf covered trail.

After a few miles of sweet single track back to the gravel we went.  I had dropped Matt on the trails but I thought it wise to slow up just a bit to have help on the road once again.  As we joined forces again, Matt said, "ok, two big climbs coming up".  He said goodbye because he didn't think he could climb with the guy from WV on the bigger hills.  As I started up the first climb I could see Janeiro on the side of the fixing a flat.

Maybe a slight exaggeration 
When I came by, he was just getting back on but I could hear the air and tire sealant still coming out of his wheel.  "Mike you need a tube?", I yelled.  He said he had one and I carried on.  My new friend Matt was right, this climb was a full on WV climb, about 1 mile long and steep.  As I round the switchbacks , I could see, Fat Head's Brewery jersey of Jason Samonds and just a little way up from that Dave.  This gave me yet another shot of life in my legs.  I could tell I was climbing up to them, surprising after how first 25 to 30 miles went for me.

At the top of the climb Jason was only few hundred up now.  With my 411 from Matt, I knew it was a big climb a 50 mph descent and then another big climb.  Feeling back in it, I was riding well as we approached the next climb.  I rode up to Jason right at the base and he said, "I think my 40 minutes are up now" referring to a cross race.  He made me laugh.  Pushing ahead, this climb was steep, I thought I was back home!  Ever closer and closer we got to the top and I found myself about 20 yards behind Dave, and back in the top ten, as we reached the top. Here we go now, I thought to myself.  My plan was to work with Dave and we could really start moving up.  As we descended down the other side getting closer and closer to Dave I felt it.  The rear tire hit a piece of gravel hard.  I waited...  Then I heard it, air and the sound of Stan's sealant coming out of my tire. NO!

Reenactment of tire change
As I fiddled with my back on the side of the road I hear the sound of multiple bikes passing by.  As Samonds went by he asked if I needed anything but I was good. If you have ever rode with me and had a flat, you know I always change peoples flat tires for them.  Why?  Practice.  I had a pretty fast change and back on the road I was.  I was determined not to let the flat spoil my comeback, so I buried myself in an effort to get back in the game.  Over the next 5 miles I made it back up to Samonds.  Jason was having the best UltraCX race of his life but he said he was starting to crack.   As I pushed on, I could once again see Dave and a host of others up the road from me, maybe a 1/2 mile or so away.

The course made a few curves; as it went up, they were out of sight for now.  I guessed I was maybe 3 minutes or so behind.   As I crested the top of the hill I headed right down the back top section and I was motoring to get up there.  About a mile down the road I see three riders stopped in the middle of an intersection..  I knew from the look on their faces they had no clue which way they should be going..  This can't be happening, I thought to myself.

The other riders and I looked around and no one had a clue.  After a few minutes, I headed back up the road the way I came.  I was going up, here comes Jason down.  With a sad look on my face I gave him the turn around sign.  To make it worse we had to ride back up the hill a mile or so to were we last left the course.  Once back to where we got off course there were a few others scratching their heads but then someone noticed a piece of single track across the road.  We headed down the trail, and I realized I didn't have another big push in my legs to work back up the field again.  2 was all I had..  Jason, I yelled..  I will ride in with ya.  We had 18 or so miles left to go and I kinda like the idea of riding in with my pal.

The climbs, and now I know there are real climbs in Indiana, were pretty much over.  There were only rollers the rest of the way back.  I told Jason I was not going to leave him and to hold on.  Roller after roller we went and we even picked off a few riders here and there.  About 3 miles to go I was starting to really hurt and a couple of young bucks had been sitting on for a good 3 or 4 miles.  "Hey, you guys can take a pull ya know", I said. One of the kids was a nice fellow from the Bissell Team and he said "thanks for the awesome pull" as he went to the front.  Awesome pull it may have been, smart it was not.  Usually when you are a mile or two out from the finish you get that, "I'm there feeling" and your energy reserves kick in.  Nope,  I burned way too many matches trying to bridge up and all that.   

A mile from the finish was a closed down bridge with guard rails on either side.  They were very high and as I raised my leg to step over the mother of all cramps set in!  "OOOOOO!"  I shouted..  It hurt bad.  So close to the finish and I cramped.  I would have laughed but it hurt too much.. After Cramp Fest 2013 was over, Jason and I headed into the finish together.  It was good enough for 16th and 17th in the men's open field of around 80 or so riders, but it could have been so much more..  

Coulda, woulda, shoulda!

Even with a bit of a disappointing finish, I had a great time with my friends!  Plus West Pennsylginia folks crushed it out there!  Nice job folks!

Want to see my course data and route?  Here ya go -

In the end we all found out Indiana isn't all that falt.  62.6 miles with 4,442 ft of climb(including my bonus climb) and not just that.  The pace was so high on the flatter section that there was never a break.  In my world, all that adds up to a good race!

Tania and the sub-9 crew put on a great event, we all are coming back in 2014..  Hope to cya there!

Also big shout out to Dynamic Physical Therapy and Pathfinder of West Virginia for giving me the opportunity to be out there racing!

Ps..  Congrats to all the series winners and competitors! 

Thanks to these great folks for their support!