So close … gravel grovel ultracx series finale
Wow, this will definitely be a season to remember. I battled hard in two season-long race series’ (is that the plural of series???) and ended up in 2nd place in both of them. On the road, the inaugural SRS (Southeastern Racing Series) was a phenomal series of five races spread across five states – Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Fields were really large averaging maybe 75 riders or more in the Pro/1/2 fields.
On the mountain bike, I started off my season with a surprise win at the Southern Cross ultra cx kick-off event. I started to look a bit deeper into the series with the aim of seeing how well I could do in the whole series as I was planning out my season. The seven race series was scored based on your best four races with points assigned based on your placing (1 point for 1st, 2 points for 2nd, etc…) Lowest point total wins. Three out of the seven races conflicted with my road racing schedule — including two which fell on weekends of SRS races. I came very close to winning it but fell short in a somewhat spectacular fashion. Skipping straight to that moment in yesterday’s Gravel Grovel race in Indiana, I came into the final cyclocross barriers (shown in the pic below from my pre-ride on Wednesday) with a shot at winning the race and the series if I could only outsprint the rider with me. But the rider with me was a skilled cyclocross racer, Andrew Messer, who dismounted his cross bike, hopped both barriers, and was completely across the bridge by the time I was across the first barrier. With less than half a mile to race after the bridge, there was no way I could catch him.
Finishing the race anywhere in the top 3 was still good enough to give me the series win as long as there was at least one rider between me and the current series leader, Mike Simonson. But it wasn’t to be – Mike was riding so strong and a couple minutes later he emerged around a bend in the road, crossed the final creek, and crossed the finish line exactly one place behind me giving him the series title by a single point. Had he been one place farther down, we would have been tied on points with me winning the tie-breaker of the placing in the series finale.
The outcome of an entire season of racing came down to the final moments of the final race. Both moments – my getting dropped at the barriers and Mike’s successful creek crossing on a cross bike – capture an essential part of the essence and beauty of the ultra-cx race series. Ultra-cx races are gaining popularity so rapidly because they represent the perfect marriage of all the core disciplines of cycling (road, cross, and mountain biking). Plus, the courses picked are epic — stretching the road racer’s technical handling on gravel and trails, stretching the mountain biker’s time trial and solo mentality with the strategy of drafting and stretching the cross racer with the endurance of a four hour event instead of a 60 minute event. I’m hooked.
We spent the night in one of the cabins right there at the Midwest Trail Ride hosting the start of the race. This was super convenient and a bonding experience for our family of four taking up the two bunk beds in the cabin as the temp dropped down into the upper teens early in the night before starting to rise throughout the night to the middle 20s by morning. By the start of the race the temp was in the 30s and rapidly rising. I realized within five minutes of the start of the race that I was way overdressed.
We took off out of the horse camp and out the paved road heading towards the first climb of the day up to the hickory ridge fire tower. The pace was much faster than I was expecting, but I managed to work my way to the very front by the time we hit the gravel. The field of 205 quickly dwindled down to a group of maybe 25 riders still contesting the race by the time we reached the fire tower. By the time we made it to the Story Inn checkpoint 1/3rd of the way through the race, there was only about 10 of us left in the lead group. We pacelined on a very flat road at speeds approaching 25mph. After we made the turnaround, we could see the entire race behind us as they passed us heading out to the checkpoint. There were two fast groups behind us. It was hard to see the composition of the groups as I was trying to make sure no gap opened to the rider in front of me as I was spinning out my 38×11 on the flat road.
I had gotten stuck behind a couple of the cyclocross riders on the first short section of singletrack so I wanted to try to get the holeshot for the second singletrack after the Story turnaround. Mike Simonson and Tim Proctor and just about everyone else in our group had the same idea so there was a bit of jockeying for position through the short parking lot leading into the singletrack. I entered third and had no problem keeping up. Tim dropped his chain and I went around content to just follow Mike up the trail. Tomasz Golas, who like me was also riding a mtb, was having none of it though and wanted to get around me even though I was keeping up just fine with Mike and going as fast as I wanted to go. The singletrack was quite narrow with only one good line which I was not going to give up to let him get around me. About halfway up the climb, though, there was a widening of the trail where it flattened out a bit and I let Tomasz around me. I believe he also went around Mike. When the singletrack kicked up again I took a bad line and ended up in a deep rut I couldn’t ride out of. I had to unclip and the rest of our group passed me before I could get going again.
In fact, I was off the back a bit by the time I got back up to speed and just barely managed to chase back on by the end of the singletrack. The next section was a long road section that eventually turned into a gravel climb. We hit the bottom of this climb at exactly 30 miles into the race. Having pre-ridden the course on Wednesday, I discovered that the fast line up the climb was in the leaves off the side of the road. The gravel was so loose and bouncy, you were much better off riding over the leaves and sticks on the side. Surprisingly some people chose to ride right up the middle of the gravel road expending a lot more energy than I was over on the side. I took this as a confidence booster knowing that I was conserving energy while other people were wasting it.
At the top of the climb we made a turn and then headed straight back down a fast paved section. I had pre-ridden so I knew the turns and wanted to see if we could hit 50mph in the race … didn’t quite happen but we came close – 49.4 mph. Our group was down to just five riders by this point. We continued to rotate and work well together, although there were a few attacks here and there. Unlike a road race where that would just kill the cohesion of the group, we seemed to dive right back into rotating and working whenever one of these attacks failed. I led the way into that singletrack because it came at the top of a steep hill. I hit it as hard as I could not wanting the people behind to get antsy and want to come around and I ended up dropping everybody through the muddy descent back out onto the gravel road.
I certainly wasn’t trying to get away at this point knowing how strong everybody in the group was riding. So I took the moment to eat a powergel and wait for them to catch back up. Then there was an attack that saw Tim Proctor ride away from us. A panic set in and we all chased eventually catching him before the tiny two house community of Tennessee, Indiana. On the “Polk Patch” rolling descent, Andrew Messer drilled it hard and our entire group flew down the long, gradual, rolling descent. I was at the back and really suffering the entire descent in heartrate ZONE 5. At the bottom high speed point, I got a little off balance and was heading straight for a chair one of the volunteers helping to manage the intersection had setup. I managed to slow down and get back in control of the bike but in the process of doing so came off the back of the already extremely fast paceline.
Keep in mind that the entire descent was on large gravel rocks with very little firm ground. Across the flat road at the bottom of the descent, the gravel continued and I had to chase really hard to get in touch with the group. In fact, I was just barely onto the back of the group when we hit the next hill. It was super steep and surprisingly this was much easier for me. I really feel like my mountain bike disc brakes were rubbing hard whenver I was hitting bumps at speed on descents and even the flat roads. But on the climbs, the brakes weren’t rubbing so the climbs were so much easier for me than the fast, bumpy sections on the gravel where my rear wheel was just bouncing all over the place. Thankfully, there was one more large climb and even though I was already hurting pretty bad, I went to the front to try to set a fast pace that would discourage any attacks.
It almost worked. My pace up the final climb was fast enough to gap the other four riders in our group, but it wasn’t fast enough to discourage Tim Proctor from attacking. He came flying by me like a rocket. I thought “well, that’s the end of my race” because there was no way I was going to be able to catch onto the back of the group. After a second or two when no one else came by, I looked back and saw that I had a good 50 meter gap on the rest of the group. At this point I was confused because I was expecting to be dropped and instead had dropped everyone in the group except for Tim.
My legs were screaming bloody murder because the section where Tim came by was flat and I just felt like my bike wasn’t moving anywhere nearly as fast as the amount of effort I was putting into the pedals. Still, I hit it as hard as I could and looked back again to discover that only Andrew had bridged across to me leaving Mike and Tomasz chasing not far behind. I had renewed hope again that perhaps I could still win the series, but I had given up winning the race b/c Tim was clearly on another level. Little did I know that he was actually in the Male 40+ race so Andrew and I were still racing for first place in our race (Male Open).
There was still over 9 miles left in the race, and I tried to work with Andrew, but it wasn’t going well. I drafted him close on the downhills and flats but was still struggling on my mountain bike on the gravel. And then every time it kicked up I would come around him thinking I could pull and he would immediately go off the back of my wheel. Then later, he attacked me twice and I was able to catch back up thinking “ok, that’s it I’m done pulling”. But then I would remember that Mike was somewhere back there and I needed to make sure that we stayed away. When we made the final turn back out onto pavement heading for the bridge, Andrew put in one more attack and gapped me. It took about 30 seconds for me to close the gap back down, and then I put in a counter-attack. I didn’t fully commit to it, though, when I saw that he grabbed my wheel right away. So I sat up to strategize again but by this point we had made it to the bridge and I’ve already described how that went down. In retrospect, my last hope at winning the race would have been to fully commit to that final attack and reach the bridge first with just enough of a gap to get over at least the 1st barrier and then we would probably be coming neck and neck into the finish so who knows how that would have turned out. But I essentially lost the race at the moment I eased up after attacking. A moment’s indecisiveness really staining/ruining what otherwise was a great season.
Still, huge shout-out to Mike for racing consistently throughout the season and especially yesterday at the Gravel Grovel. If he had faltered at all, then I would have taken the series from him. And he traveled to six out of the seven races placing really well with podium finishes in all but one of the events, whereas I only made it to the bare minimum of four races. So even though it felt like a lot of work, travel, and expense for this Alabama native to travel up to Indiana, Pennsylvania, and deep into the mountains of North Carolina (that drive was just as long as the Indiana drive!) Mike has put a lot more work and time into this so he truly is a deserving champion.
Here’s my heartrate data and the podium pictures -