MSG chose a picturesque setting to kick ff the season. © Bart Nave

MSG chose a picturesque setting to kick ff the season. © Bart Nave

by Dwayne Letterman

Tennessee opened the ’cross season on September 18-19 with the first two races in the eight-race Mud, Sweat and Gears (MSG) Cyclocross Series. The first weekend of full on racing was held at a new venue, the Farmhouse Gallery and Gardens in Unicoi. The racing was hot, literally and figuratively. With near 90-degree temps both days,  the heat added more pain to an already fast, technical course. Thanks to the sensible new rule allowing hand ups from the pit lane, pit crews were kept busy all day handing up hundreds of bottles of water.

Mirroring the near record heat, competition was blistering on both days. Anticipation for the start of ’cross season has been so great that every race from the Cat 4s to the Pros left the start like being shot from a cannon! Riders then immediately fell off the pace, choking in the dusty wake.

The most exciting races on both days came from the Elite men. On Saturday, the field underestimated  Eric Muehl, who attacked from the gun and opened up a huge gap. Only Will Black and Eric Wondergem were able to give chase,  however Muehl’s gap was too great, leaving Black and Wondergem to battle for second. The heat took its toll and Wondergem eventually lost contact with Black, who rode across the line in second place drenched in sweat with a look of utter exhaustion on his face. Wondergem posted an extremely hard-fought third.

On Sunday, there was no let up in the heat, or the pace, with the Elites once again giving the spectators a show. Will Black, determined not to be left in the swirl of dust from Muehl’s wheel, drilled it from the start, never looking back and eventually opening the same insurmountable gap that Meuhl had taken to victory on the previous day. Muehl trailed Black, but also had a huge lead on the rest of the field. While Black and Meuhl fought the heat to maintain their respective gaps, a battle for third erupted. Wondergem, smarting from the surprise attack of Meuhl on Saturday, was with Black for a while, but fans and spectators noticed him separating from Black and taking the many technical corners like a baby duck on ice?! Puncture: A brand new tubie bit the dust. Wondergem eventually made it to the pit for a wheel change that would make NASCAR jealous.

In the meantime host club TCRC rider Mike Stewart blew past the pit, putting Wondergem under pressure. Wondergem left the pit with dust in has  face,  grit in his teeth, and a look of utter determination on his face. It was on! Lap after lap, getting splits from the pit crew, he slowly reeled in Stewart whose early efforts to bridge were now costing him in the heat. The pair traded licks for several laps until the incessant attacking of Wondergem, and the sweltering heat, gave Stewart the beat down to fourth.

The beautiful new venue and the rampaging growth of ’cross,  brought more Junior and Cat 4 Women racers than in previous years. The larger field sizes, though small compared to the other areas of the country, allowed for real competition in those races. Hopefully the trend will continue on into the wet – and sometimes bitter cold – months of winter in the southern Appalachians.

The Town of Unicoi pulled out all the stops as title sponsor, with many local businesses adding to the list of prizes. The Town Fathers and local folks came out to spectate during each day and marveled at the world of pain and smiles that is cyclocross. The enthusiasm from the Town of Unicoi and the Lynch family of the Farmhouse Gallery was far and above anything MSG has experienced over its seven-year history. The Town of Unicoi and the Farmhouse will definitely be on the MSG Calender next season. Special thanks to every one of you ’cross nuts who are willing to withstand the extremes of heat and cold that is the cyclocross season, Hup! Hup! Hup! In two weeks it’s Kingsport and the Brewer Construction Flyover!

For more pics of this wonderful venue please visit Bart Nave Photography.

Photo Gallery