Heading up the run up with only 50 miles to go. Weldon Weaver

Heading up the run up with only 50 miles to go. © Weldon Weaver

by Molly Hurford

While most cyclocrossers have hung up their bikes for the season, trading them out for road or mountain bikes, there are still a few who hold out through February to get in one last race. It’s not exactly cyclocross, per se, but Southern Cross in Dahlonega, Georgia, is certainly a close match. Other than the fact that instead of 40 or 60 grueling minutes, it’s around 50 miles, and there’s no pit, much to my dismay. However, there are similarities: the race was structured so it started and ended with a lap of a traditional cyclocross course, and without USA Cycling guidelines to follow (not to mention the fact that the start/finish is in a winery), beer handups were a pretty big part of the finishing process. (Not for this reporter, who struggled to get up the runup in a straight line without drinking.) 

Southern Cross is the “first endurance cross race in the Southeast.” Mainly held on gravel roads, the course did feature “some spectator-friendly cyclocross goodies thrown in to distinguish it from a mountain bike or road race.” And Southern Cross was also the last race of the 2011-2012 American UltraCross Championship Series as well as the first race of the 2012-2013 series.

The promoters, Eddie and Namrita of 55nine Performance, weren’t kidding when they wrote the course description simply as: “Hard.”

Of course, they followed it with the caveats: “There will be steep climbing, descending, a couple mean run-ups, and a handful of barriers. Do not underestimate the difficulty of this event.”

I’ll start by saying that the race was a blast. I’ve been down in Georgia training for road for the past three weeks, and when I heard about a 50 mile cyclocross-esque race, I was practically giddy with excitement. After all, when it comes down to it, I’m a cyclocross racer who dabbles in road, and three weeks of no knobby tires was starting to wear on me. Since I leave for New England tomorrow, this would be my last chance to get some experience with the Southern cyclocross scene. As it turns out, they are an awesome cast of characters! Cyclocross is growing down here, in a big way, and it’s going to be exciting to see what they do in the next couple of years.

A view of the winery where the race was held.

A view of the winery where the race was held

Southern Cross had 300 registrants, and a mass road start that, like a traditional cyclocross race, funneled racers onto a cyclocross course. The difference was that after a couple of miles on the course, including a nasty runup that quickly shattered the group, it shot out onto gravel roads in the mountains of Dahlonega. There was a nine mile climb almost right away, and riders could be seen dismounting and trudging up the steeper sections almost faster than some racers were riding it. I was unlucky near the top, when a stick jammed in my rear derailleur. I had to dismount to pull it out, and spent a few hundred yards with calves burning, pushing the bike. I’m thankful for all of my remounting practice though, because when I couldn’t stand walking anymore, I managed to run fast enough for a few steps, enabling me to remount with enough momentum to start the climb again.

Of course, the nine mile climb was nothing compared to the seven mile descent that was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It was also perilous, which I was unfortunate enough to find out. Two flats in just a couple of miles set me back a solid 20 minutes or more (I’m not much of a mechanic at the best of times, let alone under pressure!). At one point, when going up a steep climb in between descents, I first realized I had the flat but didn’t want to stop to inspect it. Instead, I yelled at someone walking their bike, “Is my rear tire flat?”

“Oh, hell yeah,” he responded. “Do you need help?” (What a gentleman!)

“I’m not stopping on this hill!” I yelled back and continued up the climb with the flat. At the top, there may or may not have been a bit of cursing on my part as I struggled to change the tube. Though the day was sunny, the wind was blowing hard and the 50 degree temperatures that felt great while riding froze me while I was fixing my flats. With only 10 miles to go, I was mentally and emotionally shot, having watched three women I’d worked hard to pass breeze by me, their tires still fully inflated. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who fell prey to mechanicals that day, so I can’t really feel too sorry for myself. After all, I got to play in the mountains for the better part of the day!

A word to the wise though: endurance cross is very different from cyclocross in that eating and drinking become as important as they are in any longer road race. The only problem is that you’re consistently hitting rough patches or tricky corners, so it’s hard to remember to drink or eat. I started in on a gel, when almost immediately we hit a screaming downhill with hairpin turns. Needless to say, the opened gel was returned to my pocket where it leaked everywhere. I did finish a bottle and a half of Gatorade, though I’m pretty sure at least 50 percent of that was just me spilling on myself. Next time, I think I’ll do what the mountain bikers were smart enough to do for this race and rock the Camelbak, no matter how goofy I feel.

The course ended in a final lap of a variation on the original cyclocross course, with the steepest runup I’ve ever seen. And as I hit the last climb, I passed a girl cheering. I said something to the effect of “this is cruel and unusual,” to which she replied, “Oh, I’m sorry.” It was awesome.

I stuttered across the finish line (and stammered through a CyclingDirt interview), and, though I was cursing myself the entire last 15 miles for ever starting this in the first place after spending three weeks focusing on building base, as soon as it was over, I was excited to do it all again, as soon as possible. Though next time, hopefully without the flats …

The post-race festivities in the winery were amazing, with meals for the racers, raffles, and some amazing Southern hospitality.

Of course, my 12th place finish is not nearly as interesting as the race leaders. In the men’s race, Jamis’s Thomas Turner definitively took the win. Turner is one of the top cyclocrossers out of the South, and has been known to race in New England at the bigger races from time to time. He was followed by Stephen Hyde and Brian Toone. In the women’s race, Cheryl Sornson of Team CF took the win, followed by Shannon Greenhill and Paula Burks.

Check out a few of Weldon Weaver’s photos from the event (and find more here)