Cone Azalea Men's Podium. Courtesy of Shawn Adams

Cone Azalia Men’s Podium. Courtesy of Shawn Adams

Our gravel reporter Aaron Cruikshank targets another race, the Cone-Azalea, arguably the most “road-racey” of all of the recent gravel events that he’s covered.

The Holy Trinity of dirt spring classics wrapped up this past Sunday with the 12th edition of Michigan Spring Classic, the Cone-Azalia. Featuring a flat 10-mile loop with four miles of gravel per lap, Cone always brings out the specialists. Unlike Barry Roubaix and Lowell 50, the course is perfectly suited for a road bike with 25 or 28c tires. You might still flat on the relentless potholes, but knobs are out of the question. Regardless of bike selection or field, you and your equipment will be tested. Finishing this race will leave you tired, but not tired enough to forego the ride down the street to Original Gravity Brewing. Ahh, spring time in Michigan!

The men’s CAT 1/2 field was slated for a grueling seven laps, while the women’s CAT 1/2/3 field was booked for three laps. Racing got underway at 10 in the morning under sunny skies with race temperatures in the mid 50’s. Forecasts called for the wind to pick up as the race progressed, but winds were light early on. The first section of dirt is a little over a mile into the race. A set of train tracks guards the entrance, and usually is the first bump in the road that causes bottles to go flying. We hit this section and several Bissell riders went to the front to drive the pace. My 12-minute warm up was not nearly enough as we were racing at almost full gas from the gun. With six more go-arounds, I was hoping we would ease up a bit. The rest of my WASlabs teammates stayed in good position while other riders were being shot out the back. Again, the pace was kept high through the paved crosswind section, which featured some bike-sized potholes of its own.

The second dirt section featured a crosswind, with a left turn into the head wind. As the race progressed, the wind steadily increases until we were faced with 35mph gusts. While this stretch had less potholes, it made up for it with ruts and gravel. My teammate Jason had attacked the field on the pavement section and was holding a healthy gap. This allowed the rest of us to sit in while Bissell and Leadout were left to chase. Jason was able to keep his advantage for the rest of the lap, and it wasn’t until we entered the paved sector again that we caught him. Things calmed down a bit as other teams were looking for the counter-move to go.

As a team we had talked before the race, and wanted to try and keep things somewhat calm for the first couple of laps. Crossing over a set of railroad tracks on the pavement, several riders crashed. This caused some initial excitement in the group but it was neutralized while we waited for them to right themselves and catch back on.

Once the group was back together, my teammate Shawn Adams upped the pace into the crosswind and instantly had a gap. He was followed by Dan Korienek of Leadout and Aaron Beebe of Bissell. Quickly, Rudy Peterson of Gateway bridged across to form a group of four. The main field did not appear worried as there is a long tailwind section leading us back to the finish. All of the teams were represented, so why chase? It wasn’t until we were on the dirt again that alarm bells began sounding. The wind was beginning to switch and the first dirt section now had a cross tail wind.

The four escapees had consolidated their gap and were working to improve it. Both Bissell and WASlab were represented, but with a former winner up the road, no one was satisfied. Again we went hard through the paved section trying to make contact with the leading group. We shed more riders, whittling the chase group down to only a handful, but the break was still out of sight.

Lap five sealed our fate when a crossing train delayed us for several minutes before entering the first dirt section. This allowed a few riders to catch back up, and ensured that we would never see the breakaway again. My teammate Adam attacked on the second dirt section. The rest of the group, minus one Bissell rider, was contented to let him go. There was now the leading group of four, a group of two which included Adam York and Jordan Diekema, and then my group of four. Again, WASlabs was on the attack with my teammate Jason attacking the group going into the tailwind finishing straight. We had one lap to go, and wanted to ensure we made our compatriots work for it. The attach was covered initially by Andy Messer. I sat on Nate Williams from Bissell. He closed the gap, went over the top, and suddenly we were up the road.

In the lead group, the pace was kept high but steady. Due to the lack of time gaps, Shawn was still under the impression that we might be trying to bridge to the group, but the aforementioned train had squashed any hopes we had of bridging the gap. Due to a few attacks in the final dirt sections, Peterson had lost contact, reducing the group to three riders. Aaron Beebe attacked into the 35 mph crosswind, gaining a slight advantage. Playing some cat and mouse, Shawn waited for Dan to cover the move. He did not, and the three remaining breakaway riders rode 10 seconds apart for the remaining three kilometers to the finish. Beebe took the win for Bissell, with Shawn coming in second, and Dan Korienek in third. It was a hard-man’s race as the rest of the field slowly made our way home in groups of two.

Cone-Azalea Women's Podium. Courtesy of Kim THomas

Cone-Azalia Women’s Podium. Courtesy of Kim Thomas

In the women’s race, Kim Thomas entered the first dirt section of the day and exited alone. She proceeded to ride solo for the remaining 27 miles, taking the win by a mere seven seconds. A hard day on the bike, riding solo in the crosswinds, earned her a much deserved spot atop the podium.

As expected, Cone-Azalia did not disappoint. The high speed gravel and potholes claimed their victims and spit Elite riders out the other side. What was left of each field was claimed by the incessant wind… And I know I will be back next year to try my luck at one of the best hidden gems of the Midwest!