After last year’s weather delay (and other delays in past editions of the Southern Cross), the move of the race date forward to the start of March proved to be a good choice.
Despite this, weather in the Georgia mountains maintained its reputation for being unpredictable. Case in point, I had ridden the new five mile course extension two weeks earlier in dry conditions. While the two miles of mostly uphill single track in the sector was tough, it was rideable. Snow fell upon the course extension on the Thursday leading to the race, rendering it a veritable quagmire when the snow melted on Friday afternoon. In some ways its exclusion was a saving grace for me – and everyone else.
My claim to fame is the only rider who has completed every edition of the Southern Cross Race. While I wasn’t really racing it this year, the event is promoted by good friend Lisa Randall and Mountain Goat Adventures – and I have to keep my streak alive. After taking a surprise win during my first year of racing the 50+ category at Southern Cross 2014, the goal for 2016 was simply to finish respectably, and hopefully break the four hour barrier. This goal became much more realistic with the abbreviated course.
It was a beautiful sunny day and by the 10am start, temperatures were well into the 50’s Fahrenheit- a shorts, base layer, jersey and arm warmers kind of day. Some riders opted for more clothing but I was never in discomfort and had the arm warmers pulled down for all but the longest of downhills.
Approximately 250 riders headed out on the neutral start for the first few miles. The start used to be full gas with a short, but tough cyclocross section through the Monteluce Winery, before heading out onto the big gravel loop. Us older guys appreciate the more controlled start to get warmed up without losing position. I’m pretty sure that’s why they have neutral zones at the start of road races too; makes great sense.
After a few miles of mostly downhill pavement, we crossed the bridge and it was game on. And… I lost any sight of the leaders.
Settling into a rhythm on the final paved climb, I backed off my tempo a little to avoid cooking myself. Several riders caught and passed me, but I remained focused on my effort. I caught all but a few of them on the paved downhill and transition to dirt and gravel. With my extra weight and limited training miles, I am not known as a climbing phenom. But, I am good at maintaining momentum through any roller sections of the course. Maximizing your speed on the short downhills and using it to roll a bigger gear over the next rise is what it’s all about.
I began the ascent of the Winding Stairs climb with a good group, and spent the next half-hour going back and forth with the same 10 or so guys including my good friend, the Kiwi Mat Sexton – and a rider I refer to as the “bigger dude”.
Ultimately I would spend the remainder of the day going back and forth with Mat, finishing close to each other at race end. I bypassed the rest stop on the first pass and connected with Mat at the top of the climb.
On the rolling, mostly uphill section of Forest Service road #52 up to the Springer Mountain ATV parking lot, Mat would set the pace on the climbs, and I’d keep it rolling on the flatter, downhill sections. When we finally crested the summit to begin the extended descent off Springer Mountain, Mat pulled around me to ride away and out of sight. It didn’t help matters that one of my water bottles ejected, costing me a little time as I stopped and turned around to retrieve it.
At the right turn onto pavement at the bottom of the decent, I made the mistake of letting a couple guys aboard MTB’s pass while I was eating – an opportunity to get a free ride sitting in their draft, missed! I rolled along about 10 seconds in arrears, eventually reaching the turn onto Noontootla Creek Road, and began to settle in for eight miles of extended climbing. I felt OK but was passed by many riders as I kept to my own tempo. When I first began riding in the early 1990’s, this road was our go to for training rides when the trails were too wet in winter. It’s a nice gradual climb along a free running mountain stream; a great road that brings back many great memories.
I reached the summit and stopped at the aid station for a gel, banana and a bottle refill. Also in attendance was a group of Army Rangers (we passed their base at the bottom of the mountain) and a couple of large diesel, canvas covered troop mover type vehicles. As I rolled out of the aid station, the Rangers began piling back into their trucks. Cresting the rise out of the aid station, I could see Mat’s jersey ahead along with the 3rd place woman who had passed me while I was stopped. It didn’t take long to catch them, but there was a newly found sense of urgency; those army trucks I passed earlier were rumbling along close behind.
Knowing the course, I knew we had to stay ahead of the Army Rangers and their trucks, else we’d be stuck behind them on the fast, and mostly downhill section of the ridge that was not far ahead. Thankfully, the Rangers didn’t push the issue, so we were able to descend and put them far behind us.
During the last mile of the ascent to the top of Coopers Gap, I began to feel the effort in my legs. I backed off my tempo a little, hoping I could make up time during the descent. The descent began well, as I initially out descended Mat who had gotten the better of me on the earlier descent of Springer Mountain, bottle drop and all. If I could keep Mat at bay during the descent, I would likely set a personal record time for this part of the course. Did I mention I love descending?
Alas, Mat caught and passed me again, but I re-united with the “bigger dude” who I mentioned earlier. Working together, we caught and passed Mat again and reached the base safely. The “bigger dude” turned around and said “I usually get a gap on the downhill”! I replied, “Not with FarmerG and the Zukas on your tail”!
The “bigger dude” and I teamed up briefly on the return leg to the Monteluce Winery. He had more to give on the last of the short, gravel climbs before the return to pavement and left me behind. However, I still had enough remaining in the tank to reel in a few other cyclists before reaching the finish line.
I finished in 3:36, a time I was happy with. Incidentally, that was my 50+ winning time from two years prior, although the course alterations for 2016 made it a faster course this year. I took 13th out of 63 riders in the 50+ age category. When you consider that two years before, the 50+ category only had 28 riders, this amply demonstrates the growing nature of this genre of the sport.
Overall, it was a great day on the bike, a great day to hang out with old friends and make a couple of new ones. If you’re looking for a good, hard, fun, well organized race, Southern Cross is a great early season event to kick your year off right!