Oh-dark-thirty came early Saturday morning as I rolled out of bed to head to Nebo, NC for Savage CX. The 50 mile race is part of a niche called ultracross, a cross between XC MTB and cyclcocross. Sometimes called “gravel grinders” these races are on dirt/gravel/double track and the bikes are a mix of CX bikes and MTB (hard tail and suspension or fixed fork) with skinny tires. Having done Southern Cross in February, I was looking forward to another adventure (and I got it!).
This was the inaugural event for Savage CX and the field was about 75 and they had a mens 50-+ age group (part of the appeal of the race was a chance to go head-to-head against my age group). I rode my trusty CX steed with Clement LAS 33 tubeless file treads. I had just souped it up with SRAM Red and new tape. Wearing my Team HammerCross kit, I was ready to roll!
The mass sent us up what looked like a goat trail, onto the road and then onto gravel. I knew climbing was going to start soon but did not appreciate how soon and how steep (see below). Needless to say, the peleton broke up and I was dropped quickly. With the fast start and the steep first climb, I quickly found myself in the Land of Anaerobia, where I spent most of the day. I pushed hard up the climbs knowing the latter half of the race was downhill. The roads were deeply rutted and had lots of loose gravel. I lost traction in several places and ended up walking a bit. One section, reported to be a 22% grade was no match for my tires, my gearing (50/34 x 11/28), or my hypoxia. More walking. I made sure I punctuated each walk with a flying remount, in true CX fashion.
By mile 18, the descents started, finally. I was totally spent and had been battling cramps in both legs. As I started down, I was looking forward to recovering on the wide sweeping descents of packed gravel we had at Southern Cross. Instead of sweeping descents, I was met with loose gravel, sharp switchbacks,and washouts the size of small children. The washouts, or sometimes dug drainage ditches, were usually on the inside of a switchback so as you were flying down ready to cut the corner, you’d be met with this 10″ ditch: Whoa, WTF!. Add to that navigating the cars coming up and down the road. Passing cars going down a gravel road trying to avoid washed out switchbacks with no suspension (other than my FS arms and legs) was a true test. One time, I passed a car on the inside of a switchback but the washout was so deep, I had to get off my bike to get over it. It was important to stay in the drops so that when you hit a rut and your hands came off the bar, you had a second chance to grab the top bar. Needless to say, the MTB guys flew by me, hopping over the ruts, while my white-knuckled, tight-sphinctered, clenched-jaw self carefully wound down the mountain.
Somehow missed the first rest stop at mile 17 but stopped at the mile 30 rest stop for water. Most of the descents were over so at least the last 20 miles would be relatively easy back to the finish. Time to finish strong!
At the rest stop:
Me: Thanks volunteering today.
Woman: You’re welcome. Can I get you anything else?
Me: No thanks.
[getting back on my bike to head down the road]
Woman: Excuse me, but the race course goes this direction…
Woman: Back here [pointing past the park service gate]
Me: There? Are you sure?
Woman: Oh yes, I’m quite sure!
I thought I detected a small laugh as she said “Oh yes, I’m quite sure!” and even thought I saw a small set of fangs as she smiled but quickly dismissed it as the result of low blood sugar. I passed the gate and headed down a steep, rutted, washed out dirt trail, barely passing as single track. My confidence waned further seeing water bottles scattered by the trail. My rear blinky light tore off my saddle bag as I thought about whether a mouthguard would keep my teeth from chipping. For the next 10 miles, it was washed out double track, sections of deep mud interspersed with pleasant sections of fast, smooth fire road. The most challenging part was where they “repaired” the washouts with several truckloads of “gravel”, large rocks the size of small bowling balls. Imagine riding the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix with loose cobbles. Occurring on the switchbacks only added to the treachery. I talked to several folks who went down on these sections. Somehow, I kept the rubber side down.
Got out of that (whew!) onto blacktop for the last 7 miles back (you really appreciate how smooth asphalt is after riding that section on a NO suspension bike). A few final climbs, a few more cramps and back to the finish. I appreciated the organizers wanting to be efficient but it’s a bit of let down crossing the line as they are giving out the podium medals.
I finished in 4:30, averaging a little over 11 mph. 14 out of 17 in my age group. I didn’t exactly throw the hammer down on the competition but finishing this beast was a triumph. Full results here. Susan from Tri-cyclists won the women’s division.
Nutrition: two gu’s, 2 pk fig newtons, one pk peanut butter crackers
Hydration: water bottles, ~3 bottles of water consumed
Total climb: 5500-7000 ft (depending on elevation corrections and Training Peaks vs Garmin)
Min speed: 0.28 mph (walking up a 22% grade)
Max speed: 35 mph
Garmin file is here.
Bike: For this course, a hardtail MTB with a locked out front fork for the climbs and tires with slightly more aggressive tread would have been the trick. I rode 45F/50R tire pressure which was a few pounds too high (rode 40/45 at So. Cross). The 50/34 x 11/28 may have been enough if I had better traction but I definitely could have used a few more gears.
Glasses: dark tint was a problem with the shade on the roads and trials. Hard to see ruts and debris; yellow or clear next time.