August 27, 2011
Devil's Backbone Mountain Cross
Conditions: In the midst of a tropical storm
After a week of work travel in 109 degree temperatures and returning Friday night to face the possibility of Hurricane Irene and the cancellation of the D&Q Summer Sizzler, I decided to get up at 3am on Saturday morning to drive to Wintergreen Resort to race/ride in the Devil's Backbone Mountain Cross as preparation for next week's Shenandoah 100 mountain bike race. I used to live near the location of the race while I was in law school and had ridden some of the roads the race was going over, including one of my favorite climbs up Irish Creek Gap. I have a vivid recollection of riding one of the roads (Cub Creek) while hallucinating from dehydration during a 120+ mile ride in 100+ degree heat. I wanted to see if the road was as bad as I remembered (it was worse).
Per the race description, "Any bike will do. A Cyclocross bike is the best tool for the job. However, a road bike will also work, but mount up some puncture resistant tires! Mountain bikes would be comfortable, especially on the dirt road descents. Whatever bike you choose make sure you have some low gears for the 6600 ft. of elevation gain and some 17+% grades!" I figured I'd give my Scott Addict RC a try for this ride as it was 50% dirt roads, 50% paved roads and mounted some 23c Continental Gator Hardshell tires with Spin Skin tire liners and tubes filled with Stan's sealant and put on a 12x25 cassette. Definitely not the right equipment for the job...
After a long, early morning drive, I arrived to fairly good weather. But, as soon as I got out on the bike, it started to pour and rained off and on for the rest of the day. On the first climb of the day, an 11% wall, I felt the 1,000 miles of driving I did the week before and had to fall off the pace of the 12-15 person lead groups. After a hair-raising descent on the first dirt road section (two wheel drifts through each of the corners on loose gravel), and a fast climb up the second dirt road section, I caught back on to the lead group just as we were about to turn onto a 9-12 mile dirt road climb.
My narrow tires dug into the dirt on the roads and I couldn't follow the pace of the leaders again and settled into a comfortable tempo pace for the climb as it got steeper and rockier. At one point, I thought I took a wrong turn as the road turned into a narrow, rocky jeep track that I could barely climb with my road gearing (39x25), but I didn't have much choice as I'd also forgotten to swap out my road shoes and pedals (waking at 3am isn't the best for remembering everything).
After a short section on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a well stocked rest-stop, I had a fast downhill on Irish Creek road and a never-ending climb up Nettle Creek and back onto the Parkway. for a stretch back to the rest-stop. By this point, Irene had kicked into full force, with strong winds and blinding rain. Tree limbs were falling on the road and I was hit on the head/back with one (another good reason to wear a helmet!).
I caught up with a few riders in front of me when I hit the rest-stop and teamed up with a fellow from the Haymarket team.
We flew down the dirt North Fork Road descent, hitting 35+ mph in the rain and mud, jumping over rocks and drifting through corners while passing other riders who had flatted or were taking the downhill at a safer (and more sane) pace.
I hit the final climb of the day, Cub Creek, where I'd had a meltdown 10 years ago while on a ride to escape law school. The ascent was every bit as bad as I remembered. Just before the start of the uphill, I fell off the pace of my two riding companions when I came around a blind corner, slid through 2-inch deep gravel, nearly hit a parked car and just I just got things straightened out to squeak by an oncoming truck.
With my heart in my throat, I hit the final climb. The road surface was soft due to the rain and I couldn't stand up (or get off and run because of my road shoes) and had to pedal while seated with a very low RPM (like at 25rpm). Thankfully my knees survived and I caught up to the two riders who were ascending just in front of me. I outsprinted them at the finish for 5th place for a satisfying finish and a good training day.
Jeremiah Bishop won the ride/race easily; it seems as if this was his last day of training before heading to Switzerland for the World Championships this week.
You can see my ride on Strava here (though I think my GPS was off - the total climbing was more like 6,600 feet):
While my bike choice was not the best for muddy roads and jeep trails (I really need to get a cross bike), the tire choice was awesome for flat prevention. A lot of riders got flats during this ride and the flat-resistant Continental tires, plus Stan's filled tubes and tire liners were indestructible and something I'll probably use for the rest of the fall and winter with a set of MKS fenders.