My buddy Sean convinced me that it would be a great idea to hit up this race in pre-season to get tuned up and I ended up having an awesome ride.  There was a lot of chatter before the race as to whether you should ride a CX or XC bike.  Since I had been spending so much time on the SuperX over the nasty months while rebuilding my Niner I made the easy decision to ride the cross bike.  One change I made before heading up to the race was swapping the cassette from a 11-25 to a 11-28 to help deal with the two big climbs on the course.  I didn't have time to do it myself so I took it up to Rex at the Bike Rack.  He did an awesome job swapping it on a tuning the bike up.

Bikes loaded up and ready to roll.
I drove up to Birmingham on Friday morning to meet up with Sean to make the trip up to Dahlonega.  We went a grabbed some lunch at V.Richards, ran to the airport to grab the rental and hit the road.  We were hoping to make it to Johhny B's for packet pick up but ended up getting there about 30 minutes late.  Sean did not drive fast enough.  We ended up grabbing a beer and chatting it up with a couple of guys that had pre-ridden the course that day.  Everyone was a little worried about the conditions due to the sneauxpocalypse the week before in Atlanta but it sounded like all of the snow had melted and everything was draining well.

Since I have never been to the area before I just searched for the closest Hilton property to the Montaluce Winery where the race was being held which ended up being a Hampton Inn in Helen, GA.  This town ended up being quite a cute little bavarian town on the Chattahoochee river and the hotel had a really nice run-up to the front entrance.  Shoulder bike and run.  Packed gear into the room, laid out clothes and filled bottles for the race and hit the hay.

Since I've never done this race or one like it I of course slept like crap.  Woke up around 6am and tried to be really quiet while I started my breakfast consisting of:
  • About a cup of super awesome apple cinnamon oatmeal.  Wendi and I had been cooking this crockpot oatmeal for a couple of weeks now and it is incredible.  Recipe here.
  • About a cup of 0% greek yogurt with raspberries and blackberries.  Magic on the belly.
  • 200cal serving of Tailwind with ~20oz of water to preload a little sodium.
Sweet shirt!
Fueled up we packed back up and headed to Montaluce early to there for packet pickup with a quick stop at Dunkin Donuts for an espresso.  At the start/finish there was a big white tent where packet pickup was.  Standard procedure of signing your life away and a bag of schwag.  Turns out Sean loves banana hammer gel.  The race start was a 10am so we ended up having a whole lot of time to mill around and chat with folks before the start.  30 minutes before start I got geared up and pockets packed.  There was a lot of talk about the weather and what people were going to wear on the bike or pack with them.  Start temp ended up being around 45F so I just threw on arm warmers, medium gloves, toe covers, winter cap and a vest.  Initially I was thinking about wearing a baselayer but thankfully decided against it.  I did pack an extra pair of socks and shorty gloves in a ziplock to throw in a pocket.  All packed up I downed 12oz of beet/carrot/ginger juice and headed towards the lineup.

Looking at past year's races I estimated that it would take me about 4 hours to complete the ~50 mile course.  I have been using Tailwind as my exclusive on bike fuel for the past couple of months so for this race I had two bottles mixed to 200cal/hr and three ziplocks for reloads at the aid station.  I threw a Kind bar in my pocket as well just in case I felt the need for something solid.

There were about 250 riders lined up ready for a mass start.  I settled somewhere in the middle of the pack and got some music going to settle my nerves.  The start was called and it was a mad rush down the road for about a half mile until we got onto the CX course.  It wasn't all that technical but there was a lot of traffic that got in the way.  Off the cross course we were immediately spit onto the gravel.  I knew from reading previous ride reports and looking at Strava segments that the ride essentially was two big climbs on the same mountain.  I failed to tape a cut sheet on my bike so I really had no idea how far I had to go to the summit.

The first 10 miles wasn't all that tough....some rollers and a great opportunity to warm up.  Did I do this?  Of course not....with all of the traffic at the beginning of the course I really got my HR up fast into the top end of Z4 and never managed to recover.  Right around mile 9 started the infamous Winding Stair climb.  The main part of the climb is around 3.5-4 miles and it doesn't stop for any breaks.  Average grade over the climb is close to 10% and the last half mile or so is over 15%....on gravel.  The last 300 or so yards I was forced off my bike to hike up the hill.  Seeing the aid station over the top of the crest was a welcome sight.  I refilled a bottle, stripped my vest and swapped gloves.  Sean showed up right behind me and we shared a bottle of coconut water.  I spent way too much time at this first aid station but it allowed me to recover a bit from the first effort.

Trying to recover

Photo credit:
Snowy Mountain Photography
Back on the bike I headed up a last little pitch then down the first descent.  The roads were in pretty good shape but there were some potholes that snuck up on me that I had to hop over.  I had no problems on this descent on the CX bike.  There were some sections I could have probably taken faster on a MTB but overall not bad.  The descent ended on a paved road which was a nice section to recover on for a few miles before linking back up with the next gravel road.

The second ascent was much more manageable and an absolutely beautiful ride following streams and linking together campsites.  The roads on this backhalf of the course were a little more washed out and squishy from the recent weather but still super rideable.  The second summit was at mile 33 which put us back at the same aid station just in time to refill both of my bottles.  As soon as I was topped off I got back in the saddle for the final descent.

Fast descent!

Photo credit:
Donna Garcia
The descent started with a couple of downhill rollers with switchbacks.  No problem.  Mile 40 was where it got a little sketchy at the Cooper Gap descent.  The grade was around -10% between the quickly sweeping switchbacks and the road was complete shit.  The canti brakes on the CX bike really started killing my hands on this tough 3 mile drop.  This was the the only segment during the race where I wish I had a MTB.  Brutal.  The bottom of the descent spit us back out onto asphalt for a nice 6 mile spin back to the winery.  Once at the winery I knew there was another section of a CX course waiting so I really tried to conserve some energy but it felt really good to hammer down on the road.

Coming into cross course was a massive run-up.  I passed on the Miller High Life hand-up, shouldered my bike and hiked.  There were a couple of guys stopped halfway up working cramps out of their legs.  Thankfully not this guy.  Powered up the climb and back on the bike.  The rest of the CX course was pretty tame with the exception of a creek that I dismounted for and hopped over.  Couple more climbs and then through the finish feeling pretty good.  Grabbed a beer and burrito and chatted it up with some guys I rode along with.  I ended up finishing in 4:23:47 (151st overall / 55th in mens open) below my goal of a 4:30 finish.  Next year I hope to finish under 4 hours which in think is doable if I get stronger and spent less time at aid stations.  Full results HERE.  Before this race I had always had a lack of confidence on gravel which I feel like I am fully cured.  During the race I felt like I wished I had gone with an 11-32 cassette but now I am thinking I just need to get stronger.  There were very few times where more cogs would have helped.  Nutrition was adequate but I am going to experiment with upping my dosing 300cal per hour on these longer, harder efforts.  Liquid only is the way to go for me.  No need for solid foods.

Sean and I hung around for a bit then packed up and headed back to Birmingham.  He was determined to find a Taco Bell to have a celebratory dinner and we finally did in Tuscaloosa (I think).  It was the longest wait I have ever had at a fast food restaurant but I think it was well worth it.  I decided to hang out in Birmingham for the night rather than continuing on to Jackson.  We got cleaned up and back on our bikes to head to Trim Tab Brewery for a few pints.  These guys are making some awesome beer and their tasting room is a pretty swanky place to hang out.

Here's to a great 2014.

Ride on.

Click here to see my Strava activity for this ride.