This was the thirteenth year for Iron Cross. Some might want to lump it into the gravel event category, but that would be insulting. Ultra Cross might be a better term, even if the old Ultracross national series seems to have faded away. With something like 7000 feet of climbing in 64 miles, it wouldn’t be an easy pavement ride. But throw in a half-mile “run up” that averaged 28% grade, miles of forests roads with piles of rocks hidden under leaves, a few stretches of technical rocky singletrack, 50 mph descents, and a wintery mix of sleet and snow and you have a hard, hard day on the bike.
A sizable group of people thought this was a recipe for a good time, and 200 of them showed up for a 9:00 a.m. start in downtown Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Besides being well known as the home of Little League baseball, I also grew up there, so this was a bit of a homecoming for me.
Fall in Pennsylvania is as beautiful as anywhere on earth, and race photographer A.E. Landis captured the scene much better than my race-addled brain was able to handle. Check out his full gallery.
I wasn’t out there to mix it up at the front, and was lucky enough to run into BMC Trail Crew enduro guy Derek Bisset. We rode together for the first half of the race chatting about his new job as an engineer at Stan’s NoTubes, fixing old houses, and whether we should work to get in front of a group before we hit the singletrack. Once we reached the hardest climb in the race, I started to feel the effects of staying up until 3:00 a.m. with a high school friend. Derek swiftly pedaled away up the forest road as I dropped into my lowest gear and rode waves of nausea and cold sweats.
Take a good look at the picture above. That’s Derek in the red vest, me in the black vest (Saturn team kit dude is just a random). Normally you’d never see me leading Derek off road but, due to my dropper-post equipped mountain bike, I got a few chances to pass Mr Enduro in the rocky stuff, something that never happens when we are both on mountain bikes.
Some time after we finished the big fire road climb, we got to the “walk-up”. In a true cyclocross race, there is usually a short “run-up”, either a steep hill or a set of steps than can’t be ridden. This unrideable section was a classic East Coast hiking trail that ended with a scramble up a rock face that was steeper than it looks here.
At the top I got a high five from a guy in a mask and some beer from some guys in a van. That was more than OK.
It snowed on and off during the second half of the race. It was never enough to really do anything other than make the road and the riders wet, but it certainly didn’t feel great on some of the fast pavement descents, all of which seemed to be freshly paved.
I finished in just under six hours and was very, very glad to be in a downtown area that was ready with hot food and cold beers. I’ll be back next year. You should come. Here’s the website, where you can also get the full results.
I was expecting to have a review bike to ride, but after a lot of waiting for a ride than never made it to me, I scrambled the day before to create something suited for the race from stuff at hand.
The frame is a custom Black Cat I reviewed for out sister publication, Dirt Rag. It usually has at least 2.3 tires, a 120 mm suspension fork, and a singlespeed drivetrain. I swapped the tires to a WTB Nine Line 2.0 up front, and some equally-as-skinny Bontrager tire on the rear that seems to be out of production. I also when with a longer stem and the skinniest handlebar in my stash, which was still 730 mm wide. A single-ring drivetrain with a 30-tooth ring and 11-36 cassette was surprisingly good gearing for the event. I never had the energy to spin out the hard gear for long, and the low gear worked well for all the climbing. I’d probably opt for a double if I really wanted to race but for my “just in it to finish” fitness, this was fine.
I also tried out these Easton grips, something I wouldn’t normally comment on. I often deal with hand pain and numbness on rides, but can’t stand non-round or soft grips. These 33 mm diameter grips were plenty firm and seemed to give me more to hang onto than the typical 30 mm grips I usually prefer.
I once again skipped the lycra and felt comfortable the whole ride, unlike some people who suffered with the cold. Up top I started with a hooded Bontrager wool base layer. I never used the hood, but it was easier than carrying a hat just in case I needed it. Next up is a Giro Wind Guard wool-blend jersey. It has an odd waffle texture inside that seem to do an amazing job keeping this top comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and exertion levels. I topped it all off with a Giro Wind Vest that was small enough to tuck into a pocket if I got too hot.
Since none of my upper layers had any pockets, I wore a pair of Specialized SWAT bib shorts with three rear jersey-style pockets and a pair of small pockets in the front of each leg. The pants are Gore ALP-X Windstopper pants. These Gore pants would have been too hot if I was really racing, but they were supremely comfortable and were appreciated every time I was ripping downhill and not shivering.
Socks are Bontrager mid-weight wool, and shoes are Giro’s excellent Alpinenduro. Waterproof with light insulation and a Vibram sole, the Alpineduro kept my feet warm and dry even when taking bad passing lines though standing water. I reviewed them here and stand by that review 100 precent. Bern passed me a new FL-1 helmet to test at Interbike and so far, so good. Stay tuned for a full review in the first issue of 2016.
This last picture features Mike Kuhn. He promotes this race, and a host of others, including the Trans-Sylvania Epic mountain bike stage race. He does a good job but, even so, when you put on a race as hard as this one, I imagine you have to have his apparent look of “are these people mad at me for what they just paid to put themselves though or are they going to thank me?” pretty often. I heard few complaints, so I bet this was another instance where the look turned into a relieved smile.Tweet Print