Wednesday, September 26, 2012

AUCXCS #4, Three Peaks USA

This past weekend I traveled down to Banner Elk, NC to do my third American Ultracross Championship Series race of the year, Three Peaks USA.  After doing eight hour singlespeed mountain bike races all summer, I was really looking forward to doing a shorter race on a bike with gears.  However, with Three Peaks being such a hard course, I knew this wasn't going to be an easy race for me, even though it was only half the distance of the races I've been doing recently.

When I did Three Peaks last year, I used my Salsa Mamasita 29er MTB and finished second overall.  I decided to use a Salsa Vaya Ti this year for the race after I heard the course was made faster and less technical.  I've been riding my Vaya since finishing-up the NUE Series and have really enjoyed the versatility of the bike.  I knew it would not be as fast on the technical sections of the course, but figured it would climb better than a MTB would.  And, with nearly 10,000 vertical feet of climbing at Three Peaks, I knew it would be important to use a bike that climbed well.

With a win in the 40+ age category at Southern Cross and a second place finish at the Hilly Billy ultracross races, my overall position was looking pretty good in the series.  If I could muster-up a win at Three Peaks, there was a chance that I could lock-up the overall 2012 masters series title.  But, I knew that doing so would be a difficult task with Garth Prosser riding so well right now.  I thought that maybe the use of a CX bike would give me a better advantage on the course because I knew Garth would be riding a 29er MTB.

It was interesting to see all the different types of bikes lined-up for the start of the race.  There were full-on CX racing bikes, disc brake equipped CX bikes, MTB's with fat tires and MTB's with CX style tires.  I was curious to see which bike selection would end-up winning the race.  I thought my disc brake, Stan's Notubes equipped Vaya had everything necessary to do a proper job of finishing the race fastest.

The race had a fast start and immediately began going up in elevation from the approximately 4000' base.  The climbing started gradually, but eventually got pretty steep as the course took the racers to the top of Beech Mountain at about 5500 feet.  With that much climbing, the race blew apart pretty quickly and by the time the course started descending back down the mountain, I found myself in the lead group of about six riders.  Of course, Garth was right with me in that group along with Charlie Storm, another fast masters rider.

I was happy with how I was riding and how my bike was performing, but it wasn't long after we all started climbing again that the lead pack started splitting-up.  Kerry Werner, the eventual overall race winner, was setting a super fast place and Garth was doing his best to hang with him.  I fell off their pace, but managed to take over the third spot in the race, while the rest of the lead group gave chase.  As we entered the most technical section of the course known as the Back 500 downhill section, Werner had created a significant gap over everyone else.  I was able to jam the descent pretty hard, which was pretty crazy thing to do on a CX bike, but also allowed for me to catch Garth by the time the course turned to pavement again.  I was pretty amazed at how well my Vaya performed on a downhill that could be considered somewhat technical even on a MTB.  I'm sure having my Notubes Crest wheels mounted up with 700x40 tires also had a lot to do with helping me ride that section pretty fast.

I tried hanging with Garth as long as I could as we climbed up the steepest sections of peak #2, but his legs and lower MTB gearing eventually got the best of me before we got to the top.  Eventually, the steep gravel roads leading to the top of peak #2 turned into a rocky technical climb.  I rode the first part of this rocky climb, but found my gearing to be a bit too high and that it was faster to run with a shoulder bike than it was to ride this section of the course.  I knew Garth was putting time on me here because he had the gearing to ride this part, but I still felt good about my race because there was nobody in view behind me. 

After cresting the summit of peak #2, I decided it would be a good idea to stop and take a leak, since it appeared as if I was already alone.  Of course, just as I stopped to do my business, Ezra Mullen, a fast local Lees McRae College rider caught me.  So, I immediately jumped back on my bike without doing anything to give chase.  I had already taken one wrong turn and I thought following a fast local guy would help get me to the finish without any other wrong turns.  Unfortunately, this did not hold true.  As Ezra and I did the long descent from peak #2, we took a turn down a gravel road and descended for a least a mile or two before we discovered the road was a dead end.  I would guess we lost at least 5-8 minutes by the time we climbed back onto the course.

Checkout this race highlight video from Thom Parsons for some great views of the race.
Watch more video of 2012 Three Peaks USA Ultra Cross on

During this time, we were caught by a couple of other riders and suddenly my prospects of a top three overall finish did not look too good with less than 15 miles remaining.   But, Ezra and I hammered out some of the rolling gravel climbs and descents leading to the base of the peak #3 climb and were able to get clear from the riders that had caught us.  By the time we completely descended to the bottom, I had put a gap over Ezra and I knew my finish would all depend on how hard I rode the final 8 mile climb to peak #3.  I hammered out the climb as hard as I could and by the top, had created a significant gap over my chasers, which I was able to hold until the finish for third place overall. 

In review, I was very happy with my bike selection because it felt like the fastest bike for me, even if the two riders finishing in front of me had MTB's.  It would have been nice to have had a little lower gearing on my bike, but I think the race was a lot more fun to do overall on a disc brake equipped CX bike than on a MTB. 

With my second place Three Peaks finish in the masters race and with Garth's first place finish, we are now tied for the series lead with our best three series finishes.  The series title will now come down to whoever rides fastest at Ironcross.  It sure is going to be a good battle!

Happy Trails, Gerry

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