Iron Cross, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Long

Iron Cross, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Long
(The Longest Cyclocross Race in America, a Nice Day on a Bike)
by Gunnar Shogren

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In 2002, Mike Kuhn, race promoter, coach and thinker, came up with the hare-brained idea that a race like the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross event over in England should happen here in the States, in his state, and close to his home. He brought this idle fancy to Mark Laser and Yellow Breeches Racing and it stewed for a bit. Sometime after that they decided that not only could they, but that they would make it happen. Mike had the light-bulb-over-the-head, YBR had the gross manpower and the community connections, a potent combination if ever there was one.

This is from Mike—

“In my hazy memory it all happened something like this:

1. Read Wilcockson book that has chapter about 3 Peaks*.

2. Thought we should do something like that here.

3. I was fast at the time so 100K of brutality in Michaux sounded ‘fun.’

4. Said something to Mark on a ride and he was all like, ‘Cool!’

5. A year or two later Mark said, ‘We’re doing it, get off your ass or get out of the way.’

6. It’s 7 years later, neither Mark or I ride anymore, coincidence? Yes, complete coincidence. But at least Iron Cross lives on!

Time to ban mountain bikes and bring back Pole Steeple!”

* From John Wilcockson’s World of Cycling:

The Three Peaks of the Craven Dales—Whernside, Ingleborough and Penyghent—long a tough 40K testing course for the fell walker started in 1954. In 1959 a 14-year-old Yorkshire schoolboy, Kevin Watson, decided that he would try and do it on his bicycle. The summer had been dry, he figured most of the unrideable sections would be doable and once he heard that another group of cyclists was planning on attempting it in October, he decided that September was the best time to be the first. It took him 6:45. Shortly after, the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross race began.Out of the 38 mile loop, approximately 34 is rideable. Some of the peaks are quite steep and long, so much so that for the early part of its history, the runners were still faster than the cyclists.

Also of note is, “Only competitors riding cyclo-cross bikes will be allowed to take part. Mountain bikes (or any other type of two-wheeled transport) are not permitted and anyone who appears (in the opinion of the race officials) to contravene this rule will be disqualified and/or prevented from taking part in the race.”

The course is now 61K (38 miles) with 1524m (5000ft) of climbing and the record stands at 2:52.22 for the men and 3:39.33 for the women (only since 1979 have they been able to race it).

Back at the Kuhn and Laser show, it was decided that Carlisle YMCA Camp Thompson, snuggled in Pine Grove State Park and Michaux State Forest, would be the perfect race venue and one of two beneficiaries, the other being the Blue Butterfly Fund, aiding families whose children have cancer.

Mike, Mark, and the YBR gang also wished to highlight the area’s iron-producing history, and with that in mind, Iron Cross was born.

Not your usual six-minute-lap CX event, but a now huge 62-mile loop with nearly 6,300ft. of climbing, covering roads, fire roads, dirt paths, a bit of sand, some nasty actual singletrack, the Spiral of Death/Death Spiral (mustn’t forget the SOD/DS), and one huge run-up.

To call the run-up a “run” is to do it a great disservice. A long run-up makes me think of a large and open power line, lush with greenery, sided by majestic trees, something you could actually jog up with your bike slung across your back, heck, maybe even have a barrier or two out there, just to remind you that it’s a CX race. But no, this aberration is nothing of the sort. It is a hike-a-bike from Hell. Difficult to walk up, let alone run or jog. More of a bike drag at some points, and boy is it long.

That first year, 2003, they had 73 participants, the course was 53 miles long and had 6000ft. of climbing, and the winner completed the course in 3:30.

In 2005, my not-yet-wife Betsy and I, already veterans of the CX scene in the Mid-Atlantic, came to Iron Cross Lite, the “normal” CX race held the day before Iron Cross. A fine time was had, very pretty venue, nice folks, good racing. Then as we were leaving for some race somewhere else we started seeing all these “others” coming in. They hadn’t raced yet, they were here for something else.

We knew, or thought we knew, what that something was, and we were determined to stay away from it. Iron Cross was, in our CX racer mindset, a quirky event that seemed like a nice idea, but was held too late in the CX season to seriously consider. Certainly a long race/ride like that would do nothing good to the legs and we wouldn’t want that would we? Cyclocross was about short and sharp efforts, it was about burning laps at some municipal park, cheering each other on, then moving on. Not riding all day looking at the leaves and riding/racing with folks on whatever bikes they had. Pee-shaw. We had yet to do our first 100-mile mountain bike race either. What two hacks we were.

As for the Spiral of Death/Death Spiral—no one is quite sure of the history of this beast either. Mark swears that he discussed a Corkscrew of Craziness over beers in 2002. But Kelly Cline had a Pinwheel of Peril at a CX race in 2003, not a huge affair, similar but not as large as the monstrosity that you see pictured here. As far as he remembers, it just kind of happened. Hard to tell where inspiration comes from.

The Death Spiral, which Mike coined, was first put in use at Iron Cross Lite in 2005 and then just for kicks, and because it seemed like a grand idea, they also had the beginning of Iron Cross go ’round and ’round in it at the start the very next day. This is a beast and truly a site to behold, be it from within, from the sidelines, or from above.

Forward to 2008.

Traveling to all the MAC races from West Virginia had gotten old, we had had enough traveling doing four NUE 100 Milers that year; with that, and a little nudge and shove from Mark, we were signed up and ready for the Iron Cross weekend. We even goaded a few others to come along with us, and thus Snuggle Fest was born.

Once we got that little IC Lite out of the way, we started scouting out the Camp, looking for just the right place to call home for the weekend. The newer bunks had more room, were better insulated, nicer looking, but they were away from the action, a small team couldn’t take over one, and we really wanted to be right there. So we picked Erie, one of the originals that lined the field and were a mere four feet from the course ribbon. Very “open,” screens on the front windows and doors, one light bulb, and cozy for four plus a dog, perfect! Then we commenced the loading up of the bunk and making camp. Blankets, sleeping bags, camp stove, food, beverages, and doggie.

Going to sleep a little chilly, waking up a little chilly. Bundled up and moving about as folks start streaming in. A little fog rolling about, no breeze, a calm field, and leaves all in their glory, and all this about to change, for about 10 minutes, then it will return to calm until the racers start rolling in about four hours later. Hard to imagine.

What’s really amazing at the start is the signature Death Spiral. Hard to explain the thing to folks, let alone trying to describe almost 300 folks in it at one time. A constant stream of going in ’round and ’round, turning hard, and going back out. Minutes of this. People everywhere, hooting and a’hollerin’, and it just keeps going on and on, and then it’s empty. The tail has followed the head out and onward down the road, the cacophony has ended.

Everything’s fast and furious as would be expected in a race with heaps of anxious folks and the morning’s crispness turning to warmth. Big groups rolling down the dirt roads, things spreading out as the terrain goes up a bit, coming together for a while after that, ebb and flow. Then shattering once again as you head down the slightly out of place Lippencote Trail, a true gnarly piece of trail. Some folks crawling down, some folks bombing then inevitably flatting, most just getting down it.

More groups forming, folks riding with others, checking out the flea markets, the leaves, the hills, and what’s that car doing crashed into that tent on Rt. 30?

Soon enough you take a left and a right and then the riding is over for a bit, you’re now at Wigwam Hill, the “run-up,” and for the next 25 minutes or so you’ll be just wanting it to be over. Scrambing to find a foothold, trying to find a comfy place for the bike on your back, or dragging your bike up behind or beside you as you ascend and keep on ascending. It is more heinous that can be described, I think.

So then you ride more dirt roads in beautiful Michaux State Forest, climb up, screech down, see the turns right before you need to, chat with folks too. There’s some more road in there and then it really goes up. Up, up, up and when you get to the top, it rolls up some more.

Then down some and I can’t even remember where it goes next.

Somewhere along there you head into some double-track trails, the rolling paceline becomes a distant memory, cross a few streams, and then go up a little. Then the little becomes a bit of a run-up, then if you have multiple gears you get to remount and climb out and onto a fire road again.

Now it’s pretty much more blessed fire roads, a mad dash down the hill, eventually onto Rt. 233. A few miles on this piece of tarmac, take a left at the T, a mile or so and lo-and-behold you’re heading up a little road to enter Camp Thompson, right where you started!

Now you’re reminded that it indeed has been and still is a CX race, and so along the tape you go, through a sand trap perhaps, a few corners and then finally, after all this time… one set of barriers and the finish line on the other side!

Get congratulated, grab your socks (you only get the socks if you finish), and it’s time to let all that happened soak into your mind.

After doing our first Iron Cross, we were certainly hooked, and beyond not doing that much the following week, no worse for the wear. How could that be?, and well, it didn’t matter anyway, we were hooked. Talking about definite plans for next year, thinking of what doing 3 Peaks would be like, corresponding with others about it, really having fond memories of the weekend. Ready for more!

Pretty much the same thing was planned and executed in 2009. We signed up early, knew that the weather was going to be great (still not sure how they pull that off, seven years running) and we and they had the same great Dog and Pony Show.

Not saying in the slightest that it gets boring, or that any of it is trivial. Iron Cross is simply a great, rootsy, weekend of fun on a bike.

In chatting with someone a few weeks afterwards, he commented, “You know you get to that point in a 100-miler where you just want it to end? The end is getting close, you know you’re going to make it, but it’s just not fun anymore. That never happens at Iron Cross does it?” I had to agree with him, and everyone I talk to agrees too. You just don’t want it to end.

What a fine testament to an event: you never want it to end.

Winners? There are folks that finish in front of others, and yes I sprint and try hard if there are folks around me once we come back to the camp, but we’re all winners, anyone that has done Iron Cross knows this.

Doable enough that even a small Gorilla can do it (well really Abe only did the IC Lite Kids race, but don’t tell him, otherwise he tends to rant and then fling poo).

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Someone should write a book… Not it!

A nice day on a bike indeed.

Now to whom do I owe socks?