Readers Write: Coal Cracker Classic race report

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By Jacob Seibel

Rows of endurance racers straddled over their mountain bikes at 9 a.m. Sunday, September 11, in sleek spandex uniforms ready to start. In the middle of the crowd of racers was a man in a one-piece, lime green fairy outfit and a ruffled, glittery tutu that hung down to his knees. Instead of a hydration pack or a kit on his back, like most racers had on, he wore tiny purple wings held on with elastic straps.

Ten feet into the race, the fairy’s chain snapped, sending him rolling onto the street. He picked up his broken chain and rolled his bike off to the side, flipped the bike upside-down and began adding a new link to the chain. The next wave of racers cracked jokes from the starting line about sprinkling pixy dust over the chain, and the tooth fairy—as racers began calling him—laughed along. By the time the tooth fairy fixed his chain, all the other levels of endurance racers were gone. “I’m gonna run them down!” he shouted through a handlebar mustache and hopped on his bike. The Reading Anthracite Coal Cracker Classic (CCC) mountain bike race was officially underway.

The CCC was held at Bungalow Park in the outskirts of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, a coal region around 90 miles north of Philadelphia. It is part of the Mid-Atlantic Super Series, one of the largest regional mountain bike series. The turnout was higher than any since mountain bikers began racing here around 10 years ago; a total of 258 cyclists of all skill levels, both local and from as far as Virginia and Florida, participated in the event.

What attracted racers most were the miles of new track added to the course. Beginner racers rode the 7.5 mile lower loop, part of the track Jama Bikes ran races on in past years. Predominantly a single-track course, thickets of mountain laurel and birch trees often line the narrow trails. The sport class raced two laps on the lower loop; the beginners raced one.

In addition to the lower loop, nearly 12 miles of new track, combined with enduro motorcycle trials—something which the coal region is known for—and other existing trails, was saved for expert and endurance racers, creating what was referred to as the mammoth loop, which is nearly 20 miles.

One berm in the expert course many racers deemed impossible, one racer referring to it as “Dean Leone shit,” a locally respected, high caliber mountain bike rider, who helped build the addition of the expert course.

“I just dug [the berm] on Saturday,” Leone said. “It’s not that far up from the water tank. It was really dangerous; I think most people walked it. It’s a right-hand berm that chutes you right into a fall line, straight down, so if you make the turn, you immediately drop.”

Endurance racers had a rough start—especially if one had on a tutu; the tooth fairy didn’t place—because some dirt bag, as race organizer Richard Chwastiak said, went around the course moving tape and destroying signs. Many racers got lost. Organizers fixed the problem by having those who got off course start over another lap and configured their times together. The expert class’s start was delayed a half hour until new tape and markers were put up.

The variety of terrain ranges from sharp curves and flowing chutes to rock gardens and drop-offs. Leone said Chwastiak received several complaints about the course’s difficulty. Twenty-seven of 52 endurance racers dropped out before reaching the nearly 40 miles to the finish line. Leone added, however, that many people in the expert and endurance classes should have been in a lower level.

“The course was a lot of fun,” Brandon Draugelis said, who won the Elite Men Open class with a time of 1:48. “I did a lot of riding in the Jim Thorpe area. The course was pretty similar to the trails around there: steep and rocky and generally fun.” Draugelis rides for Team CF (Cystic Fibrosis, based out of Philadelphia).

“It was a crazy race,” said Topher Valenti, a rider for Bikesport. “This is a mixed one. It was love or hate. It seemed like there were a lot of people who were either into it or not. There are a lot of races on a little bit more of an even keel; this one was all over. You had to get off your bike a lot, so you would get on a few pedals and get off, get on a few pedals and get off. Some people wanted to ride, you know? It’s a bike race, so you want to not run. But if they were all the same, well, they’d be all the same.”

“The beginning of the race was challenging,” one expert racer said, “because it was all uphill. It felt like forever. Honestly, I wouldn’t come back here.”

“There’s a really fun section after the hike-a-bike stuff,” another expert racer added, “real swoopy fast.”

Two weeks ago, Hurricane Irene passed through Tamaqua. It also rained almost every day until the race on Sunday. Come race time, gray clouds blanketed the sky; several times it started to drizzle, but stopped. Other than some mud, however, Matthew Bilharz, rider for Bikesport, said the rain was hardly a factor.

Nicholas Shaffer, another rider for Bikesport, said that on some of the hike-a-bike sections he could see parts that were washed out. “Trust me, I walked up really slow,” he said, “but it wasn’t anything too crazy.”

“The first 10 miles were tough,” Bilharz said. “There was a lot of climbing, got the heart rate up at first. Then, you got past the first-aid station there, and I thought it was pretty good after that. The last four miles or so, six miles or so, was mostly downhill, not a lot of climbing or anything, some good rock sections, some nice downhill chutes, a nice double-track in the middle—get some speed to get some miles in and a good single-track in-between. I enjoyed it. I never did this course before, so I didn’t know what to expect on one lap. It was a pretty close race.”

Full results of the race are posted on




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