From the words of McCluskey himself...
Dark. Cold. The alarm went off at 4:45a. Ugh. Ok. Let’s do this. I shuffle to the bathroom and try and not to wake the wife and kids and get dressed to head out to Williamsport, PA. Home of the Iron Cross Race, North America’s Original UltraCross. Not a Cyclo-cross race, not a mountain bike race, but somewhere in between with lots of hills, paved roads, gravel fire roads, singletrack, and a bit of rock climbing to kick you in the teeth. Add to this mix of terrain, a cold, steady autumn rain that continued all day, and it makes for an interesting mix of racing.
I stopped at the local Wawa for a coffee, breakfast sandwich and donuts (pre-race necessities) before getting on the road for the 2 ½ hour drive. As I neared Williamsport, the yellow, orange and brown mountains greeted me with white caps of fog.
Riders were getting ready in the parking lots. “How much” and “what to wear” was the big question of the day. Full rain pants? What kind of gloves? Glasses or no? If so, which lenses? Trivial decisions when it’s dry and sunny, critical in the rain and cold when you are gonna be riding 100k on all kinds of roads.
Once the usual pre-ride meeting of what to do, and what not to do, about 130 riders rolled out of town with a police escort to the official start at the base of Raccoon Mountain. The wet pavement gives way to leaf covered wet and muddy gravel. Up and up we go into the fog. “Climbing” is going to be the word of the day. Bombing down PA-44 at 40 miles an hour in the wet with cars was “fun”. A hard right turn at the base of the hill and we rode through some farmland then back up into the forest to the first rest stop around the 22 mile mark. It wasn’t until I left here I finally started to get into a groove and felt warmed up enough. The hardest parts were yet to come.
More climbing on the ATV trails and then it flattened out, into thick wet mud, with standing water ponds on the double track. No place to go but through. After several of these water crossings, the course turns right at a 90-degree angle, right into single track. Up. Up. Steeper. Up still. Steeper. Wheels slipping on the wet leaves and rocks. Time to get off and start pushing. This is not something I like to do, I’d rather ride. But that’s part of the challenge of this course.
Now I was at the “run-up”. A wall of thick moss-covered loose rocks going straight up to the heavens. But I knew the effort to shoulder the OPEN and make it up the hike-a-bike would be worth it. I could hear the sound of Angus Young’s guitar and smell of campfire. Then a yell of “YEAH!! WOO!! ALRIGHT!!”
With a raucous roar of enthusiasm, an unofficial stop at Larry’s Tavern” welcomed and cheered riders by passing out beers, pickle/vodka shots and chunks of grilled venison! With a slap on the back, they would let us know you know, you had another 4 miles down the “flat” gravel road to the next aid station. I made my way to the road, head down, venison and vodka fueled, I hammered to the next station. I grabbed the last of what I needed, wolfed down some PB&J’s and rode on. Just then the sky opened up and the rain came and wind came in sideways, pelting my face and pushing me side to side. What a race.
Now I was back at the top of the paved PA-44 road, ready to bomb down once more, this time banging a left at the bottom and and climbing one, more, hill. A wet paved climb then a detour onto a double track up the side of the hill. The final push to the finish line, an inflatable Stan’s No Tubes banner shoehorned in the woods. Nothing exciting, but it was a nice feeling to know I was done. Well, sorta. I had to ride back to town, but it was all downhill through a picturesque canyon cut from a fast flowing stream filled with pines and ferns.
I made it back to my car, soaked to the bone, but happy I did the race (ride) even though it wasn’t the most ideal conditions. After a long time getting out of my wet clothes, I packed up and headed over to The Brickyard Restaurant & Ale House for food and beer and the awards and finisher's gift, a soccer scarf. Great for those cold days coming soon here in the Mid-Atlantic.
The Iron Cross race is like any other, and it’s in a category all on its own. It will test your mental and physical abilities, but it will make you glad you did. I can’t wait until next year.