Race report by Deniece Davis
I was on spring break with my daughter in Helen, Georgia the full week before the race and did not have any plans of racing when I left for vacation, but I did have both my MTB and road bike in the van so I managed to ride a lot during my week in Helen. There was an intermediate 8-mile single track MTB trail (with plenty of climbing) just across the street from where we were staying in downtown Helen, and I took full advantage of slipping out in the early morning to get my shred on. I also was very fortunate to be able to join Team Brilliant Advice (Kim’s Fiancée’s team) and Team Handmade (juniors) from Cincinnati on one of their road season training camp week rides. We rode 55 miles, over 3 big climbs, for a total of ~5000ft of climbing and I had a blast…it was awesome being able to get a fun group ride in during vacation.
As the week’s end approached it occurred to me that many ladies from our team would be racing on Sunday and I would be missing out…so I had the bright idea of checking around Tennessee for races that I could possibly pick up on my way home. My daughter had plans to visit a friend in Chattanooga, over the weekend, on the way back and this could be a great way for me to kill some time while they hung out. Originally looking for a MTB race I stumbled upon Hell of the South Race put on by Shake-n-Bake Racing and I was immediately intrigued. With a name like that…how could you not be interested? After more research, I found out that this will be the last year for the race (which started in 2010) and it’s described as “a unique racing experience in middle Tennessee, a race that had a bit of the feel of a spring classic like the tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.” There is a “Race Bible” with loads of helpful information, including details about the course/roads such as, “The course consists of chip/seal roads, un-maintained rural roads, roads with questionable pavement and unfortunately a few roads with excellent pavement. Please use extreme caution on the downhills while we have tried to mark the largest potholes, we just can’t mark them all. Please watch for patches of deep gravel as well.”
At this point I’m still very interested, but contemplating how this will fit in with my previous road race experiences. Pretty much my only experience riding my road bike on gravel is Curtis Creek, during training camp in North Carolina a couple weeks prior, and that definitely was some flavor of hell. I’m thinking if that didn’t prepare me…then nothing will. Plus this race sounds like an awesome challenge so I registered.
The location of the race was in a rural setting very similar to OSRS races I did last year. It wasn’t on my direct path home from Chattanooga but it was only 1 hour out of our way. My daughter was very supportive and agreeable to making the stop, but, after I showed her the race predictor had me coming in second, she very sternly informed me that I had to get first since we had gone to all this bother to get here. We left Chattanooga with intention of arriving about 1 hour before the race start, however, I didn’t take the time change into account, so now we are arriving 2 hours pre-race…this is just more time my daughter has to wait around while mom engages in crazy bike stuff. I really have to get first place now. I made a decision to not pre-drive the course despite having time…this proved to be a good choice given the road conditions. Seeing the roads in advance would have likely given me anxiety and also it would have been very uncomfortable driving that course with another race in progress.
The 2 hours fly by quickly and it’s race time. There are 14 ladies at the start, including 2 juniors. The field is comprised of mainly two teams, Taco Mamacita and Nashville Local Cycling, with Taco Mamacita being the more dominate team. We are given some great tips about the road conditions and informed two cyclists left the race by ambulance earlier in the day with mention of the sections where they crashed, which included a well-marked pothole (that was currently covered in shade) and a washout in gravel on a sharp downhill turn. This was information that I found to be very valuable during the race given I had not pre-ridden the course.
The course was a 17 mile loop with the finish being at the top of the steepest climb. We will ride one full lap and then find the finish line about 10 miles past the start on our second lap. The pace was much slower than I expected initially, several times being slowed by a couple riders from Team Mamacita. I became restless and I found myself floating to the front pushing it up but then I dropped back after I reminded myself I hadn’t ridden the course and had no teammates. The pack remained mostly intact for the first 10 miles of rollers but was shattered when we hit Snake Creek Road climb and now I saw the finishing line for the first time. Snake Creek Road was basically a one lane gravel covered road with some patches of decaying pavement and gradients of slightly over 12% in sections. After we passed over the climb there was a nasty descent with no improvement in road conditions.
“We are given some great tips about the road conditions and informed two cyclists left the race by ambulance earlier in the day with mention of the sections where they crashed, which included a well-marked pothole (that was currently covered in shade) and a washout in gravel on a sharp downhill turn.”
Once we completed the descent we eventually came back onto smoother roads and one lady announced that there were only 7 of us left. The ladies previous controlling the pace, from Team Mamacita, organized the pack into a rotating paceline which we continued for the next 10 miles. I believe our effort here was to ensure the other riders we dropped on the climb would not catch up. The pace was relatively high and we dropped one rider leaving 6 of us, including 1 junior. This was my first time being in a solid rotating paceline during a race and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also took advantage of this time to size up my competition. As we were continuously passing each other I took note of who was breathing hard on roller/climbs and comfort level of riders on less than ideal road conditions. My plan was to find the one who would attack on the final climb and follow.
At this point, we are nearing Snake Creek Road again for the final climb to the finish line and I take notice one particular rider, who hadn’t previously spent much time in the front of the pack, starting to edge her way up. I watch her closely noting that she seems less winded and somewhat excited. I decide she’s the one. We are now on the climb, the rotating paceline stops, and we are mostly formed into a single line. I am second in line watching for an attack when she comes up beside the front rider and I grab her wheel. They climb steadily side by side and now I know for certain she’s the one. We pass the first finish line marker and the pace is very high for the grade and she is starting to pull ahead of the pack. I stay on her wheel and by the second finish marker it sounds like we have dropped the others then I hear some of them calling her name to encourage her on. There is a sharp hairpin left turn just before the home stretch to the finish. She swings out wide to take the outside line. I immediately recognize this as a skill that I have learned in mountain biking to help ease the pain and avoid having to stop or clip out when taking a steep turn. I realize this is my chance to take the lead. I don’t follow her line. Instead, I take a tight inside line and power myself straight up into the middle of the road and now I’m a full bike length ahead of her. I hear her struggling as she realizes what I’ve done.
There are excessive tire noises in gravel coming from behind me and finally I hear what sounds like a rider clipping out and/or falling gently. I don’t look back. I’m so close but in great pain. I push on nearing the finish line but I start to hear heavy breathing so I know the others are coming. I think of my daughter telling me I have to get first and imagine how disappointed she will be if I have to tell her how I got caught at the finish. So I dig…I dig deep and I pass the line managing to keep the other riders slightly out of my view. I circle back up to the finish and find the others laughing and teasing her about gracefully she managed her mechanical. Her chain is dropped to the inside of her front rings which leads me to think she attempted to shift her rear derailleur to an easier gear but touched her front instead. Then we congratulate each other and make jokes about how our Garmins asked us if we wanted to install an update in the middle of the race. The six of us cool down riding the 7 miles back to the start in conversation.