I decided to take off down to South Carolina after I heard about a stage race on dirt in the Hell Hole Swamp. The name sounded intriguing and challenging, so I was sold. The Hell Hole Gravel Grind Stage Race is a 3 day affair and probably one of the most affordable. A cross bike is recommended and I just happened to have one although I had never raced the bike, much less ridden it very much. I figured this would be as good a time as any to use it and see what this was all about. I’m a mountain biker through and through, but I like change and the opportunity to experience new things. Plus, this could only benefit my mountain bike racing and fitness.
I knew it would be flat and that road racing tactics would be employed. I figured I had picked up on enough tactics from watching the Tour de France for the last several years. I made my way down south and arrived Friday afternoon. I wanted to pre-ride the prologue course which was a 6 mile individual time trial. The course was flat dirt roads with potholes strategically placed like land mines along the way to keep you alert and focused. My time came and I sprinted off the line 30 seconds behind another racer. I flat-out sprinted for 6 miles on skinny tires that had an inkling of tread laced around them. I caught and passed a few riders and I huffed and puffed my way to the end. I was a bit light-headed and gasping for breath upon finishing. I ended up taking 2nd in the Mens Open 40 Division, not bad.
Stage 1 was a 63 mile course that started on Saturday morning. I lined up and took off, but was too far back in the pack to get on the lead group. I spent most of my day working with several guys as we chased the group for the entire stage. The course even though flat was challenging due to the gravel, sand and potholes a plenty. Drafting was indeed necessary if you wanted to have any chance of a fast time, much less a podium spot. As the race progressed my group dwindled down to just a few. One of the guys was in my division and I knew we would have to sprint it out. Once we hit the pavement for the last few hundred yards, I put the hammer down and took the sprint finish. I ended up placing 3rd on the stage by 1 second. The day was incredibly fast as we averaged 20 mph for 63 miles on gravel roads that had a mind of their own. Definitely different from mountain bike racing, but I was starting to like this cross bike thing.
Stage 2 was a 65 mile course that started on Sunday morning. This time I made sure I lined up near the front in order to get in on the lead group. I did and we started motoring out right away. Then all of a sudden the course veered into single track. I took a beating as I bounced across, into and over an octopus tangle of roots. I finally emerged from the darkness and back out onto a dirt-road. I was several hundred yards behind the group after getting knocked around on the single track. I knew that I was going to have to make an incredible effort to catch the group. I learned that once you separate from the group it is very difficult to get back on. I pushed myself deep to catch them and I did. Several riders had tagged on with me during the bridge and were thankful for my effort. It took me to the halfway point in the stage to recover from that effort. About the time I did, the group turned onto some roads that were overgrown with vegetation and such. For added measure every so often a downed tree would wake you back up as you either jumped it or made a quick exit over the handle bars. I was doing well and as the end neared, I realized the guy that got 2nd on stage 1 was in the group. I was going to get 2nd on this day if it was the last thing that I did. As we made the turn for the final shot to the finish, I mashed those pedals through the pavement and got the sprint for 2nd place. A hard day and well-earned.
In the end, I took 2nd on the Prologue, 3rd on Stage 1, 2nd on Stage 2 and 3rd in the GC. All in all the Hell Hole Gravel Grind Stage Race is a winner and I highly recommend it for those that are looking for something different and challenging. I met and made some new friends that I look forward to racing against in the future. It was a fun and incredibly fast paced race. I definitely have walked away with a new sense of tactics and how to use them on similar courses in the future. I have a new respect for road racers. The Hell Hole Race Management Team were very nice and helpful. I noticed lots of racers helping each other out by making others aware of potholes and obstacles. I will definitely race the cross bike again, it was fun. However, it is back to mountain biking. I have one more race in November, so it is time to remount upon the single speed.