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Iron Cross: 100km of mountain bikes versus cyclo-crossers

Pennsylvania’s annual NoTubes’ Iron Cross is the original Ultracross race: a 63-mile bash around the back country on trails and forest roads, open to cyclocross bikes and mountain bikes. This year’s edition turned into a drops versus flats show-down, as Mike Cushionbury relates.

Under a large but ultimately unrealized threat of rainy, hypothermic conditions the 10th annual edition of Pennsylvania’s NoTubes’ Iron Cross treated riders to 63 miles and 6,500 feet of climbing with crisp, cloudy skies and perfectly tacky trail conditions in and around the scenic Pine Grove State Park in the Michaux State Forest.

Pflug and Prosser engaged in a day long battle for Iron Cross and the American UltraCross Series supremacy. They are shown here on the WigWam run-up.

In the Open Men’s category reigning USA Cycling Elite Criterium National Champion Adam Farabaugh ( Pro Cycling Team), a five-time Iron Cross competitor, took the win in a close battle while newly crowned NUE series champion Cheryl Sornson of Team CF controlled the Open Women’s race from start to finish.

Riders staged in front of the picturesque Central PA Conservancy’s Iron Master Mansion and were promptly released at 9am onto a new prologue loop around the mansion grounds before setting out on course to face the day’s first big challenge: a KOM up the Shippensburg Rd climb.

Race winner and ‘cross bike rider Farabaugh established an insurmountable lead on the Hogshead Rd climb.

When riders crested the top the selections were made. For the men, a four rider group containing KOM winner Farabaugh, local rider Aaron Snyder (Scott Bicycles), eventual Master’s class champion Garth Prosser (Specialized) and Gerry Pflug (Salsa Cycles/NoTubes/Top Gear) had already established that one of them would be the overall winner.

Trailing close was women’s QOM winner Sornson. Though she lost contact with the lead bunch mid-way up Shippensburg she had already gained a commanding and ultimately insurmountable lead ahead of eventual second place, 2009 winner Selene Yeager, also of Team CF.

When the lead bunch emerged from the fast, rocky and technical Lippencote downhill following the KOM Pflug, riding a hardtail mountain bike, carried just over a minute on Prosser with Snyder trailing, both riders also on mountain bikes. Farabaugh, aboard a cyclocross bike was now two minutes in arrears. Prosser chased all the way to the ugly Wigwam hike-a-bike and then soon made contact with Pflug while both Snyder and Farabaugh appeared content to gradually make forward progress while the two Master class racers crossed swords for the lead.

Despite choosing to ride a mountain bike, NUE Series Champ and Team CF’s Cheryl Sornson was able to hold onto the lead group long enough to cement the win in the women’s race.

Just over Wigwam Snyder gapped Farabaugh and then reeled in Prosser and Pflug on the Fegly doubletrack climb to make it a group of three.

By this point Farabaugh was about 20 seconds back but once the they hit the Thompson Hollow Road downhill Farabaugh, using his four years of trail knowledge, pinned it at close to 50mph on the gravel road descent with numerous off camber turns to latch back on to the lead trio before the next flat and fast pavement section. A crucial move since being caught out there could spell the end to his solo chase. And it was at this point forward that bike selection played a role in race tactics for the overall win.

Mountain bikes versus crossers

A hot debate in Ultracross is “mountain bike versus l’ncross bike,” the latter being the accepted norm. Even though the “cross” in Ultracross is cyclocrosss, mountain bikes are a legal and accepted weapon of choice in any Ultracross race. As such, Farabaugh rode a cyclocross bike as per Ultracross tradition while Snyder, Prosser and Pflug were on ultra-light hardtail mountain bikes with narrow tires, something they intended to use as an advantage on the final log-strewn singletrack section before the last climb of the day.

Three of the four of us were on mountain bikes. I told Garth if we can stay close (on Hoggshead) we can catch him in the singletrack,” said Snyder.

When they exited the fast country road that rolls through the Cumberland Valley to checkpoint 3 as a group it was time to begin the arduous task of topping the 4.1-mile Hogshead-to-Woodrow dirt road climb. As Farabaugh upped the pace on his ‘cross bike he was able to open a gap on Snyder and Prosser while Pflug faded under the pressure to drop about 30 seconds back.

Team CF’s Selene Yeager rode her ‘cross bike to a strong second

Farabaugh’s expected bike handicap in the technical singletrack never materialized. He exited the section leading and then attacked up the final, leg crushing grass meadow climb to Larry’s Tavern, which then spilled riders onto the last few miles of descending to the finish. Snyder began to have cramping issues.

I cramped up so bad I had to stop and Garth went by,” he said. “I caught back up but cramped again and that was that.”

Being the only rider of the four on a proper ‘cross bike, Farabaugh admitted to being a little concerned when they went into the last miles of the race. “There was a lot of singletrack in the last hour and those guys can really ride a mountain bike,” he said. “I knew I had to get as much of a gap as I could over the top of Hogshead and once I did that I just had to try and keep increasing it.”

Larry’s Tavern is a popular spot for a final thirst quencher and a little bit of celebration with three miles left in Iron Cross.

According to Snyder, the chasers where a little impressed. “Adam was holding his own for sure. I kept expecting to see him around every turn,” he said.

Farabaugh simply remained composed. “I managed to extend my lead in the singletrack even with being pretty tired at that point. I knew though once I was at the top of the last run up (to Larry’s Tavern) I had it in the bag and none of them would be able to match me on the fireroad and paved descent to the finish.”

With Prosser now securely in second overall (and first for the Master’s) a cramping Snyder was forced to hold off a challenging Pflug to take third.

I really wanted to beat Gerry today,” said a pleased Prosser of his commanding ride. “I don’t like riding behind people so I wanted to stay at the front.”

In single-speed action, the ultra-high cadence of Austin Horse propelled him to the win over Roger Masse (Trek Racing) and Thick Bike’s William Westover. Though the class favorite was Stan’s NoTubes road and cyclocross pro Stephen Kincaid, a series of issues including a flat tire and a four mile detour off course relegated him to a hard fought fourth place.

While mountain bikes continue to make their presence know at Iron Cross, promoter Mike Kuhn is quick to point out that this is Ultracross, not a mountain bike race and once again, just like it should be in any style of ‘cross racing, a proper cyclocross bike won the day.

More information about Iron Cross and the growing sport of Ultracross can be found on the “Iron Cross Race” Facebook page and at

The American UltraCross Series Master’s Podium


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