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Sunday, April 16, 2000 -- Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA
Ironmasters Classic
Story and photos by Matt Marcus

[Details] [Coverage]
Results: [Exp] [by Class] [Sport] [by Class] [Beg] [by Class]
Pictures: [Set 1] [Set 2] [Set 3] [Set 4] [Set 5]

Ironmasters Classic
A great day for a ride on the ridge
Despite dire predictions of cold and rain by the weather prognosticators, race day sunshine burned off the fog on Piney Mountain Ridge for the start of the tenth and "final" Michaux Ironmasters Classic. Many races call themselves "classic" but this one truly lives up to the name. Maybe it was the 420 preregistrants that swelled to over 600 participants by the start, or maybe it was the 27 mile (advertised as 25) rolling, rock-strewn, double-track laced with tasty, high-speed, tricky downhills. Maybe it was the old-school race promoter and his seasoned crew of motocross course marshals making sure no one got off-course. Whatever it was, I could feel the vibe of everything that I thought of as a good old-fashioned mountain bike race. My only problem is that I wanted to ride the course. But I was here for WVOutside/PAOutside as a journalist. Not a racer.

Ironmasters Classic
Pedaling through the mud
Several days earlier Don, my editor, had teasingly inquired how I was going to get photos. After all, this was a single-loop backcountry mountain bike race (now officially on the endangered species list). After a disdainful chuckle, I explained to him that I had raced this course in the past, the promoter had sent a map with the flyer, and, with the assistance of internal combustion, I would be able to cover the start then go to a section of the course called Grave Ridge: a series of rock ledges. I would get some great shots and be back at the finish to interview the expert winners.

This race has a great course and the 2000 edition was unanimously agreed to be the best and, most difficult, of the past ten years. The race began on a 1.5 mile gradual climb up pavement leading into a flat smooth dirt road, which quickly gave way to the legendary rock double-track. This rolled for several miles along Piney Mountain Ridge parallel to the dirt road before the beginners were, mercifully, routed off onto their very own brutal 15-mile loop. Sport and expert continued on, crossing the dirt road twice before the first major descent "flat tire downhill".

Ironmasters Classic
Chillin' at the start line
Those who survived were immediately routed on to Grave Ridge's technical ledge section before crossing PA. Rt. 233 for the 780-foot vertical climb up Dead Woman's Hollow Road. This climb had open, grassy sections, which allowed the sun to bake the racers and further separate the pack. The most talked about section was next, 3-Mile Trail. Everyone I talked to mentioned this new trail, "fast, technical with some little grunt climbs". Whether you liked it or not, it was universally respected. As was the next single-track, Rattlesnake Ridge, where, if you saw it, there was an "option" to either go around about 30 yards or cut through the "notch" which was 15 yards. After the Rattlesnake descent the final climb crossed back over Rt. 233 and up the Logsled trail to the finish.

The race started (pretty much on time) at 10 AM, leaving several hapless participants chasing down their "wave". Expert men, Vet expert, Women Junior and Master experts, Sport A, Sport B, Vet sport, Master sport, Junior sport A, Junior sport B, Women sport vet/master, Women sport SR. The list goes on. By the time the last wave of beginners left the starting line I was anxiously looking at my watch... 10:40!!! I was going to have to hustle over to Grave Ridge to catch the leaders.

Ironmasters Classic
Bringin' it hard
The promoter, Shawn Withers, had given me the inside line- a shortcut to the best photo spot on Grave Ridge, a short hike right off of Rt. 233. I parked at the pull-off and thought it was strange no one else was there, but I could hear the rumble of dirt bikes and voices in the distance. I was close to the course. The trail I hiked in on started as a driveway, Shawn hadn't mentioned that, but quickly turned into a trail and the motorcycle noises and voices seemed to be getting louder.

The trail crossed a swollen creek and started climbing, away from the voices, but towards a ridgeline. Fifteen minutes later, sweating profusely I came to an intersection...no course markings!!! The noises were still off in the distance but back toward the road. The course had to be around here somewhere! If I turned back now I would surely miss the leaders so I turned right and hiked onward at a brisk rate.

Ironmasters Classic
What a race!
The sounds were getting closer now and at each turn in the trail I expected to stumble onto the course. Finally, after a seemingly endless series of ups and downs, all the while hearing voices, I caught fleeting glimpses of racers gliding through the woods and come onto the course. Dirt road !!! Where was I? After grabbing a water bottle that fell off a bike and draining it in one gulp I looked at my watch...11:40!!! The race was probably going to be won by 12:15 so I had to go.

To make a long story short I ascertained I was at the bottom of Flat Tire Downhill. I had managed to walk all the way around Grave Ridge and it was a short hike out a logging road to Rt. 233, two miles away from my car. By the time I walked back down the road to where the race crossed the first time I was about half an hour behind the leaders. I managed to hitch a ride back to my car and started back towards the second road crossing hoping I could catch the leaders there.

"Jeremiah came through here about five minutes ago". The course marshals were on top of it - I wasn't. I drove on to the finish vainly attempting to catch Jeremiah before the finish line but, like a true pro, he beat me back up the mountain.

Ironmasters Classic
It's all over
I found a happy looking Jeremiah Bishop waiting at the finish to see who would be second. "Great course, it hurt." What happened out there? "I think Chris Eatough tried to make his move on Flat Tire Downhill". Guess what happened? Chris flatted. This was the first of two flats suffered by the Trek East Coast pro.

"I was having problems with my co2 cartridges. I lost about 15 minutes". Chris is fresh off the World Cup circuit in Mexico and is heading to Europe for the next three rounds in pursuit of an Olympic berth riding for Great Britain. Even losing time Chris finished fifth.

After Eatough flatted, Bishop still had company, his new roommate and K2/Newsun teammate Eric Keim. Bishop felt he was slightly stronger on the climb up Dead Woman's Hollow and kept looking back to see what kind of a gap he could establish. He had a minute by the top and never saw anyone after that and, other than unintentionally coming off his bike twice, didn't have any problems.

Keim held on for second and "old man" James Futty took third. Junior Team Devo rider Justin Thompson registered as an Expert and took fourth in front of Eatough.

Sue Haywood described her win in the Women's Expert class as,"... just a Sunday ride in the woods, this is my kind of course". The Trek East Coast/ West Virginia Tourism rider was riding with her teammate Katie Compton, Team Headshok's Charmian Breon and Susan George, Team Harrisburg's Kristine Oesterling and former Vet World Champion Carol Waters at the start of the race and into the first singletrack. It was there she pulled away to duke it out for the rest of the race with the vet wave that started before the women.

Ironmasters Classic
Headed for home
Headshok's Breon held second until the Dead Woman's Hollow climb where the amazing Waters overtook her. "That course was an absolute ball! That was a fun course!" exclaimed Waters at the finish. "My legs came back today after two weeks of training in the Shenandoah's near Harrisonburg, VA." Breon held on for third while Oesterling overtook Compton on Dead Woman's climb for fourth.

Sounded like a classic race. Too bad I missed it...well except for the start and the finish. I did have a nice hike and I can highly recommend the trails for riding.

For the race to go on again it is going to have to find a new promoter. After ten years the M.O.R.E. (Michaux Off-Road Enthusiasts) are gracefully bowing out. The loose band of cyclists and motorcyclists cite burnout and the fact that none of them race anymore. Race promoter Withers spends more time now with his family and telemark skiing and golfing and he isn't worried about the fate of the event. "Hey, things are different now. It's never going to be like it was in the good old days."