The 2021 Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) Racing season recently concluded with the popular Ironman GNCC, and this year’s event will likely be one of the most legendary Ironman events of all time. With over 2,700 racers throughout the weekend, that alone should produce a long-told tale of an event. However, this year’s event went much further as rain showers covered the facility nearly all day Sunday leaving standing water and creeks reaching their banks. However, the race went on and a champion was crowned. Here are a few things we learned.
IT WAS WET
There have been many occasions over the years when the Ironman GNCC has been muddy, but this year was unique as that not only was it muddy, but it was just downright wet. Water pooled up in ruts and some of those ruts became seemingly bottomless. On track you would drop into what seemed to be a two-inch rut with two inches of water in it, then the rut would suddenly turn two feet deep! This created a tough and unique challenge as these ruts would swallow a motorcycle and bring you to a complete stop in standing water.
Ben Kelley Mack Faint Trevor Bollinger Mack Faint Steward Baylor Jr. Mack Faint Josh Toth Mack Faint Ricky Russell cleaning off his GasGas in the creek-turned-river crossing. Mack Faint Russell pushing his GasGas. Mack Faint Team members helped pull not only their riders but other riders through the water and slop as well. Mack Faint Josh Strang Mack Faint Ben Kelley Mack Faint Ruy Barbosa Mack Faint Josh Toth Mack Faint
The track crew was forced to make numerous reroutes after the 10 a.m. amateur race, as the main creek that runs through the woods, which riders cross several times, became too high to cross. This would drop the afternoon bike race to just around eight miles and unfortunately eliminated the iconic Ironman Hill and Twin Hills sections from the course, but still left riders with plenty of wet area to contend with. Additionally, a smaller creek that riders crossed twice had to stay in the layout as it was the only way to the finish line. As the race wore on, this small creek swelled from a few inches deep to a couple feet deep. Numerous images show riders pushing their bikes through the creek with help from some team members and fans, and these images will instantly remind long-time racers of the old Blackwater 100.
BAD THAD IS BACK!
Thad Duvall has had a rough go over the last couple of seasons. After injuring his knee at round one in 2020, Thad made it back for the final three rounds of 2020. He came back with a solid fourth place at a dusty Mason-Dixon GNCC but struggled in the next two rounds, finishing outside the top ten overall. Coming into 2021, Thad finished second at the opening round but a practice crash before round two left him sidelined for a while. Much like 2020, Thad rebounded with a fourth place when he returned, but struggled to crack the top three until the penultimate round in West Virginia.
The motivation from that podium, coupled with some wet and muddy conditions that Thad seems to do well in set Ironman up to be a perfect race for Duvall as he would go out and take the overall win. Of course, it wasn’t just a runaway win for Thad. Josh Strang would lead the opening lap before Trevor Bollinger took over the lead on lap two, only to suffer a mechanical issue on lap three which handed the lead back to Strang. On the final lap, Duvall would make the pass for the lead and hold it all the way to the checkered flag. Strang would end the day with a solid second place finish while Craig Delong, who made his XC1 debut, finished third. However, it was actually XC2 class winner Lyndon Snodgrass who ended up third place overall.
With the season in the books and the off-season ahead to reset and be ready, Duvall very well could come into 2022 the strongest he’s ever been. Thad is now one of the older riders in the XC1 ranks and although Ironman produced some unique conditions, Bad Thad showed he still has what it takes to win and will carry that motivation into next season.
|1||Thad Duvall||Williamstown, WV United States||Husqvarna|
|2||Josh Strang||Inverell Australia||Kawasaki|
|4||Cody J Barnes||Sterling, IL United States||Honda|
|5||Ryder Lafferty||Millville, NJ United States||GasGas|
Kelley Crowned Champ!
The big storyline coming into the event was the championship battle between Ben Kelley and Steward Baylor. Many wondered just exactly what would play out at the Ironman GNCC finale and were expecting a battle for the ages. Unfortunately, that battle never happened as both riders experienced freak mechanical issues in the wet conditions. For Baylor, it happened really quick as he caught some water in the first section of woods and had to bump start his machine, and then ended up having to come into the pits for a clutch swap.
Baylor eventually did not finish the race, which dropped him out of the top 20 overall and left him scoring no points for the day. Kelley had struggles of his own and at one point was also sitting outside of the top 20—and even outside of the top 80 overall. Kelley would eventually get back on track and end the day in ninth overall, which further extended his points lead and locked in the championship. It’s not often the battle for the championship simply comes down to whoever finishes the race, and it’s not often that deep ruts of standing water play such a factor in the outcome of the race.
Regardless, Ben Kelley is the 2021 GNCC National Champion and just the second rider (behind Kailub Russell) to claim both the XC2 and XC1 class championship in GNCC Racing. What seems to be even more impressive is that Kelley never contested the GNCC full-time until 2016. In just five years Kelley has gone from an XC2 rider struggling to crack the top five to GNCC National Champion! Time will tell what kind of lasting legacy Kelley could leave, but if 2021 is any indication of what is to come in 2022, Kelley has his work cut out for himself defending the title. Not only is Steward Baylor as motivated as ever, but veterans such as Duvall and Strang are also looking for another shot. Craig Delong will be a newcomer to XC1 in 2022 and looking to run up front, in addition to series regulars such as Jordan Ashburn, Grant Baylor, Trevor Bollinger, and others who have podiums and race wins to their credit.
Images by Mack Faint