The fourth and final day of the Pisgah Stage Race came early as we shuffled out of our tents to find freezing temperatures in the 30s (record lows again). We got through breakfast and rode to the start line, rest stop bags in tow.
Once we lined up, the race organizer, Todd, started the morning announcements. He said that even though many of us would be disappointed, they would be removing the Farlow Gap loop from the ride today. He was apparently out there at 2 AM that morning (we’re not sure when he actually slept during the weekend) and said it was completely frozen over with snow on the ground (and mind you that this was apparently the gnarliest and toughest trail out there even in the best conditions). Applause broke out in the waiting riders and someone behind me shouted, “Look at all these disappointed riders!” Yeah, we had been through the ringer already and finding out that the final stage would be “only” 40 miles and 9000 feet of climbing was a bit of a relief. Here’s the map and elevation of the stage:
But as soon as we started the first gravel road climb of the day, I knew that today would be a struggle as my ankle was killing me. I don’t remember injuring it on any of my myriad tumbles during the earlier stages, but basically my left achilles was just aching the entire day. So our last day definitely turned into a test of survival, as David and I just rode along together at a steady pace (while I grabbed some Advil at every rest stop).
Since the organizers had removed Farlow Gap, this last stage was really a series of long fire road sections (both climbing and descending) interspersed with some great flowy singletrack. After a 6 mile fire road climb, we descended back down to a paved section of highway and then dove back into the woods to hit the Cove Creek and Daniel Ridge Trails. More gravel road riding dropped us down to the Davidson River Trail, which was a beautiful stretch of fast singletrack by the river; we even stopped riding for a minute just to take in an awesome view of a huge waterfall cascading down the hillside next to the trail (we figured that we might as well enjoy the day). But then it was back to more fire road; in fact, it turned out that the way back to the finish involved riding almost all of the fire road we had ridden that day, except in the opposite direction. Great, just what my ankle needed.
So back we rode, spinning along and churning up the miles. We had one last blast of classic “It’s like… Pisgah” action when we tackled the Bennett Gap Trail. It was rocky & rooty fun along a ridgeline, and then (of course) you hit death-defying rock ledge dropoffs at the end. We’ll have to go back and try this trail again (maybe with my GT Force Carbon next time) but on this day we just wanted to make it back in one piece. That left us with one last (and really long) fire road climb up to the top of Black Mountain, but then it was all downhill (well, except for that last hike-a-bike section) to the finish.
David and I crossed the finish line together with a time just over 5 hours, exhausted but proud of hanging in there to complete all the stages. And the best part about finishing when we did was that they already had the grills all fired up and the beer nice and cold. Here I am getting ready for my burger and hanging out with Harlan Price, a super-fast (he was sixth place overall, but he was also blogging and documenting the race for Mountain Bike) and super-cool pro rider:
After getting cleaned up a bit, we headed back over for the awards ceremony. On our way over we ran into fellow racer Denise, who, in addition to sporting a sweet Pisgah jersey, we saw a lot of during the race as she finished in about the same time as us most days (although she was second in her category, while we finished fifth in ours):
There was also the requisite pack of dogs at the finish as well (as with most mountain bike races). Here they are tied down and acting well-behaved (mainly because they are tied down, of course):
We soon crowded around to see the awards presentation. Despite losing the last stage to local hero Sam Koerber, Jeremiah Bishop held his overall lead to bring home the big check for his efforts:
“Retired” pro rider Susan Haywood left no doubts about her “post career” fitness by winning every stage on her way to the overall womens’ victory:
One of the great things about being at an event like this is that it’s too small for the pros to hide afterwards. Here we are ambushing Jeremiah Bishop for a photo op after he got his award. He, like everyone there, was super friendly and was all about posing with his comically large check:
Here we are with Susan Haywood. Having recently watched “Off Road To Athens” for the first time, I was super stoked to meet both of these mountain biking legends:
The camaraderie shared by all of the riders in an event like this can really make the experience. Here we are with one of the other teams, Stephen and James (or “The Brits” as everyone took to calling them). Nearly every day we touched base with the other team riders just to check in and see how everyone was doing. In my experience this is one of the principle differences between road racing and mountain bike racing: even at the top levels of the sport, mountain bikers are essentially out there to have a good time. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part we all enjoyed the company of our fellow sufferers stage racers:
Here are the Brits grabbing some face time with Susan Haywood:
Another cool thing about this race was the trophies. They had custom trophies made for all of the top finishers. Sadly, we didn’t win one of these (this year) but here’s Denise showing off hers:
The podium wasn’t exactly built with the team finishers in mind, so it was a bit cramped. Unless, of course, you took 5th place and got to stand on the ground. How about that! I’m sure you can see the jealousy in the eyes of the other teams:
With two large burgers consumed and our awards collected, we loaded the car and started the final leg of our journey by heading home. As we were leaving, people kept asking us what we thought of the trails and if we would be back. “The trails were incredible,” we assured them, “and of course we’ll be back, we haven’t ridden Farlow Gap yet!”