Pisgah MTB Stage Race – Stage 4

Todd Branham is one fantastic race director.  When he says he’s going to put together one of the toughest stage races in the world, he means it.  When he says that the winners are truly going to have earned their prizes, he means it.  When he says that tomorrow’s stage is going to be easier than today’s, he is lying.  Big time.

Stage 4 was just like many of the other stages.  It started with a brutal climb and covered some of the East Coast’s most technical trail networks.  The difference was that there weren’t fire road sections connecting one part to another.  No, this stage was about 95% single track, which means that we had a tremendously slow average speed and took a mental drubbing to boot.

Before the stage started, everything was fine.  Here’s David signing in, as was our morning ritual:

Then the gun went off and we started out by riding the finishing stretch of each days’ stage backwards – straight up Black Mountain.

After pedaling uphill for about 30 minutes, the trail really kicked skyward and we were forced off our GT Sensor 9rs (along with everyone else).

Up, up and away we went, to start what became the longest stretch between aid stations we had all week (over 2 and a half hours).  David drained his Camelbak.  Then we worked together to drain mine as well.  By the time we came down the “stairs” to the first aid station we realized we were in for one long day.

We then had to tackle Squirrel Gap backwards (relative to the direction we rode it during stage 2).  This was so mentally taxing that at one point, I fell off of the side of the trail, quite literally.  Luckily, David was there to pull my bike back up onto the trail so I could climb back up myself (there was a bit of a drop).

About the only way to find inspiration out on the trails was to have 2 guys screaming and ringing cowbells in your ear, and luckily 2 local residents obliged on what they called “Hell Hill” (a nasty little climb that you had to power through if you didn’t want an earful from the cowbell-ringers):

After a mere 7 hours and 30 minutes we crossed the finish line (since we rode “only” 38.27 miles today, that gave us a scintillating 5.1 mph average speed).  Many riders behind us missed cut-off times on this stage and everyone agreed that it was the most physically and mentally challenging stage of the race so far.

How do you recover from something like that?  Well, for starters, we split an XL “party size” pizza with numerous toppings and washed it down with Fat Tire Ale.

Follow up dinner by watching a podium presentation and a movie.  Here Jeremiah Bishop takes top honors for winning the stage (in a mere 4 hours and 15 minutes).

Following the podium presentation, we watched Ride the Divide, a documentary about the ultra-endurance Tour Divide Race (it runs from Canada to Mexico) which features 7-time champion & Chapel Hill native Matt Lee, seen below introducing the movie:

Over 10,000 feet of climbing and about 10,000 calories of pizza consumption lead to another great night’s sleep at our campsite with dreams (nightmares?) of Laurel Mountain running through our heads.

Pisgah MTB Stage Race – Stage 3

Our intrepid racers David and Chris (as you’ll recall, David works in Marketing, while Chris is in our Bikes division) are safely back in the office after their adventure at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race, and they’ve picked up where they left off last week with recaps of their long days in the saddle.  Today Chris offers up his take on Stage 3, which included the famed Farlow Gap descent:

Stage 3 of the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race had us up early to catch a shuttle to the start at a campground a few miles away from our normal departure point at the base of the Black Mountain descent.  As you can see by the map below, our return route to the finish line wasn’t exactly a straight line (things in Pisgah never are!):

But everything was well-organized and there were plenty of trailers on-hand that were specifically designed to carry bicycles.  This way none of our fancy-pants bikes would end up with more scratches on them than we would later inflict upon them as we descended down the infamous Farlow Gap (last year we missed out on this bit of trail because it was covered in ice–what a difference a year and about 40 degrees makes!)

Once all of the bikes were safely stowed, we piled into waiting passenger vans and headed out!

Here are David and Alex Hawkins, another rider from our company hometown of Chapel Hill, NC who made the trip to the mountains to race (and Alex ended up winning his 40+ division overall!)

As tom-foolery and pre-race banter filled the back of the vans, our loyal volunteers drove us to our remote starting location where Todd (the race organizer) had another surprise in store for us: somersaults.  Not content to simply start us on a grueling mountain bike stage with a stream crossing about 100 yards in, we had to first perform a somersault (or cart-wheel) in a designated area, then run and find our bikes.  Despite virtually no training in this area of mountain biking, we succeeded and were on our way (with surprisingly no injuries sustained).

The trail eventually took us to the dreaded Farlow Gap where we found a rocky descent the likes of which we had never seen before.  It all culminated in a series of stream crossings like the one below.  We saddled up and jumped the streams of course.

Just kidding.

But what’s the fun of telling you about the riding, when I can show you a sampling of the sweet trails we got to ride this day (shot with our GoPro HD HERO camera).  So while there was a lot of fire road to slog through on this stage, plus quite a few sections of singletrack that we had to walk in order to avoid something catastrophic, we were usually amply rewarded with miles of some of the best trails that you can find anywhere in the world:

The one constant through all of the varied and difficult terrain was the high spirits of the volunteers.  At each aid station (there were 3 per stage) we were treated like kings.  As we rolled up to the tent, they would rush towards us asking if there was anything we needed while retrieving our aid station bags (which we packed to send ahead) and filling our Camelbaks for us.  It was sweet luxury after hours in the saddle to have food waiting for us and more than a little positive attitude to raise our spirits.

While this was a long day, we had no idea that the next day would be even longer and that we would appreciate the aid stations more than ever.  Still, with an elevation profile like this one it’s no wonder we slept like babies that night.

Totals for the day: 43.34 miles, 8,823 ft of elevation gained, and 6 hours 40 minutes on the bike (I think the pro winner, Jeremiah Bishop, finished up in around 4 hours or so).

Pisgah MTB Stage Race – Stage 2

Another day down at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race. Today was hailed as the “Queen Stage” and it certainly lived up to that moniker. We rode 38.24 miles and climbed 8,912 feet!  Here I (David) am trying to stay upright on a side-slope & rooty trail (most of the pictures are of me, since Chris was usually way ahead of me and had time to set up camera shots)!

The tree branches grabbed at our arms constantly as we battled our way across Squirrel Gap. The trail has been called “half-track” because it’s not wide enough to justify the name “single track”.  But at least the weather was perfect this year, instead of last year when this stage was cold, wet, and generally miserable (made especially so since I broke one of my pedals halfway through the stage).  Here I am battling through the foliage (I’m right in the middle, hiding Where’s Waldo-style):

Fire roads served to ferry us from one section of trail to another all day. This sounds like a pleasant break from the brutal single track, but in fact Todd (the race promoter) uses the technical ease of the fire roads to get away with making them 7+ mile climbs. Below you can see me suffering up climb number three (today).  You may also notice the odd protuberance from the top of my helmet–that’s our GoPro HD Helmet Hero camera, which we used to shoot some cool footage from the stage today (we’ll post a movie on our Youtube channel soon):

Our closest rivals (with whom we are engaged in a fierce competition for who gets to be last place in the team competition) Tom and Karen were celebrating a wedding anniversary today. Here Karen showcases her trademark good humor and optimism on top of Black Mountain, despite having just gone through a half hour of hike-a-bike (and calling it hike-a-bike really doesn’t do it justice):

We had to push our bikes a quite a bit today, but small consolation was the view from the top on the way to the Black Mountain descent.  Here we are posing with our GT Sensor 9rs, which we put through quite the workout today:

We finished the stage today in 5 hours 44 minutes, an improvement of an hour and half over last year!  Here’s a map of the stage, showing the out-and-back course:

And here’s the elevation profile (those last peaks are the hike-a-bike sections, leading to that final ripping descent off Black Mountain):

We’ll be up early tomorrow to catch the shuttle to the start of Stage 3, which includes the fearsome Farlow Gap (although Todd says it has an overblown reputation, as the hard part is only about 100 yards of rock ledge dropoffs… onto more rocks).

Pisgah MTB Stage Race – Stage 1

Monday evening David and I (Christopher) packed up our bags and headed to Brevard, North Carolina where we would set up camp and get a good night’s rest in preparation for today’s big first stage of the 2010 Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race.  We rented a van for the drive since we have a tendency to overpack (why not bring 2 spare bikes, and extra wheels, spare tires, and…well, you get the point):

This morning came early as we were up with the sunrise in order to make up breakfast and drive to the start of the stage (although the temp would warm up nicely, it was chilly early in the morning).

This was the only stage we will have to drive to and thank goodness! The drive was rough! There was over 6 miles of gravel road that apparently doesn’t see too much care and our rental van was barely up to the challenge (it sounded like someone threw a handful of quarters into a clothes dryer).

None the worse for wear, we arrived at the start with plenty of time to sign in and get warmed up. The finish line was at the beautiful Blue Moon on Pinnacle Peak, which had a spectacular view:

Another cool feature of the race was that we all had to sign in before the stage (like they do in the Tour de France).  Here I am signing in, getting as close to Jeremiah Bishop as I would all day!

 

Here we are, ready to go, in our Performance team kits, next to our GT Sensor 9rs:

 

Stage 1 was touted as the easiest of the 5 stages. We started by all rolling out for a neutral (not racing) 7 mile ride to the start line (mostly downhill). Then as a surprise we faced a Le Mans start (which is where you have to run and pick up your bike, always an amusing sight at a bike race) before facing “Dupont Forest’s rockiest terrain”. The stage consisted of a 12 mile climb (with brief glorious downhill sections) to take us back up to the finish line. The highlight of the day was David flying headfirst into a deep stream crossing–he took the race promoter’s word seriously when he said that everything on the stage was rideable! Someone was actually on the scene taking a video, so we will post it as soon as we find out who it was filming.  The battle was hard fought but in the end, we weren’t last!

 

Waiting for us at the finish line was a field full of happy participants and very nice lunches (Jeremiah Bishop won the stage, of course, in a close fought battle–or so we’re told!)

 

As we sat and ate we pondered what tomorrow would bring. Today was an hour and a half of very difficult trail. Tomorrow will bring more than three times that. Should be fun!

 

Final stats for the day: 12.16 miles and 2,540 feet of vertical gain:

 

On the road to Pisgah with GT Sensor 9rs

David and Chris are packing up today to head out to the Land of the White Squirrel (that’s Brevard, NC) for the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race (which starts Tuesday, Sept. 14).  But before they left they wanted to share a few thoughts on their ride for the week of racing, the exclusive GT Sensor 9r mountain bike.  Just in case you’ve forgotten, David works in our Marketing department (although you may remember him from his on-the-scene posts from this year’s Tour de France), while Chris works in our Bikes department, making sure that all of our stores have the right mountain bikes in stock.  Here’s David talking about his experiences on the GT Sensor 9r:

We’ve only been riding the GT Sensor 9rs for a few weeks, but it really has been a eye-opening experience for me.  Stepping up from a 26″ full-suspension bike to this 29″ design has been fantastic, especially since the GT Sensor 9r has 120mm of rock-solid Fox suspension front and rear.  Just taking the bike out of the box, I really liked the whole look, from the dark green paint job to the aggressive-looking top tube shape.

Of course we couldn’t resist throwing on a few upgrades while we had the chance.  Both Chris and I installed a Crank Brothers Joplin 4 seatpost, with remote, as it’s the perfect weapon to battle the variety of gnarly terrain ahead in Pisgah.  Chris then swapped out his components for a full Shimano XTR build, while I opted for an FSA crankset and cockpit with Avid Elixir CR disc brakes, plus a SRAM X.O rear derailleur/X.9 shifters combination (and of course Ergon GP1 grips).

So how does it ride?  Well, I’m a big fan!  I love how the 29″ wheels roll over technical sections of the trail, and GT’s Independent Drivetrain suspension design does a great job of isolating pedaling-induced suspension feedback.  Plus, I really like having 120mm of suspension to bail me out when the trail gets nasty.  In short, it should be a great ride for the long days in the saddle on the super-technical trails of the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race.

The only thing I don’t know if it will help me with is in trying to catch a glimpse of one of the elusive white squirrels of Brevard! I swear I saw one last year, but Chris still doesn’t believe me!

2010 Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race

After a brutal test last year at the inaugural Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race, David and Chris are out to prove that they haven’t learned their lesson. On September 14th they will return to Brevard, NC to once again test their mettle  over five days on some of the most difficult terrain this planet has to offer (in the fabled Pisgah Forest).

The 2010 Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race is a whole day longer than last year, plus features over 9000 feet of climbing and between 35-40 miles per day…  except for Stage 1.  So this first stage must be a nice way to ease into the race then, right?  Try again – it’s a 7 mile “warmup” descent followed by a 12 mile hill climb with 2000 feet of elevation gain.  This is Pisgah after all.

Chris and David Cresting Laurel Mountain in the 2009 race

There may not be any snow in the forecast this year, but there will still be plenty of epic singletrack, gnarly downhills, and, of course, stream crossings to keep things challenging.  Since this fantastic event takes place in our proverbial “backyard”, we’re sending David and Chris back to the race to report on the experience and meet the fun-loving folks who like to test themselves with this kind of adventure (definitely post a comment if you are headed to the race).

GT Sensor 9er Mountain Bike

Once again, David and Chris will be torture-testing one of the GT bicycles that we carry, and what better steed than the brand new GT Sensor 9r Mountain Bike.  With a thru-axle front fork, 120mm of travel and 29″ wheels, the GT Sensor 9er is the perfect bike for the rugged Pisgah trails.

But we also want use the attention from the race to raise money for a very good cause – Wheels For Life, the nonprofit organization started by mountain biking legend Hans Rey to provide bikes for people in developing countries (to help them get to work, school or medical care).  To this end we’re going to auction off one of the same brand new GT Sensor 9ers that David and Chris will be riding during the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race (but if you win the auction you’ll get one in the size of your choice, of course), with all of the proceeds going directly to Wheels for Life.  So you can read all about David and Chris’ adventure, then bid on a brand new GT Sensor 9er that you can use to create your own adventures, all while supporting a great cause.

In addition to amateur riders, like our team, there will also be a number of pros at the race dueling it out for the richest cash purse of any mountain bike stage race in the US.  On the women’s side of things, mountain biking Olympian Susan Haywood will be back defending her win from last year against Carey Lowery, who would love to be one step higher on the podium this time.  In the men’s race, Colby Pearce will be there showing people that he can handle his bike even when he’s not riding in banked circles (he’s a track rider who went to the last Olympic Games); Evan Plews is an experienced mountain bike racer who would probably crush most of the field riding singlespeed; and it looks like multiple-time national champion Jeremiah Bishop will be back to defend his title from last year’s stage race (you may have seen Jeremiah placing 5th in the fabled Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race or winning the Breck Epic and Trans-Sylvania Epic stage races earlier this year!)

So look for updates from David and Chris as they get ready for their racing adventure, plus posts and pictures live from Pisgah with highlights of the week’s action.  Our team will give their insight into what it’s like to race in a stage race like this, and hopefully inspire you to get out there and tackle your own epic adventure!

Pisgah Stage Race: The Transylvania Loop (Day 4)

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:

Stage 3 Map

Stage 3 ElevationBut 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:

Christopher Danz and Harlan Price

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):

Denise and us after the finish

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):

Pisgah dogs

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:

Pro Men's Podium

Jeremiah Bishop with his big check

“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:

Susan Haywood and her first place check

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:

Jeremiah Bishop and us

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:

Susan Haywood and us

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:

Us and the Brits

Here are the Brits grabbing some face time with Susan Haywood:

The Brits and 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:

Denise and her trophy

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:On the "podium"

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!”

Heading home

Pisgah Stage Race: Land of the Waterfalls Loop (Day 3)

Another day, another 6am wakeup call.  It was cold, wet (it had rained during the night) and dark in the morning when I rolled out of bed (near record-setting cold as it turned out, but we didn’t know that yet), but we had a race to get to so we had to get going.  After a gourmet campfire breakfast cooked up by Chris, we pulled on our chilly biking gear (which for me involved many layers but oddly no tights or kneewarmers—just my Performance Elite II bib shorts) and headed over to the start line.

Everyone was giddy to get started, and not really sure what to expect from today’s stage, when the race promoter, Todd Branham, got on the microphone.  First off, he said today’s stage should be easier than yesterday (already, warning bells were going off in our heads—when we factored in the “It’s like Pisgah” factor, we knew we were in for an adventure).  The stage would start with a 7 mile section on the highway, followed by a long gravel road climb and then a “sketchy” descent (again, remember that “It’s like Pisgah”!)  Ah, but wait, there’s more.  Soon after the descent we would encounter a stream crossing that was “waist deep” and about 40 feet across; they don’t call this the “Land of the Waterfalls” for nothing.  Then the kicker: “Get used to this,” he said “as you will then do this seven more times.”  Of course, all of this was going to happen in the first 15 miles of the day’s stage—so the rest of the day would be a slog in cold, wet shoes!

Here’s a map and elevation profile of the day’s stage:

Stage 2 Map

Stage 2 Elevation

There was no time to rethink our sartorial selection (or sanity), as the race was on; albeit with the aforementioned 7 mile police-escorted road section.  With road spray kicking up into our face from the rain-slicked roads, we soon found a small group (including a grateful, and hilariously spinning, singlespeed racer) and pacelined our way to the gravel road climb.  Up we spun to finally reach singletrack on the Vineyard Gap Trail (although my legs were already feeling spongy from the day before).  Then it was down the “sketchy” descent towards the stream crossings; basically we were flying down a gulley with drop-offs and slick, diagonal waterbars, and just hanging on was the order of the day!  We made it down, but then it was time for the real fun to begin:

David crossing stream

Here I am fording crossing #1, from the perspective of an extremely dedicated race volunteer (in hip waders) standing nearly waist-deep in the middle of the stream, directing traffic.  As you can see in this shot of Chris, the water came up to about mid-thigh and it was (technically speaking) really cold!:

Chris crossing stream

As soon as you made it through the crossing, the payoff was a steep, slick, ankle-deep mud bank:

Chris exiting stream

1 down, 7 to go!  This became our rallying cry as we repeated the stream crossings.   Scramble and slide through muddy trail, splash into the icy creek (thankfully not as deep after the first one) and then slog up a muddy bank on the other side; 2 down, 6 to go!  Here’s a video of a particularly tricky crossing across a little rapids section:

That’s me giving a rather premature thumbs-up there in the middle of the crossing; I had no idea what was coming for the rest of the day!  And the other guy crossing the stream wasn’t even in the race; he was (of his own volition) just out for a ride on his singlespeed!  You’ve got to love the folks who come to Pisgah.

The stream crossings finally behind us, we took our soggy and frozen feet and slogged our way up another seemingly endless gravel fire road to the first rest stop of the day.  My DeFeet Wool Blaze Socks were trying their hardest to keep me warm, but there are limits to the wonders of wool!  At the rest stop the ever-friendly volunteers refilled our Camelbaks as we tried (in vain) to warm ourselves by the fire (yes, they had fire pits at the rest stops too).  It was here that we heard the first rumblings of what the weather had in store for us.  But we wrenched our tingling feet from the fireside and pressed on to Laurel Mountain.

The trail started out fine, but then started to tilt skyward.  Chris still had the legs to climb, but I was soon off the bike and pushing/pulling/dragging my bike up the trail.  Then it started to get cold and the clouds rolled in around us.  What started out as sleet soon turned over to, yes, snow!  As we trudged upward, a springy grey-haired guy came bounding down the trail in running shoes and shorts (seriously, the really short kind) and off-handedly said “It’s really snowing at the top.”  Great.  Here I am pushing up what felt like a near vertical wall:

David climbing Laurel Mountain

Once we finally made it to the top of the hike-a-bike section, it was actually quite beautiful with the dark trail arcing away through the freshly snow-covered forest:

Chris on Laurel Mountain

Luckily we both also brought along our packable Performance Cyclone Jackets as we were searching for as many layers as we could find as we rolled over the top of the mountain in the snow.  Of course, it probably would have made more sense had I brought along some leg warmers:

David on Laurel Mountain

We made it through the snow, to be rewarded with the famed Pilot Rock downhill.  Weather conditions improved as we hit the switchbacks down the mountain, but the trail was still epic.   High speed descents were punctuated by sketchy, rocky hairpin turns, all with sharp cliff drop-offs on one side (along with some stunning vistas).  Near the bottom of the descent we started to hear cowbells and screaming, and soon enough we came upon this crazy bunch of locals that had set up camp by a nasty rock strewn stretch of trail:

Pilot Rock rock garden

Chris made it through unscathed, but as soon as he passed by he heard the crowd go “Ooooh!” in unison.  The cause of the exclamation; yours truly taking a sweet headfirst, bike-flipping dive into the rocks.  Relatively unharmed, I collected my bike and got riding again with the exhortations of the crowd ringing in my ears.

At the next aid station Chris loaned me his ridiculously blue leg warmers (that’s what teammates are for!) that he had fortunately sent ahead to this rest stop (another nice perk of the race).  After a loooong fire road stretch, it was back into the woods, on steep singletrack leading to the Avery Creek Trail.  Chris was still climbing away while I was just trying to survive. Another rocky, rooty descent and then it was time to climb yet again.  Up and up on the fire road leading to Black Mountain we climbed; Chris throttled back so I didn’t get separated from him (since if we finished more than 5 minutes apart they would add an hour penalty to our time, plus he’s a good teammate).

We were relieved that at the top of the road we only had to suffer through a short section of “The Miserableness” from the day before ; the hike-a-bike section was merely unpleasant this day.  The descent off Black Mountain couldn’t have come soon enough for me, and I just held on and let the GT Marathon bail me out on the way down.  We finally crossed the finish line, a mere 7 hours and 15 minutes after we started (in case you’re wondering, this day covered 44 miles with 9500 feet of climbing):

David and Chris at the finish of Stage 3

After a quick pit stop to get cleaned up, we came back for the best part of the day, free beer from New Belgium Brewery and a free 30 minutes of massage (oh, pity the plight of the mountain bike stage racer)!  Honestly we needed this after the day’s stage, plus I got the perfect spot on the massage table right in front of the heater.   Here’s Chris looking mellow after his massage:

Chris post-massage

We grabbed a pizza in town and headed back to the campsite to eat by a roaring fire.  We tried in vain to dry out our sopping clothes by hanging them inside the GT tent, but this was pretty much a lost cause since the air was just damp at all times:

Clothes hanging up to dry

Finally we just gave up and tried roasting our wet duds by the fire.  Here’s Chris trying to dry out himself and his workhorse Shimano SH-M086L MTB Shoes with a crackling fire:

Shoes by the fire

With word of a freeze advisory overnight, we packed up our gear for the next day and stumbled into our tents.  3 grueling days down, and 1 more to go.

Pisgah Stage Race: White Squirrel Loop (Day 2)

David did a wonderful job with that write-up of the prologue but he’s busy flooding your e-mail inbox with e-mails right now so it’s back to me (Christopher).

Day two of the Pisgah Stage Race started early. We woke up at 6:00 in the pitch black so we could be dressed and have eaten by the time the sun came up. The stages all started at 8:00 so we didn’t have much time to dilly-dally. A couple of packets of oatmeal later, we pulled on our new Performance Bicycle Race Kits and pedaled our way to the start line (which was only about a mile from our tents).

David and Christopher at the StartYou’ll also notice my illumiNITE arm warmers which are quite warm but react strangely to cameras.

David on the trail

The whole field rolled out onto the road for about a mile before hitting the day’s first climb: a 7 mile gravel road (past a horse stable) which gained us more than 1500 feet of elevation right away.  By the time we were most of the way up, the field had thinned out with the lead group already long gone.  We would only see two or three riders at a time for the rest of the day.

At the top was the first rest stop which we promptly skipped. The resulting descent was exhilarating and very fast. We tore through tunnels of Rhododendron plants at break-neck speed and soon entered a very difficult section of trail. This trail went on for miles and was carved into the side of a steep slope (only about 6 inches wide in most places). Because of the massive amount of rain that we had experienced, every root was a chance for a crash and every rock was as slick as ice. I went down hard a couple of times over this section and David managed to break his left pedal. It still basically functioned but he had to find the side that worked every time he wanted to clip in. There couldn’t have been a worse place for this to happen as we were on and off of the bike every 2 minutes for over an hour scrambling over rocks and roots.

A river next to the trail.  We didn't have to do any swimming (this day).

Rest stop 2 couldn’t come soon enough. We weren’t quite sure what to expect (other than food) but after another grueling fire-road climb we were desperate for a quick break. As we pulled into the stop, volunteers leaped to our attention holding our bikes, getting us food, even taking our packs off of our backs so they could refill them with water or energy drink. Luxury!

After consuming three complete PB&J’s and having David’s bike looked at (they didn’t have a spare pedal but did get his shifting smoothed out) we headed back out feeling much better and even got to enjoy some of the beautiful scenery (above).

David on top of Black Mountain

After some more tame trail, we started up the backside of Black Mountain. This would be a recurring theme over the next three days as each time we finished by descending Black Mountain. Before we could get there though, we had to make it through the part that we started calling “The Miserableness”. Some course marshalls at the final rest stop told us that we were facing “just two quick peaks, a short hairy descent, then a punchy little climb before a HUGE descent full of rocks, roots, drops . . . well you know, it’s like . . . Pisgah!”

We of course had no idea what that meant. Oh yeah, it’s like Pisgah. It’s like a place we had never ridden before. Terrific. This became a theme for the rest of the weekend. Course marshalls or rest stop volunteers would constantly stop us to tell us what to expect next. They would describe a section and it would turn out to be about 10 times bigger/longer/harder than they had described. As we would reflect on this, we would shout, “it’s like Pisgah!”

Checking out the view

Here I am at the top of “peak one”. With the leaves changing it was truly a beautiful vista. Not so much worth the 45 minute hike-a-bike that it took to summit the two peaks, but pretty nonetheless. We couldn’t believe that it was only the first peak and wouldn’t be convinced until the trail finally turned downhill.  The grueling climb was completely unrideable and we spend much of this hour pushing and pulling our bikes up the trail.  With this picture taken, we tore down Black Mountain (2-3 miles of descending with stair-step drops, gullies and ripping high speed sections) to the finish line exhausted but happy. All in all, we got in about 40 miles that day and it took us about 6 hours and 8 minutes (a mere 2 1/2 hours after the winner of the stage, Jeremiah Bishop).

Davidson River Campsite

Back at camp we were very happy to see everything as we had left it. We showered and ran out for some Mexican food before starting a fire to settle in for the evening.

Cleaning the GT Marathon Carbon Pro

We cleaned and lubed our drivetrains using the camp spigot before hanging our bikes to dry (not the recommended method, but you work with what you have).

The Bike of Choice - GT Marathon Carbon Pro

Soon it started to rain but not very hard and the temperature also started to drop. Not to be discouraged, we set up the GT tent over the picnic table and roasted some marshmallows.

IMG_2846

I fell asleep about 30 seconds after hitting the air mattress at about 8:00 and slept like a log while a gentle rain pattered against the rain fly of my huge tent.

Pisgah Stage Race: Prologue (Day 1)

Chris is busy distributing bikes today, so I (David) will be your guide to day 1 of our Pisgah adventure.  Our journey started before dawn on Thursday morning, as we wanted to get out to Brevard in plenty of time to set up camp before the kickoff event for the race, the “Tornado Time Trial” (named in honor of the Brevard College mascot, on whose campus we would be racing).

In the morning rain, Chris and I loaded up the car with our supplies.  Now since this was going to be a 4 day race, we really had no clue how much stuff we needed to bring along; you don’t want a broken shoe to ruin the rest of the event.  As you can see below, we erred on the side of “if it fits in the car, let’s bring it!”   This was Chris’ clothing supply for the race, and I brought an equal amount of my own, not to mention spare tubes, shoes, helmet… even spare derailleur hangers!

Pisgah Pre Race Clothing Lay Out

Add to that our food and camping supplies and we had one packed little car.   Here’s Chris putting the finishing touches on the packing by loading up our race bikes.

Loading the Car

We each brought a spare bike just in case (like I said, you can’t be too prepared), but our main race rigs were both 2009 GT Marathon Carbon Pro Mountain Bikes, basically in stock configuration.  The only difference on my bike was the addition of Kenda Nevegal Stick-E 2.1 tires, in deference to what I’d heard about the rugged nature of the Pisgah trails.

4 ½ hours of rainy driving later and we arrived in lovely Brevard, NC.  After a quick stop at our campsite to set up our tents and get changed, we shuttled over to the Brevard College campus to check out the prologue course.

We got to the course early so we could set up the GT Dirt Coalition tent right on the finish line and show off our GT rigs.  A lot of folks stopped by to ogle and ask about our carbon wonder bikes; you’ve got to admit, they do look good under the sweet GT tent:

Tent Setup Day 1

And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we got everything set up, the skies cleared and we had ourselves a beautiful evening for racing.  Here’s a shot of the surrounding vista (once the clouds cleared):

Clear Skies Day 1

Now of course since it had been raining non-stop all day, this still meant that the course was a swampy mess!  Since we had time, Chris and I took a reconnaissance loop of the course by foot; it was only about a mile long and was sort of a mash-up between a cyclocross course and singletrack.  Here’s a picture of Chris trying in vain to scramble up what turned out to be a muddy descent midway through the course:

Climbing uphill

After that, the course snaked into a small wooded hillside with a brand new singletrack switchback climb.  Since it was brand new, the singletrack section was super-soft and the off-camber roots were super-slick, as we soon discovered on a (possibly ill-advised) warm-up lap.

But hey, we came here to race!  So we suited up and headed out with the first race group of the afternoon (the different categories were broken up into different waves on this first day since the course was so short).   The pace was fast from the gun and folks were slipping and sliding their way through the woods; I quickly lost contact with the leaders, but you could always tell where they were by the lead moto pacing the pack on his very cool fat-tire motorcycle:

motorcycle pacing

Due to the sloppy conditions, the race was shortened down to 4 quick laps; I guess it was a bit of foreshadowing when even the 1 mile prologue course was wet and brutal!  But we made it through in one piece and without any major time gap to the leaders, plus we looked good in our Performance Velo Club and GT Dirt Coalition kits, respectively (that’s me on the left and Chris on the right):

posing by the tent

Plus it got our bikes used to being nice and disgusting, a state they would maintain for the remainder of the race:

muddy bike

Seriously, there was no hope keeping our rides clean in these conditions; I was continually amazed (and slightly suspicious) when people showed up the for the next morning’s stage with spotless bikes.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, so we’ll save that for a later post.

Anyway, after getting mildly cleaned up (all we could get to was the bathroom to Brevard College’s baseball stadium), we settled in to watch the rest of the racing.  Mmm, barbecue:

eating bbq and watching racing

After a few more heats, it was finally time for the pros to toe the line.  The biggest name (and fastest rider) was definitely Jeremiah Bishop, but also in the field were Sam Koerber, Christian Tanguy, Harlan Price and Atlanta Olympic champ Susan Haywood on the women’s side.  Needless to say, these guys were fast!  They were churning out lap times in nearly half the time it took our field; but they are paid to ride bikes after all!  Here they are hammering off the start line:

pros starting

And in case you are wondering about those sweet looking wheels hanging in the foreground, those are from the boys out at Industry Nine, based near Brevard.  I was a fan of this model; nothing says mountain biking like ultralight hubs laced to a tubeless carbon rim (hey, why not):

i9 wheel

Back the race, here’s a clip from the first corner, with Jeremiah Bishop (in a recurring theme for, I don’t know, every day for the next 3 days) leading out the field:

Once they got in the woods you could really see the skill level of these guys; they just seemed to power through sections that left me bogged down and grabbing for more gears. It was like they were ghosts mysteriously flying through the trees; alright, maybe not (I saw plenty of guys slipping through the mud, even in the pro race), but I wanted to come up with a cheesy tag line for this cool photo I took during the race:

Ghost MTB Rider

Bishop kept killing it through the race, making it look way too easy in the singletrack:

As he lapped some slower competitors, he cruised in for the blowout victory.  Arm’s up, Jeremiah:

On a side note, also during the pro race, I saw one of the famous white squirrels of Brevard! No, seriously, they are renowned for these snowy rodents. You can read all about them here.  Chris still doesn’t believe me since I have no photographic evidence, but I can’t be too crazy if they have a whole festival dedicated to the cute critters.  I’m not sure what a “squirrel box derby” is, but I’m guessing that a: it’s awesome and b: you probably don’t want to tell the ASPCA about it.

So there you have it, our first day of the Pisgah Stage Race was done, and literally all of Pisgah’s epic backcountry awaited us.  The only real bummer of the weekend occurred when we got back to our free campsite that night and found out that some obviously cold folks had decided to help themselves to our sleeping bags and cooking stove.  It wasn’t exactly how we wanted to start our first night, but we packed up (what was left) of our campsite and headed down to the Davidson River Campground (where we stayed for the rest of the race).  It was definitely the right move, as all of the folks at the campground (employees and campers alike) were super-friendly and helpful.  A special thanks goes out to Nancy, a front desk employee, who loaned me a sleeping bag and mattress for the duration of the race; if you are in town to check out the trails, I definitely recommend giving the Davidson River Campground a try.

After a quick reset of the campsite, we packed it in for the night, with dreams of sweet singletrack dancing in our heads.

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