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