The 40-mile Black Bear Rampage might be my favorite endurance race in the southeast. It just seems to strike the perfect balance–this race is the most fun for the least amount of suffering. At 40 miles it’s long enough to really wear me out, but short enough I can push myself somewhat hard and not just ride in survival mode all day. There’s more climbing than I’m used to, but it’s not that bad. Best of all, the trails are just good plain fun. They’re so fast! The Brush Creek trails are smooth, twisty, flowy, and super fast. The Tanasi trails are rocky enough to test you, but still flowy and fast, and everything is rideable. If you were to take the time to slow down and look around, there’s beautiful scenery. Lastly, you’d be hard pressed to find a friendlier bunch of folks running a race anywhere.
It’s Not All About The Bike
Half the fun of going off for a weekend of bike racing is just getting away from regular life for a little while and hanging out with friends. Four of us left Augusta Saturday morning with the plan of driving up and doing a short pre-ride that afternoon. We arrived to a nice steady rain, so no riding; we went to the hotel to chill for a few hours instead. We stayed at a little hotel out in the boonies, but very close to the race start line: The Ocoee Country Inn/Chevron/Champs Chicken and Fish Too/Car Wash. Check-in is inside the Chevron, and the free breakfast is a $5 coupon for Champs Chicken and Fish Too, which is basically just a deep fryer in the corner of the Chevron. On Friday nights they have a frog leg special.
The hotel was actually not bad though! It was clean, the rooms were big, and it was so close to the race start it was a good option. So we checked in, did some final tune ups on the bikes, watched a little Office Space, then made the 45min drive to Cleveland, TN to meet two other Augusta friends for dinner. We ate a popular local joint called Jenkin’s Deli where I had a buffalo burger which was great. I highly recommended you check the place out if you’re ever in town.
After dinner we went to check into the race and pick up our swag bag (which included a super nice jersey) at Scott’s Bicycle Centre, the shop who puts on the race. What a great place! Big shop, lots of inventory, and like I mentioned above, super nice, friendly folks. We checked in for the race, browsed around the shop for a while, and some of us bought a few last minute items. Then we made the drive back to the Chevron/hotel and went to bed. Tomorrow was race day!
On Sunday we woke up to beautiful, clear blue skies and crisp mid 50°F temperatures. The weather could not have possibly been better. The race is started in waves, the faster classes are sent off first. A paved two-mile climb greets you as you leave the start line, and it does a good job of spreading everyone out before hitting the singletrack of the Brush Creek trail system. I’d done this race before and knew the first few miles of singletrack were tight, twisty, fairly flat, and very fast. Passing is tough, so I pushed a good pace up the paved climb so I wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on the trails.
Racers getting ready for the start. Photo: Caffeine Photography
Trail conditions were great. There were a few wet and slick spots here and there early in the morning, but as a the day wore on everything dried out to perfect hero dirt. The race uses pretty much all of the Brush Creek and Tanasi trails, and if you haven’t ridden here yet, it’s worth a trip. The course is just super fun. Some sections are smooth and flowy, with lots of berms, and you can really fly. Other sections are rocky enough you have to pay attention to keep it rubber side down, but nothing is unrideable or too hard. Even the chunkier parts of the trails are still really fast.
Hammering alongside the river. Photo: Caffeine Photography
I did the race two years ago and finished with a time of 4:23 so I was hoping to get under 4 hours this time. It was a goal I knew I could make, but I also knew it wouldn’t be easy for me–what’s the point of an easy goal? So I rode pretty hard all day, but stuck to my nutrition regimen I’ve developed over the years that seems to work for me. Gatorade G-Pro in the bottles (remember to drink regularly), and eat a gel every 45 minutes. I’ve learned not to fudge the food interval – every 45mins I eat, no matter what. If it’s a smooth climb or fireroad I’ll eat on the bike. If I can’t eat on the bike, I’ll stop. It only takes a minute or so to down a gel, and waiting until it’s convenient could put me behind and result in a bonk later in the day.
Photo: Caffeine Photography
Near the halfway point of the race is the longest climb of the day, about 4 miles on a gravel road. Near the top there are signs that say “Hurry up – I hear banjo music!” A little comedy is nice when you’re suffering. There’s a SAG station at the top of the gravel road, and I was greeted by a pirate who yelled “AAAARRRRRRRRRGH! Aren’t you glad you’re at the top, matey!” This was the only SAG stop I used and I quickly refilled my bottles and got back on the trail.
There was another racer at the stop whose face was covered in blood on the right side. The volunteers kept asking “are you SURE you’re okay??? It looks like you’re bleeding a lot…” but he assured them he was fine and he headed off into the woods. The volunteers radioed ahead to other volunteers/course marshals and told them to keep an eye out for the guy. He ended up winning some sort of award for bleeding the most and still finishing.
Ouch. That’s the pirate in the background. Photo: Caffeine Photography
As it turns out, the pirate was a liar. We weren’t at the top yet, the singletrack leaving the SAG continued to climb for a ways. Just goes to show: never trust a pirate. Especially one in the mountains of Tennessee.
I felt better the second half of the race than I did the first. My average pace was just above 10mph, but including the few stops I made to eat and the one SAG stop, I knew I was going to be close to making my four hour goal. With 30 minutes left I turned up the pace and tried to burn up the last of my energy. The closer I got, the more I knew it was going to come down to the wire.
With about three miles to go I got into the most fun part of the entire ride. I was back on the Brush Creek trails, which are super fast and flowy with lots of twists, turns, and berms. But a lot of the turns are blind so you can only see about 10ft of trail in front of you. I ended up at the back of what turned into a five-man pace line. The guy up front must have either been a local who knew the trails really well, or, he’s just got a big set of steel balls. Either way, he lead us all through those blind turns at an irresponsibly fast pace! If I had been on my own I’d have been going much slower, but at the back of this pace line I just matched the speed and line of the guy in front of me and trusted that everyone knew what they were doing, and it worked out.
We flew through the trail at a crazy speed, all riding about a foot off each other’s wheel; we were practically drafting through tight and twisty singletrack! Whoever the other guys were – thanks! That was a blast, and it was the highlight of the ride for me.
Racing to the line! #208 was too fast for me to get by. Photo: Caffeine Photography
I didn’t know if I’d make the goal or not, and I didn’t dare look down at my computer those last few miles. The race ends with a turn onto a steep bit of double track, and the finish line is about a quarter of a mile up the road. Our pace line turned into a five man uphill sprint. I passed three of the guys, but couldn’t catch the fourth one. Right at the line my legs were screaming and locking up in cramps. My finishing time was 4:02 – just barely missed my goal. But it’s all good–I left it all out on the course, took twenty minutes off my previous time, and really enjoyed every minute of the ride. I finished 11th out of 23 in the Male Under 34 Sport class.
Just Do It
If you live within a few hours drive of this race, it needs to be on your calendar for next year. Be sure and sign up early, as it always sells out. The course is the perfect mix of fun and challenge, the area is beautiful, and the race is extremely well run. The SAG stations (which are 10 miles apart more or less) are all well stocked, the volunteers are super friendly, and every turn on the course is either marked with a giant sign or there is a person to direct you the correct way. Your $100 race fee gets you a really nice custom jersey, and a great post-race meal. There are classes broken up by age group and ability (pro/expert/sport/beginner), there’s also a 20-mile race, categories for kids, and even a 20-mile Muni (mountain unicycle) race. There’s something for everyone at Black Bear.
Huge thanks to the great folks at Scott’s Bicycles and all the volunteers that made the race possible. I’ll see y’all next year!