Spring in Pisgah
I arrived at my campsite–nothing more than a tent pad and a trash hook on Avery Creek Road in the Pisgah National Forest–just after dark. A steady drizzle was coming down, but not too much to set up a tent. So I got started, unpacking the truck and making final preparations for tomorrow’s ride: Stage 3 of the Pisgah Stage Race. I covered my bike with a yoga mat that I use as a tailgate pad, so it wouldn’t get rained on all night.
The plan was to camp here for three nights, and spend each day riding along with a field of elite endurance riders across some of the most challenging and raw mountain bike trails in the US, in an event called The Pisgah Stage Race. I would be challenged to the limits of my own mountain bike abilities, while witnessing a grueling competition between two champions of the sport. But first, I had to get my shit together.
Preparing for a Stage Race
For the Pisgah Stage Race, Blue Ridge Adventures lays it on thick with the amenities: killer coffee and scones from Crank Coffee every morning, farm-to-table dinner every night. And everywhere you looked, Sycamore Cycles was there to keep your bike spinning perfectly. So when it comes to preparation, I just needed to worry about my on-the-bike grub, and post-ride lunches. I whipped up a fresh batch of blueberry-chocolate rice sandwiches (from the Feedzone Portables Recipe Book), and roasted up some fresh Georgia pecans for trail noms. Salmon Salad Sandwiches were on the menu for lunch.
Stage 3: Pisgah is a Rainforest
I like to think that I do a lot of riding in The Pisgah. I have four different editions of the same Pisgah trail map. I know the difference between Pilot Rock and Pilot Cove. And I have cleared the “Devil’s Staircase” on Bennett Gap (both lines!). But every time I come here, I am challenged in a new way. Today’s stage was no exception.
As I lined up with the racers at the Black Mountain trailhead for the start of Stage 3, I heard stories about the weather. Weeks of heavy rain had left the trails soggy, and the rocks and roots were slick with mud and moss. Non-stop downpours had drenched riders on the previous stage. And today would be rainy too, but colder. Much colder: I measured an average temperature for the ride of 43*F on my Garmin Edge 510.
The route started with a quick loop around Sycamore Cove, then we marched up Thrift Cove to begin the steep, technical climb up “Middle Black” (the local’s term for the section of Black Mountain Trail between Thrift Cove and Presley Gap.) Today’s loop would finish down this same trail, so I took note of the condition: the ruts were deep. The rocks were pointy. And a thin, greasy film of mud covered everything.
I descended Buckhorn Gap Trail alongside Viviane Favery-Costa, a talented new rider from Sao Paulo, Brazil. This was her first time riding in Pisgah. Later this year she plans to compete in the Leadville MTB 100 and the infamous La Ruta de los Conquistadores. Not bad for a girl who has been mountain biking for barely three years!
We made our way up Club Gap to begin the day’s timed Enduro section: Avery Creek Trail. Todd Branham, head honcho of Blue Ridge Adventures, called Avery Creek “The ‘most enduro’ of the enduro stages in this race.” It’s a long, mostly straight downhill that starts out steep and stair-steppy and finishes with some pedally bits and tricky creek crossings. Neko Mulally, recent North Carolina transplant and extremely badass downhill rider, continued to dominate the Men’s Enduro competition by putting in a blazing time of 7:35. To get an idea of how Neko shreds the Pisgah trails, check out this recent video from Red Bull:
I was stoked with my time of 9:42, which was good enough for 14th out of 46 men in the enduro competition. My enduro times are usually closer to mid-pack, but I thrive in Pisgah’s muddy conditions, especially when most of the field comes from drier parts of the country.
Way out in front of me, the battle was heating up between the top men’s riders, Thomas “The Hitman” Turner, from Woodstock, Georgia, and Jeremiah Bishop from Harrisonburg, Virginia. Back in Stage 1, TT capitalized on JB’s mechanical troubles and established a 5-minute lead. But mountain bike legend Jeremiah Bishop wasn’t going to give this one away: he attacked Turner at every opportunity since, winning back two minutes in Stage 2 and making Stage 3 an all-out dog fight. But today’s route finished down Black Mountain Trail in all of its rocky, rooty, steep, greasy glory. Thomas’s superior technical ability, combined with local-trail familiarity, gave him the edge, and he was able to extend his lead by another 36 seconds.
I rolled through the finish line and kept pedaling all the way back to my campsite. Today’s stage, with 5,433 feet of climbing and cold, wet weather, left me completely shelled. I stripped off my muddy clothes and laid in my tent for about an hour, drifting in and out of sleep, wondering how in the hell I was going to do this again tomorrow. I put on some dry clothes and drove into town for the Rider’s Dinner.
…to be continued with Stages 4 and 5 of the 2015 Pisgah Stage Race.