Riding Along with the Pisgah Stage Race, Part 2

Pilot Rock Trail, Pisgah National Forest. Photo credit Icon Media Asheville
Pilot Rock Trail, Pisgah National Forest. Photo credit Icon Media Asheville

Waking up in the Pisgah forest is a magical experience: the sounds of birds and streams, the smell of fresh damp foliage, the promise of a new day and new trails to slay. On the morning of Stage 4 of the Pisgah Stage Race, I wasn’t anxious to leave the tent, so I made a little recording. Now I invite you, dear reader, to have a listen and be transported to my little woodland paradise:

I was looking forward to today’s Stage 4, the Carl Schenck Route, the most out of all the stages. We would be riding a wonderful loop that included three classic Pisgah trails: Squirrel Gap, Laurel Mountain, and Pilot Rock. It’s a pretty big loop, clocking in at 31.5 miles. And while not as much climbing as yesterday, we would reach the lowest (2,400’) and highest (4,874’) elevations of the entire race.

While it rained off and on during the night, temperatures were warming and skies were clearing as we lined up to start the day’s stage at the Cradle of Forestry – the birthplace of Forest Science in the US.  I would be remiss not to take this opportunity to tell you a little about The Pisgah National Forest: covering 512,758 acres, it’s huge. There are 420 miles of mountain bike trails in the Transylvania County portion alone (put that in your pipe and smoke it!) and many more on the other side of Asheville. Pisgah is considered a “temperate rainforest” (which I think means it gets a lot of rain, but it’s not all hot and muggy).  There are waterfalls everywhere (a higher concentration in Transylvania County than any other in the US). And most importantly, the mountain bike trails are really great. In 2011, Bike Magazine made Pisgah and Dupont State Forest the central focus of an entire year’s worth of bike and gear testing, and their editor Vernon Felton said “…believe you me, the trails around Brevard, North Carolina are, if anything, woefully under-hyped.”

Stage 4


The stage started with a climb up Funnel Top, past panoramic views of distant mountain ranges, to the first gnarly descent of the day: Horse Cove Gap. So gnarly, in fact, that the volunteer at the bottom had blood dripping down his face. He crashed while getting into position before the race. After chatting with him and helping him clean up a bit, I continued on across the marvelously narrow bench cut that is Squirrel Gap. This trail is a true gem. It follows contour lines for miles and miles, with many tricky root crossings, rock features, and narrow passages with exposure to one side or the other. I passed a few racers struggling with the technical singletrack before dropping down into Laurel Creek, a steep chute with soggy drops and slick, awkwardly-angled roots. The stream crossing at the bottom was swollen to waist height and I didn’t want to carry all that wetness to the top of Laurel Mountain, so I tip-toed across a downed tree that spanned the creek. It was tricky, but dry, and the riders behind me followed.

Looking out from Pilot Rock. Photo credit Icon Media Asheville
Looking out from Pilot Rock. Photo credit Icon Media Asheville

Next began a 10-mile climb, starting with one of Pisgah’s several “never-ending roads” and continuing onto Laurel Mountain trail (with one well-stocked sag station in between). Laurel Mountain, for the first 6 miles, is actually a pleasure to climb. Passing through narrow rhododendron tunnels and across rocky outcroppings, it’s seven miles of almost perfect singletrack. It kicks up steeply towards the end, climbing to the top of Pilot Rock. Check out this video from Stage 4 of the race (the breathtaking views of Pilot Rock start at 2:39):

Pilot Rock is a legendary downhill, chock full of huge rocks, tight switchbacks, and every manner of technical feature. You have to be on your game 100% of the time. Most days I stop and rest halfway down, but today Pilot Rock was the enduro segment, and stopping was out of the question.

Doing my best to keep the rubber-side down on Pilot Rock. Photo credit Icon Media Asheville
Doing my best to keep the rubber-side down on Pilot Rock. Photo credit Icon Media Asheville

Apparently, it rained on Pilot Rock while I was climbing Laurel Mountain. The rocks were glistening in the sun as I slid, skidded, and shimmied down the trail. I had a great run, reveling in the knowledge that I was almost finished with the stage. When I finally rolled past the finish, changed, and loaded into my truck, the raindrops started to plop onto the windshield. I silently congratulated myself for finishing before the bottom fell out.

My 27.5 Specialized Stumpjumper Evo Expert, at the end of Stage 4, after a thorough washing at the Sycamore Cycles bike wash station.
My 27.5 Specialized Stumpjumper Evo Expert, at the end of Stage 4, after a thorough washing at the Sycamore Cycles bike wash station.

At the racer’s dinner that night (another delicious farm-to-table affair, with libations provided by now-local brewery Oskar Blues) I met and chatted with racers from all over the continent. Like Josh Krattiger, from Boise, Idaho, who would go on to win the singlespeed category. And Sarah Sheets, from Ft. Collins, Colorado, who would go on to win the women’s category. (She told me, “I don’t mind the rain. I have to ride in a desert 360 days of year. I’m happy to get a little wet.”). And DJ Birch, from Tucson, Arizona, who tried to give a beer to a minor on the podium later that evening.

Me, after Stage 4 but before the skies opened up
Me, after Stage 4 but before the skies opened up

Kurt’s Stage 4 GPS data:

Stage 5: Farlow Gap and Bracken Mountain


Ask folks about “Farlow Gap” in Brevard, NC, and suddenly the conversation gets all serious. You may hear phrases like “chundery as fuck” or “helicopter rescue.”  Someone will bitch about the super-steep approach climb. And you are sure to hear it called “the gnarliest downhill in Pisgah.”  That’s all true. But what rarely gets mentioned is how goddamn fun it is. First, you bounce and ricochet over loose boulders, choosing whatever line you want and hoping for the best. Later, you cruise fast and furious through flowy, remote singletrack, splashing through creeks and pushing your bike up impossible climbs. And of course, you finish with the brilliant downhill of Daniel’s Ridge Trail.

Stage 5, the final stage of the Pisgah Stage Race presented by Blue Ridge Adventures,  starts with Farlow Gap and finishes with Bracken Mountain Trail, a brand-new 5.3-mile downhill flow trail that terminates at the Brevard Music Center. It was a study in contrasts: the gnarly, loose, rocky, remote Farlow juxtaposed with the flowy, fast, groomed Bracken. Racers who had endured four days of grueling weather and trails would be put to two final tests: first of technical ability and then of flow and speed.

Today would also be Jeremiah Bishop’s last chance to catch Thomas Turner, the Georgia mountain man who had held the leader’s jersey for the entire week. Bishop had raced flawlessly on Stage 4, winning back 3 minutes from Turner, and narrowing his deficit to less than 2 minutes. For this last stage, Jeremiah Bishop made the curious strategic choice of skipping the shuttle bus from the Brevard Music Center, instead parking at the Fish Hatchery and riding up to Gloucester Gap, where the rest of us were dropped off. I chatted with Thomas Turner while we waited for the bike trailer. As the minutes ticked by, shivering in the morning chill, we could do nothing but stand and watch as Jeremiah spun by, the only one getting a proper warm-up. Suddenly it looked like Thomas might have made a strategic mistake.

I pedaled as slowly as my 1×11 drivetrain would allow, as the leaders blazed up the long climb to start the stage.  I finally arrived at the top of Farlow to be see Jeff Shikaze, a racer from Toronto, getting his picture taken with Popeye. (Jeff took tons of awesome photos during the race, and I can’t wait to see them.) Farlow Gap was awesome. I managed to keep it upright, blasting through the rocky section with several other riders watching from the side of the trail. I cleaned the infamous “stairs” section with no onlookers for proof, noting only in retrospect that they had deteriorated significantly since my last time up here. I marched on towards Bracken Mountain, up a gently-graded but agonizingly-long fire road. When I saw singletrack, I knew I was home free. One last downhill and I was done.

The Enduro on Bracken Mountain Trail started with a whiskey shot, offered up by the friendly volunteer who scanned my number plate for the start of the enduro section. Properly loosened, I proceeded down the trail with a huge smile on my face – happy to be on a fun trail and happy to be on my way to the finish. I also learned on the way down that Thomas Turner came through the last check point right behind Jeremiah Bishop, meaning that he would hold on to his lead and bring home a historic victory.

Video footage of Jeremiah Bishop attacking Thomas Turner on the last stage of the Pisgah Stage Race, beginning at 3:35:

It’s been a great experience for me: full immersion into a world-class forest and trail system, surrounded by passionate mountain bikers and elite racers.  Todd Branham and his crew are worthy guides. If you can afford the time and the entry fee, there is no better guided tour of the Pisgah National Forest than the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race.

Kurt’s Stage 5 GPS data:

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