Sunday, April 14, 2019

Pisgah Stage Race

New year, new season. I opened the year with some gravel racing at Monster Cross, Croatan 150, and Love Valley Rubaix, but this was the first mountain bike race of the season. We drove down to Pisgah on Monday afternoon and per usual it rained and thunderstormed the whole way there. At times, the rain was so heavy it was almost impossible to see the highway ahead. It continued to downpour through the opening ceremony and well into the night.

Stage 1: Looking Glass Route: 21 miles, 4,000 ft of climbing

Luckily, the rain had stopped by 8 am, when we pulled into the parking lot for the race start. We milled around and guessed how much tire pressure we should run and what layers to wear. I really wanted to eat a warm scone, which they serve every morning, but my stomach was too nervous to hold it down. I came out guns blazing at the start and probably gassed myself too early trying to keep pace with some faster guys up the 1st climb. I definitely didn't know any of the lines down Daniel's Ridge and found myself off the bike quite a few times on the top of the descent. It was a good reminder of what Pisgah riding is like if you are not from around here. Jen came shooting by me on the descent, and although I did my best to put some time into her on the climb up to Farlow, my legs just felt flat and she out-climbed me. I was super nervous about Farlow because I have never ridden it before and also knew it was a notoriously difficult descent. Somehow, I survived! There was one hike-a-bike section across this beautiful waterfall which I might have to return to to take a picture of.  I had a blast down Cove Creek, which was the last descent back to the campground and the finish. I finished 2nd on the stage, three minutes behind Jen, which, given how blah my legs felt, I was ok with. I was actually pretty happy with how I had ridden some of the descents, and it was my first race with a dropper - it has made a significant difference in my descending skills this winter. I talked to Dylan after the race, and he said he usually struggles on the 1st day of stage races too, but gave me good advice that later in the week, my endurance background would kick in and I would have legs then when others might be feeling tired.

Stage 2: Promised Land Route: 28 miles, 5,000 ft of climbing

Having opened up my legs on the 1st stage yesterday, I was feeling better and ready attack the climbs again today. There is about a 5 mile lead out on the main road with police escorts, which was pretty mellow and a nice warm up. Then the race takes a left hand turn up Turkey Pen which is a steep little climb on gravel and the racing starts. I felt great. Unfortunately, the course then ducks into a short downhill section with some log drops that were really slippery after all the rain. I was cruising downhill and completely ate it over one of the logs. I crashed so hard onto my left side and shoulder. It took me a second to get my wind back and grab my bike out of the middle of the trail so other riders wouldn't crash into me. My shoulder and left ribs were throbbing. My seat was crooked. I got back on the bike as fast as I could. At the bottom, I had to dismount to walk across a suspension bridge and had time to muscle my seat straight. There is quite a long singletrack climb followed by a rocky, rooty, ridgeline trail called Squirrel. Every single root and rock my tires hit sent a shooting awful pain into my shoulder. It was horrible. I had to walk so much because I just couldn't stand the pain. It felt like a million people passed me. I counted at least 6 women. I watched Annie just glide over all the rocks. I thought a lot about quitting. I kept waiting for Jeff to come by but I didn't see him. To make matters worse, a branch somehow ripped the mouthpiece off of my camel pack hose and all my water/carborocket immediately drained out in about 30 secs. Wonderful. Finally, we were descending off Squirrel. Georgia Gould passed me right before the descent and I got to follow her wheel down which was pretty cool. I looked at my Wahoo and realized there were only 14 miles left. I had to make a choice: either throw in the towel or go ape shit and make up as much time as possible. I decided to start doing damage control. I knew the rest of the course having ridden up Buckhorn and down Black Mountain at the Pisgah 111k/55K. I went as fast as I could up Buckhorn, down Clawhammer gravel, and back up the gravel forest service road to Black Mountain. I caught and passed every lady who had passed me on Squirrel. Unfortunately, I didn't get enough of a gap on Annie, and she came flying by me down Black. I was also wincing with every root drop, but I made it to the finish! Jen also crashed on Stage 2 and finished about 10 minutes back, which incredibly put me into 1st place overall.

Stage 3: White Squirrel Route: 30 miles, 6100 ft of climbing

I woke up this morning so so sore. My shoulder ached, my rib hurt, I could barely move my neck, my back hurt. I wasn't sure how today would go. I didn't sleep well because every time I moved an inch in bed, I would wake up in pain from my left ribs. I figured I would start and have zero expectations for the day. Luckily, my legs felt good and my shoulder didn't hurt climbing so I knew I could put in some efforts on the climbs. Jen came powering by me on the 1st climb up to Sycamore Cove, and I just stayed at my pace. Sycamore was actually a super fun trail and miraculously, after 1200mg of ibuprofen over the course of the morning, my shoulder didn't hurt at all! We passed back through the start/finish area, and then hit the climb up Thrift Cove and then up to the top of Black Mountain. I passed Jen on the gravel climb, then she passed me hiking up Black, then I passed her again on the gravel descent. The rest of the day was awesome, and I think I had a smile on my face the whole time. It consisted of long gravel climbs and fun super rocky, rooty steep singletrack descents down Avery Creek, Bennett Gap and Black Mountain. I kept it together on the descents and went as hard as I could up the climbs and finally got a stage win today! I was definitely feeling pretty tired after almost 4 hours of riding, but I felt like I earned the right to wear the leader's jersey for another day.

Stage 4: Carl Schenck Route: 22 miles, 2800 ft of climbing

I feel like in every stage race I have done, one of the days gets shortened due to weather. It was too hot for one of the stages at Cape Epic in 2017. It was too wet for one of the stages at Breck last year. And today, the threat of lightning and afternoon storms caused the race director to shorten today's stage. I hate it when stages are shortened because I feel like I am missing out on the full experience of the stage race. But I have also realized that it is out of my control, and I just have to roll with it. Anyway, we found out in the starting corral that the 1st section of singletrack had been removed and that we would be taking a gravel road out for about 9 miles, then riding Laurel/Pilot and then taking a gravel road back for about 5 miles to the finish. The only good thing about the route change is that I can definitely hammer along the gravel. Oh, and I forgot - it was also raining quite hard at the start today. I figured I would probably lose some time to Jen on this stage since she would probably ride the trails faster than me, and my goal was to lose as little time as possible. I made it into Laurel ahead of her and kept going as fast as my legs and lungs would let me. There were some hike-a-bike sections over really slippery and muddy rocks and parts of the trail were so muddy that it was hard to keep traction on the climbs. I kept waiting for Jen to pass me and every mile I made it still in the lead I did a little dance in my head. It was good way to pass the time. Finally, we were at the top of Pilot. I was still in the lead, it was still very foggy and drizzly, and the rocks were still very wet and slippery. I took the descent pretty conservatively wanting to stay upright. I was also having a lot of trouble clipping into my shoes with the all the mud in my pedals and cleats. Even though I was being cautious, I still PRd on all the Strava segments down Pilot which just goes to show how much better my descending skills are compared to 2 years ago when I last raced down this trail (or maybe it just shows how slow I used to be on this terrain!). As soon as we hit gravel, I started motoring. I was still in the lead by some miracle, and I knew I wasn't going to lose time on gravel. I got into a group with a few other guys, and we all traded pulls, making short work of the 5 miles back to the finish. Another stage win and I got to live another day in the leader's jersey!

Stage 5: The Land of Waterfalls Route: 26 miles, 3600 ft of climbing

I always agonize over the last stage of a race, especially when I have the leaders jersey. The end seems so close but all it takes is one crash, one lapse in concentration, one little mistake to lose the whole race. I had about an 18 minute lead over Jen, but if I broke a chain or a frame, that 18 minutes could evaporate very quickly. Smooth and steady, just stay smooth and steady was my mantra for the entire stage. My cocktail of 400 mg of ibuprofen immediately when I woke up at about 6:30 in the morning and then 800 mg just before the race start at 9:00am was keeping the pain in my shoulder and ribs in check. We had a gravel start up a climb and I got out in front. Then we descended down a trail called Butter Gap which was steep, rocky, and muddy. Smooth and steady. Smooth and steady. Then we popped out on gravel again and rode that until we ducked into Davidson River Trail. There was a bacon hand up and one of the volunteers stuffed bacon into my mouth as I rode through. Then we had about a 7 mile double track climb up to the top of Bracken. There were whiskey shots at the top of Bracken. I stopped for a shot and about 5 minutes later, felt like I might vomit. Bracken descent is unlike any other descent in Pisgah because it is a smooth machine built flow trail which was pretty fun to cruise down. I got a stick stuck in my derailleur which caused my chain to fall off and had to stop to get my chain back on, but otherwise I rode smooth and steady into the finish! I got the stage win and the win overall. I was really happy because I never in a million years thought I would win this race. Jeff finished a little ways behind me. He was excited because he broke the record for the most whiskey shots taken at the top of Bracken with 4! Overall, it was an awesome week of racing in Pisgah, and despite my poor shoulder and ribs, I had such a fun time.

I kept things pretty simple for the race. I rode my Trek Top Fuel with ESI chunky grips, Maxxis 2.4 Ardent Tires, Fox Transfer dropper. I use a Rudy Project helmet and sunglasses, Pearl Izumi shoes. I used a camel pack everyday with CarboRocket Half Evil 333 and Huma gels. I get a lot of grief about using a camel pack in races, but I love it because 1) it is super easy to hydrate in the trails and 2) I can carry enough water/nutrition that I never have to stop at any of the aid stations. Thanks so much to Todd and everyone at Blue Ridge Adventures for putting on such an awesome week of racing!

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