Race Recap: Pisgah Stage Race, part 1

By Andrew Vontz

Photo via Blue Ridge Adventures

Stage One

I woke up at 6 am. At home and when I travel, I wear silicone earplugs to help me get quality sleep. I popped one out. I popped the other out–and it tore. A huge chunk of it was stuck in my right ear. I tried to dig it out and of course, pushed it deeper. To Google. Don’t try to extract. Have to get to race. Is it safe to race with a giant hunk of silicone putty jammed in your ear canal? Not getting it out now. Go through the ritual of force-feeding before a giant ride. Very nervous today.

This is a hard race. It’s physically hard with 4-5k of climbing every day for five days. And it’s technically extremely demanding. I would put it this way: if you went and skied once a year and could make it down a few double diamonds but were terrified when you did it, imagine what it would be like to go skiing five days in a row on the hardest double diamonds you’ve ever skied. That’s what riding Pisgah feels like to me. I don’t have similar terrain that’s accessible where I live, but I come here to be over my head and get better. And it’s terrifying. I did it last year looking for a challenge. It smacked me. I came back for another go at it this year.

After a hard start, I passed a few people, but mainly I got passed. I had to get off and push my bike a lot on the first 30-minute singletrack climb. I had to get off and push my bike on sections of the enduro, the easiest of the week.

On Butter Gap, one of the singletrack downhill sections riddled with roots and drops and steeps, there was slippery mud from the last week of rain. I took a few dives and had my wheels go out from under me and my feet fly out of the pedals at inopportune moments. There were multiple high-speed gravel downhills, too. And after my two high-speed gravel crashes in the past two years, I err on the side of caution, so last time there, too.

Two of the central dilemmas of Pisgah: What tires? Camelbak or bottles?

I ran an Ikon 3c EXO 2.3” rear and an Ardent Race 3c EXO 2.3” front. Could have used more tire today.

I ran bottles because there were a few long gravel sections today, so I was able to access them okay. Tomorrow, the first aid station comes at mile 24 after 18 straight miles of singletrack. That will be a Camelbak day for me.

Day one was hard. My legs nearly seized with cramps at the end of the stage when I stood up to pedal. The spills and slideouts in steep and deep terrain seriously rattled my confidence and turned the knob more in the direction of oh shit than fun, but I also regained my composure and saw it out. Ultimately I ran the stage 18 minutes faster than the same course last year but finished nowhere near the front, not even close. Back for more tomorrow.

Photo via Blue Ridge Adventures

Stage Two

Squirrel Gap gave me nightmares for a year after my first go at the Pisgah Stage Race. It’s a high-exposure, side-cut trail with roots on roots on rocks and I saw some truly awful high-side wrecks happen last year including a guy who broke his ankle so bad he almost tore his foot off.

I came here to get better at mountain biking; today was my chance to do it.

This stage starts with six miles on a highway with a rolling enclosure, cops driving in front of and behind a pack of 200 mountain bikers flying down a highway. There are some truly gifted mountain bikers at this race. But it’s fair to guess that most haven’t spent a great deal of time riding in a tight pack with their 780 mm bars. And I know I haven’t. I’m running Ergon GP3 grips with bar ends, so my main objective until we got to trail was to protect my bars and make sure I didn’t get hooked. Last year, the start was all-out with attacks from the gun. I was hanging with the family and my parents last night and wasn’t able to go to the riders’ meeting, so I don’t know if they told people that it was a neutral start or that’s just how it shook out, but the race was steady until we got to the trailhead.

At the sharp right off the highway and onto trail, someone’s family was standing on the inside of the turn, probably not anticipating that the entire pack of 200 riders would be dive bombing to the inside and gunning it. While they ducked for cover, everyone hit the gas and the discomfort started as we got stuck into a more or less 12-mile singletrack climb with a slightly wider trail at the bottom and everyone fighting for position.

While I ran into some seriously overly aggro riders where I was in the middle of the pack last year, today everyone was courteous about swapping position, thankfully. I latched onto a good wheel and stuck with it all the way to Squirrel Gap. And while the line of riders I was in had to dismount and push a number of times leading up to Squirrel Gap, by the time we got to the meat of it I was in a group that was moving along and riding almost everything. I thought I was on a solid wheel and was focused on staying calm and relaxed while riding the exact kind of terrain that terries me. As can happen when you start to get into a groove and feel moderately confident, I looked up and saw the rider in front of me high-side and go cartwheeling off the side-cut, saving himself and his bike with a last-ditch tree grab.

That reminded me to stay calm but to stay focused and not let my guard down. I erred on the side of caution, dismounting where I felt too uncomfortable and doing the outrigger with my uphill foot where I could. I was in a groove. There are a number of rocky declivities with pools of water where the trail bends 90 degrees then shoots up again. They’re tricky to ride because you can’t be sure of what’s in the water (unless you’re a local and have done it 100 times–not me). I walked a few, rode a few, and was starting to feel confident on them. Then I came upon a series of stone slabs and rocks with odd spacing. It looked rideable, but had a puddle at the end I thought I could roll.

Right until my wheel came to a dead stop in it and catapulted me face first into the slab of rock. I landed directly on my right cheekbone and didn’t have time to get my arm out–probably for the best–so I took a fairly massive blow to my right arm and shoulder and somehow raked both of my shins. I hit my head so hard I was fairly certain I was concussed and had to sit on the side of the trail for a moment.

There’s always that pause after a very hard wreck where you haven’t looked down or touched the surface of your body where it hit when you don’t know just how bad you have hurt yourself. Based on how I felt at that moment, it seemed like I might have broken my cheekbone and arm. When I pressed on my cheek, though, I couldn’t feel any cracks or anything that felt like it was broken. My shins and arm stung, but luckily I just had deep scrapes and nothing worse.

Three riders passed me while I was on the ground and asked if I was ok and needed help. This was the section where the year before I’d seen the guy break his ankle. It had taken three hours for first responders to hike in, secure him and then head back out. Foot is the only way in or out for help.

I had rung my bell good, but I was only 13 miles into a 30-mile day and there was one way out. I got back on the bike and pedaled. I still had eight miles of singletrack before the next section of fire road and 11 miles to the only rest stop.

I re-centered myself, found my confidence again and just focused on riding a hard tempo where I could, being present and gutting out the numerous steeps I had to crank up. I just focused on each chunk ahead of me and looked down at the course profile taped to my bars periodically to time my fluid/calorie consumption relative to the race profile and where I anticipated having opportunities to drink more.

Photo by Katie Sweeney

On Buckhorn Gap, I passed five riders back and caught up to a guy I’ve been swapping spots with the past two days as we headed into a sinuous, high-speed, four-mile gravel descent. I’ve had two major wrecks on loose gravel in the last two years and wasn’t going to have another one today. I led the descent and my buddy/rival kept trying to come up underneath me in corners and pinch me out, but I held my line and didn’t let him.

At the bottom of the descent, we hit the rest stop where volunteers handed me the bottle in my race bag and I headed up a brutal, steep three-mile gravel climb. My buddy had shot past the rest stop, not taking anything, but he had pulled to the side of the road to pee a quarter mile up where I took back the lead position.

My friend Chris and his wife, an ex-pro racer, came flying past me on the climb and I tried to hold their wheels as we topped out and headed into a truly awful hike-a-bike section that lasted another 10 minutes until we topped out and headed into a punishing two-mile enduro section to finish the day. This is what some people love about mountain biking and why I put a dropper post on my 100 mm travel bike.

Caution is the better part of valor. I was off the bike and hiking a fair number of sections and had the awesome experience of my hands going totally numb from the endless drops and stairsteps with roots on roots in ways you didn’t think they could grow.

My thinking mind was scared and kept focusing on the end–when is this going to end, this feels bad, it hurts, I can’t feel my hands–and I was vigilant to carefully place my front wheel as I picked my way down the trail, the trip over the bars from earlier in the day fresh in my mind.

Then, massive relief as we dropped down the final rock plunge and banked a hard right onto gravel into the grassy finishing straight and I went under the finish banner.

I smashed my face on a slab of rock. I scared the shit out of myself. I survived. And I knocked 13 minutes off my time on the same course last year.

Now to do it again for three more days.

Photo by Katie Sweeney

Stage Three

I swapped out the stock stubby toe spikes for a long set before I came to Pisgah with today in mind. Stage three had 5k+ of climbing, and at the top of two of those 20-minute+ climbs, you have brutally steep hike-a-bikes when you’re already maxed out. I was glad I made the equipment adjustment because it helped when I got to those sections.

I shoved those shoes in my bag at 6:30 am when the alarm went off and went through the motions of making breakfast. It’s not fun to eat before a race. You’re nervous, you’ve got to stick to your timeline, and you know you have to get in your fuel. Like a steam shovel operator, I dug into my bowl of oatmeal, walnuts and blueberries and scooped while I tended to the four water bottles I needed to mix for the race. Gravel climbs came at the right intervals today to facilitate drinking bottles rather than using the Camelbak. I’m using CarboRocket, a powder that enables me to mix 250 calories into each liter bottle I carry. I normally never use engineered food. But at Pisgah last year I found it to be too hard to chew and pull things in and out of my pockets then drink to wash it down. So this year I searched until I found something that worked for me. CarboRocket is it. I considered the carb gel that they used in the Nike sub 2 project, but I ran out of time and from what I read its viscosity may have been an issue. Maybe next year. When I mixed my bottles up this morning, I added the powder first then the water, the reverse of what I’ve been doing. This resulted in the powder which mixes perfectly when added to the bottle after the water becoming clumped up in goo balls that I couldn’t get to dissolve into the fluid. CarboRocket is expensive and I have just a bit more than I need for the entire race, so I couldn’t just dump the bottles. I searched the kitchen for the right tool and eventually found a ladle handle that was long enough to poke the goo balls to try to get them to break up. It kind of worked. I shook the bottles more. Then I said fuck it and kept shoveling oatmeal in my mouth between methodical sips of my iced coffee.

I have a hard time sleeping the night after a hard race. After two days of very hard racing, I had a hard time sleeping last night. I normally hit the pillow and pass out. When I laid down last night, everything ached–my neck hurt, I had a headache and I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep.

When I woke up today, it felt like someone hit the right side of my face with a baseball bat. It hurt to chew on that side of my mouth. I chewed the oatmeal on the left side. Finally, it was gone.

Out the door, to the race, park, sign in, bathroom, change, on the line the chute is full and I’m squeezed in halfway back in the pen. The gun goes off and we’re straight into a 20-minute climb that starts on doubletrack then narrows and within 5 minutes we are on singletrack that gets techy and heavy, sidecut with lots of roots, people panting behind me, wheels in front of me, just staring at that wheel trying to keep up. The trail flattens a bit, then we plunge downhill, roots, more roots, I lose the wheel in front of me and we’re spit out on pavement where I jump in a line of riders and draft as we haul ass back past the start-finish area and then we got right up the same climb again, this time splitting off in a different direction and we’re into another 30-minute climb that terminates with one of the brutal hike-a-bikes.

There’s a long plunge back down the entire backside of the mountain on steep ass tech singletrack with more roots, rocks, drops and then we cycle through long gravel climbs, bike pushing and an enduro that pumps out my forearms until it feels like they’re going to explode. My hands go totally numb and I know I’m operating my brakes but I wonder what happens if they get so numb that I totally lose control of the controls. The trail flattens out at the bottom of the two-mile descent and rolls through four creeks. I don’t manage to carry enough momentum into several of them and have to wade through where others just blast it.

Then I’m into the final gravel climb, it’s brutally steep. All I’m doing all day is looking at the course map on my bars and chunking the course into small pieces that correlate with the terrain I’m on. The one type of riding where I excel in this race is on the gravel and doubletrack climbs. I find myself around the same group of riders every day. They’re friendly, they’re fast, they’re much more slight than my 200 pounds, and they’re better than me everywhere except on these climbs. So that’s where I push it and just try to zone out while my whole body throbs, pushing it to the brink of what I cannot tolerate and holding it there, reeling in riders and trying to put enough space between me and them that I can hopefully hold them off on the downhills. The first three hours of racing, I keep getting passed back. But on the final climb, I manage to hold off a few people and put enough space between me and them that I can hold the gap to the finish line. I ride my way up onto some cross country whippets who must be having a bad day and pass them on the hike-a-bike. I run into a tortoise and hare situation. I’m using those toe spikes, pushing my bike slow and steady and one of the cross-country whippets keeps yelling from behind that he’s going to ride this section and watch out! Sure, no problem, I say. He keeps trying and keeps dismounting. After the fourth time, he is still yelling his warning and I’m still pushing, still ahead of him. When we can finally remount at the top, I’m up on him and his buddies. But they smoke me on the downhill.

It’s a long downhill, the enduro from day two. My hands go completely numb again. This is the fun part of the race for some people. Rocks, drops, roots, whoops, over and over. I am hyperfocused and trying to stay calm, hoping my hands hold on and I keep going, just focusing on whatever I can see in front of me through the next turn, and finally, it’s over.

Until tomorrow.

Photo via Blue Ridge Adventures

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Andrew Vontz (www.andrewvontz.com) writes about people, places and things at the limits of human experience. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Outside, Bicycling and many other publications. This week he’s competing at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race, North America’s premiere mountain bike stage race.