By Andrew Vontz
If you missed Part 1, check it here.
On Tuesday I catapulted my face into a slab of rock on Squirrel Gap. Today’s stage has the most singletrack of any stage in the entire race–including a trip back over Squirrel Gap in the opposite direction and over the same slab that kissed my cheek.
Every night, there’s an awards ceremony and an excellent farm-to-table dinner with local ingredients for all racers. It’s also where you get to pick up the drop bags that the race will shuttle to the rest stop (or stops) for you. I’m at the race with my wife, my 20-month-old son and my parents who traveled from Kansas City, Missouri to spend the week with us. I haven’t had time to make it up to the dinner, but last night after Stage Three I went up to grab my bag and took a spin through the line because the dinner looked so good.
I ended up in line next to Kerry Werner who had won the enduro on Stage Three and was drinking an Oskar Blues beer out of his Pisgah Stage Race coozie. I’d never met Kerry before but one of the cool things about a stage race like this is the chance to meet and chat with interesting people from all over the country and the world from different walks of life, including pros like Kerry. We talked about stage three, riding in the area, bike setup and things we’d seen throughout the course of our (very different) experiences. Kerry has been running a 120 mm fork and thinks that’s the optimal setup for Pisgah coupled with 100 mm of rear travel. I’m running 100/100 but my elbows and hands agree. Duly noted–next time.
One of Kerry’s buddies mentioned that he’d seen a husband/wife duo coming down the Stage Three enduro and that the wife, riding behind the husband who was heavy on the brakes causing his bike to buck and see saw back and forth as he stuttered down the drops, yelled at him to “Let it eat!” meaning ease up on the brakes, and let the suspension eat the bumps.
Cut to the morning of today, Stage Four. I drove into the parking lot of the Cradle of Forestry tourist center for the start, 12 miles deep in the Pisgah National Forest. Pro tip: there are two bathrooms in the Cradle of Forestry and no one save, a few very in the know locals and repeat racers, know about the second bathroom at the back of the building.
That out of the way, I ditched my feed bags for the two aid stations. I actually didn’t have a bag for the second feed, but Todd, the race director, found one for me(thanks, Todd). My dad and I ran into Todd at Ingles, the local grocery store last night where we were grabbing ice cream and he was shopping for fruit and water for the aid stations. One of the main stated rules of the Pisgah Stage Race is Be Cool–take care of each other out on the trail and be courteous. There isn’t a fourth wall at this race or a lot of pretense. Just a group of people who love riding bikes and pushing themselves and each other past their limits in one of the most scenic and untouched riding areas in the United States, if not the world.
Rolling back through the parking lot to my car to do the pre-race gear dance, I saw Kerry Werner on his road bike on a trainer warming up for the stage. With five miles of rolling gravel at the start, the race would go from the gun. Last year I’d been at the very back of the start pen and had immediately gotten dropped from the main group and wasted a lot of energy eating wind.
Today I made a point of getting into the pen 15 minutes before the race about six rows back and in the mix of the riders who I knew would constitute the front group on the road. I was nervous about this section because of the two nasty gravel wrecks I’ve had, but I kept focusing on the phrase “calm and relaxed” as the two-minute warning sounded and Welcome to the Jungle came over the sound system. The gun went off, and the race did, too, rocketing out of the pen, onto a paved road briefly and then taking a hard right onto rolling gravel for the next five miles. Wheel-swallowing holes pocked the road at odd, unpredictable intervals as it rolled its way along through the forest. I held onto the back of the pack sucking down dust clouds as I struggled to keep the pace up the rollers. I hesitated a bit on the high-speed downhills on loose marbles, but managed to reconnect, yo-yo’ing a few times, and made it all the way to the hard left onto double track with the lead group.
It was going to be a long day and with the trip over Squirrel Gap and more than 5,000’ of climbing on the menu and the Pilot Rock descent, I was careful to pace myself. I’ve been racing with a Stages power meter all week, mainly to capture data to look at after the race. The one place I occasionally use it during the race is to check my pace on long climbs. I know I can hold a tempo around 290 watts on a climb for an hour more or less no matter how fatigued I am, so that was the floor for my climbing efforts today. The race dictated my ceiling, but I tried not to throttle up too much and when we were in the middle of 20-minute plus efforts I wasn’t following people going more than 80 watts above that for too long.
I was nervous heading into Squirrel Gap but got into a groove on the first section. I came upon the slab where I ate rock and could see exactly what happened as I got off my bike and ran over it in the reverse of the direction I’d been going when I wrecked–as I thought, there was indeed a puddle/hole just the right size for a wheel to get completely stuck if moving too slowly and weighted incorrectly.
I had more than a few oh shit moments when my reptile brain fired on with a YOU ARE GOING TO FUCKING DIE signal as I struck a pedal on a rock or had my front wheel start to slip out on a root at the edge of the sidecut trail. But I kept focusing on being calm and relaxed and made it through what I remembered as the stickiest section and felt palpably relieved as we rolled out onto a ridge after about 25 minutes. Then I realized that we now had to descend another long section of Squirrel Gap that I’d forgotten, a section equally if not more fraught. I focused on my breathing and the reptile would send off an alarm at least a dozen times, but I limited the severity of these spikes, kept breathing and pushed on until I was fully clear of Squirrel Gap.
From there it was an ass-on-rear wheel slide down a dry creek bed of rocks and roots with intermittent drops that saw me on and off the bike more than a few times with at least half a dozen riders passing me. This plunge stretched on all the way back down to the valley where I got into a groove hammering on slalom-y moderately downhill singletrack through trees and across multiple creek crossings until we popped out onto another gravel climb.
Just when one form of discomfort stopped–burnings forearms, numb hands–another started as we began grinding up the climb that would stretch on for miles until we hit the aid station. The ace support from Sycamore Cycles lubed my chain while I grabbed my bottle from my feed bag and decided to take the time to empty it into the Camelbak I was wearing rather than stuffing it in my cage. It was a good call because we were climbing rooty, tech singletrack that had good flow but required total focus for much of the next hour–the chance to tear a sidewall on a root or rock was constant and line selection required total vigilance and more dismounts to traverse unrideable (for me) sections as I inched up the mountain. Finally, the trail went up, straight up, until it undulated into a series of three bike push sections, each steeper than the last.
Finally, at the very top, we crested the ridge and the trail turned into a flume of more drops, more roots and progressively larger chunks of rocks as we plunged 2,000’ back to the valley floor. After four days of riding this terrain, I had reached a fuck it point and was riding things that in my normal riding life back in California would give me pause if not stop me in my tracks. I thought back to what Kerry and his buddies had been talking about in the dinner line last night–let it eat. And I did. I hinged, pushed my ass back, softened my grip, eased up on the brakes and let the suspension eat those drops and rocks and roots. Let it eat. I focused on getting down the mountain, safely, and when we came to the iconic section of trail, giant loose rocks and boulders, I got off and walked while another five riders passed me.
From there, it was more drops, more roots, more rocks until, finally, we popped out on a gravel road, had a steep, short climb through the end of the enduro. On the other side of that was the second rest stop where I grabbed my final bottle. I’d run out of fluid near the top of the climb and lost time grabbing the bottle as another rider hammered past me and easily put 100 yards on me while I got the bottle and got moving again. I hadn’t seen this rider all week, he probably wasn’t even in my race, but this being bike racing, I made it my objective to catch him.
This final section of gravel road was the same gravel we had ridden at the start, but in reverse, and not in a giant pack. The rider up the road was hammering and so was I. I started to close the gap, slowly, creeping closer to him over the course of the next 10 minutes. While I was 50 yards back, he caught another rider who jumped on his wheel immediately as the pair hit the gas and started pulling away from me. I recognized the caught rider because he was running what looked like a 1.8” rear tire–he was a hell of a rider and I have seen him ripping on that 1.8” tire all week. No idea how he has been doing it without flatting, but kudos, well done. My mind is blown.
They kept pushing and so did I. After about another two minutes, I connected with them on the climb and the lead rider pulled off leaving 1.8 to pull. He eased up on the pace for a second and looked back at me. I’m not great at a lot of things on a mountain bike, but I would rate myself as competent+ on riding gravel rollers of a certain amplitude where I somehow can turn weighing 200 pounds to my advantage and carry momentum downhill and power up and over the crest of the next roller. I’ve got a lockout on my Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 1 29, and it has been invaluable throughout the week. This was one of those moments. Fully locked out with the push of a thumb button, I stood up, went full gas, hammered, not looking back until well on the other side of the hill to see that I had a good size gap that I held all the way onto the pavement less than a quarter mile from the finish. I looked back and 1.8 was still coming at me, hard. Warrior!
I held the gap to the finish where most of the people I’ve been mixing it up with all week had already finished. I likely slipped a few places in the overall today. But hey, it’s not like I was winning the race, or even contesting the podium. I’ve been around 9th or 10th out of 36 riders in my 40+ masters race this week. But for me, today was a victory because I kept going and rode miles and miles of terrain that scare the shit out of me. I let it eat. And got incrementally better at doing it.
To be continued…
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.