By Andrew Vontz
Stage Five: The Battle with Hot Pink + Get on the Bus
Today I finished 7th / 36 riders in my cat (open Masters 40+) on the day, my best finish ever in a stage at Pisgah. Final result 10th overall out of 36.
My parents are staying with my wife and me and our son, Sam. My mom and dad watch every morning as I make my oatmeal with blueberries and then shovel down bites methodically, chewing while I mix my bottles of CarboRocket for the day and obsessively go over my checklist to ensure I have everything I need before I head out the door, abdicating my duties as a husband, father and son for a few hours to go race bikes. And even before I leave, I’m not there because my mind is on the race.
This morning while I’m jittery with pre-race nerves going through the routine, my mom reminds me that my stage one race report didn’t reveal the conclusion to the earplug problem. If you’ll recall, I woke up before stage one with a silicone ear plug jammed deep in my right ear canal. I raced with it in my ear that day, finished, drove home, and was going to head to the ER to get it removed because the only urgent care in Brevard wasn’t open. My mom had called the Minute Clinic at CVS while I was out racing to see if they had an open appointment. They didn’t. But before I went to the ER, my mom recommended we drop by the Minute Clinic in person to see if they had an opening. It turned out that they did. And the nurse practitioner on duty, who said she had removed all kinds of things including actual earbuds, used a special ear loop excavator to wedge the hunk of silicone out.
That seems like it happened a year ago. Today my mind is on Farlow Gap. It’s the first descent in Stage 5 and the race bible calls it out as the scariest downhill in Pisgah. It’s gnarly with steep root and rock stairsteps dropping into an open chute that’s a few hundred yards of loose babyheads, slabs and sundry other objects waiting to arrest the momentum of your front wheel and fling you onto your face. As my buddy Chris noted, this downhill, like Pilot Rock on Stage 4, is the kind of downhill where bad line choice or trying to ride over your head could result in a serious injury. They’re high consequence trails. It would be amazing to have the skill to feel confident bombing them, but I’m not there and probably about 9,900 hours shy of the 10,000 hours I’d need to feel mastery on such terrain.
The race today starts on a gravel road deep in Pisgah and unlike the other stages, riders had to meet up to board school buses and get shuttled out to the rally point along with our bikes because it’s an area high in the mountains with nowhere to park. Unlike other stage races, all of the stages at Pisgah start within about half an hour of Brevard. Two start within 15 minutes of town. That’s part of why I’ve come here the past two years–we can just rent an Airbnb and the whole family can come along. While I’m destroyed after the race every day, we can hang out and go check out the waterfalls and sights in the forest and get whatever food we need at the grocery store or local restaurants.
While I was carrying my drop bag for the feed zone down to the pickup spot, I ran into Stacy, a badass singlespeed rider who caught up to me shortly after my Squirrel Gap cheek smack on Tuesday. Since then, we’d crossed paths a number of times in the race and I’d tried to follow her down enough downhills to know she has serious tech riding skills. It turns out that on our reverse trip across Squirrel Gap yesterday, she’d been powering up and over one of the many steep, rooty ramps and had her front wheel wash out, launching her over the edge of the trail and into the Squirrel Gap Worst Case Scenario. She commented how after that happened, she kept seizing up in technical sections and it made the rest of the day even harder. The lizard brain taking over–it happens even to the best of us, it seems.
Being jammed into a tiny school bus seat for half an hour before the start of a race isn’t an optimal warm up. But it gives you the chance to meet more of your fellow racers. Today I met two doctors from nearby Winston-Salem who were competing in the men’s duo team race and one of whom grew up in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Sitting next to one of the doctors was Stefano Barberi, a former domestic road pro who has switched over to mountain bike racing this season. While I’d found Farlow Gap to be a harrowing riding experience my first time down it in the 2017 race, because it’s relatively short and over relatively quickly, I hadn’t found it to be quite as terrifying as billed. But it still loomed large and had my nerves on edge as the line of school buses weaved up the sinuous gravel ribbon that took us higher and higher into the forest. For his part, Stefano sat wrapped in a blanket and looked like he was about to fall asleep until we all started chatting about the week thus far. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been doing something for a living for 15 years. Not too much to get nervous about when you’re headed to another day at the office. For a tourist in this world like myself though, it was hard to turn off the fight or flight fire that kept flaring up in my brain over and over again.
Like every stage, today was about being safe, limiting my losses on the downhills and drilling it anywhere flat, rolling or uphill. Last night, I’d reviewed the stage profile in the race bible and I’d also taken a deep dive in my data from Stage 5 in the 2017 race to get a sense of about how long each chunk of the race might take. I estimated that the two major climbs would each take around 40-48 minutes and that the final five-mile descent and enduro, which actually had three climbs in the middle of it, would take about 20-25 minutes.
When we unloaded from the buses, everyone grabbed their bikes then we all rode about a mile up the road. On the way up the hill, we’d all had a chance to get a look at the road surface–loose gravel over hardpack with pockmarks here and there and few truly big divots–that we’d be flying down shortly. Todd, the race director, pulled up in his truck and everyone lined up in a giant wedge that converged on the choke point of the road. I was in a suboptimal position a bit farther back than I would have liked because I guessed the location of the line, which was just a spot that had been picked at the last moment, incorrectly. I looked up and could see a guy in a hot pink jersey that’s in my category who I had been swapping spots with on the trail all week perfectly positioned about four rows in front of me.
A few minutes later, Todd fired the gun and we rocketed down the gravel downhill. Not the kind of terrain where I take chances and even after four days of having to bomb similar gravel downhills, I still didn’t feel comfortable or like my tires would hold if I pushed them so I had to pedal more than I would have liked out of corners and up some of the rollers in the middle of the downhill. At the bottom of the downhill, the race veered a hard right onto a very steep uphill doubletrack filled with loose rocks. I could see the guy in the hot pink jersey already a few hundred yards ahead of me as we started the climb. After four hard days of racing on terrain that requires constant vigilance and total focus, I, like everyone else, was fried. I dug as deep as I could and focused on moving up and getting around riders who slowed down when the climb leveled off. Some people use that moment as a chance to catch a breath, but I do better on flatter pitches than steeper pitches and have to maximize my gains where I can, so I would downshift and up my pace until the trail rose up again. The mix of loose rock and some hard pack patches along with roots and some minor ledges meant that my left hand was busy locking out my suspension then unlocking it over and over, dozens and dozens of times. Along with riding a 29er instead of a 27.5 bike, one of my best upgrades this year has been having a bar-mounted dual lockout. It has made it easier to get traction on climbs where I need it and to have full efficiency on smoother sections along with the ability to stand up and stretch out my low back, which starts to feel like someone is stabbing knives in it if I stay crouched over tugging on my bar ends while keeping the rear wheel digging in for traction as I chug up these climbs.
At the top, the man in hot pink was out of sight and I swapped back and forth with a few riders as we finally got onto singletrack and I tried to breathe my way into relaxation as we bombed the transfer singletrack over to Farlow Gap. When we finally got there, I rolled in and got as far down the trail as I could before hopping off and shuffling down, carefully, and searching for the next spot where I could remount and roll for a bit. I repeated this over and over until I got towards the bottom of the gnarliest part then hopped back on with my dropper fully slammed so I could buck down the rooty, rocky stairsteps that wound down to the first creek crossing.
When I finished Pisgah in 2017, I’d torn a substantial chunk of sole off the bottom of my mountain bike shoes, and after all of the down hiking I’d done today, I was pretty sure I was headed for the same result. The creek crossings aren’t casual wades through placid waters. Stage 5 is called the Land of Waterfalls route because you’re crossing past or through streams that feed or are below waterfalls. I think. I’ve never had time to really look around and see what’s happening up and downstream, because you have to be totally focused as you plant your bike as a crutch sunk up to mid-wheel in the creeks as you hop around on moss-covered rocks and stone slabs to try to pick a route across the wide gaps between banks.
The downhill plunge continued for another 20 minutes starting with a stretch of highly exposed bench cut trail so gnarly and with drops so big that I had a difficult time imagining anyone save Danny MacAskill riding them. But riders keep flying past me, so they’re riding at least some of what I’m not. I’m losing time, for sure. But a few stream crossing later, I catch up to the hot pink jersey on a hike-a-bike in the middle of this descent.
I’ve been training for these hike-a-bikes since cyclocross season ended using a simple method. During my commute, there’s the option to take an escalator up to the BART platform. But I make a point of always carrying my bike up the stairs to get to the train station in Oakland and to get to the surface when I get to San Francisco where I work, more than 100 stairs in total.
As I chased the hot pink jersey up another stretch of trail so steep my Achilles’ tendons felt like they were going to burst, all of those BART stair repeats kept me moving without any problems. And then, finally, we made it onto the last shallow grades of the downhill and into the rest stop at mile 10. I’d worn a Camelbak with 1.5 liters of CarboRocket in it and now that I was an hour into the race I had what I guessed to be about half of a liter left that I planned to save for drinking on the final five-mile downhill when I wouldn’t be able to take my hands off the bars to grab a bottle. I had another liter bottle at the rest stop along with a flask of maple syrup. After four days of hard racing, I knew I might need the extra sugar towards the end of the race and had prepared accordingly. The rest stop crew had my bottle and flask in my hand before I could come to a complete stop. I shoved the bottle in my frame and the flask in my jersey and took off. I’d gapped hot pink on the downhill but looking back, I could see that another rider I’d been swapping spots with all week closing to within 25 yards of me. The next section was flat to rolling pavement followed by twisty, flat singletrack, all terrain where I felt confident I could put time into the riders behind me. Then we’d be onto the final climb, a brutal 40+ minute slog to the top of the ridgeline from the valley floor before the plunge to the finish of the stage and the race.
This was one of those moments when my power meter came in handy. Hammering down the road, I held a steady 360 watts all the way to the singletrack. I opened up a good gap on the rider behind me that stretched to a few hundred yards–but I also saw that hot pink had caught him and they were working together. None of us were vying for anything close to the podium, but we were racing bikes, and it was on.
I work with a coach, Tucker Olander from Ultreya coaching, and we had been working since January to prepare for this race. The sum total of all of the weight lifting, plyometrics and intervals I’d rolled out of bed to do at 5 in the morning during the week before going to work at 7 am the past three and a half months + the back-to-back long rides on weekends with brutal interval sessions followed by long climbs at a hard tempo had put me on great form for this race. I’d felt confident I could push it everywhere I had the skill to pedal hard all week. Every time I called on my reserves, they’d been there. After four days of racing my body was wrecked and when I paid attention to how my legs felt, they felt heavy and ached. But I didn’t pay attention to them and I didn’t think about how I felt, I just thought about going as hard as I could everywhere I could.
That’s the mindset that carried me onto the final climb with a decent lead over hot pink–he had dropped his paceline companion. I had several hundred yards on him and as I wove up the climb I could look back and see him on the bend below me, coming for me. I dug in and tried to open the gap, but he was closing on me. I kept going and so did the climb, steep at first, then rolling, then steep again. I caught a rider in front of me and he jumped on my wheel and we swapped position a few times. And then hot pink caught us and attacked, hard, and the other guy with me jumped on his wheel and they started to ride away. I upped my tempo and caught back up after a minute and dinged my handlebar bell and let out a whoop. The pace slowed and I went to the front and drilled it again as the doubletrack leveled off. This time, only hot pink followed. We kept attacking each other and swapping spots. Sometimes after he would jump, he would stop pedaling for a second, usually a tell that someone is fatigued, perhaps cramping, and probably can’t hold the pace. But he kept it up and after 45 minutes of climbing, we made it to the top of the fire road and onto the singletrack climb that took us across a ridge to the final downhill. I was within 50 yards of him heading into the downhill and for the next 15 minutes got closer and closer while also being mindful of listening for the sound of a whirring freewheel uphill, the signal that someone might be closing on me.
This final downhill was five miles of swoopy, machine-cut, relatively buff singletrack. In 2017 it had been bone dry and I’d had a hard time riding it–four riders passed me and I lost several minutes descending it. This time was different and I put in some of my best riding of the week on this, the last and final stretch of trail in the entire race. It helped that there’d been a light drizzle earlier in the day that made the singletrack perfectly tacky with an optimal balance of traction and speed. But I was riding well, too, and I could feel it. I bombed after hot pink and as he would brake hard for the switch back below me, I would yo-yo towards him, periodically dinging the bell on my bar to let him know I was there. And closing the meager gap between us. The tug of war between two people, the chaser and the chased, the predator and the prey, that unfolds hundreds of times in a bike race is primal, unique and when you’re in the mix, the flip side of the reptilian terror moment I’d had dozens if not hundreds of times throughout the week. Now the world narrowed to pursuing the rider in front of me, staying ahead of the rider in front of me, keeping my bike upright and going as fast as possible as I tried to shut the door on hot pink and get to the line first. There aren’t a lot of times in life when everything drops out, your focus becomes singular and nothing else exists but the moment you’re in, but this was one of those moments. Three separate times, the trail pitched up for climbs ranging from one to five minutes. I caught hot pink and passed him heading into the third and final climb, and we had company with a rider catching us from behind. We were all spun out in our easiest gears on the noses of our saddles heading into a rooty switchback when a bike bumped me from behind, I lost my balance and had to dismount and hot pink scooted past, still pedaling. That was it. The time and effort it took me to get back on the bike and moving again gave him the final gap he needed to ride away and hold it for the next few minutes. I couldn’t close the gap. The rider who caught us was a wicked descender and he took the lead in front of me and I followed his lines all the way to the bottom until the trail spit us out onto a steep, loose gravel downhill with a hard left into a parking lot for a loop around the Brevard music center and through the finishing chute. I could see hot pink pedaling away around the final bend and jumped hard, sprinting past my companion, putting a gap on him and holding it until I come around the final corner where my wife, Molly, our son, Sam and my parents are all cheering. I held the gap on the rider chasing me and crossed the finish line five seconds behind hot pink. We high fived and gave each other a hug. I was finished.
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.