The Pisgah Stage Race has some of the best mountain bike trails in the USA, and this five-day, fully supported endurance event delivers an unmatched sampler platter of some of the best singletrack in the country. The stage race course includes the Eastern United States’ most rugged trails. Located in a rain forest, the rooty and rocky trails are often times slick and treacherous. I entered the 60+ class, packed up my bike and flew to Charlotte and drove to Brevard, NC.
Sharing the VRBO rental with me was my wife Suzy and teammate Dan Mahlum (40-49 class). Suzy hiked each day while Dan “did training camp” and I “raced”. For those of you that may not know, Dan had crashed hard at a race in early March and was off the bike for several weeks to heal up. He was using this event to get back to racing form. He was still very fast though
During the pre-race meeting I ran into a friend Lennie Moon from Alabama. I raced with Lennie at the 2015 and 2016 Breck Epic. He had come with several friends from Alabama including one he immediately “warned” me about: his Alabama friend Hartwick Gregg. Hartwick was the returning 60+ Pisgah stage race champ and 2015 cyclocross national champion for his age group. When I later was introduced to Hartwick his reaction let me know that Lennie had similarly “warned” him about me. It was going to be a fun week!
Stage 1 - 21 miles, 4042 ft elevation gain: The days prior to the event it rained frequently so the trails were wet and slick in many spots. My plan was to hold back on this stage to save energy for the rest of the week. I tend to run down like an old battery during stage races! For me this translated to a target heart rate of about 120 BPM. At the start of the stage I looked for Hartwick and latched onto his wheel as we started up the shallow grade on a long fire road. Within a couple minutes I decided I could handle a higher pace so I set off to find another wheel. I would not see Hartwick again for the remainder of the stage. As the road continued uphill and steepened, I settled in with a group of about 5. When we turned onto the first singletrack, the grade got very steep and the roots were wet and plentiful. The combination caused many riders that were in front of me to get off and hike but I kept pedaling. I managed to pass about a dozen racers on this section but my heartrate was up to 150 BPM (this is about my max). So much for holding back! After cresting the top, I entered the first big downhill of the race, a technical featured enduro section. I was a bit apprehensive since I was not yet familiar with the Pisgah technical terrain, but I managed to hold my position and ride all the technical bits. I was glad I brought my down country Epic with 120 mm fork, beefed up rear rim, and dropper post.
I started the long climb up the mountain again as my anxiety was starting to build for Farlow Gap, the most infamous trail of the race. If you’re curious you can Google it! I was joined on the long climb by Jacob and Lennie from Alabama. Jacob and Lennie had been down Farlow Gap twice and this fact gave me comfort. I stayed with my newly acquired trail guides and got my heartrate in check as we climbed at tempo pace uphill and crested the top. Noisy course workers in wacky outfits signaled the top of Farlow Gap. It was rocky, wet, rooty, (did I say rocky) and getting steeper as the “trail” descended the mountain. I was loving my dropper post at this point. Jacob eventually stopped and climbed down a nasty drop. What Jacob did, I did. We alternated riding and “climbing down” or “climbing up”, or tip toeing across streams for the next 10 minutes. We had dropped Lennie. Following Jacob I gained confidence and then confidence turned to impatience. I hiked past Jacob then pedaled/hiked/pedaled away from him.
Twenty more minutes of navigating Farlow and I was back riding fast on fire road and sane singletrack to the finish. I won the stage in my category with a time of 2 hours 40 minutes, about 15 minutes ahead of Hartwick. Presented with a blue leader jersey to wear on stage 2 was icing on the cake.
Stage 2 - 29 miles, 3878 ft elevation gain: It was the only sunny day of the week, but still wet from overnight rains. There was a 4 mile neutral start on asphalt as the 175 rider peloton worked its way through town. Racing started on a wet fire road uphill which soon turned to a forested singletrack. While descending on the singletrack my front tire slipped out from under me on a snotty wooden water bar placed diagonally across the trail. Remarkably, this would be my only crash of the week. I was up quickly with only a scraped knee. After my slow-ish start on the fire road climb, I slowly began to pass other riders on the singletrack. I allowed my heartrate to drift up to 135 BPM for brief periods. As the race progressed I slowed down to keep a more sustainable heartrate and as a result got passed a few times. I felt fatigued as the stage reached the final 2 mile descent of Black Mountain, a rugged and pounding upper portion followed by a rather flowy bottom section. I finished first in category with a time of 3 hours 2 minutes, about 25 minutes ahead of Hartwick in second.
Stage 3 – 29.5 miles, 5800 ft elevation gain: This was considered the queen stage and after my mini swoon midrace of stage 2, I was concerned how my body would respond. This was the driest of the days, with no overnight rain. I employed more discipline in my pacing and kept my heartrate around the 120 BPM target consistently all day. I was happy with my pacing. The route had 4 big climbs and 1 smaller climb with two nice long technical downhills. I found myself riding much of the stage with Lennie and another Alabama guy, Michael. The three of us managed to pass the current 40-45 National Marathon champ and last year’s masters men race winner (wearing a prominent stars and stripes jersey). I chatted briefly with him as we pedaled past and he explained that he had gone out too hard and was cramping. I would see him mid race again the next day as he had decided to save himself for a run at a stage 5 win. The last technical downhill was the same as the prior day’s final descent. It felt great to bomb it with a confidence that came from familiarity! I finished the stage first in category with a time of 3 hours 52 minutes, about 42 minutes ahead of Hartwick in second.
Dan and I had a post-race routine each day: eat at the finish line (free Clif recovery shake, two or three scones left over from free breakfast offered by the race promoter, a banana, a few orange slices, and a few potato chips), drive our muddy bikes and muddy selves to the VRBO rental where I would take a shower (complete with my muddy riding clothes to wash out the mud spots everywhere). We would then do laundry, wash the bike, prep the bike for the next day, eat a late lunch out in town, check our Strava while using our leg compression devices (aka leg squeezers), and go to the Brevard Music Center (race headquarters) for post-race dinner, awards, race video viewing, and get intel on the next day’s stage. After stage 3 and 4, I managed to get in a massage too prior to dinner.
Stage 4 – 21 rain shorted miles, 3000 ft elevation gain: The day started with a rainy warmup but once the race started at 9 am, the rain pretty much stayed away. The trails were very greasy in spots however. So greasy that the promoter decided to shorten the course for “safety reasons”. The revised course consisted of about 8 miles of mostly flat gravel road, followed by a 2500 foot climb up Laurel Mountain which is the highest point of the race at 5000 feet elevation. After the big climb came (you guessed it) a pounding rock and root infested descent of 2 miles and 2000 feet elevation called Pilot Rock. This descent contained two infamous sections that can be seen on many a YouTube video…..and we were going to ride it in the wet! The start was rather faster than I was comfortable, resulting in me yo-yoing off the back of the large lead group (a peloton of about 50 riders). But I managed to stay up with this group to the foot of the Laurel Mountain, at which time I climbed for the next hour or so at a comfortable pace near my target heart rate. As the elevation increased, the trail got wetter and greasier. Many times I found myself hiking the bike and sometimes almost scaling up boulders with my bike. It was foggy and misty. Then out of the mist came those noisy course workers in wacky outfits signaling the start of the Pilot Rock downhill. The Pilot Rock “trail” was cut onto the side of a steep and wooded mountain and contained a plethora of rocky switchbacks. In between the switchbacks were many roots and rocky steps caused by erosion between the roots. My bike, mind, and body took a relentless pounding as we navigated trail hazard after trail hazard. At one point I pulled over to let a faster guy go by me only to see him go over the bars about 30 seconds later. After that he stayed behind me! With little warning I came across the rocky switchback I had seen in the YouTube videos and although it was wet, I cleaned it without drama. But due to the relentless pounding, my hands were starting to suffer and arm pump was setting. Maybe ESI Super Duper Extra Chunk grips would have helped! It was at this time that I rode into the second infamous section: an extended rock garden with lots of large wheel catching rocks waiting to send someone like me OTB. I managed to ride all but a short section, which (I like to think wisely) walked. I completed the descent in one piece and headed into the final 4 mile stretch of wet and relatively flat gravel road. I found myself working in a small drafting group containing Alabama Mike, the Open Women leader, on one other from the 40+ category. The four of us took turns pulling at high speed all the way to the finish line. I finished first in category with a time of 2 hours 17 minutes, about 19 minutes ahead of Hartwick in second.
Every day a new race video was created by the race staff. Here is a sample from stage 4 that will give you an idea of the awesome trails used for the race. Stage 4 video - Pilot Rock.
Stage 5 –27 miles, 2300 ft elevation gain: On a dry day, all racers did a neutral group ride of about 3 miles through town to the starting line. The course consisted of two 900 foot gravel road/double track climbs each followed by fun descents. No hike-a-bike on this day! No teeth rattling descents either; just mostly fun and flowy stuff with only a few miles of roots to navigate. With a big lead in cumulative time and not a lot of energy left in my tank, I kept the pace moderate. Several riders from other categories that I was able to beat on the previous stages stayed ahead of me all day including Lenny, Jacob, and Michael from Alabama. However I managed to keep Hartwick a comfortable 14 minutes behind me by the time we finished the stage, giving me another stage win and the cumulative 60+ category race win.