I was coming into the Pisgah Stage Race just over 4 weeks after the True Grit Epic race in St George where I had crashed and fractured the Transverse Processes of my L2-L3 vertebrae and had swelling around my sciatic nerve. The first week after my crash I tried to get a refund from the Pisgah Stage Race promoter but it was beyond the refund deadline so after getting declined I was going to eat the entire registration. I cancelled my flight and car rental sure I would not be in shape to ride the 5 extremely technical stages of Pisgah. Two weeks after the crash I started with a couple of short rides on the trainer and realized it was helping to loosen up my back and legs. Physical therapy was helping but getting back on the bike started helping even more. With Park City still covered in snow I remembered that Pisgah was more than just a race and was also an opportunity to ride new trails in a new place with a lot of like-minded new people. Three trainer rides and a week of going up and down the Olympic Park paved road across from my house and I was headed to Pisgah. Rather than treat this as a race I approached it like a training camp with the primary goal being to end the week with no new injuries and a solid deposit in the fitness bank.
Only one of the five stages at Pisgah did not include any hike-a-bike, even for the pros. This rainforest is loaded with the most technical trails I’ve ridden on a mountain bike. The stages were loaded with very steep climbs and descents covered in wet rocks and roots. I rode the first 4 stages very conservatively pedaling the climbs at a solid tempo pace and descending cautiously taking minimal risk. After those first 4 days I was happy to find myself in the top 10 of the Masters 40-49 group that started with 47 participants.
Going into stage 5 I was sitting in 6th place a little over 5 minutes from 5th place. The morning of Stage 5 I was feeling better than I had all week and decided I would “race” this stage and see if I could snag a podium spot or move myself up in the GC to come out of the week with some positive motivation to ride into the season.
Stage 5 was billed to be the fastest pace stage of the week with no hike-a-bike sections so it fared well for my current cautious riding. The stage was 27 miles with 2300 ft of elevation gain with most of the ascending coming from 2 gravel/double track climbs. The start of the race headed right into the first gravel climb and after some jockeying I found myself in the 3rd of 3 groups that had formed. I noticed that 3-4 riders from my category (Masters 40-49) were in the 2nd group about a quarter mile up the climb. This group included my category’s race leader and also containing the current 40-45 Marathon XC champion. This is when I decided to push off the front of the group I was in and close the gap to the 2nd group. My legs were feeling good so I was able to close this gap over the next 1-2 minutes and joined the 2nd group that did include 4 riders from my category and 2 from Open class. I took in some nutrition and decided to push the front of this group to liven things up. Not knowing the course, I didn’t realize that we were about to head into a tighter trail covered in roots that had 1-2 preferred lines so being at the front worked out to be a good move as I was able to pick my lines and push the pace. This ended up dropping one of the Masters riders and one of the Open riders off the back and now our group was down to 5 including 3 from my category, 1 Open rider and me.
We then crested the first summit and dropped into a tight, rooty descent where I allowed the other riders to go ahead so I could ride cautiously down the descent that was still pretty wet and sloppy from the previous day’s rain storm. I made it down without any incidents but lost 20-30 seconds to the group so started to push my pace again just as I came around a corner to find one of the riders had crashed and was now off the side of the course. He was the Masters Marathon XC national champ who also happened to be a local and the winner of the last 3 Pisgah stage races for the Masters division. I checked that he was OK and continued to push on. In this process, I was joined by the 2 guys that we dropped on the last climb and the 3 of us worked back up to the rest of the group just as we passed the aid station and headed into the second long climb. This climb hurt! It was about a 30-minute climb up a gravel road that turned to double track for the second half of the climb. Our group was now 6 riders including 2 open class, 3 from my category and me. If I could hang on and beat out one of the Masters men I would make the podium. Several of us traded blows on the front trying to wiggle any of the riders loose but everyone was pushing hard and the group stayed mostly intact. I checked the segment on Strava after the ride and my estimated power for the 30-minute climb was about 320 watts which I was happy to see because I was getting some of my pre-crash power back and could sustain it for 30 minutes.
Having no expectations going into this week I was satisfied at the top of the last climb to be with the leading group from my category. This is when I decided to let the other riders enter the final descent (also the Enduro segment for the day) ahead of me so I could ride the descent conservatively and finish the week in one piece. At this point I had already accepted 4th place for the day content with potentially moving up 1 spot in the GC. Half way down the descent I found one of the 3 riders from my category on the side of the trail fixing a flat tire. Wait, this means I could get onto the podium if I finished without letting anyone else catch me. I pushed a little harder and finished the descent smoothly, maintaining my position. I crossed the line 3rd on the day in the Master Men’s category and later found out that I had put 7-8 minutes into the guy previously sitting in 5th place so I had moved into 5th place on the GC.
It was great to end the week on a high note and leave Pisgah with no injuries or mechanicals. I had a great time experiencing new trails, in a new place meeting some great new people. I also enjoyed relaxing in the evenings with Ken and his wife. Pisgah was an awesome experience and Ken and I are already talking about going back next year.