Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The Pisgah 111

When it comes to east coast riding, there are few spots that rival the ruggedness of Pisgah. In Pisgah, you never know when a tame-looking trail will suddenly point down at a 30% grade with washed out ruts, and to me, that's what makes it special. My brother had never been to Pisgah before this trip, and when he was asking what Pisgah was like, that's how I described it: it goes from 0-60 in the blink of an eye. Just ride down Turkey Pen Trail, or hike your bike up Middle Black Trail, and you'll know what I mean.

Alright, so now to the actual race. The Pisgah 111 is Pisgah's endurance MTB race, and it get's its name form being roughly 111 kilometers, or 68.9722 miles for those who don't habla. Actual distance may vary.

In terms of average speed, it's the slowest race I've done this year, except for maybe Stage 5 Wheeler Pass of Breck Epic. Even Marji Gesick, which with a wheel sensor is 115 miles, took me 11.5 hours, meaning an average speed of exactly 10 mph. The Pisgah 111 took me 7 hours and 23 minutes, and being only about 67 miles (with a wheel sensor), that's an average speed of just north of 9 mph. Like I said, Pisgah is very tough.

Left to right: Chad, Chris, Hamburger, Ryan

The trip to Pisgah began Thursday evening by picking up Stick (the person, not the piece of wood) and heading south. We made it to Beckley, WV before getting a hotel and continuing the drive the next morning. We rolled into Brevard, NC (the closest town to Pisgah) a little after 11am on Friday, and got some Subway for lunch.

Since check-in for the campsite wasn't until a bit later, we drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway after lunch to check out the scenery. I drove up there with Rob back in May, and since Zach had never been to Pisgah, I figured it was worth a drive up. As usual, the views did not disappoint.

The campground let us in early, a little before 1pm, so we went to the campsite and got ready for a little ride. I made a route that left from camp and took us up Avery Creek Road before going down Bennett Gap Trail. The race doesn't do that trail, so I figured it would be nice to see something new.

Bennett Gap Trail was both very rugged and very scenic. I won't lie, there were two sections I had to walk. Near the top, there was a janky rock-move switchback that I tried twice, and while I successfully did a track stand and hop turn, I couldn't finish off the easy part and I didn't want to keep tempting fate with the high-ish consequence rock move, so I moved on. Bennett Gap was gnarly, and it gave a good introduction to Zach about what Pisgah is like.

After getting camp set up, the three of us went out to dinner at Hawg Wild. I got my standard fare there, the three-meat special, and then we went to The Hub bike shop to get Stick a tube. When we got back to camp, Ryan and Chad were there getting set up. I had never met them before, but they're friends of Chris Joice, who booked the campsite and was currently at check-in getting his packet. By the time the weekend was over, it's safe to say we had made some new friends.

The only kerfuffle that evening was the drop bags - the race didn't have ziploc bags, so Zach and I drove to Walmart (luckily only 5 minutes away) to get some. It was worth it to have drop bags.

It wasn't too cold on race morning, and I enjoyed my usual breakfast of two bagels along with a Pedialtye for extra electrolytes. Compared to other races, I was a bit less locked-in before this one, and it seemed more like a party race than usual. That doesn't mean I was planning to go any easier, it just means I wasn't quite as focused. It was partly because it was the last race of the year, and partly because my knee was giving me trouble all week and I was unsure how it would handle the race.

I lined up in the second row behind Chris and just in front of my brother and waited for the start. Eric Wever, the race director, said a few words and then we were off. It started off pretty mellow on 276, the pavement road before getting to the gravel Avery Creek Road. I made sure to stay up near the front, and even with all the flat on Avery Creek, I was able to stay locked on to the front.

Finally, the grade pitched up and the pace increased. I still stuck up at the front, and as we started climbing Clawhammer, it was now only a group of about 10 riders, and I was the only singlespeeder up in the front. Zach was hovering just off the back of the group. I was able to chat with some friends on the climb, particularly Mike K. from Ohio who I had just raced with up at Marji Gesick. Always nice to catch up with people.

I stuck with the lead group - with the pace being driven mostly by Thomas Turner - until we reached the singletrack. They eventually got away from me when I had to hike-a-bike, but I still kept up a solid effort. 

I sort of lost track of where I was, and before I knew it, I was going down a gnarly section of Turkey Pen Trail. I had to briefly get off at one point over a wet log drop, but other than that, I rode it all. I really can't emphasize how gnarly of a trail it was, especially with it being wet. Strava says the downhill was 500 feet of vertical descent with an average grade of over 25%, so yeth, quite steep. Also quite rutted.

Unfortunately, my knee was starting to act up toward the latter part of Turkey Pen when we hit some more small climbs. I backed off the pace a little, and tried my best to go easy on my knee. It was the IT band, I think caused by some cleat problems and then a big ride the week before. At this point in the race, I was honestly wondering if I'd finish. I started thinking of how I could ride back to the start on gravel if I had to bail from the race. Still, I told myself I'd keep racing until it got too bad to continue. Luckily, my knee never got worse and I was able to manage it the whole day.

The next miles of the race were probably the most backcountry. The trails were overgrown, there were creek crossings, and you had to hike over several big trees. For shorter racers, some of the trees would've been especially difficult to get over.

There was a climb on doubletrack up to the first aid station, and then we bombed down some smooth gravel before doing the extra loop that's not in the 55.5km race. At this point, my knee was a little iffy still, so I just stuck it in a moderate gear (figuratively, obviously I only had one gear to choose on my bike) and pushed on. 

Eventually, my knee actually started feeling better, and by the time I got to Yellow Gap Road to climb up to Aid Station 2 (which was just the 1st aid station a second time), my knee wasn't in pain at all. I still didn't push the pace much, but I was riding steady at this point.

This climb was the biggest one of the race, about 2,500 feet from bottom to top. The first 1,000 feet or so were gravel on Yellow Gap Road, and then we turned onto Laurel Trail to climb up to Pilot Rock. I thought Laurel Trail was much more rideable than I heard, and I barely had to hike at all for the bottom part. It was rocky, scenic, and overall an incredibly enjoyable trail.

Eventually, I reached the hike-a-bike portion of Laurel, the connector up to Pilot Rock. I had ridden (or rather, hiked) that trail with Rob back in May during PMBAR, so I knew it was going to suck. I settled into a rhythm, though, and the hike went by fast.

Next up was Pilot Rock downhill, the highlight of the race. It's a rugged 1,600 foot downhill off the top of a literal mountain, and it's filled with technical features. I generally consider myself a fairly capable technical rider, but on Pilot Rock, I had to put a foot down on a couple switchbacks, and I even had to walk a brief section on one of them. This was only my second time riding the trail, so maybe in the future I'll be able to ride it.

I have to mention that Ryan (who camped with us) cleaned all of Pilot Rock downhill on his hardtail singlespeed, which is insanely impressive.

All of Pilot is technical and fatiguing, but once you get a little further down it, it becomes slightly less so. I love that trail; it's certainly my favorite in the race and one of my favorites anywhere in the country.

After Pilot, there were some flat miles of gravel and doubletrack, not ideal for singlespeed, before climbing back up to Black Mountain Trail. The climb to Black Mountain was much better than I expected; I rode the entire thing and it wasn't that steep at all. 

"That isn't so bad", I told myself.

Once we reached Black Trail, I instantly remembered how brutal it was. There was a solid 500+ foot mostly-hiking climb, culminating in a brutally steep pitch to the top where even hiking is tough. Seriously, it's so steep that just lifting your bike up and over rocks is hard.

After the initial hike on Black, there's a brief downhill followed by an almost equally brutal hike, although not quite as long. At last, after that last hike, it's pretty much all downhill to the finish. There's one last little climb further down on Black, but it's mostly all rideable.

Descending Black to the finish was extremely fun. I was really happy with how the day went, especially with the uncertainty with my knee. Compared to other trails, Lower Black is flowy and smooth, which was a welcome change to my tired wrists and hands. Still, the bottom of the trail gets a little rough - with water bars and plenty of roots - so my wrists were still screaming a bit.

Finally, after what seemed like the longest downhill of the day (which it probably was actually), I crossed the finish in 7 hours 23 minutes. I was pretty crusty and dirty from the race, so I immediately rode back to camp to take a quick shower.

Just as I got back to our campsite after showering, Zach came riding up. He finished just about 9 minutes after me, in what was his longest race ever time-wise. I only saw him at the start, but he obviously kept up a good pace the whole day and stayed fairly close behind me.

I pedaled back over to the race venue - only 1/2 mile from camp - just in time to see Chris Joice finishing strong with a 2nd place SS finish.

Now that the race was over, it was officially party time. Shortly after Chris finished, Ryan and Chad crossed the line in 3rd and 4th SS, respectively. After a quick podium picture with the south's finest, our attention turned to beer.

As the sun started to set and the beer kept flowing, our enthusiasm for each person finishing the race increased. Pretty soon, we were the race's official cheering section for each finisher. Chris had to leave to head back to Knoxville, but me, Zach, Stick, Ryan, Chad, and a few others stayed to cheer.

There was a running race, too, on the 55.5 km course, and they all got an extra special cheer from us cyclists sitting around the beer and food cooler when they finished. The finish line hangouts are one of my favorite parts of Pisgah Production races. 

It started getting pretty cold, so sometime after 8pm we decided to head back to our campsite and get a fire going. The campground wood for sale was all gated up since it was after-hours, but we managed to scrounge enough wood around the campsite to get a good fire going for a few hours.

A couple other friends of Ryan and Chad met us at the campsite to hang out for a couple hours, and before long, it was 11pm and time for bed. It was a fun evening of bullshitting and hanging out with some new friends, and I'll leave it at that.

Sunday morning was much colder - in the high 30s I think - but it still wasn't too bad. In the morning, I saw a few Clif bar wrappers laying beneath Stick's hammock, and I quickly realized what happened. I had accidentally left a few Clif bars laying out in my backpack overnight, which I left outside the car, and raccoons or some animal had gotten into them. Stick said he heard some rustling around overnight, so I assume he was hearing the raccoons going to town on the food. Oops.

All of us, including Ryan and Chad, got some breakfast at Waffle House - a proper southern send-off - in Brevard before going our separate ways. The drive home wasn't too bad, although Stick might've grown tired of my classic rock by the time we got home.

All in all, it was another successful weekend of camping and riding. I felt great the whole race, but because I was trying to be smart about my knee, I didn't go quite as hard as I usually do (like at Marji), so there's more meat on the bone time-wise for sure. It'll give me some good motivation for next year.

This was my last big race of the year, so I was especially happy to end on a high note. Dahn won this race many years ago (he's old), so I was also glad to join him among the ranks of past winners in the only category that matters: singlespeed. The only thing missing from the weekend was Dicky, but I don't think he was quite ready for Pisgah after his mishap at the Horny Cat 69. If you're wondering what that is, go check it out on his blergh.

Well, until next time. I'm gonna do some sort of end-of-season wrap up post, along with some other pretty neat things coming up, but you'll have to wait to see what that is.

Stick in his cocoon

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