Wednesday, May 15, 2024

PMBAR '24 The Actual Enchilada

I could already hear sprinkles on my tent as I dazed in and out of sleep. 

"So it's going to be one of those kind of days", I thought to myself.

By the time I fully woke up, though, the rain had stopped. I crawled out of my tent and reached my phone to the sky in search of enough cell service to check the weather. Miraculously, my weather app loaded: rain starting at 9:30 AM. 

"Well, at least we'll have a dry start", I thought.

One-by-one we emerged from our tents and ate breakfast and made last-minute preparations for the race. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of peanut butter on bagels (yes, plural, two full bagels) and some Diet Coke. Mmmmm, I love me some Diet Coke.

With the forecast originally calling for rain in the morning, I had planned to wear my rain jacket, but with dry weather (for now), I had to stuff it into my USWE pack, where it just barely fit.

We pedaled over to the start line - which was across US 276 from our campground - and lined up for a good-ish starting position. I chatted with some friends - Chris, Dicky, Jarz, and others - and we waited to see how it would start.

For those unaware, the race consists of five checkpoints scattered throughout Pisgah that you have to reach with whatever route you choose (barring some off-limits roads and trails). You're given a passport at the start that tells you where the checkpoints are, and from then on, it's just you and your partner choosing where to go (for the most part).

This year, we got the passport at the start line, as opposed to at the top of Black Mountain Trail, but we still started the same way: up Black Mountain.

Black Mountain Trail isn't a particularly awful climb, but with a congo line of people and 32x19 gearing, it's not as pleasant as it otherwise could be. Being stuck behind people spinning in their granny gear meant I was barely churning out 20 rpm, but with little room to pass, I didn't have much of a choice. Compared to last year, though, it was a breeze since I was a bit further toward the front.

Once I got to Buckhorn Gap, I took out the map and laid it on the ground to start plotting out the route. Cinderbloch was just a tiny bit behind me, having been separated in the mass of people, so I got everything set up before he got there. Montana and Chuck also rolled up at the same time, and they similarly laid their map out to plot their route.

Cinderbloch and I didn't have a marker, so we took some little stones and set them on the map where the checkpoints were.

On a hunch, I took it upon myself to suggest a route going across Turkeypen and then up South Mills River to the first checkpoint. This was partly because I heard other riders mentioning Turkeypen, but also because having looked at the map, it seemed like the most logical choice. This was despite me having said the day before I did not want to do Turkeypen.

So, Cinderbloch and I set off on Turkeypen, with Montana and Chuck close behind. We actually rode with them for most of Turkeypen, but we put some distance on them in the downhill.

Speaking of that downhill... wow. Really fun. Unfortunately, I had to put a foot down for one awkward steep log-over part-way down, but other than that, I rode everything. Next time, no foot down. It's actually not as hard as I remembered from the Pisgah 111k, but it's very aggressive nonetheless.

After Turkeypen, we went up South Mills River to the first checkpoint and then turned around to head back to Mullinax. Sure enough, we saw a lot of people coming the other direction on South Mills River, which was good because it told us our plan was a common plan. Of course, that doesn't mean it's right, but it would probably not be a good sign if we were the only ones taking a certain route.

Mullinax is a tough climb, but I was determined to clean it all with 32x19. Surprisingly to myself, I did make the whole thing, and it took some fancy footwork up a couple root sections. Of course, it doesn't matter one single bit that I cleaned it, but it was a personal challenge. 

From Mullinax, we rode out Squirrel Gap to the next checkpoint before turning around and going back down Squirrel to Laurel Creek. While climbing Squirrel, there were plenty of unfriendly descenders who refused to give right-of-way to riders climbing. Very annoying.

I get it that some people have an over-inflated sense of self importance, but I mean, dude, you're some amateur bike rider pedaling along in a race that no one outside of a select few mountain bikers in an already niche sport have ever heard of. Even if you're the fastest dude in the race, still, who cares? I guess they better secure that top spot on the podium so that their drink mix sponsor continues to send them a bag of drink mix for half-off every fourth-month.

I digress. It was nice to get off the two-way traffic trail and get back to the nice mellow vibe of cruising through the forest a bicycle. Bliss. Laurel Creek was in great shape, except for one big blow-down, and it took us directly to the dreaded Bradley Creek Trail. Well, dreaded for some. I'm actually quite fond of it.

Cinderbloch and I kept thinking back to Eric Wever's pre-race announcement that Turkeypen and Laurel Creek had a lot of trees down and were in rough shape. Honestly, both trails were in pretty good shape, and our suspicion is that Eric was giving a hint that those two trails would be smart to use in the route. Or not, maybe we were reading way too much into it.

Either way, Laurel Creek dropped us onto Bradley Creek Trail, and we began the odyssey of a million stream crossings and downed trees to Yellow Gap Road.

Starting from Laurel Creek, I think were actually about 10 or 12 stream crossings and maybe 30 downed trees. I told Cinderbloch during the race and Montana afterward that it was one of my favorite trails of the whole day. Something about dismounting for creek crossings and trees was very hypnotic to me. I started to fall in love with the adventure, and even though it sounds like a very hippy thing to say, Bradley Creek Trail was a great vibe.

After Bradley Creek, we wanted to make a deviation from our route last year. We had previously gone up and down Pilot Cove and then up and down Pilot Rock, but we absolutely did not want to hike up Pilot Rock again.

So, this year we went up and down Laurel Mountain Trail, a long but mostly pleasant climb that takes us to the same spot as Pilot Rock. Time wise, it ends up being about the same, but it was much more pleasant.

At the bottom of Laurel Mountain after we'd already gone up and back, we saw Dicky and his partner Nick (partner as in race partner, not partner partner). They looked much sad, and Dicky told us "this is going to be a four checkpoint year for us".

That must've given Cinderbloch an idea, because he looked at me and said something like "that doesn't sound like a terrible idea".

I immediately shut that down and assured Cinderbloch that under no circumstances would we get any less than all five checkpoints. He agreed, although he said that if the rain picked up before we got to the next trail, he only wanted four.

As headed to the next trail, I was crossing my fingers that the rain wouldn't get heavier, and luckily enough, the rain actually lightened up.

We got to a trail that we thought was Pilot Cove, and in a way it was, but it wasn't the one we wanted. I didn't realize that until about 1/2 mile into the trail, and by then, there was no turning around. Mainly, I was afraid that if we turned around, it might be too tempting to turn it into a four checkpoint day. Plus, according to the map, this trail - Pilot Cove East, might actually be a good alternative to what we had intended to take.

In the end, it was actually a pretty good choice, and it was much more enjoyable than the straight hike-a-bike up Pilot Cove West.

After getting the checkpoint, we hiked a bit up to the top of Pilot Cove West to ride the downhill we were planning to hike up. Just as we neared the top, the rain started getting heavier so we both put our rain jackets on. It was starting to get epic, and as we started down the 20%-plus grade downhill, the rain was really pouring.

I couldn't help but smile as our brakes were squealing and we skidded our way down the trail. We passed a couple other single speeders on the way down, and I really felt like we were in a groove. That was pretty awesome, and the rain didn't let up the whole way down.

Next up was a stretch of gravel road before taking South Mills River back toward Black Mountain Trail. At this point, everything was starting to get really muddy. The climb up to Black Mountain was exceptionally wet, and it took much longer than usual because of it. 

After getting to Black, we took Black to Club Gap, where the final checkpoint was. Along the way on Black, I had to change my front brake pad which was completely worn out, and we yo-yoed along with an another team of riders.

Once at Club Gap, we made the smart move of descending Avery Creek Trail and taking some gravel roads back to Buckhorn Gap. Some teams were tempted to just reverse Black Mountain Trail, which seems good on paper, but in reality, taking the longer gravel road option is much, much, much faster. There's just too much hike-a-bike on Black for it to be a smart move.

The gravel roads back to Buckhorn Gap were ridiculous. Deep mud puddles, horse poop everywhere, and a rain just heavy enough to be annoying. Cinderbloch was in some distress, but we kept grinding and made it to Buckhorn Gap in good time.

The descent down Black to the finish was another one of those epic and awesome parts of the day. The trail was muddy but not filled with puddles; it reminded me of one of those wet enduro races in the mud that you see on YouTube. I had an absolute blast slipping and sliding down Black, and the Maxxis Rekon tires did a really good job of keeping me under control.

At last, the finish line was in sight and the Cinderbloch and I once again completed PMBAR with all five checkpoints. Mission accomplished.

Our hands were quite shriveled up from hours of rain, and Colleen said Cinderbloch's hands looked like a body that got pulled up from the bottom of the river. 

For the last hour of the race, Cinderbloch was telling me how he wanted to jump in the creek after the race, and I kept telling him he was crazy and it was too cold. I waited around at the finish for Montana and Chuck to come across, but I learned after than he went straight to the showers and didn't jump in the creek. Soft.

Montana and Chuck finished up shortly after us, and they seemed to be in a good mood as well.

We headed back to camp to get cleaned up, and then we went out to get some Mexican food and margaritas. Bueno.

It was still pouring down rain, but we all drove back to the race finish line to hang out and have a few beverages after Mexican. Dicky was there and some others I didn't know, but the crowd was much smaller than the year before. 

People were still coming across the line as late as 10:30 PM, in the rain, including Jesse and the other Ohiopyle team. That's a mighty impressive day on the bike!

Eventually, we headed back to camp - still in the rain - and Montana and I sat in the car for about 45 minutes ranting about e-bikes and full suspensions while Cinderbloch and Colleen went into their tents.

The next morning I got up early to do a two-hour gravel ride (which was very bueno), before making the eight-hour drive home. It was a pretty easy drive, thankfully, and I made it home before dark. All in all, a very fun and successful PMBAR trip, and I'm already looking forward to PMBAR 2025.

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