31 May 2011

The other day (The other day) / I saw a bear (I saw a bear)

What a fantastic weekend.

When my friend Liz suggested that her husband Jon needed a guys' mountain bike weekend in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I was more than happy to accommodate. The trip was the only thing he "asked" for, for his birthday, and so the countdown began -- way back in February.

Fast-forward to last week, leading into Memorial Day weekend, when Jon braved some of the nastiest storms I've seen as his Southwest flight just made it into GSP unscathed. It was pretty scary out there, and the drive back up the mountain was completely surreal. But we made it, and although the rain hung on through most of Friday, by the afternoon we were free and clear to head into Mills River ...

Leading into the 12 Hours of Tsali, I had the good fortune to begin playing around with a full-suspension 29er. Though the setup wasn't dialed and was giving me a bit of knee problems, I wanted to spend some time on it this weekend, and so made the call up-front. Jon picked up a beautiful Gary Fisher hardtail over the winter, and would be rolling the "little wheels" for his first Pisgah experience. Yes, you read that right: 26er hardtail, first time in Pisgah. I promised Liz we wouldn't kill him, and let me tell you, this guy is hardcore!

(He was also at a fitness disadvantage -- the Midwest has been slammed with rain this spring, and so much of his riding has been pavement back-and-forth to his job from the North Side. While that builds a decent base, that first climb up Wash Creek and on up to Spencer Gap was an eye-opener!)

I was in charge of the itinerary for the weekend, and wanted to make sure we made the most of Jon's time. So it went something like this:

Friday: 5000 > Spencer > Trace > 5097 > 5000. We were halfway up Spencer and I ask Jon, "So, what is the biggest mountain biking you've done?", thinking he'd tell me Colorado, or Moab, or something similar. "Well, my brother and I did a road trip to Southern Illinois and down into Louisiana back in the day," he said. Wait, what?! No "mountain" mountain biking? On the way to Trace Ridge? Umm ....

It was wet, it was slick, it was loose -- and Jon nailed it. I think he slid out once, but he took on those rock faces and drops without fear, and did awesome. It was almost too bad that it was damp -- Trace is so much more fun when you're not slip-sliding your way down, and can just rail the heck out of it. But then again, it wouldn't be Pisgah unless it were wet, right?

Saturday: Tsali. The folks at TORC had a big, big group up at Tsali this weekend, and extended an invitation for us to join them. Saturday equals Mouse and Thompson, and Jon and I snuck in a few extra minutes before the group to explore a little on Thompson. Once the group started, though, it was game-on, and holy cow those Piedmont folks are fast. I had expected a bit more leisure, but instead we found ourselves in a drag race to the first overlook ... youch! It was a good-natured group, though, and fun to be in there; I had some mechanical issues that were quickly dispatched and we headed over to Thompson for a loop or two to finish out the day. What a fun place to ride, when you don't have to be "serious" about it!

The drive home was beautiful, as we opted for the scenic route back via the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a little touch-and-go, though, as we were shooting to make it back in time to pick up 12Bones ... we made it, but just barely. We got the last ribs of the day! And oh boy were they yummy! My SIL and niece had arrived Friday night, so we had a nice family evening just hanging out with everyone. Early to bed ... Sunday was going to be a big day ...

Sunday: Horse Cove > Squirrel > 5015 > 1206. Someone (me) thought he'd play mechanic on someone else's bike (Jon's) on Saturday evening -- and that someone (me) had never worked on mechanical disc brakes before. So someone else (Jon) did a test ride (thankfully!) before we put the bike on the car -- and guess what? He had no front brake. D'oh!

Good thing we get 3G in the basement, as a few clicks to the MTBR forums later we were rolling. On tap was a planned Legends Loop, meeting Greg and Stephen at the base of Pilot for a full round-trip. We eased out to Horse Cove Road, and headed up -- it was shaping up to be a beautiful day, and the views of Black and Clawhammer were stunning.

Stephen and I went ahead a bit, leading the way as I was getting used to handling the wagon wheels. "Zen Master" Greg hung with Jon, working their way along Squirrel as he and I have done so many times on so many trails. It's hard to describe riding with Greg when he gets in that zone -- he's just the perfect guy you want tailing you when the trail is tough and your world seems upside-down. Which apparently is what happened to Jon at one point, as he found himself lying in the rhodos with his bike suspended above him! Now that's a true Pisgah experience!

We made it up and over the gap, and hung out at Poundingmill for a second to do some minor rebound adjustment. After that it was game on -- I cleaned everything -- everything! -- all the way to the big step on Laurel Creek, where we had to check up for some upward-bound horses. This was a huge day -- I've never actually ridden all of that part of Squirrel before, nor the steps on Laurel Creek, thank goodness for trail work and big wheels!

Down and out, and by the time we were climbing 5015, my knee was starting to protest. I made the call at Yellow Gap: No mas. Jon and I rolled back via 1206, drove out the long way over 477 to see even more of Pisgah, and then set off in search of ice cream. The rest of the day was spent at home, all quiet-like, icing my knee and just chilling. Not very exciting, but a nice way to spend a holiday weekend ...

Monday: Lake Imaging > Locust > Isaac Heath > Buck Forest > Conservation > Bridal Veil > Conservation > Buck Forest > White Pines > Hooker Creek > Ridgeline. Jon was up for one more ride before heading home, so we went over to DuPont to get our Ridgeline on. From the Lake Imaging parking lot, we headed over to Bridal Veil Falls and back -- quite a bit of gravel, but enough flow to put huge smiles on our faces before packing up and getting him back to GSP. The day was heating up -- it was 98 in the Upstate -- but Jon insisted on getting his boiled peanuts before he flew back to the North. I'm not sure how they made it through security ...

All in all, a huge success, and I'm hoping Jon will make it back sometime. I'm not sure the Blue Loop at Kettles will ever get him prepared for Farlow, but let's face it, most of us walk downhill at some point out there anyway ...

Monday bonus: By the time I was climbing back to Tryon, Kim and her sister and the cousins were enjoying chocolate shakes and ice cream at Dolly's. With a bit of time to kill and 90-degree temps to escape, I threw my bike back on the car and headed over to Mills River, intent on making it up to the Parkway and down Big Creek before dark. I had my light with me just in case, but I was also prepared to bail at the first sign of knee trouble.

Instead, something magical happened. I'm not sure how, or where it came from, but by the time I hit Good Enough Gap I was still in my big ring, my knee was holding up, and a Legends Loop ITT benchmark was in my sights. (Yes, I was worried Kim didn't realize I changed my plans. But it worked out ... this time ...) Dave Thomas promised a patch to any sub-4-hour finishers, and once I set my mind to it, it was time to motor ...

1206 > Laurel Mtn > Pilot > 1206 > 476 > 5018 > Horse Cove > Squirrel > Laurel Creek > Bradley Creek > 5015 > 1206

I had parked at Fisherman's, so was "timing" my loop from Yellow Gap. I debated whether doing Laurel first still qualified, but even if it didn't, it was worth the challenge.

On the climb up from Sassafras Gap, I heard some rustling in the leaves ... and there, about 30 yards away and 30 feet below me, was a lumbering bear cub. Wait, what?! Uh, oh -- where's mom?! I frantically looked upslope, praying I wasn't between them and expecting to hear an infuriated roar at any moment. But -- whew! -- there she was, just off to my left and still downslope ... I told them both to be on their way, and I mounted up and rolled off. I took it as a sign, and kept the gears moving on the way to the top of Pilot ...

Pilot was a riot, as I cleaned a bunch of corners I've not completed before. Who says big wheels can't turn? Actually, the 29er platform is pretty stable, and so I found myself able to pivot on the rear wheel while staying more upright through the turns. Pilot isn't super-narrow, so I was having fun with the drops, and though I threw a few outriggers, I was at the bottom before I knew it. Then it was time to motor, let's see what 5018 had in store ...

Up and over and onto Squirrel, and I was cruising. Without really trying, I was flying, carrying momentum as the sun went down and the fading light played tricks on the roots. Quickly to Cantrell, and climbing the rocks on the other side, I was debating whether to mount my light and putting it off as long as possible. Thankfully the far side of the gap was still filled with enough sunlight, so I kept on going (riding everything but the one downed tree!), and only stopped to light up at the top of Laurel Creek just in case. Good thing I did -- that bottom area was dark! It was a fun descent, though, and as I splashed my way through the river I knew the end was in sight ...

I knew I had a sub-4 Loop in hand by the time I started up 5015. In fact, it was sub-3:30, when you count only the Loop. What was really exciting, and had me flying down 1206, headlight blazing as darkness overtook the Mills River valley, was that I was this close to a sub-4 from the bridge -- I topped out at Yellow Gap at 3:51, and had just 8 minutes to make the descent to the bridge. Could I do it? click-click-click and off I went ... four minutes to the flat corner, full-on aero tuck as I blew past the campfires on my right ... daring not to look at my watch and just concentrating on gaining every little bit of speed ... up and over and down ... there, there it is! Cross and YES! 3:59! Woo-hoo!

It was an awesome way to finish a spectacular weekend, and to bring to close my first big block of training. Spring is behind us now, as yesterday's 90-degree temps can attest to, and now it's time to look forward to summer, and it's game-on from here on out ...

Big thanks to Jon for making the trip, Liz for shipping him down here, Stephen and Greg for a fun ride, and the TORC crew for the invite! Can't wait to do it all again!

27 May 2011

10 years

Snake Alley, Burlington, Iowa, Memorial Day weekend 2001. Rainy, cold, shivering in a pack of 11 Cat. 5 racers, I pinned on a number as a licensed racer for the first time. Happy anniversary.

Go ride!

24 May 2011

Danger: Wrong Way

This sign pretty much sums up my preparation last week for the 12 Hours of Tsali:
Sick? Check. New bike build? Check. Completely different setup? Check. Broken parts? Check. Lack of sleep? Check. Last-minute totally unnecessary panic parts swap? Check. New lights? Check. New-to-me trails? Check.

I did have a couple of things in my corner: Kim, who had me prepped and ready to go by the time I got home late Friday evening. Stephen, whom I coerced into a shake-down ride Friday afternoon that took us to Bent Creek and had us chasing twilight on the Parkway. (And Rhonda, who let him go with me despite clean-up duties from a birthday party!) And perhaps most importantly, Eric and Chad, Cane Creek cohorts, who were there supporting their wives' most-excellent 4th-place team effort and still found time and energy to help me out in the pits, lap after lap after lap. I take back everything I've ever said about them. ... Well, almost.

I've driven past the Tsali Recreation Area several times this year, and despite promises to the contrary, had never stopped there to ride. I had it in my head to visit Andy, proprietor of Bryson City Bicycles, at some point during 2010, but it never came together -- and so Saturday was my first time making the turn off 74 toward Fontana Lake, and my first time making the long descent to the fabled Tsali parking lot. Before I ever knew what Pisgah was, almost before I even knew what a mountain bike was, I had heard of Tsali -- an amazing trail system with ribbons of bench-cut singletrack looping in and around finger-like coves, stretching for miles upon miles of uninterrupted flow. Everyone I knew told me that those trails were well-suited for me, and that I would have a ton of fun out there. And they were right!

Eric and Chad had gone up on Friday and secured an amazing pit area right in the parking lot. I dropped my stuff, parked down the hill, and headed up to registration ... only to find that I had won "the race to the race!"
Truth be told, I was so paranoid that the race would sell out, that I mailed a check to the promoters way back as soon as the printed registration form was available on the web. Yes, you read that right. Kicking it old school, yo!

So now I had a bit to live up to, despite entering the event not at full steam. And, let's face it, I had a big old target on my back. Or rather, on my leg, since they inked each rider number on our left calf. (Awesome move, by the way, really helped to keep track of the competition and teams as they flowed through during the race.)

Thankfully, our pit was rockin', as the women got ready and the team next to us (also friends) had brought full families to the event. I got to kid around with the kids (light check anyone?), until it was time to take my bike for a long walk and get it laid up ready for the start. It's been a while since I'd done a full 12-hour lap race, and even longer since I'd done a le mans start, and even longer since I'd done an uphill le mans start, so to say I was a bit apprehensive was an understatement. I was prepared to pull the plug at any time, but by the same token was ready to hit out and see what I had left in the tank.

(Full disclosure -- I was in a weird place before the race. I remember seeing Elizabeth Glas out there, and sort of being weird to her -- I tried to apologize later, but I probably fumbled that too. Sorry, I was not myself! Thankfully, I've done this enough to know not how to treat folks, and cleaned up my act after that.)

How to describe the next 11 hours and 24 minutes? Remember a few weeks ago when I had a stellar day at PMBAR, and I felt no pain? Yeah. Totally opposite. From the gun, I was hurting, as Friday's pre-ride was causing undue soreness thanks to my illness, the heat was building, and each climb was beating me down with cramps, almost from the start. But on the other hand, the Tsali trails lived up to their billing, and each three-faced climb was followed by long, flowy, super-fast dowhill/pedal/false-flat/bench sections that had me grinning from ear to ear the whole day. The descent from the second climb was the only thing that kept me going -- as I was counting down the laps, I would fixate on that flow, spending nearly 10 minutes not pedaling at all while I hit speeds approaching 25 miles an hour.

This race was all about experience. I focused on myself, and was surprised as anyone as I came through the first lap mixed in with the overall leaders, with the eventual solo winner just a half-second behind. I skipped a bottle that time, and kept the rhythm going -- it was so cool to know so many people in the pits and along the course, it felt like a hometown WORS event!

That was probably the last time I felt "good" -- I had lost a step on the last climbs on the first lap, and after that, it was all kind of downhill. Thankfully I wasn't fighting the course, but I was fighting myself, and fighting the heat, and it was all I could do to stay hydrated, keep my spirits up, and stay focused on just riding. I kept self-checking to make sure I wasn't digging myself into a hole of fatigue and sickness, and thankfully the course was such that it didn't completely destroy me to stay out there lap after lap. So I kept at it, doing what I needed to do to refuel and resupply, as Eric kept the bike running smoothly and my water bottles refilled, and Chad kept track of my lap times without giving away too much information about my placing ...

One big difference from WORS is that May in North Carolina -- even in the mountains -- means heat. Like, August heat. And Tsali has some exposed areas -- at one point, we were pushing 90 degrees out there, on uphill sections with no protection. But then the sun starts to go down, and the shade starts to cool -- and oh, boy was it fantastic. I managed my trick of getting in and out just before lights-on for one, no-light twilight lap, and the next round Chad and Eric were there waiting with my helmet and new light. A quick change and off again -- I've got to give a big hand to Niterider for years of trustworthy night laps, and I must say I'm impressed with their newest batch of LED lights -- the Pro 700 absolutely outdoes itself compared to my old HID setups!

Somewhere in there, my seatpost clamp came loose, and my saddle slipped down just a bit. Unfortunately, my first clue was when my knee started to hurt -- and I still had a couple of hours to go. Eric fixed up the bike, but the last couple of laps were on the painful side, though I managed to ride each hill on every lap until I caught my chain on the super-steep pitch of the last climb, on the last lap. I've been here before with my knee (and had it scoped years ago because of this), so I didn't think I was doing permanent damage, just aggravating and leading to a loss of power on the steeper sections. I just focused on staying consistent, and pumping that trail for all it was worth on the long downhills, to maintain momentum and build speed into the switchbacks. The good news is, by then the other side of experience kicked in -- I was so tired that I stopped using my brakes so much, and I was flying!

With one to go, I checked in with the crew: Second place, with a bit of time in hand. My lap times meant I'd likely beat the cutoff and could do two laps, but my knee and my head weren't exactly in it. I felt like I was crawling that last lap, though I kept an eye out for anyone behind me -- and, full disclosure, I didn't really want to go out for one more lap and risk missing a podium presentation :-)

I rolled in with six minutes in hand, and sang along with Sloop John B as I waited -- and good lord, did I wanna go home. The seconds ticked by, team riders kept coming through, and then it was 1 minute ... 45 seconds ... 30 ... and that was it. I pulled it off! Second place!

The guy who won is a fast cat from Florida, who has switched up from the XC circuit this year and is killing it. He took the Big Frog in April, and I'm sure I'll see him in the Shenandoah ... in the meantime, though, I felt good about the finish despite the odds, and have to admit it was pretty awesome standing on the podium with cameras in our face ... What a super-fun way to close out the early part of my season, and now get ready for W24!

Oh, and the trophy (and payout!) awarded by the Gone Riding folks wasn't too shabby either! Big thanks to everyone who made this race happen!

18 May 2011

Fifteen

Oh my goodness. Were we ever that young?

Happy anniversary sweetheart. I thought I knew what love was; what did I know?

13 May 2011

Here there be snakes

(It looks like Blogger is down right now, so I'm going to try this straight into Facebook ...)


I've always been fascinated by maps. One look around my office, and it's obvious: On one wall, I've got a 780 map from PMBAR 2010, on the opposite wall three USGS quadrangles depcting various places in the Asheville basin. I think it all dates back to when I was a kid, and my dad read first The Hobbit and later the entire LOTR trilogy to my brother and I, just a few pages each night. I also got ahold of his original, hardbound copy of The Silmarillion, and spent hours pouring over the pull-out map in the flap.


And while I'm a stickler for accuracy, and it drives me nuts when maps are wrong, I love old maps that aren't quite complete. That take huge swaths of land, say, like the Old West, and just lump everything together as "Indian Country" or the like. The juxtaposition of detail and ambivalence is fascinating to me, and I imagine myself in the cartographer's place, trying to piece together a vital scrap of navigational excellence while working with incomplete and often contradictory source information. And doing so all in the name of helping prepare fellow travelers.


As you may have read, yesterday was a bit of a tough day for me. I really appreciate all the well-wishes from across the country and around the world, but deep down I was hurting pretty badly. Kim sensed this, and gave me a pass to hit the Forest -- despite some late-afternoon rain, the @Pisgah Area Cycling crew was headed up Clawhammer to Buckhorn Gap Trail, bombing a trail I've climbed several times but have never enjoyed going downhill. All the way out to @Sycamore Cycles I was prepared to bail -- my heart and head just weren't in it. But I went anyway.


So the ride started, and pretty quickly @Wes Dickson and @Dan Ennis and I separated ourselves up the hill. A stop to regroup at the entrance to Maxwell, and another at the entrance to Buckhorn, and then it was "all downhill from here" ... half-dry/half-wet, loose and rocky at first and then all-wet, all rooty further down, and still I couldn't shake the fog I was in. One guy took a header just as we got going, and I was pretty freaked out -- when I get strong feelings like that, it usually doesn't end up in a good way. But he said he was OK, and then it was time to roll.


Down we went, and I started to find a rhythm. We had a good-sized group, and so traded off places as we drove through hub-deep stream crossings, or walked, or took the bridges. I was about mid-pack, midway down, flowing nicely when Carlos checked up at a small drop -- what? Carlos, come on! This one is easy!


I should have known. I should have seen it coming.


Next thing I knew, I was dropping into the stream, and OHMYGODWHATTHEHELLOHSHIT!!!! There I am, mid-pedal-stroke, trying to clean out, and from my right comes this ungodly screaming and yelling as Wes and Dan launch themselves at me in an awesome display of trail banshee prowess. They had hidden behind a bush, literally sitting down in the stream lying in wait, until they knew I was coming. And then they attacked.


Thankfully, I managed my way out of the stream -- good thing, since the rest of the group was waiting on the other side, absolutely cracking up at my "misfortune." And of course Wes and Dan were laughing their assess off, proud they had pulled it off. And you know what? The spell was broken. I felt better. I started laughing. I punched Dan and promised I'd get him back someday. All of a sudden, I felt like it was my birthday, the way it should feel. And we drilled it back up to 477, and then out 276 to the Forest gate -- though I lost the sprint by a nose as Wes threw his bike from about 10 yards out. And it was good.


So this weekend is certainly going to be rough at times, but I'm in a better place to tackle it now, thanks to a couple of trail banshees and some good, old-fashioned, Pisgah-style fun. Even so, I think I'm going to take out my map in the next couple of days, find that stream crossing, and mark in big letters: "HERE THERE BE SNAKES."


Just so that next time, I'll be prepared.

12 May 2011

Not quite right

I'm trying really hard to stay upbeat today.

It's my birthday, and I should be celebrating. I guess I did a little this morning, treating myself to a bit of love courtesy of the Big Green S.

But ... But ... but.

It's just not quite right.

I didn't get a card this year, like I have 37 times before, in my Mom's flowing script.

I didn't get a voicemail this morning singing "Happy Birthday" just a little too fast, addressed to me with a nickname only my Mom ever used.

I didn't get an email signed, "Love, MOM."

I did get a really cute 2-year-old telling me very emphatically that it's MY DADDY'S BIRTHDAY today. I did get a wonderful phone call from my niece and nephew in which my nephew sang to me like his Nana used to. I did get surprised at work by a serenade from the production crew, and I did get lots of well wishes over the interwebs. And, of course, I got a big hug from Kim.

But.

Sunday was tough, but we started forming our own memories, and we had a wonderful day as a family. I'm not as easily distracted today, though, and it just feels ... empty. Incomplete. Like I can't quite put my finger on the exact feeling, even though I know why I'm feeling it. Just not altogether there. My birth was a big deal for my Mom, and so became my birthday, no matter how often I complained that Tim was her favorite.

So.

We go back to Chicago this weekend for the first time. In fact, I think this is the longest I've ever been away for one span in my life. I have to admit, I'm a little scared, and completely unsure of what awaits us there. I'm very much looking forward to Passing Strange, but I also know that it is going to rip my heart out. And maybe that's a good thing -- maybe part of today is that I'm a little disconnected, a little bit in a holding pattern, since we don't deal with the more tangible reminders every day. And so it's on days like today that it hits me most.

But.

But.

But what I wouldn't give to hear her sing to me just one more time.

09 May 2011

Lucky 13

Wow. I'm not sure where to begin.

Maybe I'll start with the time I was 5 years old, and my Mom's dad -- my grandfather -- took me out to eat at a local barbecue restaurant. I ordered up a huge plate of brisket, and ate the whole thing. As a reward, I was inducted into "The Clean Plate Club," and the waiter gave me a wooden nickel as a prize. I still have it.

Or maybe the time in first or second grade, when the teacher passed out a long list of instructions. The first one said "1. First, read and follow all the directions." And then there was one goofy thing after another, as I stood there acting like a monkey, tried to do complicated math problems, ran around my desk 10 times ... until I got to instruction No. 25, which said something like, "25. Don't do any of this. Just sit quietly at your desk." I had failed.

Or perhaps I should first mention that in 10 years of racing, I've never turned a pedal in anger on Mother's Day weekend. The first full weekend in May was always reserved for family, as we celebrated Mom -- and me. I was born the day before Mother's Day in a pretty complicated birth, and so my birthday was always a very special occasion for my Mom.

More likely though, I should start with the time a year and a half ago, when my then-new coworker said to me: "Have you ever heard of 'The Most Horrible Thing Ever?'" Cue the Rocky music ...

This is Eric. Eric and his lovely wife Erinna are "Pisgah Productions," proprietors of the most excellent collection of mountain bike adventure races on the planet. All photos stolen shamelessly from his Facebook page.

Somewhere along the line last year, I got it in my head to do all of Pisgah Productions' adventure races and all of Blue Ridge Adventures' endurance races in a row. I was on track through the end of the year, when it was announced that Pisgah36 (formerly TMHTE) was postponed -- meaning that PMBAR, the Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race, would be the final event in the series for me. To say this event suits me is an understatement: Up to 13 hours in my favorite Forest in the world, with a friend and racing partner, finding our way from checkpoint to checkpoint using our bikes and our brains. After struggling through the second day of Double Dare last October, I vowed that I wouldn't let Greg down, and PMBAR would be my shot at redemption.

The motley crew of PMBAR challengers, pre-race meeting.

So here's how it works: At 7:50 a.m. on the first Saturday in May, Eric hands out a "passport" and a map to the 100 or so teams of two racers each assembled in the grassy field at the base of Black Mountain. When he says "Go," each team cracks open their passport to read any rules/special instructions and find the day's five checkpoints. Then game on -- it's up to each team to figure out their own way to each checkpoint, using only legal trails and carrying a certain amount of required gear that may or may not be checked along the way.

Well, Greg and I were late to the pre-race meeting. We were in the back. Couldn't hear a thing. But in the first big break of the day, I asked someone if Eric said anything important. "Read your passport," I was told. And so when Eric said "Go," that's what we did.

Thank heavens.

The first instruction was to read all the instructions. Buried behind all the rules we already knew, long about Rule No. 13, was a small notice: There's a wooden nickel in your passport. It must be handed in to the race director before you start your race. I am so glad I asked. All those experiences as a kid were finally paying off.

See, Eric's races are adventure races. Brains and brawn. Do I think it's silly-stupid to have "special tests" atop Farlow that include eating pickled eggs and/or shooting a slingshot? Hell yes. Do I think it's silly-stupid to award teams for dressing up for Halloween for two straight days? Absolutely. But those are the rules, and they're Eric's rules to make up and our rules to follow. You never know what you're going to get with a Pisgah Productions' event. Never. Greg and I missed out on second place at Double Dare because I didn't follow directions. That's the way it goes. We learned our lesson.

Me and Greg, reading the Passport, as instructed.

So, fully Rule 13 compliant, Greg and I rolled out of the field and up the Thrift Cove > Black mandatory start. Midway up, we caught up with Clay, and as Greg and I discussed some route options, Clay told us we might want to read our passport closely with regards to one of the routes. Sage advice -- it didn't change our choice, but by his telling us that, we read the checkpoint information a bit more closely, and it did save us some heartache along the way. Sadly, the irony is that Clay had not read Rule 13, and so earned a 2-hour time penalty. Apparently he also somehow missed one of the checkpoints, and so his route was foiled even by the time we caught up to him on Black.

Checkpoints in the order we did them, and notes:
  • Start/Finish: Thrift Cove mandatory to/from Black
  • CP: SMR at Squirrel Gap
  • CP: Bradley Creek at SMR (FS5015 off-limits)
  • CP: NMR at Trace Ridge (Fisherman's off-limits)
  • CP: Laurel/Pilot Connector (directional -- no out-and-backs)
  • CP: Daniel Ridge at Farlow Gap Trail
Our route:

Thrift > Black > Maxwell > Clawhammer > Buckhorn > SMR CP1 > Squirrel > Horse Cove > Cantrell > SMR > Bradley Creek CP2 > Bradley Creek > 1206 > 5000 > 5097 > Wash Creek > Trace Ridge CP3 > Trace Ridge > Wash Creek > 5097 > 5000 > 1206 > Laurel CP4 > Pilot > 1206 > 276 > 5041 > 225 > Daniel Ridge CP5 > Daniel Ridge > 475 > 276 > 477 Avery Creek Road > Clawhammer > Maxwell > Black > Thrift > FINISH!

And here's how it went:

Halfway up Black, riding with Clay, I realized this was going to be a special day on the bike. I pulled Greg out of the group and kept on going. You get maybe 5 days like this in your entire career, and you're lucky if they happen to fall on race day. PMBAR 2011 was probably my best day on a bike. Ever. It was incredible.

And it was a good thing, too -- feeling that good made all the bad stuff go away.

We stopped at Pressley Gap to double-triple check the passport. Discovering that Laurel was one-way (either way) and that 5015 was off-limits was important, and as we bombed down Maxwell we discussed some options. We also determined our first masterstroke of the day: lower Horse Cove > Cantrell instead of SMR. Greg had been on Horse Cove a couple of weeks back, and I'd never ridden that section, so he talked me through it ... good thing, 'cause it was a bit hair-raising! (And I'll have to check, but I think I've now ridden all the trail mileage of PRD, not just every trail!)

The CP1 volunteer was late, and arrived just as we did, with two other teams already there. We were first out, and I think the only ones headed over Horse Cove. This is part of the fun of Eric's races -- you never know if you've made the right choice until you roll into the finish at the end of the day. Game on!

We were flying as we approached CP2, and then Greg hit a rock and flatted. Damn. We got passed by a couple of teams, including this guy and his partner, but rolled out pretty quickly and were doing OK. In and out of CP2, we hit the river crossing just behind a group of horses -- six headed our direction and eventually four coming our way, as four or five PMBAR teams crowded the trail behind. And then disaster struck.

We had passed through the muckiest part of the day first, and my rear derailleur didn't like it. In an exact repeat of The Ocho (where I wore race number 13, by the way), we approached the 3-hour mark and I dropped my chain with severe chain suck -- we were halfway up Pea Gap and I screamed some of the loudest F-bombs I've ever uttered. Though we could laugh about it later, at the time it wasn't so funny -- and that's the beauty of PMBAR. It's a team race. Greg talked me down off the ledge. I was this close to tears, this close to giving up, and Greg calmly worked out the problem, got it fixed, and got me rolling. Greg absolutely saved the day.

So we rolled up Bradley Creek, making sure we didn't take the old trail entrance, and up and over Yellow Gap. By this point I knew I was on a good day, though I didn't want to jinx it, so I didn't say anything. Knowing we'd pass by again, we didn't really stop and say hi to Stephen, manning his "super-secret" checkpoint at the Gap -- instead, we bombed down the other side, and kept it rolling. In and out of Trace Ridge, we were about 30 minutes behind one team, and another rolled out as we rolled in. They even paused for a moment to share some chain lube -- THANK YOU!

Water at the campground, then on up to YG, where we stopped to hang for a minute as we chugged ice-cold Coca-Cola and chatted with Stephen for a minute. Nolan and Lateef came through, Nolan made sure we knew about the nickel and the directional Laurel (thanks man!), and we rolled out to one of my home loops. Did I mention how good I felt? Hot damn, I have never ridden Laurel > Pilot as well as I did on Saturday. We had to stop and fix my chain once, but this time wasn't so catastrophic, and as we rolled deeper into the rock garden than I've ever gone, we knew we were in the final stretch. Out 1206, quick stop in Pink Beds for water, and -- wait! What is this?!

We stopped to get water at Pink Beds, and on a whim I cracked open our map for the first time. And it held another surprise -- an equalizer, if you will. See, locals won't look at a map unless we're forced, whereas all the out-of-towners would have to use said map to figure out where they were going. And in a stroke of pure genius, Eric opened a section of road that is always off-limits. Always. It's faster, and it cuts out a big-old climb. You can guess what happened next: After Greg and I did our happy dance, we rolled out, and sure enough we saw the two teams ahead of us coming back out -- they hadn't read their maps!

Way out there on 225, as we climbed up Daniel Ridge, some 8 hours into the race, is where it hit me: it was the day before Mother's Day. My Mom knew how much I loved to race in Pisgah, and how much I enjoy racing with Greg. She was never really into my racing, but for some reason she had wanted to hear all about Double Dare last year. Not to get all metaphysical or anything, but for all the crap bike problems we endured, Greg and I somehow managed to avoid catastrophe, and we caught every lucky break possible. And I just don't believe in coincidence.

So as it turned out, by using the open route, we jumped ahead of one of the teams we saw climbing out, though we didn't know it. But then disaster struck again -- Greg's chain threw a link, and there we were on the last climb of the day as the team re-passed us, going up. But they were the only ones, and I sort-of returned Greg's favor as we got his bike sorted out and got rolling again -- we crested Black, cleaned the backside except for the weird rock/stair/wet spot, and flew down Thrift with huge grins on our faces as we finished the day without turning a pedal for more than 10 minutes of downhill bliss.

And ... we finished in fourth place! After 10 hours and 24 minutes of pure Pisgah, after all the disasters and challenges and mind games, after a day of having no concept or reference points as to how the race was developing, the top five teams finished within 61 minutes of each other, and we missed the podium by just 9 minutes. It felt absolutely fantastic to score a top-5 out there, and in the final break of the day, I managed to come home with a big prize that completes a puzzle I've been trying to work out for a while now. HUGE thumbs up!

So that completes the cycle -- this time around. I'm bummed that P36 isn't in there, but I'm hoping Eric is able to put it on for 2012, and it sounds like another shot at the less-formal Pisgah 99 may be in the offing for November, depending on when a certain little someone decides to arrive ... not to mention Double Dare and PMBAR '12 ...

Big thanks to Eric and Erinna for another great event, and to all the super volunteers and crazy racers who make PMBAR such an awesome day in the forest! Can't wait to do it again!

06 May 2011

The Pisgah Awards

Talk about symmetry: My first Bent Creek ride was March 18, 2010 -- 367 days before I rolled out Flat Laurel onto NC-215 to complete my exploration of the Pisgah Ranger District. I had done one or two rides before that night with Stephen, Greg and Eric, but really, with the weather we had that winter, riding in Pisgah really only started then. So it took me a year -- and hmmm ... now I'm not far from having ridden everything twice ...

As this weekend's festivities have gotten closer, I find myself being pensive -- a year ago, I volunteered to help in the parking area before getting my recon of Stage 1 on. I told myself I didn't know Pisgah well enough to compete yet ... but that maybe in 2011 I'd be ready. I was right -- I dropped in on Squirrel, caught up to Emily B. and her partner on some singletrack, and promptly went ass-over-teakettle in a spectacular display of dipshitedness.

And so now here we are. And as much as I like to begin to think about myself as a local, I'm going to do a very non-local thing. Though we all love Pisgah, the deep-rooted folks here have kind of a secret handshake going: You just don't tell outsiders how incredibly awesome this place is. "We" don't want our trails getting clogged up with tourists. Thankfully, though, there are enough transplants here now that it's not hard to find good routes, especially via MTBR ... though beware, because even then the "locals" like to send Pisgah newbies on some pretty knarly routes through the woods ...

Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating one year of Pisgah, I present my "Pisgah Awards." These are my opinion only, and are fully debatable -- and, truth be told, I can't wait to look back in 5 years and see if I still have the same opinion of these trails, especially the crazy-hard ones ...

First, the rough stuff:

Worst fire road climb: I'm going to have to go with Pilot Mountain Road up to Farlow Gap. For many, the payoff is awesome, but I'm not quite there on Farlow yet, so for me not so much. It's just ugly, especially if you've been climbing since the Hatchery or you're racing SWANK. Honorable mentions: Bent Creek Gap Road -- you just forget how dang steep it gets. Also, 471 from the campground all the way to Pilot Mountain (Stage Race).

Worst singletrack climb: Club Gap. Rocky, steep, nasty, with not such a great payoff. Especially in a race. (This category precludes the trails we "normally" go down -- some of those are pretty nasty too!)

Worst hike-a-bike: The top of Black, coming up from Pressley Gap. Solo or in a group, it's just tough -- but the views are beautiful. Honorable mentions: The "staircase" on Laurel (uphill); Farlow Gap (downhill).

Wetest trail: Graveyard Fields. Holy crap, you're riding through rivers the whole time. Honorable mention: Ivestor Gap. Almost as bad, just to get to Graveyard. Yuck.

Sloppiest area: The whole east side of Turkeypen. Vinyard Gap and Bradley Creek are just nasty. Honorable mention: South Mills River in Turkeypen and North Mills River in NMR.

Are we there yet? Middle Fork. No matter which way you slice it, The Never-ending Road seems to never end.

Surprise kick: Pea Gap sort of sneaks up on you.

"Flat"-est trail: Greenslick. I've only been down it twice without either flatting or seeing someone with a flat. Honorable mention: Laurel Mountain. Nice rocks.

Stupidest trail: Sumney/Summey Cove. Not quite as remote as the Black Balsam area trails, but the payoff is pretty lame. I just remember being hot and sweaty, and hiking a ton only to have to hike down the other side too. Not my favorite.

Toughest trail: Hmmm ... I'm going to have to go with Farlow on this one. Though I'm still walking the very bottom of Pilot, I'm at least getting further each time I ride it. Farlow though? Notsomuch.

Least-favorite trail: I have not yet figured out how to make Avery Creek "fun." It's fall-line at its worst, only to dump you into the Pisgah equivalent of the La Brea tar pits.


And now, the good stuff:

Favorite after-work route, no lights: Laurel > Pilot. This is a long ride to fit in without lights, starting from NMR and looping back via 1206, so you have to be in shape, and you only get a couple of weeks around the summer solstice to make it happen. Honorable mention: Spencer Gap > Trace plus Bear Branch. My go-to route, also from NMR, 90 minutes or so of pure twilight bliss.

Favorite after-work route, lights: Anything with the crew from Sycamore Cycles in Brevard, particularly if it includes Long Branch and Cat Gap. Wes and Dan hit out from the gun, and if you can keep up, well, it's a good day for sure.

Best night ride: Bent Creek, particularly Sidehill. BC is just smooth enough to be an intro to Pisgah, and just rough enough that adding the night factor makes it more fun and challenging. Great training for a 24-hour race. Honorable mention: Cove Creek can be downright insane when you're trying to make a time cutoff, at midnight, on Halloween. Just sayin'.

Best trail for my 2-year-old: Foster Creek. Out of the way, short, fun, and right up the road from her babysitter.

Best trail for my wife: Flat Laurel Creek. Waterfalls and scenery with an awesome roller coaster of a ride.

Best roller-coaster: Cove Creek from 225. Yee-haw!

Best seasonal: Bennett Gap. Seasonals are only open Oct. 15 through April 15, and Bennett gets better the closer you get to closing, due to the traffic. By April 1, it's amazing. Honorable mention: Coontree. Super fun and fast, but way too short.

Best Legends Loop: Thanks to Dave Thomas for this one: Laurel > Pilot > Horse Cove > Squirrel in any configuration, but particularly ending on Pilot. More bench cut than you can imagine, climbs to keep you honest, and a payoff that is unreal. Honorable mention: You just can't ride Pisgah without hitting Clawhammer > Black > Buckwheat > Bennett at least once.

Favorite singletrack climb: SMR > Buckhorn Gap from 476. Big-ring fun, going uphill. Honorable mention: Buckhorn Gap trail from 477 to Clawhammer Road.

Favorite fireroad climb: 475B > 225.

Favorite descent: This is a tough one, but I'm going to have to go with Big Creek. Insanely steep in places, fast and remote. Hairpins that are manageable. Bench-cut that is sometimes not. In the running for favorite trail, especially after the leaves are cleaned off a bit. Honorable mention: Butter Gap.

Best "secret" trail: Bear Branch. Great warmup for Trace, or just out there to have fun on your own. As long as the equestrians aren't out. Honorable mentions: Foster Creek or Wash Creek. Either one is only 10 minutes at a casual pace, but both are fun and flowy.

Best views: Really tough, but I'm going to go with the top of Bennett. Incredible views on both sides. Honorable mentions: Slate Rock, Clawhammer or Black.

Favorite spot: My favorite spot in the Forest is the intersection of Spencer Gap and Trace Ridge. There's a cairn there, and I always stop for a second to help build it. It's meditative, before bombing down to the river.

Favorite trail: My favorite trail in Pisgah? Turkeypen Gap Trail, from Black to the parking lot. Remote (it takes an hour of riding/hike-a-bike to get to the start), crazy-steep, loamy, with "earn-your-turns" hike-a-bikes in the middle -- Turkeypen Gap has it all as you razorback along the ridge. And in a rarity for Pisgah, it's dry -- no water crossings at all. There's just something about that trail that calls to me -- and I answer it whenever I can.

So there you have it. I know I've got a lot of learnin' to do, but that's why events like PMBAR and Double Dare are so much fun. I look forward to the days when I feel comfortable pulling off crazy moves like the staircase on Farlow, and I'm certain those days are coming ...

Have a great weekend everyone, ride hard and have fun!

03 May 2011

Surrounded by Foo

OK, this isn't the first time I've mentioned this, but now it's getting weird. In all the hoopla surrounding the release of Wasting Light, I noticed that it's not just David Grohl who has a doppelganger in my circle of friends ...


Grohl / Refsneider


Mendel/Collier

Now I'm on the lookout for a Pat Smear look-alike ... Taylor Hawkins may be hard to come by with the folks I hang out with, though I think Chris Shiflett should be easy ...

02 May 2011

Awesomeness

I'm not sure I've posted lately about just how awesome my wife is. To wit:
  • Upon learning that Squirt's due-date is two weeks earlier than planned, and just a week before Halloween, Kim looks at me and says, "Yes, you can still do Double Dare." Wait, what? What if you're late? "We'll figure something out." Dang.
  • After I spent a week not at home, during which she and Kate traveled together without me, she let Greg and me go play in the woods on Saturday. We hit Big Creek again, and I think I may have a new favorite trail.
  • Then, after just a few minutes at home, I went and played bike mechanic at work, with her blessing. She even waited dinner for me, and had the nachos baking when I arrived home.
  • We stayed up a bit too late watching a cruddy movie, and then she put up with a full hour of me snoozing my alarm clock yesterday morning, nine minutes at a time.
  • Then, she let me go play in the woods by myself for a little while. And it was good.
  • We did get family time in the afternoon, in the form of a 3-year-old birthday party. I swear my kid has a better social life than me. (No offense, Greg.)
So you can see, my sweetheart is pretty fantastic. This weekend, when Greg and I are playing in the woods again, I think she and Kate are getting together with some friends and exploring one of the local state forests, which should be fun. I promise -- promise! -- Sunday is her day, and Kate and I are planning to cook breakfast and treat Mommy to a wonderful picnic lunch!