Finishing last at one of the biggest stage races in the country.
The freezing rain stops when I hit the first river crossing, so there’s reason to be optimistic as I sink up to my junk in Bradley Creek. It’s snowing at the higher peaks of Pisgah National Forest, where Bradley Creek is just a skinny trickle. The faster racers are probably already up there, battling it out on snowy singletrack at 5,000 feet. There are no epic battles where I am. Down here, at the back of the pack, there are just a couple of racers on the verge of getting pulled by the Grim Reaper, and a handful of icy stream crossings.
I’m 10 miles into the second big day of the inaugural Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race, a multi-day event that’s attracted some of the top pro XC riders in North America. I’m the only racer sporting a beater bike adorned with glow sticks leftover from Halloween 2008. We’re all here for the course: 130 miles and 30,000 feet of climbing over marquee trails like Avery Creek, Bennett Gap, and Black Mountain. You couldn’t see a better side of Pisgah if you hired a guide.
Standing in the middle of the river, my bike hung on my shoulder and legs going numb, I try to remember the warning signs of hypothermia, but come up blank, which is probably one of the warning signs of hypothermia. Still, it’s better than yesterday.
Yesterday: Confucius Says
Day one saw me getting dropped by the pros on the first fire-road climb of the race. With 38 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing in a single day, my plan was to spin in granny toward the back of the pack and hope I survive the worst that Pisgah has to offer. After a five-mile ennui-inducing gravel road grind, I spent 15 minutes pushing my bike through the first big singletrack climb on Squirrel Gap. The whole damn trail is marred with off-camber root gardens and deep, thick mud pits, which cause me to eat it over and over. I leave Squirrel bruised, tender, and second-guessing my life choices. The bikers I’m riding against had nutrition plans and sponsorships. I had a bag of pretzels in my pack and the tenuous blessing of my wife.
But I was the only racer smart enough to pre-stock the checkpoints with beer.
The hours unfolded with more gravel road grinds and hike-a-bike singletrack. Even the famous Black Mountain downhill was too much for me to handle at the end of the day. I took the downhill gingerly with cold fingers clenched around the back break, riding across the finish line seven hours and 32 minutes after I started, comforted only by the fact that other riders were still out on the course suffering.
That night, I spent an hour eating takeout lo-mein in the bathtub and feeling sorry for myself. I was ready to drop out of the race completely when I opened the obligatory fortune cookie and read, “Confucius says: it does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.” No shit.
We’re greeted with freezing rain on the five-mile road ride that kicks off Saturday’s leg of the race. We’ve got 41 miles ahead of us today, with some big, technical downhills, lots of water, and 9,500 feet of climbing.
The temperature drops after I get soaked by the seven creek crossings. My toes and fingers grow numb and my face and chest burn from the wind. I wrap plastic sandwich bags around my feet to keep out the cold. I hit the checkpoint only 45 minutes in front of the mandatory cut off time. The Grim Reaper is on my tail.
He catches up with me on a steep push up Laurel Mountain just before I reach the course’s peak elevation. I managed to stay ahead of Steve the Safety Sweep (aka the Grim Reaper) yesterday because of the few slower riders behind me, but they’ve all dropped out.
There’s snow on the ground as I pedal onto Pilot Rock with the Grim Reaper a few feet behind me. His job is to ride the course with the last biker to make sure no one gets hurt and everyone hits the cut off times. Unless I hustle to beat the clock, I’m the next biker to drop.
Pilot Rock is a downhill booby-trapped with hair-pen switchbacks and boulder gardens. Youtube it. You’ll see rad downhill porn set to booming hip-hop tracks. I take it considerably slower, walking some choice sections. My descent would be the worst Youtube video ever. But I survive the 10-hour day, finishing just minutes ahead of the cut-off.
My Little Pony
At the starting line on Sunday, the final day, we’re looking at a breezy 40 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation gain. The first forest road climb is long, steep, and boring, so I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince another rider that My Little Pony is an edgy cartoon. Steve the Grim Reaper is with us too, but he’s a silent partner. Always watching, never judging, ready to pull our card if we miss a checkpoint time cutoff.
Bennett Gap is the highlight of the course. It’s 2.5 miles of downhill with just a touch of hike-a-bike to keep you honest. After Bennett Gap, there’s one more forest road grind, then a repeat of the last two miles of Black Mountain. With the end in sight, I’m feeling good, so I crank it into the big chain ring for the last downhill and pedal as fast as I can, cresting high on Black Mountain’s berms and launching far off its drops.
The clock says six hours and change when I cross the finish line. I’m the last biker to finish again, crossing the line just a few yards ahead of Steve the Grim Reaper. He hands me a beer and cracks a smile for the first time, asking me how it feels to finish dead last at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race.
I’m too tired to respond, but I know this race is like a traumatic childhood event. Like getting pantsed during a middle-school assembly. The initial shock to your system is brutal, but eventually, with therapy, it’ll make you stronger. •