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King of the Mountain: Ben King Wins the Shenandoah Mountain 100

Ironically, one of the first things I did when the road racing season ended was sign up for another bike race, the Shenandoah Mountain 100. Each fall, I recover some technical skills and maintain some fitness by training on the trails with Virginia’s mountain bike hero, Jeremiah Bishop. We piece together routes around Bishop’s home town, Harrisonburg, and mine, Charlottesville, always eager to show off our latest discoveries. Although we rack up huge rides, it never feels like training. The lack of structure is relaxing after a year of carefully calculated efforts. These unscripted rides are too fun to call work. Plus, at the end of a day on our fat tires, we can drink one. We aren’t training for anything, just riding for the love.

Bishop and other friends pressured me into the Shenandoah Mountain 100 (SM100), but I was an easy sell. The race captures the titillating spirit of adventure that hooked me on cycling.

I had dreamed of riding the SM100 ever since age 14, when seven bucks was equivalent to an hour of yard work. I couldn’t come up with the entry fee and asked my dad to sponsor me. He thought the race was too heavy for a 14- year-old and would ruin my cross-country running season. It’s been on my bucket list ever since.

My road season ended earlier than the past six years, and I finally had a chance this year. The hitch was that I hadn’t ridden my mountain bike since I left Virginia last December. Fresh off the seven day Tour of Colorado, I didn’t worry about my legs or cardio, but when suspension buckling boulders and loose shale downhills rattled my roady hands, t-rex arms and bony back to failure after three hours, I’d be like a gorilla driving a Porsche straight into a tree. My friends actually made bets on which section of the technical course I would most likely eat it. I must have looked as amateur as I felt, because one rider in the parking area muttered, “Who’s the poser in the RadioShack kit?” Therefore, the race was more about the experience than the competition for me.

Most riders added to the experience by camping at the Stokesville Observatory. The campground was coming to life when I arrived at five in the morning. Like the beginning of a medieval battle scene, riders sipped coffee, stretched, tuned their weaponry, and mounted their steeds in the moonlight. At the race director’s command, we lined up and charged into battle against each other, ourselves, the clock, and the terrain. As we climbed a gravel road, the sun rose with us lighting the first section of singletrack.

We plunged down a trail called Tillman, an exhilarating new piece of the area’s ever-growing trail network. When Bishop introduced me to Tillman on one of our 2012 escapades, we rode it three times in a row. Roadies never use words like “stoked,” but we were literally in Stokesville. At the base of the descent, nearly everyone I saw was grinning and behind us we heard the whoops of riders hitting the table top jumps and banked turns.

It didn’t take long for my upper body to cramp and blister, but something about being in the race zone and the Jay-Z song stuck in my head combined to create “mad flow” despite the pain. I think the song goes, “Still that mountain biker—stayin’ alive.” And, when I followed Bishop on the downhills, that’s what it was—stayin’ alive. When it started pouring rain on a rocky, off-camber, sidehill trail, I nearly surrendered to good judgment. But I was having too much fun to stop. It felt like driving a roller coaster.

My giddiness began to fade farther into the race. Each steep climb and harrowing descent trimmed the lead group. Bishop led most of the single track. He knew everything about the course so I picked at him like a toddler in the back seat. “How long is this descent? How far till the climb? When is the aid station? Are we there yet?” We approached a segment nicknamed The Death Climb, and I attacked. Only Bishop came across and we worked together to build our lead over the chasers.

When Bishop’s rear tire went soft, I waited. He had coached me through the race and I didn’t want to take advantage of a technicality. In fact, I had relied so heavily on his experience and skills that if we came to the line together, I wouldn’t have contested. However, we made the same calculations. With a two minute lead over Christian Taguay minus three minutes for Bishop to repair the flat tire, I had to leave him. At his home race, it hurt him to say, “Go on, man. I have to change this thing.” We parted as gentlemen, then raced like savages.

My lead stretched over the final kilometers and it was enough to win. Jeremiah regained second place, and Taguay placed third. Although I never crashed, I was wrecked. It was a week before I could stand up straight or give a firm handshake.

Stokesville Observatory, where the battle began, became a field celebration, with burgers and beer and muddy warriors cheering on other finishers. Like most of the 600 participants, I showed up to enjoy the outdoors, try something extraordinary, and do so amid a community of like-minded people. Mission accomplished.

Ben King is a national champion cyclist living and training in Charlottesville, Va.

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