Professional and elite endurance mountain bikers are pedaling Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina this weekend for the four-day inaugural Pisgah Stage RaceIt’s the first fully supported stage race in the Southeast, and is debuting with the richest purse of this type of race in the country. The action started Thursday with a fast and furious time trial on a freshly minted course on Brevard College’s campus. The weather cleared just in time to kick off the race, leaving the course a little on the “damp” side. The course consisted of four 1.5-mile loops, half of which was fire road, the other half was tight, rooty switchbacks. Much of the switchbacks proved un-ridable for many in the amateur field because of the muddy conditions. One switchback couldn’t even be cleared by the pro field, which included stellar regional talent like Jeremiah Bishop (Harrisonburg, Va./Monavie Cannondale), Sue Haywood (Harrisonburg, Va./Shenandoah Bicycle Company) and Sam Koerber (Asheville, N.C./Fisher 29er Crew). Bishop and Haywood both won the time trial handily.
Today (Friday, Oct. 16) marked the beginning of the grueling stage-race portion of the weekend. Bikers set out for a 37-mile romp through some of Pisgah’s signature singletrack. With 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Riders used fire roads to tie together destination-worthy trails like Squirrel Gap, Buckhorn Gap, and Black Mountain—a massive downhill with a 1,500 foot drop and waterbars and boulders the size of Volkswagons.
Bishop and Haywood were both wearing the leader’s jerseys as they set out for the day. Haywood secured the leader’s jersey for another day with a 4:32:15 finish, with the next female pro, Cary Lowery (Athens, Tenn./Outdoor Store-Specialized) finishing in 4:46:05. Bishop had a tougher fight for to keep his jersey. He and Asheville local Sam Koerber were neck and neck throughout the entire 37-mile day, with Bishop barely edging Koerber out for the finish by less than a minute.
Saturday involves a 41-mile ride with 9,500 feet of elevation gainBRO will continue to update this blog with more details from the race weekend, as well as pictures from the courses.
Stage 2: Land of Waterfalls Loop
Temperatures were hovering in the low 40s as riders pedaled five miles of highway during a mass start on Saturday morning. The peloton was noticeably thinner on Saturday, as several bikers were either too disheartened or fatigued from Friday’s leg to clip back into the bike for another long day on Pisgah’s brutal singletrack. The third leg of the Pisgah Stage Race included 41 miles of mixed singletrack and fire roads with 9,500 feet of elevation gain. The terrain was tough, but the weather proved tougher. The temperature dropped even lower just as bikers were forced to wade through seven creek crossings, many of which were thigh deep. Faced with the low temps and the prospect of wading through ice-cold trout streams, a few of the racers turned back, opting to take a 15-hour time penalty.
Those that continued the race pedaled from creek crossing to creek crossing until they were delivered onto an overgrown fire road that climbed 800 feet to Yellow Gap Road and the first rest station. From there, racers climbed Laurel Mountain, a bench-cut trail that climbs 1,500 feet in several miles of rocks, roots, and smooth, flowy singletrack. The top of the trail was covered in snow and temperatures hovered in the low 30s all day. More snow fell as some of the last riders bombed Pilot Rock, a legendary downhill known for its tricky switchbacks and burly boulder gardens.
The steep descent was followed by a long section of rolling fire road, then a hike-a-bike up the newly minted Club Gap Trail. To say the course was muddy would be an understatement, and the freshly cut Club Gap was slick with the day’s traffic. The 41-mile ride ended with another fire road climb followed immediately by a screaming downhill on the last 2.5-miles of Black Mountain Trail.
Professional biker Jeremiah Bishop started the stage with only a two-minute lead on local pro Sam Koerber, but was able to push through the cold and snow to extend his lead to a full 20 minutes by the end of Stage 2. Sue Haywood finished at the top of the pro women field again with a 28:14 lead on her closest competition.
Stage 3: The Transylvania Loop
Sunday’s leg of the Pisgah Stage Race was set to be the toughest course of the entire weekend. The route included 47 miles of fire roads and singletrack with 12,000 feet of elevation gain. More ominous, bikers were set to face Farlow Gap, a high-elevation piece of singletrack that many locals consider the toughest downhill in Pisgah. However, record low temperatures had left Farlow thick with snow and ice, leaving the race organizers no other choice but to cut Farlow out of the course. The route revision knocked about seven miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain off of the day.
Temperatures were still in the high 30’s as riders climbed the first long, steep forest road of the day, but soon the sun came out and bikers began to shed layers. Racers moved from forest road climbs to some of Pisgah’s most rewarding singletrack. Cove Creek Trail proved to be a fast, flowy treat, and bikers reveled in the high-octane ride of Bennett Gap Trail—a fast, mildly technical ridgeline downhill with launchable waterbars and expansive views of Looking Glass Rock. Again, the day ended with a fire road climb and the adrenaline-pumping Black Mountain Trail. Conditions were considerably dryer on Sunday, allowing bikers to rip through Black Mountain’s berms and waterbars at high speeds.
The entire day was a high-speed, big-ring battle for pro men Jeremiah Bishop and Sam Koerber. Local pro Koerber needed to make up nearly 20 minutes if he was going to take the top podium spot from Bishop. The two were riding neck and neck for the first half of the race, passing through the second rest stop within seconds of each other, but Koerber pulled away during the last 20 miles of the course, which was highlighted by big, semi-technical downhills. Koerber crossed the finish line almost five minutes ahead of Bishop, enough to win the final stage, but not enough to surpass Bishop in the overall standings. In the end, Bishop finished all three stages of the race and the time trial prologue 16:10 ahead of Sam Koerber. Both Koerber and Bishop knocked out the final 40-mile stage in just over three hours. Bishop completed the entire 123-mile race course in a swift 10:59:20.
For the pro women, the third stage was a tighter race, with leader Sue Haywood sprinting to the finish just over a minute before number two rider Cheryl Sornson. Haywood secured her top podium finish with an overall race time of 14:10: 33, a full 36 minutes ahead of her closest competition.
Pisgah Stage Race Final Standings
1st Jeremiah Bishop (Monavie Cannondale) 10:59:20
2nd Sam Koerber (Fisher 29er) +16:20
3rd Christian Tanguy (Fraser Cannondale) +38:11
1st Susan Haywood (Shenandoah Bicycle Company) 14:10:33
2nd Cheryl Sornson (Trek Racing Coop) +36:15
3rd Carey Lowery (Outdoor Store Specialized) +40:39