Wednesday, October 6, 2021
Monday, March 15, 2021
The last race we did was in the fall of 2019! So hard to believe it's been that long since we pinned on a number. After racing for over two decades season after season, it's been weird not having racing in our daily lives. So, when it seemed people were ready to get back into throwing elbows, (don't think it ever really stopped down here in Florida) I started looking for an event that would have less of the serious competitor vibe that is pretty rampant in the XC world down here. The Graham Swamp 360 is considered an endurance event with a 3 and 6 hour option. Not really wanting to ride 3 hours straight as we haven't even been riding more than 2 hours at a time, the coed team category seemed align perfectly with our non-training lifestyle. Author's note: I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I've been doing intervals since the first week of February, however, that was before I read about the 360 event and it was more of a way to spice up my forever flat rides.
Anywhoo, we heard through the Florida NICA league director that Graham Swamp was a pretty technical course for Florida. We've heard this phrase before and people below sea level have a different interpretation of technical. But we thought it was worth a look so we drove across to the east side of the state to check out the trail in late February and we're so glad we did. Not only is it technical but it's like fun technical, as in keep your speed up technical. As in get some air technical. As in rooty, droppy, jumpy, sandy technical. I took my Pivot Trail 429 (aka Miss Pivvy - hey, she's big boned) on the recon and even though I could have done it on the Super Fly, the extra suspension was going to help keep things comfy and chill. Plus we replaced the Maxxis tires and put on some used Bontrager XR3s to get her a bit lighter and rolling better in the sand.
As we do, we drove across the state the night before the race. Ryan had to work til 5 o'clock and after getting some burritos to go, we headed north. As we passed Orlando and started east, the traffic was absolutely bonkers congested. What was to be a 3.5 hour drive turned into more like 5. Holy crap. Bumper to bumper and it was just congestion. No accidents that we could see. Thank God for long form pod casts! And I hate Disney even more!
We pulled into the hotel and the lot was completely full of motorcycles of all kinds. And trucks with trailers. It was bike week in Daytona! Luckily, the loud mufflers quieted down but I slept like shit (as usual) even though I wasn't nervous about the race. What we were nervous about was parking at the race. It wasn't ideal and we wanted to get a good spot. We were only 10 minutes away and since we were up, fed, and full of coffee, we headed to the venue. Two hours before a race is pretty typical arrival time for us but it seemed folks don't arrive that soon down here. I think we were there before most of the volunteers! Needless to say we got rock star parking and the shadiest spot for our staging area.
Soon riders began to arrive and a woman I've met who leads many of the women's rides and events down here set up next to us along with her friends, so we had a fun group to hang out with all during the race. Party Pace!!! We were all about it.
It was time to head to the start line. Ryan was going first. Because of how the event was set up, they had very limited space to start, and the course went immediately downhill. So, they did a Le Mans start. However, there was a twist. They told everyone where to line up and then threw out potato sacks. That's right! A gunny sack race to the start line was an awesome way to spread out the pack. It was fun to watch but I was glad it was them and not me! Ryan was early to his bike and made it out clean.
The riders would pass the start line once more before heading onto the rest of the course and Ryan was right up there with a mix of single riders and team riders. We assumed our laps would be 40-45 minutes so I went back to our staging area and hopped on the bike to do a few spin up intervals to get the heart rate up and make sure all the gears were working. Then I waited (and visited the port-o-pot about five times). Right on schedule Ryan came by our staging area within about 35 minutes. That was my signal to get up to the transition area. Once there, I saw him a couple times through the trees and along with maybe 4-5 other riders, I got myself to the front so we could easily exchange our ankle bands. Then I was off!
It was our goal to have fun. I raced in baggies and my R&R tech tee to remind me of our goal. I wore a camel back but only carried enough fluid for each lap and I could barely tell it was there. The course was technical and there weren't many places to drink. It was also tight and punchy and tested our skills with sections that had rooty climbs that forced riders to navigate between trees; there were drops with large roots across the middle of them and high speed jumps with flat landings. One section took us through a labyrinth of roots 6 inches tall, one after another, as if a giant octopus was trying to emerge from the sand. The best way to get through them was just keep unweighting the front wheel, which left just enough time to take a breath before stomping a 2ft step up. One power climb was "rewarded" with a tall root to navigate around before bombing down a waterfall of drops that included more roots or deep sand. Only a few sections were flat enough to take a breather so mostly I was on the gas, which was just what we needed after over a year of vacation paced riding.
There weren't many women but the ones who were there were good riders, as the course demanded a bit of skill. One of them had on a leaders jersey from the Florida State Series and I found myself around her a few times. The first time she caught me but the next two times I held her off. The second time she was right on my wheel for the last 1/4 mile and I did everything I could to stay on the gas and keep a good pace so she wouldn't need to ask to pass. After we came in to the transition area, we were both like hell yeah, that was fun. The next time she was behind me it was our last lap. I was feeling the effects of a Red Bull high and had fun pushing hard so as to not let her catch me.
Our final lap count was eight total and the winning team I think got in 9 laps. It was fun to get called to the podium although at first we thought there was a mistake with the timing b/c the team with the State Champ on it was called up to 2nd place even though the results had us beating their time by several minutes. We were like, what evs but then they announced "masters co-ed" and called us up. I laughed to myself as I'm sure Ryan didn't really dig being on a masters team. Hehe.
The after party was sweet. They fed us pizza and tapped beer and gave out really cool finisher medals made from wood. They had a massage vendor on site and a recovery tent where riders could don recovery legs, those blow up pressurized leg wraps. The podium winners received cash and the trophies were hand cut by the trail crew from fallen trees. I thought using the trail work truck as a podium was a nice touch. They called out props to the trail bosses and really made sure those that made the event happen were given all the love. It kinda felt like we had crashed a local bike party that had a race attached to it.
All said, it was great to be among bike folk again. The track was really unique and fun and maybe, just maybe, fun enough to sit in traffic and head back there next year.
Tuesday, December 8, 2020
As it has been for most outdoor spaces, where camping is still a way to social distance, finding a payed spot online proved challenging. After reading that there are indeed free camping spots along dirt roads, but only as long as you don't mind your shit getting stolen, we kept researching for a payed spot. Government sites are evil for this activity and I'm never really sure that the booking info gets to the camp host. I found one place just a mile outside of Brevard (Pisgah mtb culture ground zero) that had 4 nights in a row starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Then to my surprise, Mulberry Gap had a couple spots open over Thanksgiving weekend, AND we could buy a couple of Thanksgiving dinner reservations. The plan was set. Now I just needed the proper bike.
Back up a few months. In late August we sold my TREK Remedy 27.5 and were excited to buy a trail/fun/travel bike from a shop in Nebraska, with the hopes for delivery while we were in Colorado, escaping three rainy months in Florida. All was going as planned but we started to get the run around on the frame delivery to the point where the shop wasn't even answering our phone calls. It wasn't a huge deal because I was injured for all of the month of October while in Salida. One day we went into the local shop, Absolute Bikes, for something and they had a small Pivot Trail 429 on the floor. For giggles (and to see if I could use my injured hand), I took it for a spin up the road. Hard to determine its magic qualities on cement, but it fit me. So Ryan did some thinking, some math and some measuring and after a call with the shop to confirm that we could order a frame, and have it delivered most likely before we left town, we fired the money cannon. We cancelled the first frame order once we got the new frame and will never do business with the shop back in Nebraska again. Certainly it was a surprisingly unprofessional and frankly disappointing experience.
After getting all of our pre-paid parts sent to us from Nebraska (well, most of them) Ryan had less than two weeks to build a bike and a wheel set that would get no actual dirt time until we arrived in North Carolina. We luckily found some cheap 180 break roters in town, some shifter cable and I ordered a stem to match the wheel nipples. It passed the driveway test once Ryan figured out why the tubeless tires wouldn't stay inflated. Then I spent about 10 hours putting on frame protection film. Yes, I should have bought it sooner and put it on before Ryan built it but life is messy and we were on a timeline. This will come to be an important point later.
Anywhoo, here it is. The newest bike in the quiver, and it's not a TREK for the first time in like 18 years. It's a style-of-the-minute bike known as "down country", meaning it's not quite an XC bike and not quite an enduro bike, but some frankenbike in between, with 130mm up front and 120 in back. Kind of an all rounder bike, which is exactly what we were wanting. And the color. Oh, hell yeah! A bold blue to compliment my power blue Super Fly (which I'll never part with). We opted for the MRP fork for time constraints and also the many ways to dial it in to my riding style. I spent two months over-riding the Super Fly on rowdy XC and enduro lines and was ready for a proper bike to point down.
We packed up the 4Runner and went at this old school. By that I mean a tent and all the gear, including a couple fishing rods. Though we know it's all about the trout where we were heading, we only had spinners thinking we'd find somewhere to throw a rod.
We drove about 8 hours on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, staying the night in a hotel in Greenville SC, not even an hour from our first trail head in Dupont State Rec Area. Our night's sleep was interrupted by not one but two fire alarms, where we had to leave the hotel and stand outside. Only a few minutes after getting back into bed after the first exit, we got a call from the front desk asking all guests to go back outside. We thought twice about it but went anyway and so glad we did! Upon returning the second time, we noticed all the room doors were left open and if we'd stayed we would have been that couple, still in bed, while our room was checked by uniformed firemen. Awkward!
Our groggy morning came too soon but we were more than happy to get out of that hotel. The air was crisp and it smelled like fall, which added to our excitement. If there's something we miss living in Florida is the change in weather. So this year, thanks to Covid, we'd not only not miss fall, we'd experience it twice; once in Colorado and again on this trip. (It's the little things).
We arrived in Dupont to a very full parking lot. Ah, our people! It was so exciting to see all the folks hanging out outside their vehicle, bikes in tow, smiling and enjoying the day outside. The area we rode in was mostly machine cut flow trail, all pretty wide and multi-use (we saw a few folks on horses). There wasn't much in terms of technical riding but it was a good way for me to get familiar with the Pivot and get my cockpit set up and suspension dialed in. We managed to find some of the least ridden trails and came across an old car, long forgotten. It was a great spot to take a break. The views at the top of the trail were awesome. Had we been in peak leaf season, this spot would have provided a cornucopia of color, so we had to leave it up to our imaginations but still appreciated the folds of the land and the sheer amount of forest we had the privilege to be in at the moment. It was a good start to a week of presumed harder shredding to come.
From Dupont, we headed north to Brevard, North Carolina, home to all things outdoors, including mountain biking, which makes sense due to its proximity to the entrance of the Pisgah National Forest. Several travel websites claim between 200-300 miles of dirt trail lay beneath the canopy of hardwoods. The love of the trees is evident immediately. According to exploreasheville.com "Once property of George W. Vanderbilt, and considered the birthplace to modern forestry in America, Pisgah is home to old-growth forests and the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi". Parts of Pisgah are also considered rain forest due to amount of rain they can get, sometimes up to 70"-90" per year. This fact contributes directly to amount of waterfalls in the forest and needless to say, some wet rides. (Or as we like to say, two sock rides).
We arrived at our campsite mid afternoon. It wasn't anything special but it would do just fine. It was a popular RV and tent camping area but because it was off season, only a small section of spots were open. We set up camp in our new tent (larger, taller and with vestibules) and settled in for the day. We stopped by one of the local shops for coveted local intel and of course coffee. As the guy gave us his opinion of what was good and why (naming trails we've never seen as if we had) one thing did stick with me. He said, "Our tech is another trail system's erosion." In other words, you better get used to exposed roots, chunder and fall line trenches. What we didn't realize was Pisgah riding involves gravel connectors. With so much hilly typography, you have to get to the top somehow and if it's not by shuttle then it's by grinding gravel. And we found that out the hard way. But before we could put tire to dirt, we went into town after dinner to get some booze. We didn't bring any knowing we'd shop locally (we were in the Appalachians after all) but it was also Sunday and well, we were also in the Bible Belt. So we found a secular haunt that boasted cocktails and outdoor seating. Our off-grid adventure suddenly went on-grid. But what we found in the process of driving to the little pub was that downtown Brevard has the cuteness of another time gone by, with a few square blocks of shops and restaurants, all lit up for the holidays. With our cold weather gear on and the lights a twinklin', we felt nostalgic for home.
Monday morning couldn't have come soon enough, and not only because of anticipation to shred the gnar. A crazy wind storm had blown in over night and chilled us to the bone. Temps were only in the 40s but we could not keep the wind from coming in under the rain shell through our 3-season screened walls. And it was loud! I left my ear plugs in the truck and was too lazy to go get them so we tossed and turned as the night whistled its way to sunrise and our first day riding a bucket list track.
We were able to ride right from camp which was a total bonus after all the driving to get there. A few minutes on the main road through the forest lead us to a gravel road that would take us to the first big climb, and ultimately to the fun stuff. On the way, we spotted a trail head marker and Ryan looked at it on Trail Forks and determined that it seemed "doable" from its profile. It appeared to be less up and down and more contour riding so up we went. All was well for about the first 1.5 miles. I was stoked on the Pivot's ability to ride right over the roots and with the shorter rear triangle, I felt I could hoist myself up and over the rooty step ups more easily. The trail had us climbing at first gently, then a few power climbs that would mellow out. Then we hit a spot that was straight up so we shouldered bikes or pushed them until we could ride again. Well, this happened about ten more times and by the time we got to the next trail head (which originally we were to get there by the gravel road), and after seeing riders coming at us, we knew this was NOT the way to get to the original trail head. Perplexed, Ryan thought maybe he looked at the wrong trail profile. So he showed me what he looked at and I was like, no way. Where are all the red lines that indicate steepness? I told him to compare it to mtb project app and sure enough, all the red lines we had just hiked up appeared clear as day. We went back to the Trail Forks app and I said this is a very zoomed out view. Scroll down the page. Once he did that, the true profile with all the dark red lines appeared. We indeed had just hiked up the worst hike a bike and we still had a lot more which would only get steeper. (Later, confessions to other riders about our oopsy-daisy resulted in "Oh Shit!").
We shouldered on. Literally. At one point or maybe two, Ryan had to take my bike so I could climb up water bar drops that were as high as my shoulders. Couple that with sheer drops on either side of the trail and it was enough to give me the shivers and Ryan the stink eye. He's usually pretty spot on with his route-finding but when he isn't, it can result in a death march. Yes, I'm being dramatic. He gave me the option to head back down the gravel but I was like hell no. I didn't walk up all of that trail just to ride gravel DOWN. So we kept going. After about two hours since we left camp, we finally made it to the top, where four trails converged. There was no easy way to get there, per some locals and since we had burned a lot of calories and patience, we opted to take a different track down instead of continuing up. The trail was called Avery and it was everything Pisgah. Rough, rowdy and loose. And on top of it all were the fallen leaves. You wouldn't know if you were running over a rock or a raccoon. But I think I did OK. The new bike was in its element, even if I wasn't yet. We had a couple of creek crossings along the way, including at the bottom of the run, where we had to tip-toe our way across make-shift bridges made by others, using down tree trunks with 2x4 for railings. All in the name of fun! But honestly if we had an easier way to get back up to the start of Avery, I would have gone again. Instead, we rode back to camp and got out of our wet gear and made some food and coffee. We went into town to get booze and firewood so we could cap off the night with proper libations and much needed heat. The night would turn pretty cold and after the previous night's wind forcing the issue, Ryan bought another blanket! But since we had a day of riding behind us, and a couple of fingers of whisky in us, sleep came a bit easier until it started to rain. But, that's camping life!
No matter how you frame it, Brevard, Pisgah, South East riding– it all lived up to the hype we've only read about through the years. All the rowdiness is indeed true with all the attributes of pay to play fun times. I can only name a few friends of ours that would put themselves through the pain to get to the good stuff up high. We only rode two days so we don't have a lot of context as to how much this applies to the rest of the trails. They were much hillier, with higher elevation than we had in our minds. I think we topped at 4500-5000 ft. on Black Mountain. That's enough to help us forget the slog to get to the top and have a shit eating grin at the bottom. A friend once said, "If you're not hiking, you're not biking". Though that's one way to look at it, the sentiment seems to apply to riding Pisgah. All I can say is bring maybe your hiking shoes.
Next up: Part 2 - Mulberry Gap, Ellijay Georgia