Note: Bend local Adam Craig is real darn good at riding his bike — one of the best in the world, actually. He's also pretty good at stringing together sentences to make paragraphs. Below is an account from his recent racing and traveling adventures, the first of many such posts we'll run from AC (see AdamCraig.net for more). Check back soon and enjoy.
By: Adam Craig
Over the last couple weeks I’ve gotten to see both sides of having a little local knowledge of a bike contest. First was our home court advantage, US Marathon Nationals in Bend. Eight days later I was in the Eastern Standard Time zone for the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race. Which happens to be in one of my favorite riding buddies’ back yard, Sam Koerber. His back yard is way more awesome/complex/diverse/rad/dangerous than ours when it comes to trails and pertinent knowledge…
Carl and I had to sort of cram for our local knowledge exam at Marathon Nats. The trails we were slated to race on didn’t exist until recently. Our local MTB group, the Central Oregon Trail Alliance has been building out the Wanoga Sno-Park area with the support of the Forest Service and a whole bunch of local labor since the project began a couple years ago. One of the goals of the system is to have competition-friendly trails to support events from the local to national scale. This would be the first National level test, and we were trying to ride the new stuff enough that we at least knew where we were going by race day.
The trails in Bend overall are pretty darn easy to ride. This lets John Q Public get into riding in the woods quickly and without breaking anything (I have no idea how newbies survive in Pisgah…). The flip side of this is we were concerned if they would be demanding enough for a National Champs caliber event. Fortunately, one of my favorite sayings applies to this situation as well as many others, “if it’s not hard enough, GO FASTER!” This is exactly what Carl and I did without even really realizing it once the race hit the dirt proper.
Up until then it had been a very civilized start in the Old Mill District and roll out Century Drive, other than road honch Peter Stetina making an early, slightly concerning move. By the time we were climbing up away from the river it was a group of Mountain Bikers though, led by the Subaru/Trek duo of Jeremy H-K and Sam Schultz. We were really nervous about their recent string of Top-20 World Cup results and associated fastness. On account of this concern, Carl and I had a plan. Which normally falls apart at the first turn. Not this time. We got into the singletrack up front and stayed there, for thousands of turns to come. There’s something about riding fast on Bend trails that’s an acquired taste. This flavor is of conserving and producing momentum through the endless turns and riding a friggin’ full suspension bike. The Trek guys asked what bike to bring and I gave them a firm recommendation of a duallie. They didn’t listen. So we used our Anthem X 29ers to pedal away without even really trying. It was pretty nice to work together so smoothly over the course of the race, trading pulls on the road sections and laughs in the twisty bits. We were perfect.
Then the race started. Carl knew I would jump the super sick (as far as 10 foot gaps go…) doubles when we dropped into the final Tiddlywinks descent. I knew he wouldn’t, giving me a gap, after the, er, gaps… Our next bit of mutual knowledge was that Carl is way smarter and quicker in a two-up finish. So, I didn’t want that. He did. We came out of the bottom of 15 minutes of shredding dusty, blown-out perfection separated by about 10 seconds. 10k still remained to the finish. So the time trial, on mountain bikes, on pavement, dirt and random neighborhood trails, began. I had to stay away and Carl had to catch me. He got within about 3 seconds a few times but never closed it completely. We both almost had it closed for us by random Saturday morning walking traffic. Evidently Chad and Bill didn’t believe us when we said it would take just over three hours. The crowds parted for me and I crossed the line in 3:10, 12 seconds up on Carl. Sweet. I was kind of planning on getting smoked at the end of a long season of getting smoked. Those twenty final minutes were the hardest I’d ridden all season, and The Deckerator agrees. But hey, at least it was to ensure a local took the National Title, not to get just barely beaten by some out-of-towner.
Carl was cutting some serious corners to try and reel me in. All he had to do was hit the sweet jumps...
After I recovered from the brutal 20-block ride home (the last two uphill blocks of which would’ve been insurmountable without a tow from Timmy’s van) and fought off the bouts of nausea that come with a good, hard effort, we got down to trying to show the aforementioned out-of-towners a good time. The obvious solution- Sundowners on the deck of my garage-in-progress. And a late-night stop at Taco Salsa for recovery snacks…
I’d been approached this summer by Rodney Robinson, sponsorship director for the Pisgah MTB Stage Race in Western North Carolina about attending. As a growing event, they were interested in getting some more pros to come try their hand at riding in Pisgah for five days. In the middle of a busy, challenging summer, I normally am reluctant to take on any extra racing commitments. Fortunately, (or maybe unfortunately) I’d gone on a handful of pretty amazing rides with Sam in Pisgah over the years. This little snippet of knowledge got my “I love mountain biking” juices flowing and I agreed to check out their event. Either way it’d be an amazing week of riding some of the best trails in the universe. A lot of them, the five stages cover 195 miles and over 25,000 feet of climbing with most stages being 40-odd miles and 5-8,000 feet of climbing. Ouch, but doable.
It’s a good thing Pisgah is holding strong, because after the August Europe struggle-fest, I wasn’t too keen on more struggling. Winning the Marathon title was a good booster, but I was still pretty tuckered out. That all faded away once we turned onto Squirrel Gap trail, day one.
The first morning. Pisgah is beautiful at 8am. And, thanks to Hunter Subaru for giving me an Impreza to rally for the week...
An ulterior motive of race director Todd Branham in getting me to show up was to put some pressure on three-time winner Jeremiah Bishop. He even went to the length of putting up $3000 for first place. That’s a lot of hooch. Bishop is pretty darn good at stage racing but I was hoping I could use some good-old-fashioned hooligan riding and overall woods efficiency to give him a run. Hopefully with the help of an on-form Sam Koerber, who rides these trails faster than ANY person ever has, or will in the near future. It’s a thing to see, ideally from about ten feet back, all day long.
The first stage worked out just as I hoped the whole week would, Sam and I rode away on the first major descent and never saw Jeremiah again. That’s what he gets for approaching me in hopes of an agreement to ride long-travel trailbikes (which I happily agreed to) for the week. I was pumped to race on a bike I actually loved riding (Trance X Advanced SL) for the week, enhancing my ability to keep up with Sam on the good stuff and my safety while doing so. Then JB showed up with his 20lb XC wonder-bike, mumbling something about his trail-bike not working right. Lame. So we gave ‘er on the downs and it worked. Sam rolled and smoked me on the last tech climb/hike of the day and took the first leader’s jersey, as he justly deserved for that display of trail-riding mastery.
Then Jeremiah got serious. Still claiming to want to ride funsie bikes, he pulled the bait and switch again on day two, rocking the fun-hater bike and attacking on the climb to Farlow Gap. Even with my new Fox DOSS seat dropper (doing exactly nothing for me on the climbs) I got dropped. Sam hung on. Impressive. JB went on to win that stage by 8 minutes over the course of 39 miles. Sam cracked on the final climb up Maxwell Cove and I caught him at half-speed, hoping he’d make it in and recover in time for the next day’s Mills River area test.
Local knowledge is always better implemented with a partner. Sam and I agreed that we’d try to check out on the first descent of Spencer’s and work together to take some time back on Bishop, who was riding his “racebike” (what, is this a race?) again. I finally smartened up and brought out my Anthem X 29, which immediately felt rad on the rough-and-tumble Pisgah trails.
Excerpt from SuperTroopers-
Officer Thorne: “Mac, what does any good law enforcement officer do with his equipment before using it in the field?”
Mac: “He tests it!”
Thornie hands the already nude Mac a bulletproof cup to wear. Mac obliges, slaps the rookie, Rabbit, on the ass and strolls down the shooting range for a test.
Thorne fires a few rounds at Mac’s crotch, all ricochet harmlessly off the now-proven equipment. Rabbit dry heaves and dons the cup for more testing.
If I had taken this type of scientific approach to my equipment on day three, Sam and I’s plan would have worked. But instead I stopped 15min into the day to fix some avoidable problems. This was the last time I’d see the front of the race, although I did get to pass, in awesomely dangerous fashion, about ¼ of the 70 rider field (including Daniel, who had just made me breakfast and is pretty darn quick himself) on that descent down Spencer’s. Hopefully they were amused more than pissed or horrified… Sam ended up winning that stage solo while I continued to fix my assorted issues and hemmorage time, eventually losing eight minutes.
So, after three days of racing, I was really tired and about 12:00 down on Jeremiah, 4:00 down on Sam. Shoot.
Another day brought another plan of Sam and I’s to use the challenging, mostly ridgeline trail Stage Four to get some time back. We used our skills to pressure JB up the opening climb of Black Mountain and forced a little gap on bits of an extremely fun, difficult, raw, overgrown Turkey Pen Gap trail. Then he decided to really race. And dropped us for good, riding at about World Cup pace along the unrelentingly rolling ridgeline. It was brutal, and trying to keep up cost me the final match I had to burn for the week. Survival mode came on at hour two and was my reality for the rest of the race. Lightly padded by some (well deserved for running light tires on proper trails) flat tires and other pauses. I lost 30 minutes on stage four. Wow. But I saw a lot of beautiful Blue Ridge scenery and had a good time riding the continually awesome descents. Too bad those aren’t categories for the win…
This newfound level of exhaustion was at least placated by Todd’s pre-race talk on the final morning at the Black Mountain Trailhead. He said “We’ve ridden a lot of great trail this week, but we’ve saved the best for last.” Vineyard Gap, Laurel Mountain, Pilot Rock and Avery Creek would bring us to one final shred down Black Mountain, which is the best finish descent I’ve ever ridden, and we got to ride it four days this week. Once again, I tried to stay with Sam on Vineyard Gap, but a bobble let Bishop through and I got cut off yet again, left to ride my guttered pace for one final day. Fortunately, Laurel Mountain climbs like a trail should, peppered with things to entertain yourself, and Pilot rock follows immediately with miles of ridiculously perfect descent. Really great. I stopped and took in the view on some exposed switchbacks before continuing to giggle to myself through the forest. Pilot rock is the most fun I’ve had on a bike this summer, that it came at my most exhausted moment as well speaks to just how awesome the Pisgah riding really is.
Shrimper dressed up in this perfectly creepy White Squirrel suit every day and came out to heckle. Here he's giving a demo of how to ride Pilot Rock properly... How awesome is this on all levels?
Anyway, I survived the day and held onto third place, my 17:30 or so overall time being well over an hour behind Jeremiah, who had a healthy gap on Sam as well. We made $3, 2 and 1 thousand dollars each for our time rallying around the forest. But that’s not even the point, the point is for the other 70-odd racers who finished five days of riding the most trail-packed stage race in North America to take pride in that fact. Every one of those folks is a damn good mountain biker and I hope they’re all back next year, with their friends, and YOU, to sample the best Pisgah has to offer. I know I want to come back, maybe with some “fitness” and “knowledge” gleaned from this year’s edition. It sure would be sweet to launch a race-winning attack coming down Pilot Rock…
I owe a huge thank-you to Todd, Heather and Rodney for getting me out to this event. One of the constants in running this even is the amount of trail work done in the forest before race day. I think it’s kind of an excuse for Todd to keep his favorite trails open… Sound familiar, Paul Thomasberg and Bend’s Big Fat Tour? Daniel and Terry at Brevard’s Red House Inn sorted me out with a sweet cottage for the week and made delicious breakfast at 7am every morning. The local Giant Dealer, Asheville’s Ski Country Sports, let their head mechanic Aaron Pete out for the week as well, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with bike washing and fixing after each stage. He kept things running smoothly considering the amount of abuse dished out by some guy riding like a dick in Pisgah on a daily basis and I got an extra hour of sleep a day because of it. Thanks, Aaron.
It’s a good sign when folks are passionate enough about their event that they actively recruit guys like me to come check it out. I’m pumped to have some insight into stage racing and excited to see where these events will go in the next few years. It’s up to you, the enthusiast, to come out and participate, and us, the Pros, to continue raising the game at these types of events. Which I believe to be the future core of Mountain Biking. Who doesn’t love a week of riding classic trail with savvy folks?
Cyclingdirt.org sent Thom Parsons out to cover Pisgah. He did it in fine style, riding out into the woods and following us around for some POV shots to complement daily interviews. Check it out— Pisgah Stage Race video.