It’s been a while! I took some time off from racing after a busy summer focused on mountain biking- however, this November my goal is to race the Swank 65 mountain bike race for the first time, so I figured I should get back into racing a little before then! Even though the Dirt Diggler is a gravel grinder instead of a mountain bike race, there’s about 5000’ of climbing which will hopefully help prepare me for the elevation in the Swank. It was also a longer race (47 miles), so I hoped the length of the course would help me get into that longer-race-strategy mindset, and give me a little different experience than the <2 hour XC races I had been focused in the late summer.
The race started on Saturday at 8am, and though it’s been an unusually hot September, it was a foggy and slightly chilly morning as we prepared to race. I got up at 5:30am, had some coffee, and made rice and eggs for breakfast. I like the combo because it’s a little bit of protein to fill me up, but also a lot of carbs to fuel a long day on the bike. Plus it’s tasty. After eating, I gathered my things together for the race, making a mental checklist as I got ready. I anticipated taking 3.5 hours for the race at most, assuming all went well, so I wanted to carry 3 water bottles with Heed (for electrolytes and some carbs) and hopefully not have to stop at any of the aid stations. I also stuffed 2 granola bars and an energy gummy packet in my pockets, and filled up my gu bottle with some Hammer energy gel. Even though I prefer eating actual bars and food during races, a lot of times it’s just easier to swallow the energy gel in a race instead of eating, so I made sure to have both just in case. I also put some Topical Edge lotion on my legs, which has sodium bicarbonate in it to help buffer muscle fatigue. It might just be mental, but I’ve felt like it helps my performance remain steady throughout long events, so I continue to use it.
Even though I feel like I’ve done plenty of races, I always seem to forget something when I go through my pre race mental checklist – this time it was gloves. I don’t wear them on the road, but on trails and gravel the terrain is a lot more rough and when my hands get sweaty I don’t want to have to hold on for dear life just to keep them from slipping off the bars. Luckily Zeb had an extra pair I could borrow – whoops. After we arrived at the start area at the Oskar Blues Reeb Ranch, we got our race packets with our number plates and were ready to go. The only problem was that there were only three port-a-potties and hundreds of people, so I waited in line for the bathroom so long that I almost missed the starting line up. One day I’ll have everything together right? It was a casual start though because everyone was beginning at the same time and starting up a wide paved climb, so start line position wasn’t as crucial as it can be in an XC or short track race.
I had the course map downloaded on my Garmin in case I was by myself during the race and got lost, but Todd and his crew at Blue Ridge Adventures had the course marked so well I didn’t even need it. It was a really pretty course that wound through some beautiful parts of Transylvania and Henderson counties. The first part of the race was a 1000’ climb up and over Pinnacle Mountain to spread everyone out after the start. The pavement quickly turned to gravel as we continued the ascent, but once we started going down, the terrain was claiming victims left and right. The gravel going down pinnacle was really chunky, and I counted 7 people changing flat tires and 2 people on the side of the road waiting for medics within the first 10 miles! Even though we were warned about the technical aspects of the course at the pre-race riders meeting, I heard afterwards that there had been two broken collarbones, a broken wrist, and a head injury, yikes. I was trying to find that balance between making up time on the descent, while also not being dumb and crashing myself out – luckily I didn’t have any mechanicals or crashes, which was a big relief.
I had no idea where I was in the field after starting mid pack. I passed several women in the initial climb, but I wasn’t sure how many more were ahead. That’s sometimes the exciting part about mountain and gravel races – the race can be affected by so many things, so you just have to go as hard as you can even though the results are usually a surprise till the end. I saw my friend Sarah on Pinnacle as we reached the top – we race each other during the Southern Classic MTB Series and she’s great. As we were speeding down the other side, another woman passed me, flying by. I later learned her name was Jenna, and am still so impressed by her handling skills on the loose gravel. They were the only two women I saw after the start, so during the whole race the results were a mystery.
The second big climb was up Rich Mountain, which was mostly paved. I was able to get in with a group of guys while we rode along Reasonover Rd., which turned out to be extremely helpful as I saved energy drafting off of them. Jenna was also in this group, but as we turned onto the Rich Mountain climb, the pace stayed high and I got worried. We were pushing watts over my threshold, and since we were only 18 miles in I decided to back off so I didn’t blow myself up before we were even close to the end. Jenna continued at the same strong pace, and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the race. I debated whether I should have just stayed at that pace and suffered through the rest of the climb without letting up, but since I have a history of bonking at the end of long races, I took a gamble and hoped that I could just catch up by the end of the course. Though I never caught Jenna again, I was able to stay steady through the end, so I think it was probably the right choice.
After a steep paved descent down Rich Mountain (I need to work on my sharp cornering skills on the road..), there was a 6 mile paved section to get to the next gravel climb. I started out alone, but was quickly caught by another rider and we were able to work together and take turns “pulling”. Wilson Rd. and Everett Rd. are fairly flat, but once we hit the climb I was dropped. We climbed through “The Reserve”, a private community outside Brevard that was tucked into the woods. Since it is usually gated, I had never had the chance to ride through before, and it was fun seeing some new roads. We eventually came out by Little River and pedaled through some cornfield lined roads before beginning to climb up Cascade Lake Rd. This was one of my favorite parts of the course – the gravel climbed up by the lake and alongside a pretty waterfall. Once we came to the top, we turned onto Staton Rd. and began the descent back to Dupont.
The road was busy today since it was National Public Lands Day and Dupont was hosting volunteers for trail work throughout the forest. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected though, and I was excited to be reaching the finish as we climbed up the final long push at the end of Staton Rd. One exciting part of this gravel grinder is that it ended with a mile of singletrack trail! To get to the trail section back at the Reeb Ranch, we had to climb up a short but extremely steep pitch (Strava says that at one point it’s a 25% grade!). Once we reached the final peak, it was just a fun trail descent back to the staging area! I have never actually taken my CX bike on trail, so it was fun testing the limits with my skinny tires. I was trying to navigate the rocks and roots with limited grip and no suspension, but it was exciting and I made it down safe! Rolling into the finish felt awesome, and there were so many kind people cheering me on and ringing cowbells as I came across the line. I congratulated Jenna on a great ride, and it turned out that she had been first and I finished second, out of 32 women! It was an exciting surprise, and I celebrated with a free beer from Oskar Blues.
September is probably my favorite month to ride – it’s not too hot or too cold, there’s still plenty of daylight, and the scenery is perfect as the leaves start changing color. Overall the Dirt Diggler was a great challenge, a beautiful course, and a fun day on the bike. It made me that much more excited for the next Blue Ridge Adventures race. Here’s to more fall riding!
Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/1859117489/