The Swank 65 has been a race on my bucket list for a long time. Blue Ridge Adventures has been putting it on for the past 20 years, and the course runs through some of the most famous and beautiful trails in Pisgah. Not only does it boast the title of being the first permitted bike race in the Pisgah forest, it’s also now the longest continuously running mountain bike race in this area. Being in early November, the weather is always a gamble in this part of North Carolina, but we really lucked out on Sunday. The sun was out, the colorful Fall leaves were prime, and the trails were in great shape. With 65k of untamed singletrack and gravel, 5600 feet of climbing, and one wild descent down the infamous Farlow Gap, I knew it was going to be a memorable day in the saddle.
Even though this race has been going on in my backyard for years, I had been too intimidated to actually register for the event until this year. After spending the Fall getting in more long Pisgah rides, getting more comfortable descending technical trails, and making sure I had the fitness to climb almost 6000 feet, I was feeling more ready to test myself at the Swank. Another huge incentive for registering came when my friends at Dixon Pacifica and Brush and Level reached out to me to generously sponsor my entry fee. Their support and encouragement was awesome, and greatly appreciated. My J.A. King mountain bike race team has also been unwaveringly supportive all season, so this last race of the year was a great one to end on.
Over 100 people were lined up at the Cove Creek Campground start line on Sunday morning, eager to get in a full day of Pisgah pedaling. The start of the course had us racing down the gravel road, jockeying for positions as we headed to the base of the Daniel Ridge climb. The road out of the campground had a creek crossing, which could be avoided by taking a narrow bridge option. I would have rather taken the bridge to keep my feet dry, but of course the bridge entrance was bottlenecked with all the participants right off the start. There was no choice but to splash through the water, starting the race off right! The first climb up Daniel Ridge was fast and technical, with everyone still bunched together and trying not to lose time up the rocky trail. It was a steep mix of riding and running to get over some of the more technical sections, but the long descent back down to the forest service road was going to be worth it.
I could see the leader for the women’s category ahead of me, and was trying to keep her in my sights as she powered up the hill. We had finally reached the crest of the trail, and I was hoping to catch sight of her again after the descent. Suddenly, I heard a hissing sound coming from my rear wheel. I knew that terrible noise meant an impending flat tire, but luckily I had my wheels set up tubeless and was hoping the sealant inside would do its job. I pulled over, spinning the wheel to try and help it seal the hole. When that wasn’t working, I grabbed my CO2 cartridge, hoping that the puff of air would reseal the tire before it lost too much air to keep the bead sealed on the rim. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either and I had to put my spare tube in the tire instead. I was losing a lot of time, but everyone that passed me was so nice, asking if I needed anything or if I was OK. Gracie and Jenna, two of my “competitors”, even stopped to try to give me a hand which was so kind of them. I finally changed the flat and was pumping up my new tire when I noticed it was hissing air again! My spare has somehow either gotten pinched when I changed it, or there was still something in my tire poking a hole in the tube that I hadn’t noticed. Frustrated and out of tubes, I had to run the whole two mile descent down to the first rest stop. What a wild way to start out the first hour of the race!
One of the local bike shops, Sycamore Cycles, sponsors the Swank 65, and they had a great crew out at the rest stops along the course. Carlos helped me out by changing my tire and getting my bike back in business so I could focus on the rest of the race. Even though I was bummed to have lost so much time, it was a beautiful day out, and was able to shift my focus to just riding my personal best times on the trails rather than racing those around me. I headed up to Gloucester Gap, trying to catch back on to the group. As I came down Butter Gap, I saw a spare tube on the trail that someone had dropped. I hope that whoever dropped it made it out of the race without a flat, but that tube ended up saving me later on in the race (thank you trail gods).
The most infamous part of the Swank 65 course is the Farlow Gap section. It’s the third big climb of the route but definitely the longest, followed by one of the most technically demanding descents in Pisgah. The climb starts on Forest Road 475 after the descent down Butter Gap and Long Branch, and continues climbing for 5 miles and 2000 feet straight up. This part of the course was what had intimidated me for so long, and doing such a long climb two-thirds of the way through the race is brutal both physically and mentally. The climb went well, but the descent is where the risks come in. I rode the first steep part of the descent, but as the trail turned right and became more of a rough rock garden I misjudged a line and crashed. Luckily the only casualty was some chipped paint on my bike frame, but I had to walk/run/scramble most of the remaining trail to the bottom. Farlow Gap also crosses a few creeks, so if my feet weren’t wet from the initial creek crossing that morning, they were soaked through by that point.
As I got to the end of the trail, I was feeling good about only having one long climb left. Unfortunately, as I got back on my bike after the last creek crossing I realized I had yet another flat tire. I was disappointed, but also thankful that I had found that spare tube back on Butter Gap and wasn’t having to run to the rest stop again. From looking at the flat tube, it seems like the cause was a pinch flat this time. Because of that, I made sure to pump up the new tube more than the last one, especially because all I had left was a pretty tame ride along the Davidson River trail before the gravel climb up 475B to Cove Creek.
The final climb up 475B felt longer than usual, but I really enjoy gravel climbs because you can just settle in and focus on pedaling. On this pretty November day, I was able to really appreciate the surrounding views and colorful leaves. At the top of the climb, I found a funny surprise since someone had lined the road with Sierra Nevada pale ale beers. It was like a little hand up to reward people for a long climb up. Even though I wanted to stop and enjoy the cold beverage, I only had the descent back into Cove Creek left. The final trail was one of the most enjoyable ones, and it was fun to finish the day on a downhill, floating along the trail as the leaves crackled beneath my wheels.
As I rounded the final corner to the finish, I got the best surprise of the day! My dad stood along the trail cheering and taking pictures, surprising me by showing up to support. When I crossed the finish line, I saw my mom and two youngest sisters who also came out, running up to hug me even though I was gross and sweaty from a long day of riding. It was so exciting to have them there, and I didn’t expect to see them at the finish. Mountain biking is so unpredictable, and even though I was bummed by the flat tires throughout the race, it was still an incredible day in Pisgah and a great final race of the year. I couldn’t have asked for better weather or kinder people to race with, and being greeted at the finish line with family and food was the best feeling. I loved getting able to be a part of the 20th anniversary Swank 65 race, and I’m already planning on putting it on the calendar for next year!