Growing up near Pisgah, the Blue Ridge Adventures’ “Pisgah Stage Race” has been on my bucket list for a long time (despite it’s reputation intimidating me for years)! This year I was so excited to finally be participating.
Stage racing is a completely different format from the short track and XC style mountain bike racing I am used to, mainly because it is a multi-day race format with the cumulative times deciding the winner at the end of the week. I had never raced that many days in a row, especially not in brutal Pisgah conditions with such technical trails and huge elevation differences. However, I was eager for the challenge and excited to race such a well reviewed event so close to home with my CTS teammates.
This particular stage race was made up of 5 stages, with one each day from Tuesday through Saturday. Each of the stages ranged in distance from 21 miles to 32 miles, with a daily elevation range from 2300′ to 5800′ of climbing. Each day also had an “enduro” section, which was a timed descent that would be placed separately in results from the overall stage time.
On the day of the first stage, I woke up early and prepared my usual grits and eggs breakfast before driving to the start. Having a morning ritual is important for me during race preparation – it helps me make sure I am properly fueled, in the right headspace, and can go through a mental checklist of all the gear and food I need to pack for the race ahead. During the stage race, the morning ritual became even more important as I got more fatigued and forgetful as the race went on. Luckily for this race, I didn’t have to rely on just myself and I had a whole team of people there to support me. My CTS teammates were so great to have around each day, making sure I was feeling ok and congratulating me after every stage. I was even able to use the CTS office to shower after each stage and Brandon was our team mechanic, meticulously washing all the Pisgah mud and sand out of our bikes after each day. Having him take care of my bike so I could shower and refuel and rest was such a luxury. Finally, we had the support of Clif Bar with their seemingly unlimited supply of gels, bars, chews, and recovery drinks. I helped mix recovery drinks at our CTS team tent after the stages, and they were definitely a hit with all the racers.
There were over 175 other racers from 23 states and 9 countries when we lined up at the Cove Creek Campground on that brisk Tuesday morning. As we waited for Todd to start the countdown, “Welcome to the Jungle” played over the speaker system. It was very fitting as I contemplated what I was about to get myself into over the next week in rugged Pisgah. Suddenly, the race started and we were off – I was trying to stay on Jen Nielson’s wheel, a strong racer who I had ridden with in the Pisgah 55.5K the year before. We splashed through the first creek crossing (why had I even bothered trying to dry out my shoes!) and headed toward the Daniel Ridge climb. Carla Williams passed us like it was nothing, and continued to charge ahead up the climb. She’s an incredible climber, and throughout the whole week I would be attempting to chase these two.
Even when my heart rate soared above 200bpm just trying to keep up with the strong women ahead, I was still smiling inside thinking about how much has changed since the first times I rode those trails growing up. The campground we started at was one that I practiced riding my bike in as a kid on family camping trips. We raced through sections I remember crashing on or struggling to keep up with my dad through when I was younger. As a teenager, Farlow Gap was the only trail my dad made me promise to never ride alone because of its remote and technical nature – When we descended Farlow on the first day, I remembered that and tried to channel his good judgment while still going as fast as possible, and luckily only crashed once. Stage 1 was 21.5 miles, with 3000’ of elevation. It took me 2 hours and 47 minutes, and I was able to take 3rd place overall and 2nd place in the Enduro down Daniel Ridge.
Elated from my podium finish the day before, I was eager to see how things would shake out on Stage 2. This time the stage start/finish was by the Ranger Station, just at the bottom of Black Mountain Trail. We started with a 5 mile paved section to get over to Turkey Pen, but it was led out by a police car and turned out to be a good warmup before the gravel climb to Squirrel Gap. I was surprised to find myself in first during this stage, but with only a couple miles to go, I was getting tired quickly. We just had the final climb up to Black Mountain left, and then we would finish with the enduro descent down to the finish. However, I looked over my shoulder to see Carla hot on my wheel and gaining time fast up the climb. I couldn’t match her pace and was quickly left in the dust, but was hoping to make up time on her during the descent. About halfway down Black Mountain, I saw Carla and she let me past her. I had never made it down the whole trail clean, but with adrenaline pumping and Carla right behind I knew I had to at least try! I was so relieved to make it to the line without crashing, and to actually win a stage! I was surprised and excited, but I knew that the longest “queen stage” was waiting for me in the morning, and my strong competitors weren’t going to let up in such a close race.
Stage 3 started in the same location as Stage 2, but went up the trail to Sycamore Cove first this time. I was really feeling the fatigue after going as hard as I could the day before. Pacing myself in races has never been my strength, but I was learning my lesson that pacing is way more important in stage racing than it is in the short track and XC races I’m used to! Carla and Jen passed me up the first climb, and my legs felt like they were jello as I tried to keep up. Soon after, I got caught and passed by Jenna Downey and Beata, two more strong racers that were soaring up Thrift Cove. The rest of the day was difficult for me not just physically, but mentally. I was tired and frustrated with my performance, and it was hard to keep negative thoughts out of my head. Finally after 29 miles, 5800’ of climbing, and almost 4.5 hours, I rolled across the line in 4th place. I lost 24 minutes in the overall rankings that day, which is huge in a race with stages that average just 2 1/2 – 3 hours. However, it was a great learning experience for me and everyone was just as supportive and congratulatory when I finished, despite me being far more cracked and tired than before. Luckily with the creek nearby, I spent a looong time sitting in the chilly water washing off all the mud/having a little ice bath. The positive to the day is that there were 0 rain drops and 0 mechanical issues! I ate a big dinner and went to bed early, hoping that carbs and sleep would be the answer to get through the final two stages.
On Stage 4, we awoke to quintessential Pisgah conditions. The pouring rain that lasted all through the night was continuing that morning, and made for some muddy trail conditions. Trying to stay dry during the warmup and prep was hopeless, but at least it wasn’t cold. On the start line, Todd told everyone that the route would have to be shortened due to weather and lightning potential, and that we would be going straight to Laurel Mountain on the gravel road. Initially I was bummed because long gravel climbs aren’t always my strength, but the whole group stayed together and it was easy to draft off each other and pace well. I had so much mud and sand in my eyes, but it was kind of fun to race in such crazy weather. My teammate Josh offered to ride with me and help me with pacing, and I’m so glad he did. Just ten miles into the stage I couldn’t clip in and realized one of the cleat bolts on my shoe had fallen out – Josh offered up the bolt from his own shoe to help me finish! His selflessness helped me get down the rocky and steep enduro on Pilot Rock in one piece. Though it was a nice day for ducks, but the mud made the rocky sections over Laurel Mountain more interesting, and I was able to finish in 3rd! The best part of the day was when Zeb surprised me at the finish line and we got to go into town to get lunch together. He even changed my flat tire (on my car, not my bike at least) later that evening – whoops!
The final stage was 27 miles and 2300′ of elevation, starting and ending at the Brevard Music Center. This was called the “Land of the Waterfalls” Route, and it was hard to not get distracted by the beautiful waterfalls cascading down around every other switchback. This stage had the most gravel roads (or maybe it just felt that way), but after dropping my chain at the start and having to catch back to the group, I focused hard on pacing myself up the final climb to Bracken Mountain. The enduro down Bracken was more of a “super-d” since there were two punchy climbs in the middle of the descent. I gave those climbs everything I had since I was only 13 seconds off the overall Enduro podium. It was so close! When I rolled across the finish line a couple hours later, my parents and younger sisters surprised me! It was fun to celebrate with them, and to finally be done with the last stage of the week. My first stage race was both more challenging and more fun than I thought it would be, and I was thrilled to take 3rd in the final stage, which secured my third place spot overall! I narrowly made it onto the overall enduro podium too (by 2 seconds! I was trying so hard not to crash!)
The week of racing ended with a fun final banquet, good food, and beautiful handmade awards by Matthew Gentry. There was also a slideshow of incredible photos by Icon Media Asheville, and a fully edited video from the stage (still can’t believe they were able to shoot and edit a video for each stage and have it ready by the end of each day!) Burke Sanders also wrote a great article for PinkBike about the race, including beautiful pictures he captured of each day: https://www.pinkbike.com/news/rougher-than-expected-the-pisgah-stage-race.html
Thanks to Todd and the @blueridgeadventures team for such a great week of racing, to Jenna Downey and @clifbar for making sure everyone had plenty of fuel, and the @ctscyclingteam and Brandon Davis for making sure my bike and I were ready to go every day. Such a fun and challenging first stage race experience with some really incredible women competing. Now it’s time for a nap.