Swank 65 – what’s a day in Pisgah without plenty of surprises?

     IMG_9204The 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.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetOver 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).

A98F6735-A6BA-4485-AF0E-3CDB8D1F845DThe 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.Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

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!

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Dirt Diggler Gravel Grinder

All smiles during the 2018 Dirt Diggler
All smiles during the 2018 Dirt Diggler!

     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.

   

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Climbing up Pinnacle during the first part of the race

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!  

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Jenna, myself, and Sarah on the podium for Open Women!

Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/1859117489/