Track cyclist Colby Pearce gives a mountain bike stage race a try.
By Colby Pearce
I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, for the Pisgah Mountain Bike stage race having done a fair amount of mountain bike racing this spring and summer, including the Breck Epic. However, I am from Colorado, which is populated with loose, rocky, dusty trails. The conditions at Pisgah were the polar opposite. After repeated warnings about how muddy, rooty and slippery the riding would be, I was not disappointed. Instead of giving you a blow by blow of the race, I will attempt to reduce it solipsistically to “significant events.”
First, a comment on MTB tire technology: after a lengthy debate at the local bike shop about which tires to ride, which enveloped contributions from mechanics, managers, and passing sales people, I made what seemed like a life or death decision and pulled the trigger on some mud tires. Its amazing how opinionated riders can become about tires- everyone has had either a leg-stomping killer day, or the worlds worst mechanical disaster because of a certain tire, and if you listen to enough people, you will invariably find people who have had opposite experiences with the same tire. The highly scientific conclusion I have come to is that mountain biking is like playing Russian roulette, and some days you simply get the bullet. There are stories about guys riding 50 mile cross-countries on 330 gram tires and railing it all day, and then there are guys on 2.3 UST balloon tires who are flatting all over the place … we can send a man to the moon, but we can’t make a mountain bike tire which does not loose air. My personal future plan is to use a combination of Tarot cards, workshop feng shui and transcendental meditation to achieve a state of inflated tire zen. Or, I might fill my casing with Elmer’s glue.
Significant events of the first day include fairly copious quantities of mud, being paced by a motorcycle with tires about as wide as a keg of beer, signing the T-shirts of several children, and a generally pleasant and positive atmosphere at the race.
The first long stage my equipment was put to the test. Armed with a Cannondale Scalpel, several gels, two bottles (with more in each of three feed zones), a spare chain link, a mini tool, and multiple inflation possibilities, I felt I had adequately prepared for the mountain bike apocalypse. Looking back on the experience, I was naive and the forest was licking its chops.
After a fire road climb, we were treated to our first real descent. No one warned me that the trail would be completely camouflaged. The entire forest was blanketed with leaves as though they were shot from a confetti canon; it was super easy to lose direction of the race and waste time hesitating as you searched for a hint of where you were supposed to go. The leaves covered a thick layer of mud, rocks, and anything else you might find on a mountain bike trail. It was like racing while turning the metal crankarm on a child’s tin pop up box and waiting for the joker to appear and scare the crap out of you.
Significant events in my personal universe from the first stage include having to stop and remove a three foot long, one inch diameter stick from between my rear wheel and stays (fortunately 1 millisecond before it found its way into my rear wheel), a broken chain (trailside repair lesion 934: make sure and route your chain through the front derailuer cage before you snap the quicklink together, and your repair will take about two minutes instead of 12), a severely thrown chain (trailside repair lesion # 8, adjust your limit screws correctly) which would have seen me walking the last two miles if not for some timely help and lots of additional muscle from a passing Cannondale rider (thank you Garth).
Digression: One of the joys of cross country racing is that you always end up in the hurt locker at some point. Particularly in longer cross country races, after about two hours of racing when you are already starting to see stars, a grade comes which is the perfect pitch and is just technically challenging enough to really make you dig deep, only to maintain forward momentum. Fear of having to run is a powerful motivator, and it can force you to reach way down into the depths of your liver for the last remaining molecules of glycogen, scraping the bottom of your metabolic barrel. The same effect can take place when you are doing well in a race and you begin to hear ghost riders catching you, which are a bizarre combination of your own drivetrain noises being reflected back at you from the forest like deciduous microphone feedback, and a loss of blood sugar, which leads to fabricated imaginary sound effects. I have never done acid but if I did I am sure it would lead to a similarly sublime paranoia.
Significant events in the second stage include crossing a waist deep creek about eight times in water which was barely above freezing, followed scaling a Lord of the Rings-esque goat path over the top of an epic mountain, which was covered with snow. There is nothing like multiple ice baths at the bottom of an hour long climb. This race was not going to be hard enough on its own, so the promoters decided to turn on the air conditioning and bring about record low temperatures for October. I began wondering how I was going to avoid death or hypothermia, being as I was dressed for summer. By dressed for summer, I mean a short sleeve base layer, summer jersey, vest, borrowed arm warmers (Who is supposed to be “pro” after 2 decades in the sport? Thank you Jeremiah, the existence of my arms, which are very important to me, is in your debt), knee warmers, summer socks and summer XC gloves. The only reason I did not end up in the hospital is because both the climbing and descending were so technical, I was barely able to maintain my core temperature (raised by extreme effort on the ascent, and fear of death on the way down).
I also rode in second place for a very long time before ending up plummeting to fifth place in the final mile of the race. After burping on the final descent, I used my quickfill to re-inflate and when I was all aired up, Big Air decided it wanted to take my valve core out as a souvenir. I had donated my pump to Sam about 60 minutes previously when I passed him while he was walking. When he passed me back, he stopped and returned it, which was considerate. I finished the stage riding on a flat front tire, thinking the whole time that if anyone besides myself could witness my descending skills on a Lefty with no air in it, I would get some type of raucous applause, because considering the circumstances I was hauling ass.
Significant events of the third stage are limited to riding as fast as I could for the first hour, and then having my lower back decide to take revenge on me for all my abuse in the previous three days, much like Barry Wicks’ nose did at Cross Vegas (http://www.velonews.com/article/98985). I was a complete and utter rebellion from one of my own body parts, and I was reduced to watching riders pedal away from me at will. It was not the ideal way to end the stage race, but I managed to finish on the extended podium, and then managed to sleep through the awards ceremony (only missed it by about 3 minutes, sorry guys).
For future mountain bike stage races, I plan to start with 300 gram 2.5 inch wide tires with casing made from indestructible Elf rope which are welded to the rim beds by Optimus Prime. While I am at it, the chain will be made from carbon fiber, as the bike will be a belt drive with internal gearing, which weigh half as much as an existing XX drivetrain (because all you nut jobs who race single speed take it to a whole other level, no disrespect intended). Yoda will also enshroud my bicycle in The Force, preventing it from being damaged in the event that it becomes detached from my body and encounters harmful objects, simultaneously giving it a cool blue undercarriage, like the cars in The Fast and the Furious.
All said and done, it was an excellent, challenging experience, and I can safely say that I am the only rider attending the Manchester Track World Cup who used a four-day mountain bike race as preparation. If they decide to cover the velodrome in leaves, it will be lights out for all these guys because I will unquestionably have an advantage, as my course sleuthing skills have been honed to an art form.
See you on the trails,