Five days. Nearly 30,000 feet of incapacitating vertical gain spread across 195 rocky, rooty, and heavily rutted miles in the epicenter of American forestry. With numbers like these promising a caliber of riding we’d yet to witness on our journey, tagging along for the Pisgah Stage Race was an easy choice. This late-summer spectacle of singletrack combat would be hosted by Blue Ridge Adventures, and staged from the small Appalachian town of Brevard, North Carolina. Our goal for the five days of racing was simply to help out — this would entail the running of aid stations and helping the volunteer guides sweep the course of markers and riders in need of a little extra motivation.
Tucked on the fringe of the Pisgah National Forest, we arrived in sleepy Brevard just in time for the catered pre-race dinner and rider’s meeting. It seemed fitting that initial staging was at the Brevard Music Center — an acclaimed summer camp of sorts for the musically-inclined, because everything about the early moments of our week felt very much like the first day of summer camp. Racers trickled in from their new accomodations, cautiously orientating themselves in a new environment with the new people they would be sharing it with for the next week. The mood at dinner was light, but it was clear that everyone was sizing each other up, making casual pleasantries in the few hours before the trail would render them competitors.
After a four-mile neutral rollout on the road, the real racing began with a jarring contrast via a rocky and rutted series of step-downs into the forest, quickly reminding competitors and volunteers alike that the next 190 miles would not be so easily earned. The motto of the Pisgah Stage Race, and the resounding mantra of the local riding is about as fitting as it comes: “rocks, roots, repeat.” We wouldn’t have long to wait before it was our turn to experience it firsthand. The already dramatic topography of Pisgah is constantly at the mercy of the area’s heavy rainfall, which exposes massive rocks and cuts sharp gashes in the trail, eroding clean lines and making grizzled warriors out of the hardmen and women that call these trails home.
The crux of our role at the Stage Race was using our Sprinter to host aid stations throughout the week. We joined up with the mobile bike shop services of Sycamore Cycles, cranked up the stereo, and kept riders fed and hydrated as they steadily trickled through our oasis. Initial leaders blew through the stations, but as the week grew longer, stopping for a sandwich or a supply re-up became requisite — and not just from those on the bottom of the leaderboard.
A light dinner and awards ceremony followed the finish of every stage. Here, the individual leader jerseys and stories from the day’s riding would be exchanged. Every stage of the race was also carefully documented guerrilla style with both aerial and ground-level GoPro cameras, giving racers a fresh perspective as they immediately re-lived the triumphs of the day. You can find many of those videos posted on the Blue Ridge Adventures Facebook page here.
Despite a near-perfect forecast, rain had still been looming on the horizon all week, threatening to change the dynamic and alter rider tactics and bike selection on the crucial fifth and final stage. And right on schedule, it arrived in earnest immediately following the stage’s start, elevating the technicality of the already difficult trails and rendering them a slippery quagmire.
For lack of a better term, the scene at the finish line was one of all-out devastation. Bikes and faces, some more shattered than others, but all wearing the exhausted and perfectly contrasting smiles of relief and self-accomplishment. They all went to war — some with the trail, others with themselves, but each emerged victorious, regardless of placing on the podium.
This is mountain biking. Disappearing into the woods as challengers and competitors, but emerging as victors and friends. Nowhere would this be more evident than at the closing ceremony — a raucous party filled with stories and congratulatory high-fives. Only hours prior to the celebration and relief, these were the same faces beset with gritted teeth, facing down demons, and straddling that razor-thin line between complete self-destruction and the outermost limits of one’s own comfort zone. This is the true spirit of what it means to ride trail, made all the better with 100 of your newest friends. [zp]
Fill in the blanks with the rest of our photographs from staging, the aid stations, afternoons on-course, and from the frivolities at the closing ceremony here, on our Flickr page. And remember that we still have a few more stories of our own as we close the loop on this journey and head for home. Make sure you follow us on Twitter or like our Facebook page to stay abreast of the latest updates. We’ll see you down the road.