The Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race pits riders and bikes in its two-person team format against some of the biggest mountains in the eastern U.S., against the iffy weather of spring at elevation, against the sheer numbers (miles, climbing, time bonuses, etc.) and against themselves. Formerly, and perhaps more accurately, dubbed the Pisgah Death March, this epic celebrated its 8th year in 2010. This is the story of how two intrepid riders from Virginia set out to conquer the odds in this monster race brewed and served up just outside of Asheville, NC – home to a special type of masochistic mountain bike madness.
Story and photos by Randy King
The unofficial Big Mountain Riding team – my teammate Randy Lewis (R.L.) and I – arrived at the 2010 Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race (PMBAR) at 7:20 a.m. in an off and on light rain. It was my fifth PMBAR, and R.L.’s first. It was also his first epic event. Our goals were simple and prioritized: 1. Finish. 2. Finish safely. 3. Finish before dark. 4. Finish strong. 5. Finish close to the middle of the pack.
Gathering in the dawn's early light, pre-race for the 2010 PMBAR
As the gray daylight gradually grew, we went through mandatory gear check and got our number tags. Then we took down the bikes and geared up. We headed across the road to Davidson River Campground, since Pisgah Productions had sprung for only one porta-john this year (perhaps in the spirit of the general recession?). The 7:50 a.m. pre-race meeting was more calm than in the years of the passport format. [In 2009 the organizers switched to handing out a pre-marked Pisgah Ranger District map. Previously, teams had to supply their own maps and were handed a paper passport with postage stamp sized pictures of the terrain around each check point. They then had to mark off all off-limits roads on their maps pre-race.] Our team started slowly – in our reading of the map and in getting going. When the race starts at 8 a.m., everybody has to ride the same first stretch of trail – the big climb up Black Mountain to Pressley Gap. So, many just take off and check their map at the Gap. Or, if they’re locals, they know how to get to the checkpoints, and just need to ascertain where they are, not figure out how to get there. We got going at about 8:15-8:20. We rode up the 1400-foot elevation gain Black Mountain climb, catching a few racers, including the first teams having issues (mechanical and physical).
Start to Squirrel Gap Check Point (Getting our flow on)
It's hustle and flow wherever you can in the epic PMBAR
We climbed to more than two miles to Hickory Knob and descended to Pressley Gap. R.L. rode in a minute later, carrying my water bottle. Not good to lose that on the first downhill. I secured it with a bungee cord. Looking over the map, I decided to go for the fire road to Buckhorn Gap versus climbing across Black Mountain on single track. We put it in the big chain ring and raced down Maxwell Cove road to the next junction. I still wasn’t sure which check point to go to first or exactly how to get there, but we headed for Buckhorn Gap and passed some more people on the forest service road climb to the gap. One guy wanted to pace line with us. I didn’t know what that meant. Then he said we were going a little fast for them. Their team was one of the ones we started to leap frog with for the rest of the day (the cast of characters in our little drama). At Buckhorn Gap, we encountered a big bunch of teams eating and sorting out where to go next.
We snacked, including some “real” food – I had half a turkey and Swiss sandwich. I picked a route and we took off down the hill on Buckhorn Gap Trail – a trail that started out as doubletrack and narrowed to single as we descended. We hit a junction where I planned on going left on South Mills River trail, to connect with gravel fire road again. However, I pulled out the map to check and saw several teams go right on South Mills River trail. Someone said that this was the way to go, and they were local, so we changed directions. Turned out to be one of the highlights of the ride – nice, flowing singletrack for several miles followed by a technical but rideable climb up to the junction with Squirrel Gap trail. Along the way we enjoyed the flow with two other teams in front of us. However,the pace highlighted one of the weak points of single speed bikes in big mountain riding events. The lead team were two single speeders. On this descending, flowing trail, we could have been using the big chain ring to make up speed. However, the SS’ers were stuck in coasting mode. As we crossed a creek, we got in front of them for a tech climbing section. They too remained recurring cast members.
Another team (Luis Calderon / Karlos Rodriguez) that we leap-frogged all day was with us on that flowing train as well. The one rider had his iPod connected to speakers strapped on his handlebars. As we rolled up on them, he was jamming to Ludicris and trying to get a sing-along going. “Come on, everybody,” he yelled. “Sing it: ‘Roll Out. Roll Out. Roll Out.’” Team “Speaker Box” was quite vocal, and throughout the ride we were entertained by their alternating complaints and braggadocio.
Mid-creek mishaps entertained racers at the Squirrel Gap CP
Our chosen first checkpoint (CP) sat at the junction of Squirrel Gap Trail and Cantrell Creek Trail, beside the rocky crossing of Cantrell Creek. The creek ran in two channels at the crossing, with wet rocks lining both sides and a central rock shoal wetted by passing tires. I rode into it and held together for the crossing and the climb up wet rocks to where 10 teams or so were at the unmanned CP. [Yay for me ] Many other riders were not as fortunate (including my teammate), and the CP’s entertainment consisted mostly of hearing the slide of tires on wet rocks and watching riders or bike pushers go down on the wet stones.
"The Bugs," a Singlespeed team that rocked all day long
Having attained our first CP at about 11 a.m. (approx. 3-hours into the event), we filtered water in Cantrell Creek, losing 10-minutes or so filling our CamelBaks and bottles. I do believe that going forward, I will bring only iodine pills and not a filter. A filter takes up a lot of room in the packs, weighs much more than pills and sucks up too much time. One of the reasons we kept seeing the same people all day is because of the time we spent filtering water.
“The Bugs” caught up with us at the CP. These were the two single speeders who had lead our little train on the flowing descent. Shanna Powell and Laura Goetz were dressed as a bumble bee and a red bug, complete with leotards, tutus and tights and helmet-mounted antennae. They were cheerful and repeatedly caught up with us any time we stopped for more than a few minutes to eat, filter or change a flat throughout the day.