Serving up a true EPIC race – the 2010 Wild 100
WARNING: Contains dangerous acts, stupidity, pointless stubbornness and rude animal behavior. Not suitable for impressionable youths or those who see the bike solely as an expression of two-wheeled serenity.
Story and photos: Randy King
The Wild 100 in Slatyfork, WV claims to be the longest running mountain bike event held in the same location. While the race’s name has changed at least once, the Elk River Touring Center still plays host each summer to a small group of rag tag riders who tackle the Monongahela National Forest’s gnarly singletrack and big mountains in a roughly 100 KM (62 Mile) point to point off road race. This year was my 8th entry in this classic epic mountain bike race. I harbored high hopes of a top 5 finish in the Solo Male class.
However, it wasn’t going to be easy. In 2007, I set the goal of making the Top 10. After 8.5 hours, I crossed the line two bike lengths behind the 10-place rider. In 2008 I arrived in good form, feeling strong, and set a goal of Top 5. Eight hours later, after a big navigational error, I finished in 6th place by one minute. They say you learn from failure …
A cabin at ERTC
I skipped the 2009 event due to other adventures. However, I had ridden my bike more in the 18 months preceding the 2010 event than any other 18 months of my life. Earlier that spring I had rode a personal best in the brutal Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race (PMBAR). So, although I spent most of July piloting a desk, I signed up and plunged into a compressed preparation, the Weekend Warrior 101. On the first day of this effort, the rear triangle on my trusty epic race steed, Jack Rabbit Slim, broke in three places. I love the Gary Fisher HiFi; it is the best bike I’ve ever owned and a natural epic racer. However, I had broke another rear triangle. I began to fear for my goals in the 2010 Wild 100.
Warranty replacements take time and I dreaded not having a race-worthy bike in time. My local bike shop, Bikes Unlimited in Lynchburg, VA, stepped up in a big way, ensuring that I had a racing rig and working with Trek/Fisher to get me a Fuel EX frame to replace my deceased and out-of-production HiFi. Jack Parker and the crew at Bikes Unlimited are my unofficial sponsors for this race, because of all they did to make sure I had a shot at my goals!
More about the Wild 100 - race format, challenges, support, etc.
Start to CP 1 – Climbing the legendary Props Run Trail
The Wild 100 starts with one of two beastly climbs, depending on where the organizers place the first Checkpoint (CP). This year CP 1 was perched near the top of Prop’s Run Trail, an IMBA epic and legendary east coast downhill run. Following ERTC owner Gil Willis’ traditional speech – much of which would be forgotten or ignored – 40 some riders eagerly grabbed the maps as Gil’s wife, Mary, handed them out. With much rustling paper we unfolded our maps and immediately racers began folding them back up, whispering, “it’s up Prop’s.”
Mandatory pre-race meeting for the "rules"
I jumped astride my bike and pedaled out of the parking lot to tackle Prop’s Run. The trail starts out from the ERTC, weaving through the woods along the foot of the great ridge, bobbing up and down and winding its way to the old logging railroad bed that is Prop’s Run Trail. Along this winding route the leaders sped away and the chase pack jockeyed for position. Soon the grade increased and it was time to grind out an 8 mile muddy, 1,900 vertical foot climb in the misty woods of West Virginia. I passed a single speed rider and a co-ed team on the “flats” only to have them work past me once the grade grew serious. As we worked our way up, I noticed several 26″ geared hardtails passing me. Mucky trails seem to favor geared bikes, if drive trains stay functional. I took note, though and shifted into a higher gear to put the pain on the SSers.
Along the way in the mist, I knew a rider was overtaking me when I would ride over a loose rock and then moments later, hear it move again. I came to dread the sound of tires on rocks behind me. Along the climb 4 riders passed me. I did catch up to the co-ed team, as they struggled with the wet rocks that lined the dozens of drainage trenches strung out along Prop’s Run, and a single speeder from Ohio who “hate[d] this technical stuff.”
Prop’s Run is not that technical. What makes it memorable is the sheer length of its descent, and those horrid drainage dips, which turn the descent into a series of high speed, triceps-tearing push ups as the rider hits all those rocky dips at 15 miles an hour. Oh yeah, there are also the occasional side jogs where the trail leaves the old railroad bed and climbs up a bank to pass a downed tree or a mire. These detours are usually laced with angled roots and short steep pitches. It makes for a grueling climb.
Going up, my riding glasses fogged in minutes, and mud sprayed random patterns on my legs and clothes as my tires splashed through puddles and runoffs. I sucked away on my Camelbak and tried to stay in the middle ring up front. Pedaling through the pain paid off, as CP 1 appeared out of the mist, eventually. I could already smell my own stink, from sweating up that climb. One of my tactics to achieve my Top 5 goal was to minimize the time I spent at CP’s. It was easy to hang out, catching one’s breath and refilling water and looking at the map, etc., for several minutes. I pulled in, called out my number and then pulled out my map. A quick check showed that CP 2 was miles away, off of the Scenic Highway 150, nine miles south of ERTC. I stuffed my map in my reeking jersey and jumped on the bike, passing 4-6 riders who were still reading their maps and discussing options.
CP 1 to CP 2 – Crossing Gauley Mountain in a deluge
A good 1/2 mile of Prop’s Run Trail remained to be climbed before we broke out onto the gravel road. I spun away, seeing another rider checking his map. The gravel road was the place to leverage the advantage of gears, and I tried to push a tall gear. However, it felt like something was holding me back, and the map-reading rider caught me on the ride across the ridge on the gravel road. I saw from his race tag as he passed that he was also a Solo Male. I made it my goal to catch that chap. Sleeveless jersey. Number 83. I never saw him again.
Initially, I had thought I would get to CP 2 by riding down Crooked Fork trail, a fast-paced, combined double and singletrack and then cross Route 219 and loop around Gay Sharp Knob and out onto the Scenic Highway. This all would be to avoid the two horrid sections of mixed singletrack and overgrown doubletrack that were the non-paved way to cover much of the length of the mostly off-limits Scenic Highway. However, I pulled out my map while riding the gravel, and realized that the section of the Scenic Highway between Gay Sharp Knob and CP 2 was off limits. So, I aimed for the Gualey Mountain Trail, a trail that is rideable in either direction and undulates along the mountain for five miles between Mine Road and the Scenic Highway.
Not halfway down this mixed surface trail, as I crested the climbing portion and began the gradual, 3 mile descent, the rain began. Merely calling it rain does not convey the force and frenzy of this deluge. Rain pummeled me, speckling my riding glasses lenses and blurring my vision. Water coursed down the trail wherever puddles did not form. Some of the puddles were an inch deep. Others approached axle depth. Riding blind, saturated gloves slipping on the grips, I braced for the big one – a puddle that would grasp the front wheel and launch me over the bars. Some of the descents I rode on feel, unable to see details like the ruts or root bars. I thought of my camera, and my iPod and hoped they’d survive the soaking. Mud sprayed up and down my backside from the rear wheel. I slid on the seat, a cushion of muck slicking the saddle. The udder cream I’d lathered on quickly ran away with immersion, and the chafing began.
I rode out Gauley Mountain trail, seeing no one. Bursting out onto the pavement of the Scenic Highway Route 150, I ground my mud-choked chain through the gears and climbed up the road, passing two riders repairing a flat, roadside. The thick mist reduced visibility to a hundred yards. The back of my neck prickled with fear of someone speeding through the fog slamming into me without ever seeing this muddy, grayed out cyclist. I wished I had a blinkie light aboard. I hunkered down and pedaled.
At the top of the first rise I pulled off into the entrance for Red Spruce trail, the hated singletrack and doubletrack combo that organizers usually routed racers through to skip most of the pavement of the Scenic Highway. Red Spruce trail hooks back around to the Scenic Highway across the road from Red Lick North trail, and together they suck up an hour or more of the race. As I rode into the woods, trying to eat a Clif Bar and ride simultaneously, I slipped on some downed saplings and then noticed the trail looked untouched. A map check showed that that the pink hilighter that designated permitted highway stretches was wearing off in the deluge, but did indicate I could ride to the intersection with Red Lick North trail. I battled back out of the woods, recovering a half hour or more of my life.
In 3rd place at Checkpoint 2 - note low visibility
Back on the highway of death, I rode to Red Lick North trail, where a knot of riders huddled around their maps. The veteran advantage kicked in, and I passed them and entered the energy and momentum sapping grassy doubletrack of Red Lick North. I big ringed it down the slippery grass course, happy that they had at least brushhogged it recently. One year we had to pedal through stinging nettles the entire length of this trail. Soon I could hear the map-readers behind me, and I kept the hammer down, eyes peeled for hidden obstacles in the wet grass. During this mad rush I experienced one of those magic mountain bike moments. Railing down the descent, riding in top gear, with riders hot on my tail, my front wheel caught the hidden edge of a rut in the little dirt ribbon buried in all that grass. My bike began to slide. I thought I would wipe out under the wheels of the pack. Instinctively, I turned into the skid, and CARVED my mountain bike. In a slicing arc my bike returned to the fall line, leaving me to cherish that Zen-bliss of one’s body knowing things one’s mind did not. What a great sensation, that momentary carving!
Suddenly, flying downhill in the mist, I sped into a grassy cul-de-sac and the trail ended. My disc brakes groaned and yowled as I brought my speeding bike to a stop, confused. I had been here before. This trail went through! What? Behind me, my pursuers slid to halts too, amid protests and querulous queries.
The trail ended in this green cul-de-sac, choked with 5-foot high weeds. Muddy tire tracks headed into the woods right in front of where I had ground to a halt, but the trail petered out in a bike length. I immediately began to quarter, seeking the trail. Others said this was the wrong trail, and turned back. I was not going to climb that wet greensward twice in one day! (We’d be returning on it.) And, I knew the trail went through. The map clearly showed that it turned to singletrack partway down. Soon only two brothers racing as a 2 Person 100+ team and I were left. We quartered about and they shouted when they found the trail. We were soon back on track, pitying the fools who had started back up the climb.
A quick jaunt through singletrack to a muddy, newly bulldozed woods road and back out to the scenic highway. Then it was another blind descent through the mist to CP 2. Here the brothers, Geoff and Matt Fusco, learned they were leading the 2 Person 100+ race, and I learned I was in 3rd for Solo Males.
“Are you cold?” Gil asked, as I refilled my bottle and mixed up some more Gatorade.
“Well, you look cold.”
“I may look scared,” I said. “Thinking about somebody doing 70 through that fog and taking me out.”
CP 2 to CP 3 – Surviving Tea Creek Mountain
My hunger renewed by the news of my standing, I headed out on the road again, wincing at my grinding, sucking chain. Going over the gate to the dreaded Crooked Fork, I stopped to lube my chain. I made fast friends of the Fusco bro’s by proffering chain lube, for their bikes were grinding and sticking too from all the mud.
The Fuscos soon shed me like the mud off their freshly-lubed chains, as we slogged back up that horrible trail. I kept it in the middle ring as much as I could, but they disappeared into the distance. For a team riding such unevenly matched bikes, they rode strongly together. Geoff rode a 29′er hardtail, while Matt pushed a Trek Liquid the whole distance – a bike that he thought weighed about 31 pounds. Good on him, I say. I would watch later in the day as that suspension bobbed away under pedal force on a gravel road climb.
Eventually, I struggled out of the trail and back onto the Scenic Highway. Although I thought the brothers had left me far behind, I caught up to them on the highway again as we rode to the Gauley Mountain Trail again. In the woods we slipped and slid over the soaked and mud slicked wood work up to the Gauley Connector trail. This snaggle-toothed beastie runs along the swampy bottom below the ridge leading up to Tea Creek Mountain and connects Gauley Mountain Trail to the bike-eating monster, Tea Creek Mountain trail. We slogged over impossibly slick roots and through more muck holes. Ahead I heard a crash and yell above the music in my headphones. Geoff had gone down on a snot-slick bridge, ending up in the creek below. I walked some tech sections I had mastered in years past, as they were so slippery when wet.
At the intersection with the trail up to TCM trail, the brothers decided to take a detour side trip for unexplained reasons – I had dropped back in the pitfall-laden Connector Trail crossing. Unknowingly, I sneaked in front of them for the battle up Tea Creek Mountain. When I heard voices behind me, I thought it was someone else catching up, and I pushed even harder.
The climb up Tea Creek Mountain Trail starts with some steep, narrow singletrack punctuated by several super sharp climbing switchbacks. I scrambled up this section, mixing granny gear climbing with hiking and jogging. Things were so slick that jogging was dangerous … my shoes kept slipping and I feared an ankle sprain. After the initial climb, Tea Creek Mountain Trail pursues a more gradual grade up through the mossy woods as it approaches the crown of the mountain. I tried to push the middle ring through much of this, dreading the inevitable sound of a pursuer.
The rock garden atop the legendary Tea Creek Mountain - That's the trail
Sure enough, before I attained the crown and its legendary rock garden crest, I heard my pursuers. I managed to keep ahead of them into the scattered boulders of the rock garden. Today I did not even try to ride most of it. Wet stone and close pursuit made any mistake costly. I pushed Jack Rabbit Slim through the garden, risking a few mounts and line searches. The only good news was that the rain quelled the hornets that dwelt among the rocks and who had tagged me the past few years.
The rock garden continues into the beginning of the notorious Tea Creek Mountain descent. This downhill is a brute. To race down its sidehill, off-camber gnarliness five-hours into your big mountain ride and following a soaking rain is to soft shoe the razor’s edge. With riders behind, I wanted to build a gap. Papa like the DH, so I let ‘er rip.
Several minutes into the 1,500 vertical feet descent, as my front wheel washed out on a wet root, my right grip hooked the embankment and I slammed into the muddy sidehill, two thoughts flitted across my lizard brain: 1. Maybe I had exceeded my Jedi skill level. 2. Wow! Am I glad I went down to the uphill side and not the downhill. Later, talking with the Fusco brothers – who were my pursuers on Tea Creek Mountain – I learned one of them had gone down on the downhill side.
“I got going too fast, lost control in the mud on one of the turns,” Matt related. “Next thing you know, I’m headed down the side of the mountain. Luckily one of the straps on my CamelBak caught in a tree and snagged me.” That strap had spared him from a tumble down the mountain side.
My friend Phil said it best, upon hearing this story: “That’s doing too much if you are saved only by strap catching in something.”
Somewhere in that epic descent my iPod popped and went silent in the middle of David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel.” I thought the battery had died. I rode into Tea Creek Campground alone, tearing up the precious little flat ground at the bottom of Tea Creek Mountain. In at CP 3, I swigged Gatorade and stuffed two PB&J sandwiches down the hatch. I was worried about getting enough nutrients to prevent cramping, as I was not taking my normal Hammer Gel Electrolyte pills.
It was only when the Fusco brothers rolled into CP 3 and began questioning a rider who was working on his flat tire, that I realized he had been one of the riders who had turned back at the cul-de-sac on Red Lick North. I had been paranoid that they had rode pavement to CP 2 when we saw them as we left it. But now I had not thought about them for awhile. Apparently the guy and his friend had rode the Scenic Highway to the base of Tea Creek Mountain trail, instead of darting into the woods for the slippery trip on Gauley Mountain Trail and the Gauley Connector. At first I didn’t really care, but then I asked them what class they were in. Solo Male. Cheaters! He knew it immediately, but he would not admit to cheating. I decided to not make a stink. Instead I resolved to stay ahead of him and his amigo. I moved over to the pump to refill the CamelBak and the bottle of Gatorade mix. While I was there I washed off my drive train.
Meanwhile two other racers came into the camp, riding Cannondales and matching outfits. I assumed they were another team, and hoped the Fusco brothers would stay ahead of them. Only later did I learn they were Solo Male and riding together.
Riding out of Tea Creek Campground, I had to stop and tighten my cleat on my SPD shoe, which had worked loose with all the abuse. And that, as they say, made all the difference …
Continued in PART 2
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