Pisgah 111 :: Race Report

Race Report by Mr Banks - Shred Mobb Capo.

Because it goes to 111.

The Pisgah 111k is a special event. Set in the Pisgah National Forest it is deceivingly short yet even top finishers take upwards of 6 hours to complete it. It is highly technical, the climbs go on for days, and there is a plethora of river crossings and hike-a-bikes. I first rode this race back in 2015. In mid-April, behind on my Marji Gessick preparation, I recalled the experience from 3 years ago and I decided that it would be a good way to jump start my 2018 season.

Thursday before the race my VRBO host emailed to ask if we still planned on coming down because the Brevard/Hendorsonville area was severely flooded and flash flood warnings were in place until Saturday morning. With no cancellation on the event website I said yes we were. The first highlight of the drive down was a stop to move the bike from the roof rack into the interior of the car, much to the chagrin of our dog, Waldo, who up until then had enjoyed the whole backseat to himself. Other highlights include repeated incidents of hydroplaning in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Friday night, at the very damp check-in tent, it was revealed that the area had received 7 inches of rain a day for the past three three days so most of the river crossings would be removed from the course. Should be interesting, I thought to myself.

 Weather weary racers at the start line. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Weather weary racers at the start line. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Saturday morning, clouds looming ominously, a fairly small corral of racers lined up at the start. The 111k, maybe because of its rugged nature, never draws a huge crowd like some of the NUE races but today's crowd was small even by 111k standards. I suspect the weather was to blame. During the pre race announcements Race Director Eric Werver once again reminded us that we would face only one of the normally ten plus river crossings today and shortly after sent us on our way.

 Starting out for glory! Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Starting out for glory! Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Right out of the gate the 111k hits you with a brutal 40 minute climb up Clawhammer Road. Clawhammer is a gravel road and with fresh legs the pace tends to be fairly fast. Anticipating a long day in the saddle I opted to take my time up Clawhammer. Originally, I had planned to pace off of Kenny Kocarek from KSD. Kenny is a strong single speeder but I had to let him go because I would pay dearly later on if I didn't. 3 years ago the roles were reversed and I learned my lesson back then. I fell in with a group of 4 or 5 other riders, including Jen Toops, the defending women's OMBC and NUE Marathon Series Champion.

At the very top Clawnhammer turns into a grassy field with no discernable way out. Had we missed a turn? We consulted the cue sheet: From Clawhammer continue straight onto Buckhorn Gap Trail. This was clearly a dead end and we decided to backtrack. A quarter mile or so back down Clawhammer we eventually spotted an inconspicuous trailhead with a barely discernible sign for Buckhorn. What a great way to start the day.

The bad start was made up for with a rewarding descent down Buckhorn. It is fast and flowy, almost guiding you down a tunnel of lush Rhododendrons that seems to go on forever. From the bottom of Buckhorn the course continues onto South Mills River Trail which weaves along a hillside with plenty of roots and rocks that beg you to get some air. Be careful though, lest you misread your landing and find yourself 5 feet down the side of the trail like I did. Unhurt but still slightly shaken I rode on to Squirrel Gap and then on to Cantrell Creek Trails. There were several creek crossings along Cantrell as well as a section for which we rode along a creek. A single speeder I was riding with at the time and I mused about the fact that apparently Eric had miscounted a bit. Right before Aid 1 we hit South Mills River trail, parts of which were two way traffic but the ever helpful cheer section had a massive cowbell to caution riders.

 Climbing up to Aid 1. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Climbing up to Aid 1. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

My hydration/nutrition game was on point today and my bottle only 90% empty when I hit Aid 1. Dialed aid station crews generally amaze me but the 2018 Pisgah 111 Aid 1 crew takes the cake. In spite of the rather miserable conditions the three volunteers seemed to be genuinely happy to be out there helping us crazies accomplish our goals. One volunteer swapped my bottle while another refilled my hydration pack and the third handed me my drop bag. I was back on the trail in less than a minute, riding toward the two way section for the second time. Normally, the way from Aid 1 to Aid 2 goes via Bradley Creek and Forest Service Road 5015 but because of the flooding some additional trail sections were thrown in, including Mullinax, Squirrel Gap, and Laurel Creek Trails. Eventually I found myself on FS 5015 climbing a long and painful 30 minutes up to Aid 2.

Aid 2, which also doubles as Aid 3 (more on that later), was just as well run as Aid 1. The 10 or so year-old kid who reported of some heroic fully rigid single speeder up ahead crushed my spirits just a bit, though. I believe his words were along the lines of “you’re pretty cool racing this and all but the guy up ahead on a fully rigid single speed is insane!!!” Thanks, buddy!

Never one to dwell on a crushed spirit, I continued onto FS 1206, a nearly 3 mile long winding service road downhill. My clothes and gear were soaked at this point and I was horribly cold the whole way down. The next 4 miles lead me along FS5000 another service road which connects to the steep climb up Spencer Gap Trail which, in turn, gives way to some awesome downhills along Fletcher Creek, Trace Ridge, and North Mills River Trails. Eventually, the trail dumped me back onto FS 1206 some 2 hours later; only this time I found myself at the bottom having to ride back up. Well ain’t that a bitch?!

Many riders find the hike-a-bikes up Laurel Mountain just past Aid 2/3 to be their darkest moment during the 111k. Personally, I find this 90 minute climb back up to Aid 2/3 at least as bad, if not worse. I feel a bit guilty to admit that I found some motivation in the cheers of several racers who were still on their way down this cruel mistress while I was already trudging back up. I tip my hat to you guys, for I can only imagine what kind of personal hell you must’ve been in later in the day.

On the cue sheet the 10 miles from Aid 3 to Aid 4 would have you believe that you’ll get through them in a breeze. Let me tell you: Not so. Laurel Mountain Trail, which comprises 90% of the way from From Aid 3 to Pilot Rock Trail covers some 1600 feet of uphil, a lot of which is basically unrideable because of its steep pitch, rocks, and natural steps. Jeremiah Bishop, one of the most accomplished U.S. endurance mountain bikers Strava PR stands at 4 minutes 40 seconds, a whopping 3.0 mi/h pace on the section of Laurel called Laurel hike-a-bike. This earned him 7th on the leaderboard at the time of this writing. The KOM, by the way, goes to one Miss Paisley Wigglebottom with a time of 1 minute 38 seconds or 8.7 mi/h, which is more than twice the speed of the runner up. I won’t share my embarrassing time with you but suffice it to say that my Garmin did not detect movement for this part of the race and simply jumped from bottom to top in one long glitch.

Finally, at the top of Laurel, awaits your reward: The infamous and gnarly downhill known as Pilot Rock. Pilot Rock will forever be one of my favorite trails. The top section consists of a series of tight switchbacks about half of which would literally drop you off the side of the mountain if you didn’t turn in time. Between the switchbacks you’re faced with a mix of drop-offs and increasingly chunky boulders as you weave your way toward and through the middle section. Toward the bottom all roots and dirt make way to rocks and boulders as you pinball down this white knuckle descent.

 White knuckling down Pilot Rock. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

White knuckling down Pilot Rock. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Near the end of the descent the trail opens up and a crowd of hecklers with mountain horns and beer hand-ups/pour overs awaits you. To me, this truly epitomizes the nature of grass-roots mountain bike racing!

I don’t care how accomplished a racer may be they will feel like shit at this point in the race. They will be tired, hot or cold, soaked in sweat or rain and they will greeted by a bunch of loudmouthed smart-asses with nothing better to do than make fun of them and pour beer over them as they ride by. A small number of racers will stop to whine or complain about this kind of treatment but the vast majority will appreciate this tribute for what it is and, maybe, reach for a beer hand-up. Then they will chug along knowing that they’re almost done with this sick self-imposed exercise in futility.

 Josh Kunz of Knobby Side Down (3rd place Single Speed) is drenched with beer by Pilot Rock Hecklers. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Josh Kunz of Knobby Side Down (3rd place Single Speed) is drenched with beer by Pilot Rock Hecklers. Photo credit: Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker

Shortly after Pilot Rock I reach Aid 4. No longer worried about whether or not I will beat my time from 3 years ago, I pause to chat for a minute with the crew about how several hours earlier the race leader came through with an 8 minute gap on the eventual runner up. Rested and mentally restored, I push off toward the last climb back up Buckhorn, over the top and down Clawhammer to the finish.

9 hours and 29 minutes after we set out I have only one thing left to say: What a day. What a day.

All Photo Credit goes to Asheville Icon Media, Steve Barker, Event photos for purchase: https://www.iconmediaasheville.com/Events/2018-Pisgah-111k/ Icon Media Website: https://www.iconmediaasheville.com/

Event website: http://www.pisgahproductions.com/events/pisgah-111k-mtb-race/

Strava activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/1582899137/

Gear list:

Bike: 2017 Rocky Mountain Element 970

Wheels: Velocity Blunt SS laced to DT Swiss 350’s

Tires: Maxxis Ardent Race 2.35 (F), Maxxis Ikon 2.2 (R)

Grips: Ergon GA2