24 August 2011


So here's a fun thought: the weekend of Wausau24 marked my five-year anniversary as a mountain biker. Five years since my first fat-tire yard sale at Palos. Five years since I broke my promise to myself never to ride a mountain bike. Five years since my life changed completely.

That sounds so melodramatic, but it's true. Without mountain biking, there would have been no WBR, no North Carolina, no Pisgah!, and -- no lie -- probably no Kate and definitely no Squirt. The universe was pushing me toward this path that summer, sending some loud-and-clear messages that things were not alright and it was time for a change.

Thank goodness I listened.

And here we are, half a decade later. I'm still learning -- a lot! -- and still have a long way to go to polish my technical riding, especially at speed. But the trails of Western North Carolina are good teachers, the riders here are merciless, and like Keanu Reeves learning Kung Fu, I'm soaking it up and going back for more, every chance I get.

This weekend was a fantastic example of that.

For those of you who've never had a chance to visit, think of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest as "Pisgah Lite." There are enough rocks and roots to keep things interesting, but seeing as it's the closest trailhead to Asheville, the trails are a bit more crowded and quite a bit more "groomed" than what you find out in "Big" Pisgah. Even so, it can be challenging, and I'll admit there was stuff that I got hung up on when I first moved here last year.

So when my coworker told me about his little adventure race, I was sold: Bent Creek, on cyclocross bikes, with unkown checkpoints involving special tests, good food and fun folks, and -- of course -- bragging rights up for grabs. Throw in beautiful weather (well, at least until the storms rolled in!), and it had all the makings of a Hoffencross for the ages.

I'm sure the first rule of Hoffencross is that you don't talk about Hoffencross (somebody didn't get the memo), so I'll just speak in generalities here. The lead-in to the weekend was rough, with a bitch of a workout on Tuesday followed by two days off the bike for a quick trip to Minneapolis. Though we were surrounded by bicycles and bicycle stuff for 48 hours, and spent considerable time oogling the amazing infrastructure they have built in the Cities (top photo), my boss and I were without rides, and so spent time riding conference room chairs and bucket seats in our rented Toyota hybrid instead. Our flight home was slightly delayed, but we made our ATL connection and got back to the office with enough time to leave early for some bike building.

I haven't ridden trail on a 'cross bike in ... um ... five years? or so -- really, the first half of 2006 was spent tearing around Palos on skinny(er) tires and included a rough-and-tumble trip to the trails of Arizona and even a spin or two around the Kettles. But once I got on the Rush, there was no looking back -- though I ostensibly took up mountain biking to help my 'cross campaign, just one look at my left shoulder gives you a clue as to how that relationship ended up shifting pretty quickly ...

Anyway, I made it home on Friday with enough time to switch my trusty 'cross-turned-commuter back to full-on 'cross mode, mounting some age-old Michelins on even older wheels, setting the RD and swapping brake pads for a set that would actually slow me down on the hills around BC. We put Kate to bed, and I was off -- a quick loop out to Jackson Park, home of the North Carolina GP UCI 'cross race (yes, I can ride to a UCI race in my home town and no, I've not lined up for it yet), had me checking tire pressures and grinning from ear to ear remembering just how fun it is to ride trail on 700cc hoops. And damned if they didn't roll over everything! I didn't feel great after three days of travel, but I didn't feel awful either, and with the bike dialed, I was ready for the weekend.

As mentioned, Saturday dawned with beautiful skies and warm-but-not-hot temps, and a motley crew gathered at the starting point shortly before 10. We set out individual TT-style to "Choose (Y)our Own Adventure," given only two checkpoints from which to choose, and thus to begin our romp through the woods. I was a bit worried about my ability to navigate Bent Creek -- throw me in Pisgah with a blindfold on, and I can find my way to the next checkpoint purely by sound and smell, but I've only ridden BC a half-dozen times or so -- thankfully I knew where I was going first, and knew it was going to be tough. How tough? Well, there are only a few climbs in WNC that get you up toward a mile high in the sky, and I was starting with one of them.

Organizers Eric and Kelly threw in a few fun twists to the "mountain bike adventure race" format I've come to love so much. The first was that *every* checkpoint was mandatory. *Every* checkpoint had a special test. You couldn't win unless you completed the bonus checkpoint and its associated task -- not the most difficult test, but certainly the hardest checkpoint to reach. None of the checkpoints were intersections -- instead, you were given a trail name, and had to find the volunteer *somewhere* along that trail. (This got really interesting on Explorer Loop -- which way do you go to find Teenwolf's wife?) And finally -- and most maddeningly -- once at a checkpoint, you were given the next two from which to choose. You couldn't just plan your overall route and go -- you had to take into account that you may not know where the next checkpoint was.

And ... it was awesome. I definitely pulled out the map more than I wanted to, but I also caught lucky breaks on some route choices. I survived the special tests -- though having a personal trainer as a volunteer and leaving the test to her diabolical mind still has me sore, four days later. Not only did the bike (and wheels!) hold up fine, I was riding stuff on the 'cross bike that gave me fits a year ago on a mountain bike. I felt good physically, despite the travel, though the legs were a bit heavy since I just couldn't bring myself to break out the compression tights for a "local" race. In the end, I didn't get lost ... but I did lose, by just 3 minutes, to the repeat champion. I know exactly where I lost too -- for the record, if you find yourself at the intersection of 479H and 479, on a 'cross bike, climbing the wall and dropping *all* of Lower Sidehill and the new Sidehill Connector is not the fastest way to find the moonshine. Just sayin'.

I managed to make it back to the garage before the rains came, hung out and heckled fellow finishers for the next few hours, and then made the call to head home to see the girls for the first time in what felt like forever. Once Kate was in bed, Kim and I suffered through most of Romeo + Juliet; I remembered how much I dislike that play, and especially bizzare modern/Olde English mish-mash interpretations of it; and it was time to sack out in preparation for another long day on Sunday. Sleeping in is always so sweet ...
Sunday was a special test of another sort. Once I got back to riding again this month, I hit up Laurel > Pilot and then the Legends Loop (which includes Laurel > Pilot) the weekend before last, just to get on familiar trails, get the bike going again, and have fun on some tech downhill that wouldn't necessarily kill me. It went well, and though my fitness was lacking, I cleaned more of Pilot each day, getting within 9 feet -- just 3 yards, 3 rocks! -- of completing the rock garden after only walking one or two spots higher up. Sure, there were a few dabs, but Sunday the 13th was the fastest and cleanest I've ever gone downhill in my life.

This weekend, I figured I'd give it another shot, heading out for a Legends Loop-plus, climbing South Mills River instead of Horse Cove. In a complete reversal from last week, the fitness was on, but I was out of rhythm on the downhill, bouncing around a bit too much on account of being too tight with my body. It came to a head halfway down Pilot, when I dropped into a switchback too far forward and BURP! sent Stan's fluid splashing to the ground. My front tire had come unseated, and there I was with half a descent to go, worried about whether I would end up putting myself into the ground.

But ... but ... but! I got the tire aired back up, and started rolling again. And darned if I wasn't staying on top of it! It wasn't perfect; it wasn't pretty; I began to bonk pretty hard, but I stayed upright and hit the bottom half pretty hot. This was a big, big win for me, as traditionally when I get thrown off-balance I tend to stay off-balance, leading to some pretty knarly crashes and some ugly injuries that like to stick around. This time, though, I rolled it through, and though I hung up on the last two rocks of the rock garden -- just 6 feet left! -- I was feeling OK as I dropped through the river and onto 1206. I made the left turn, grabbed some food, and started to climb ...

SMR is one of my favorite climbs in all of Pisgah, and the fist part didn't disappoint. Then it got ugly, with mud bogs every few hundred yards, and the fun sort of went out of the ride. It got worse after the bridge, when I found myself in the midst of 3 miles of fresh trailwork, just as it started to rain. Pushing up to Horse Cove Gap was the only option, as my shoes became caked in clay and my fork and stays packed up from mud and leaves and sticks and debris. Holy crap did that suck.

The rain stopped, and I took a break in the stream near the top to clean off my tires and shoes. That helped, and once I dropped onto Squirrel, all was right with the world. One of these days I'll figure out those g-outs, though I don't plan on ever getting to the point where I'm three-pointing the logovers that fall after storms roll through. Laurel Creek was an absolute blast -- again, flying faster than ever! -- and even 5015 went well as I dragged my sorry ass all the way back to Yellow Gap after two full days of riding. The gravel back to the car was sweet relief, and the rest of the long evening was spent cleaning myself, my bike and our yard since it hadn't been mowed in a couple of weeks ...

The days are definitely getting shorter around here, but I'll tell you, breaking out the lights for a little romp down Trace Ridge really does the body and mind good some nights. I'm looking forward to a jam-packed September that doesn't include a trip to Vegas, but holy cow, Labor Day is next week already and as Dicky notes, the Shenandoah Mountain 100 awaits! Where did this summer go anyway?!

1 comment:

The Ghost of Jerry Reed said...

Maybe next year we'll be cool enough to sport calf compressors like Jay.