- a period of time that a person spends away from home, school, or business usually in order to relax or travel
synonyms: break, time off, recess, leave, leave of absence, furlough, sabbatical, spring break
The term “vacation” conjures images of sandy beaches, margaritas in hand. Strolls through a new town or city, window-shopping. A quiet cabin along a babbling brook, fly-fishing in the early morn. A stay-cation, to complete that bathroom remodeling project, finally.
However, my notion of a vacation is very different. I tend to plan my time off work to mean time on my bike. And I have a habit of subjecting myself to the stresses and suffering of successive days of mountain bike riding or to a formidable mountain bike race as part of the “vacation” plan. My most recent vacation in April was no exception. I chose to undertake a demanding 5-day mountain bike stage race covering 140 miles and 20,000+ ft of elevation gain. I entered the race as a co-ed duo team with my boyfriend, Jared.
Honestly, I was petrified going into the race. Jared and I pre-rode some of the stages in advance, and each practice run turned into a demoralizing, exhausting expedition. One time, we unexpectedly (and naively) encountered snow, which made the steep, loose, bowling ball sized rock littered descents on Farlow Gap utterly treacherous. Another time, we got off track and were forced to forge deep rushing streams nearly a dozen times, which eroded away my courage and confidence. According to past years’ race results, most finished each day’s stage in 3-4 hours. We were averaging 5-6 hours a day. I felt like I was getting in over my head.
Was this really how I wanted to spend my vacation?!?
Although I’ve never done a cycling stage race before, we talked ourselves into the Pisgah Stage Race, primarily because it’s the least expensive stage race out there and it’s in our backyard. What better way to acclimate to our new “home” in the Carolinas then to tick off all the best Pisgah mountain bike trails in a single week! In hindsight, I would say it is a good first stage race for other reasons too. The stages are relatively short, ending around noon or 1pm each day, giving you plenty of time to shower, have lunch, nap, stretch, prep for the following day, have dinner, and close the day around a glowing campfire. If you’re motivated, you could even do some local touristing and visit some of Transylvania County’s renowned 250+ waterfalls. The race also has a very local and intimate feeling. At fewer than 100 total racers, you don’t feel like you’re being swallowed by a behemoth event. Needless to say, you want to go into it with strong bike handling skills and fitness. It’s not a race to take lightly.
To immerse ourselves in the experience, we set up camp at Davidson River Campground, in close proximity to each day’s race starts.
Day 0: Arrive to venue. Set up camp. Racer’s dinner and meeting.
Day 1: Ally’s Bar Looking Glass Route- 24.71 miles, 4130 ft
includes Daniel Ridge, Butter Gap, Cove Creek
It is considered the “easiest” of all the stages, but with 100% chance of rain in the forecast, it was lining up to be one of the most difficult days. Luck was on our side though, and the night’s steady rains ceased at daybreak. We felt strong on day 1, and ended the stage just 10 minutes away from second place.
Day 2: B-Line’s Promised Land Route – 29 miles, 3878 ft
includes Squirrel Gap, Buckhorn Gap, Pressley Gap
THE hardest day for me. Even though I finished Day 1 feeling strong, the pressure to close the gap on second place and the reality of four more days of tough racing looming ahead was too much to bear. I was miserable. This stage opens with over 6 miles of pavement, and I just couldn’t keep pace on my trail bike with those who had lightweight cross-country bikes. The fast and smooth road section is offset by the technical “half track” trails of Squirrel Gap. They are extremely narrow in places and often eroded and off camber with a precipitous drop on one side. I was uncomfortable and nervous, painstakingly picking my way through it.
The downside of a Duo team is that you’re only as fast as your slowest rider. That was me. The weight of that was crushing. Jared was feeling strong and hungry to take names. I was just trying not to quit. At the end of the day, we lost over 30 minutes to our competition.
Day 3: Sycamore Cycles’ White Squirrel Route- 29 miles, 5118 ft
includes Avery Creek, Buckhorn Gap, and Black Mountain
At the end of Day 2, I soaked my legs in the freezing river to aid recovery and began to focus on what lay ahead. I needed to rally! I had to go into Day 3, the stage with the most amount of climbing, fully committed. I reflected on all the training I’d been doing with Julie at o2 Fitness and knew I had more to give to this race.
From the start of the gun to the end of the day, I was in the zone and felt good. To my surprise, I even took third in the Enduro section on Avery Creek! The Juliana Furtado rips on the downhills! Even though we couldn’t close the gap on the other teams, I was proud of my effort.
Day 4: Sunset Motel’s Carl Schenck Route- 31.5 mi, 4113 ft
includes Squirrel Gap (in the other direction), Laurel Mountain, and Pilot Rock
Having floundered on Squirrel Gap two days earlier, I was determined to tackle it this time with more grace and speed. I must admit, Squirrel Gap in “this direction” is easier, but my positive mindset certainly shaped my perception of the course too. This is the longest and toughest stage. The ascent up Laurel Mountain is over 10 laborous miles, including gravel roads, steep root-riddled terrain, and a final hike-a-bike section. After that exhausting uphill slog, then you point your bike down hill for a 1500 ft descent in less than 2 miles. I let out guttural sounds on the descent, digging deep to hang on and withstand the abuse of the rough ride. It hurt, but we continued to give it our all.
Day 5: Runa’s The Land of the Waterfalls Route- 25 miles, 3186 ft
includes Farlow Gap, Davidson River, Bracken Mountain
We had pre-ridden Farlow Gap two months earlier. In the snow. It’s a land mine of loose bowling ball sized rocks, and then blanket it with snow, and it becomes unrideable and nearly un-walkable too. But this was the last day! With no new rainfall in over four days, the terrain on Farlow Gap was dry and surprisingly rideable. And then, following one more grueling gravel road climb, we crested Buckhorn Mountain and began our final, atypically smooth, flow trail descent to the finish line.
Somehow, inexplicably, these big undertakings have positive outcomes. I think it’s a combo of decent preparation, significant perseverance, and a healthy dose of good luck. The race director mentioned this was the first time ever that it didn’t rain during the 5-day race. How different it might have been with poor weather!
Being able to finish a 5-day stage race feeling strong and already eager for the next cycling challenge is a true testament to Julie’s coaching and amazing guidance at o2Fitness, the effectiveness of Hammer Nutrition products, the radness of my Juliana Furtado bike, and Jared’s continued support as partner and mechanic. A humble and sincere thanks to all!
Stay tuned for stories about my next vacation…. 😉