“It’s very similar terrain to Wilderness 101, but with really technical climbs.”
He said it so calmly, as if he was telling me that it was partly cloudy outside. No concern. He was totally unfazed by that kind of terrain, and the calm in his voice made it comically obvious.
Meanwhile, the alarms were going off, and my blood pressure was rising. Wilderness had been the most technical race I had ever done, and I hated it, and here Gordon was telling me this was going to be even more technical…
“It’s too late,” I told myself, “the race is tomorrow, you’re going.” I resigned myself to the fate awaiting me and focused on something else.
“Oh and by the way, it sounds like Sam Koerber and Thomas Turner will be there,” Gordon added. Perfect. Why not just add two of the top 3 fastest racers from the east coast, one a former cx WORLD CHAMPION, into the mix? This was becoming laughable. Top 10 was the new goal, but was quickly beginning to seem out of reach.
Now, I’d like to think I’m a well-rounded mountain biker, but I’m not. Coming from a road background, I thrive on smooth dirt, steady climbs, and nothing requiring too much skill; especially on the downhills. I sort of love fire road climbs because of their predictability and that I only need to push the pedals to ascend them. You might call me a boring racer; I know I would. So when I blindly signed up for Chris Scott’s Iron Mountain race, without a clue to what the terrain was like, I did so assuming it would be like the Shenandoah 100. Smooth trails, with maybe some loose dirt that Virginia seems to have everywhere, a few rocks thrown in and tons of climbing. I was looking for a race to test my fitness after a very different kind of training this spring, and this was a race nice and close to my new home in Roanoke, VA.
Perhaps Gordon Wadsworths words should have made me reconsider heading down, because they were simply the beginning. Race morning I started the 2 hour trek down to Damascus, VA. It was a beautiful morning and the skies were clear. Midway down, a flock of pigeons flew in front of my car on 81, and unfortunately one of them got the short stick, clipped my bike (which was on the roof) and took a tumble. I stopped and assessed things and the handlebars and brakes were turned a bit, but a few minutes extra at the race site and I should be ready to go.
I got in a bit late, about 7:45a, but felt comfortable with that given the race started at 8:30a, or so I thought. I quickly sorted myself out and was fixing my handlebars when the neutral roll out car (along with the huge pack of racers) slowly rolled passed me. It was 8a. Apparently I had totally misread the start time. Thankfully, I just so happened to be ready and hopped on my bike and got in the line. The heart rate got a little boost from that one.
We rolled through a sleepy Damascus and I must say, it’s a beautiful little town. The neutral car dropped us onto the famous Creeper Trail and the race was on… but no one flinched. The group plodded along the Creeper Trail at an extremely mellow pace. I looked around for faces I recognized but couldn’t make out who had showed up.
I rolled to the front wanting to actually warm up my legs a bit since the pace was so relaxed and pulled the group for a while. I moved over and no one seemed interested in pulling through to contribute, so being that I was barely even doing work, I just stayed up there, content to not deal with the jockeying of sitting in the group. Then, someone launched. A vicious attack and a guy flew off the front and immediately had probably 5 seconds. I sat up, looked around and made it clear I wasn’t pulling him back, but no one seemed interested. Everyone was content in our casual early morning spin.
So I attacked. I went up the road chasing the escapee and no one followed me either. I got about 5 seconds up the road and that’s when the group finally moved to hold me there, ratcheting up their pace to match mine. We were nearing the first climb and no doubt the positioning fight was happening back in the group. I slammed into the first climb full speed and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had heard it was technical, but this was next level. It looked like we were climbing a 20% stream bed of loose rocks the size of a child’s head. Immediately my speed dropped to a crawl as I picked my way up the climb, bumping around all over the place, bouncing off rocks.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “it’s not about the bike,” made popular by Lance Armstrong. What I came to realize over the next 5 hours from that moment was that it was very much about the bike, and there was no way I would be surviving without it. Given my aversion to technical terrain, I don’t ride it much and as a result, am not good at riding it. As I climbed I noticed that I was actually cleaning things that formerly when riding a Specialized Epic, I would have struggled with. But here I was, somehow riding uphill over big rock obstacles that were wet, moss covered and burly, all on the Trek Top Fuel. I couldn’t believe it. The next 5 hours was more amazement. Every climb, every descent, all of it was much easier on the Top Fuel than anything like it I had ever done. That was a huge mental boost that I desperately needed.
As it turned out, my attack was perfect. It got me into this drainage ditch early enough to have my own space to climb and not get caught up in the ruckus behind me. Shortly after starting, Sam and Thomas blew past me like I was standing still, followed shortly by Chris Tries and Nick Bragg. We cleared the burly rock garden climb and got to the normal rocky stuff (that typically would be too rocky for my taste but was now a welcome break) and Tries went up the trail hunting for Turner and Koerber.
Now, I’ve raced Nick Bragg at Shenandoah, and I know I am no match for his descending, or even his climbing really, but I figured climbing would be my only strength on the day, so I needed to lean on it heavily. The first climb never seemed to end but I kept the gas on to get some day light between myself and Nick. As soon as the trail turned down though, he was back and dropping me faster than I could believe. We regrouped on the next climb and a chase group was visible behind us. Nick and I caught up briefly, but on the next climb there were some massive root steps that he cleaned and I hiked, ending our time together for the day.
The next downhill was another white knuckle affair. I knew I was hemorrhaging time to the swarm of Asheville dwelling, Pisgah shredding locals who were absolutely loving this rocky madness. So I dropped my seatpost, let go of the brakes and held on for dear life. Even still, Jacob MaGahey quickly caught me and dropped me, dancing down the mountain like he rode it every day.
The descents really were incredible and unlike anything I’d ridden. They made Wolf Ridge outside Harrisonburg seem like a smooth pump track, with their off camber rock gardens with huge roots, boulders and drops thrown in for good measure. Some descents were so rocky, you didn’t even need to brake because the bouncing was so severe. Others were -17% for a mile but the fastest times down them were only 12mph averages, molasses compared to what a smooth trail would be like. It was a different world, and over the course of the race I got very used to being out of my comfort zone. I had definitely guessed right with my tire choices though, so that helped. I was running a burly Bontrager XR3 in the front and an XR2 in the rear, and it seemed perfect all day on every kind of terrain you can imagine. I was definitely pleased with that.
The tunnels of rhododendrons were dark and thick and I was quickly regretting not bringing clear lenses for my Spy glasses. Having protection on your eyes from mud, leaves and flying rocks is REALLY nice. I got bugs and mud in my eyes more than a few times throughout the race from having to take off the glasses. Note: ALWAYS BRING LENS OPTIONS.
I burst out of the darkness onto a road; pavement was a beautiful sight. Jacob was still visible, so I got up to speed and set after him. We soon linked up and began trading pulls and set a blistering pace to the next section of trail. Jacob warned me it was steep, and he wasn’t kidding. It was even steeper than the first climb and it was pretty wet. All the benefits of good climbing power are useless if you cant get good traction. It was a long climb.
I stuck close enough to Jacob that we rolled into Aid Station 2 together and immediately started a series of climbs. The volunteer there told us we were in 5th and 6th respectively which was a shock. “How am I doing this well on this course?!”
This time the climbs were a mix of gravel and single track and I knew that was my only chance to make headway. I settled into a solid tempo pace and got going. Jacob sat on my wheel and I knew that wouldn’t work. He was riding far too well for me to only match him on the climbs. He would be gone permanently during the next long descent if I didn’t make some gains now. I started upping the pace but he was right there with me, matching my speed. Hmm. I tried again, same story. My fresh bottle of Inifinit from Aid 2 was starting to kick in and I was feeling pretty good, so I went all in and pushed it up well into my threshold pace for a few minutes and that finally snapped the cord. Jacob backed off and I pressed on, hoping to get as much time as possible.
Then, I was alone. Racing alone is tough as your motivating factors are not visible, only mental. I began to slow down, make mistakes and my thinking turned negative. Around mile 37 I was no longer having fun. I was suffering and going slow. To make things worse, moments later Jacob blew past me, yelling something encouraging as he disappeared immediately. Now I was in 6th, off the podium, with no hopes of catching Jacob. I plodded along, trying to keep my spirits up, but it wasn’t working well.
Aid 3 came and caffeine was waiting for me. I slammed some of that down, hoping for a mood change. The climbs were getting slightly less rocky thankfully, so I took advantage of that and tried to keep climbing steadily. About 10 miles from the finish I saw a quick flash of color in the woods ahead. “No way,” I thought, feeling like I was moving backwards through the field. Sure enough, Jacob was just up the trail. That was all I needed, and the motivation was back.
I slowly began reeling Jacob in on every climb, trying to be careful to keep something in the tank for the fight to come. When I finally made the pass, I pinned it. This was it, the chance to get back on the podium. But there was still a lot of descending to do, and a lot of places he could pass me.
So I pushed it, hard. Every climb, every lump, even the flats, I was at threshold trying to put time into the master descender hunting me down. Then it all started to hurt. If riding for 4.5 hours on rocky terrain isn’t enough to break you down, going full gas for the last 30 minutes was doing it. My legs were on fire and my upper body was smashed. You never work so hard for 300w as you do at the end of a long mtb race. I was thrashing, bobbing, anything I could do to recruit more power.
The last descent came and I was all in. Fear was gone, the podium was on my mind. I pinned every corner, blasted through streams, hitting drops at full speed; I was on the absolute limit. Thankfully, my death grip on my ESI chunky grips was solid despite being covered in sweat and stream water, they felt like glue. Mixing that with the redesigned MT8 brakes and I was feeling very confident railing down the mountain. I even managed to snag a top 5 on Strava for that descent (which if you’ve ridden downhill with me you know is hilarious). But my work was rewarded, and as I exploded out of the woods back into Damascus I was relieved, that was it. Not only did I survive the brutal course of Iron Mountain, but I somehow managed to thrive on it.
5th place overall to Koerber, Turner, Tries and Bragg is a result I would take any day at any race. Congratulations to all of them for great results.
A big thanks to Chris Scott for another excellent race, Joe’s Bike Shop for getting me back on Trek, Magura for keeping me alive with solid and predictable brakes, Infinit for fueling me through the effort, Spy for getting me the best and lightest eye protection there is, ESI for keeping my hands ON the bars, and to my wife for letting me ride a bike in the woods all day! All of your support is paramount for successful days like this, so thank you.