Since I was doing a five day MTB stage race after the Three Peaks Race, I only decided to bring my hard tail Salsa Mamasita and my full suspension Salsa Spearfish for the trip. I probably could have made room in my car for a cross bike also, but I really didn’t feel like lugging it around all week. And, because I have spent very little time on my cross bike this year; I thought that I would feel more comfortable on my Mamasita at Three Peaks. With Three Peaks being called a “cross race,” I figured that skinny tires would be better than fat tires for the race. I briefly thought about switching my 2.0 MTB tires out for a pair of 700x34 tires before my trip, but decided that I didn’t feel like mounting new tires and then remounting the MTB tires after Three Peaks, so I stuck with my fatties.
So, anyway, I arrived in Banner Elk on Saturday Afternoon to preview the first part of the course. I think it is always good to know what to expect at the start of a race. From what I read in an email sent by the race promoter about the course description, I was expecting a hilly, well marked course with some sections of pretty technical riding scattered throughout the course. Instead, what I found on my short 8 mile pre-ride was almost no course markings on super fast paved and gravel roads with one very short rocky jeep road section. I ended-up getting lost on my pre-ride after missing a turn, but from what I rode, I knew that I would have a hard time trying to keep up with riders using cross bikes.
As anticipated, the start was fast. I stayed at the front of the pack, trying to keep pace with the lighter and faster cross bikes flying up the gradual first climb to the first technical section of trail. I ended-up falling off the pace of a small group of about 6 riders or so and settled into my own pace with a couple of other guys. I was glad that I knew where the turn onto the technical jeep trail was because a few of the riders in the lead group missed the turn and ended-up descending the long fire road. It was obvious to me at this point in the race that the course markings were not going to be good and that I needed to stay alert for turns.
After completing the section of the course that I pre-rode, I was pleased to see that the course became a lot more MTB friendly. I’d actually say that it became more of a MTB course than a cross style course. And, because of this, I soon dropped the other riders around me on cross bikes. I had no idea how many riders were in front of me at this point, but I was only seeing one set of tire tracks on the muddy sections of trail I was riding. I started wondered about how many guys might have missed the first two critical turns that I learned about while pre-riding. During this time, I was able to keep-up a good pace, but was afraid to go too fast because of possibly missing turn. I thought it was wiser to keep my head-up and focused on what was in front of me rather than chancing a missed turn. From what I could tell when looking down on the switch backs of long climbs, I had a significant lead on anyone chasing me and during one long climb, I even caught a glimpse of the one rider in front of me.
Even though I was focused on the course, I did miss a turn where a course marking sign was either removed or fell over. The missed turn forced me to ride a climb longer and steeper than any of the others on the course and added at least an extra 4 miles of riding. By the time I got to the top of the climb, I knew that I had missed a turn, but dreaded the thought of riding all the way back down the mountain. I saw a fire road named Beech Mountain Parkway to my right and figured that I would take that down the mountain instead because I remembered reading the name of that road as being part of the course. I descended for a while and the fire road became more of a technical downhill than any type of travelable road. I was really glad to be on a MTB at this time. I then saw a guy climbing the hill on his MTB and stopped to ask him if he was racing and if this was the course. He said no to both questions, but said the course was down the hill a little further. I continued the technical descent with hope that I didn’t lose too much time.
When I got back on course, the first thing I noticed were a lot more tire tracks in the mud. I wondered how many places I had lost after missing the turn and doing the grueling climb I did. This section of the course was really rough and definitely better for a MTB than a cross bike, so I rode hard in an attempt to chase down some of the guys that had passed me. I eventual caught a rider on a cross bike and asked him if he knew how we were doing. He said we were somewhere in the top ten. Wow, I thought, I sure did lose a lot of places and time. Eventually, the trail came out to the top of peak two and there was a check point there. The guy keeping track of riders at the check point told me that I was in fifth overall, but couldn’t tell me for sure which way to go on the course. He said the other riders in front of me went right, so I decided to follow their lead even though it was back down a hill that I had already been down earlier in the race.
As it turned out, the course repeated itself on that section, but it freaked me out to ride it again after already getting lost once. The rest of the race went pretty well. I caught a few riders on the long gradual final climb to the top of peak 3 (actually peak 4 for me…haha) and was able to finish third overall and in first place for the 40+ class. With some better course markings, this race would be a lot of fun and I bet that the promoter will get it right next year after the large number of riders reported getting lost this year.
Next up is the 5 day Pisgah MTB Stage Race, which starts tomorrow. I’m not sure if Nirvana is still playing 24/7 on the Sirius, but I do know that I will be experiencing my own personal nirvana racing on some of the best trails on the east coast this week. I can’t think of many ways that I would rather spend my time than racing my bike in long off-road races for almost a week. It is sure to be a treat!
Happy Trails... Gerry