Five days, 140 miles, 20,000+ feet of elevation later, and we are officially done with the 2022 Blue Ridge Adventures Pisgah Stage Race!
My name is Nina “Machina” Machnowski – I am a sophomore at Brevard College racing for Brevard Cycling and Pivot Cycles! I didn’t know exactly what to expect since this was my first stage race; I fell in love with the marathon MTB format years ago and have raced multiple 100k mountain bike races in the past, but I knew stage racing would be an entirely different beast.
I raced in the Open Women’s category. My friend and fellow Pivot / PEARL iZUMi teammate Jen Toops raced in the Co-ed Duo division with her husband, Anthony. In 2018, Jen raced the Pisgah Stage Race solo, but after tackling La Ruta (a three-day stage race across Costa Rica) as well as the Transylvania Epic (a five-day stage race in PA) as a team with Anthony, she discovered how fun duo racing could be! “You always have company and can work together to keep each other motivated” Jen says, “Anthony is a stronger rider, so that pushes me to ride faster. It’s really special to get to race with your husband for five days straight!”
Based on her results at the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) 100-mile mountain bike races, I know that Jen is a super strong rider and I was a little relieved to hear that she wasn’t going to be direct competition! I sure had enough on my hands with Liv Factory racer Kaysee Armstrong, who just came back from the Cape Epic MTB Stage Race in South Africa, and Kait Boyle, another Pivot rider who is tough as nails!
The race kicked off on Tuesday, April 12th with the all-new Looking Glass Route. After a five mile neutral rollout on the Brevard Bike Path, the shorter 15.5-mile stage began with a steep heart-pumping climb straight up Bracken Mountain. My average heart rate for the 1.5 hour stage was 189 beats per minute! It was definitely a leg-opener for the days to come!
The second stage was the beginning of “real deal” Pisgah, with technical Pisgah favorites like Squirrel Gap and Black Mountain Trail; given the rockiness of these trails, the stage saw quite a few mechanicals and crashes. Right into the first singletrack, I saw a friend of mine off the side of the trail with a flat tire, and as I was passing he asked for my puncture kit. It was pretty hectic being that it was the first chute into the singletrack, and in the 15 seconds I spent handing him my tools a bunch of racers flew past. This frazzled me, and it took some time to move back up through the field. Just when I started getting back in the zone, I went to reach for a gel and was met with an empty pocket. It looks like when I went to throw my hydration pack back on after getting my tool kit out, all of my gels had fallen out. This put me in a pretty bad place, especially since my blood sugar was running low and it was only a matter of time before I would be hit with a bonk.
Luckily, I caught up to my friends Nell and Nick Fiedler who were racing the Co-ed Division and they had an extra gel to spare. With sugar in my system, I was able to make it past the aid station and begin my trek up the infamous hike-a-bike on Black Mountain. The Black Mountain hike-a-bike is a long, grueling climb that requires every ounce of energy you have to spare. Jen’s right when she says “Pisgah miles are not normal mountain bike miles. There’s plenty of roots and rocks, over and over.” Towards the top the pitch steepens, with some rock drops that you have to heave your bike up and over. It’s both mentally and physically challenging, however I knew that once I got to the top it was all downhill from there back to the finish line. It was a rough Stage 2 for all of us, but there were still three days to go and lots of time to keep moving up in the overall!
Day three’s course is aptly named the “White Squirrel Route” since the town of Brevard is known for its white squirrels. The area became populated with white squirrels after a circus train carrying them tipped over quite a few years back! We were all expecting that day to be a “rain stage” according to the forecast, but fortunately the morning of the clouds parted and the sky cleared! I was kind of bummed out because I have experience riding in adverse Pisgah conditions, but the stage was also difficult enough as it was. “We were very lucky this week with limited rain, otherwise the trails would have been even more challenging” Jen points out, recalling how difficult the courses got when it rained during her race in 2018. The route consisted of the most gravel climbs of all the stages, which led to the top of many locals’ favorites, including Sycamore Cove, Avery Creek, and the enduro stage down Bennett’s Gap. I see many of these trails on my typical daily rides so I was pretty stoked that riders from all over the country (and world!) had the opportunity to shred down them too!
I was extra excited for Stage 4, the Carl Shenck route. This was the “Queen Stage,” at 31.5 miles long and including the most technical singletrack of the week, with Squirrel Gap in the reverse direction, a steep hike-a-bike up Laurel Mountain, and the infamous Pilot Rock enduro descent. Prior to this stage, I went out to Pilot with Brevard College Cycling teammates Jack Brown and Gunnar Ensign, both gravity specialists. Pilot went from being a daunting, high-risk trail to one that I could ride cleanly and push the pace on. My technical skills from growing up in the Northeast translated well on this trail that includes rock gardens and hairpin turns on slate. Knowing I was prepared for this trail, I was anxiously awaiting that “ENDURO” banner at the top of Laurel Mountain. However, as Jen points out “that jarring and beating of the body takes its toll over five stages.” I didn’t have much in the legs or arms (or hands for that matter!) to push the descent to my max. Still, I cleaned the entirety of Pilot Rock and, surprisingly, landed my fastest time down the trail. I missed the podium for the Enduro stage by only 5 seconds but I couldn’t be happier with my performance! Not to mention it was my birthday and a clean, strong race on some of my favorite trails in Pisgah was all I could ask for rounding the corner into my 20th year.
The LAST DAY, Stage 5, was the “Land of the Waterfalls” route, named after the 250+ waterfalls in Transylvania County! The neutral rollout from the Brevard Music Center was pretty cold and rainy, many of us with rain jackets and hoods pulled over our helmets. It warmed up quickly though, with a fast start up Cathy’s Creek Road. Jen thought that this stage was the most fun of all, with the extra “butter” down Butter Gap, not to mention, the beautiful scenery. To make it extra special, Jen snagged 3rd on the Enduro podium for the day after crushing the fast and flowy the descent down Bracken Mountain! One of my favorite moments of the stage was heading up the last gravel climb on Horse Cove Road where I found myself working with the Co-ed Duo team, Nell and Nick Fiedler. A few weeks back we had connected and pre-ridden this last stage, and doing it all over again was like deja Vu! It was great to have them there for that final push, though, and in the end they finished in 2nd behind Jen and Anthony Toops in the Co-ed Duo Division. As for me, I was proud to finish the week with a 5th overall, and 7th in the overall Enduro!
The week went by too fast, and now I find myself recovering; missing those awesome trails, the sounds of buzzing hubs, and most of all, everyone’s smiles. It’s hard to settle down after so many hours spent pushing your body to its limits and meeting so many rad people, but at the end of the day it’s time to put the legs up, get some good food in, and get ready for the next adventure!
Huge THANK YOU to Blue Ridge Adventures and all the supporters / volunteers for putting on such an awesome event. “Blue Ridge Adventures does an amazing job, the atmosphere at PSR is top notch. Each night racers come together for dinner/awards and a video recap of the day.” Jen says that the special thing about stage racing is the new friends you make over the week. “Each racer is going through the same experience and at the end of the day you feel like a family reminiscing about the ride.”
Photos: Steve Baker