King of Spring:
Pisgah’s Rising Lion Awaits
by: Jeff Plassman
Five glorious days of riding, racing, and just plain rocking out the best routes in Pisgah. All while enjoying the hospitality of the high country of western North Carolina. That’s what the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race is all about. For 2015 the PMBSR is poised to be the best experience yet and builds upon six years of refining one of the most challenging and rewarding stage races in North America.
This year the PMBSR is opening the Appalachian spring. The stage race will usher in the 2015 racing season for those wise and fortunate enough to take advantage of what this unique event has to offer.
Last November I had the opportunity to ride all day in Pisgah, and then sit down to talk with Todd Branham, the man behind the PMBSR, and one of Pisgah’s finest mountain bike ambassadors.
Jeff: Can you describe what it’s like to mountain bike in Pisgah?
Todd: “The easiest way I can put it is… well let’s just say that where you’re from there is a beginner, an intermediate, and an expert trail… a green, a blue, and a black diamond.”
“You need to step that up when you come to Pisgah.”
“Because anything that you’re riding where you’re from that is black diamond, those trails here would be pretty intermediate. The reason why is, the riding is physical…it’s raw. These are super old mountains. Much of what you ride wasn’t originally made as trails, they were forest extraction paths. Many of them are straight up and down. There is a lot of erosion. We are in a temperate rain forest, so at times you get massive amounts of rain fall. Pisgah is also very popular now, so the trails get a lot of use.”
“That’s the beautiful thing about putting on the stage race, it’s the routes we have designed. With our knowledge we put together routes that flow well. It’s not that you won’t hit hard climbs and hard down hills. But it’s when they come, how they come, and what’s in between that lets you rest and enjoy the ride that makes it so special.”
“If you just show up and pick up the $10 map of Pisgah, it’s going to take you a while to figure out which way to ride, how to combine trails into a loop, and to figure out how to enjoy it.”
“To me that’s the magic of the stage race. You can certainly race it, but it’s a tour at its finest, and it’s doable. For five days of Pisgah riding to be doable… that takes a lot of talent and thinking behind the scenes to let the normal person finish it and enjoy it.”
Jeff: Tell me about choosing the Spring schedule for this year’s PMBSR.
Todd: “In the Pisgah National Forest we are limited to 200 people for the stage race, and we haven’t filled it up yet, and we have investigated why. I know we have a good product. Everybody’s stoked about the stage race. Anybody that has raced other stage races and our stage race is scratching their head, thinking why there aren’t more people here?”
“I truly believe it’s been the time of the year.”
“We have two shoulder seasons in Pisgah. We have been working with the town of Brevard and the Tourism Development Authority to realize when the best seasons for the stage race are, the two shoulder seasons. One shoulder season is in the spring, and the other one is in the fall. Originally I chose the fall for the stage race. However, people are pretty burnt out by the time the fall season arrives, and some people are just finishing up the NUE series. Also, there are a lot of stage races in the world before ours. There are only three stage races in the United States, but two of them are before ours.”
“So everywhere I go I hear: ‘Man I want to do that race but I can’t…because my wife would kill me.’, or folks say, ‘I’m just out of money.’ or ‘I’m out of vacation time.’ The other thing is Cyclocross. Doing a stage race is completely different in your training and racing than Cyclocross. Early fall is the beginning of Cyclocross season.”
“We’ve moved the PMBSR to the spring this year, April 13th-18th. We’ll be the first stage race on the calendar for the United States.”
“In the fall Pisgah is very Robust from the summertime, green and briery…thick. However, in the spring, you have a nice green carpet on the ground. You can see everything, the views are more open. Nothing is really grown in yet. Flowers are popping up… Mushrooms are everywhere. It’s quite a different experience, equally as nice as it is in the fall.”
“I’m really excited about the spring event this year. It should be really good, and quite different from the past.”
“Also, this year we will have a full 6 nights of food, and it will be really cool to get everybody out to watch the racing video produced from the stage everyone just raced. We’ll go through the results, present the podiums. Hang out, have a good time, trade stories about the day’s stage, and then prepare our racers for the next day’s upcoming stage.”
Jeff: How would you describe some of the routes in the PMBSR?
Todd: “There are certainly some classic trails here.”
“Avery creek has been one of my favorites for a long time. Back in the 90’s Julie Furtado and Missy ‘The Missile’ Giove came here to ride, and they said that the Avery creek route was their favorite loop in Pisgah. It’s become quite popular and we’ve done a lot of trail work to improve it. Avery Creek is a local favorite.”
“Farlow Gap. I think everybody’s heard of it. Farlow is in the race and it’s gnarly, gnarly, gnarly. The top section is extremely difficult and dangerous… although it is completely ride able. However, there are sections you can’t ride, you have to hike. Lots of people are surprised by that. They are surprised that ‘I’m hiking, and hiking’, but that is the nature of parts of Pisgah.”
“Laurel Mountain / Pilot Rock has always been popular. It’s a big climb up to about 4800 feet and you go through different zones on the mountain. As you climb you’ll ride through classic rhododendron tunnels, but as you gain elevation to the top, it opens up and you get those big, wide open vistas.”
“In the stage race, we are hitting all the hot trails in Pisgah.”
“There’s Squirrel Gap. One of the more talented riders that came out the 1st year, Harlan Price, gave us a new definition of squirrel gap. I’ve always called it single track. It’s super narrow trail. Harlan comes back after the finishing the Squirrel Gap stage and goes, ‘Man, what was that? ‘, and I said what are you talking about? He said ‘That wasn’t single track. That was Half Track!’ So that word, that description, has actually circulated around Pisgah and has become quite popular thanks to Harlan Price. Half Track could describe Pisgah quite a bit. I think where you’re getting that is people are used to single track, but they are not used to your elbow dragging the bench cut wall to right, and the steep drop off to the left, with a surface littered with rocks and roots, not being very uniform. I think that throws people off. During the stage race, people certainly shoot off the mountain, and have to pick up the yard sale, and then climb back up. That’s Pisgah, that’s part of it.”
Jeff: Who are some of the notable competitors in the PMBSR that come to mind?
Todd: “We’ve certainly had some players out there. Jeramiah Bishop ruled this race for the first few years. Adam Craig was certainly a delight to have here and watch his skill. Sam Koerber is a thrill to watch racing Pisgah. Melanie McQuaid was definitely one of my favorites, and we’ve had plenty of players that have come around. In 2014 we added Thomas Turner and he really showed that he knows Pisgah well, he really made it look easy. This year I’ve heard Jeramiah will be coming back since we’ve put it in the spring.”
“I’m hoping that for 2015 we are going to have a show down, get all these players back and really let it go.”
“We’ve definitely had some strong heat in the men and the women’s field, and in the forty plus field we’ve had some real players as well. There are good riders from all around. You’ve got racers coming from international places and you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Some of them are super strong. We’ve had 6 or 7 different countries that have come.”
Jeff: What are some of great things you provide racers for the stage race?
Todd: “A lot of people do our other events that are very popular, like ORAMM and kind of scratch their heads and say ‘What could you do beyond this, this is such a great event, what more could you roll out?’”
“That is what we do at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race, we roll the red carpet out.”
“We really try to make things super enjoyable and top notch. Everything is at a different level. Some special touches include a handle bar / top tube sticker with the course elevation profile, distances, aid stations, and enduro start and finish segments. They are all color coded so the racer can quickly look at it and know exactly where he or she is at. This is information that is very important to know for your nutrition, very important to know for the enduro sections so you know when to ease back before scanning in and then bombing your run.”
“We have a program brochure that covers every stage. Every night we have a slide show covering the next stage and we answer any questions racers have. We really cater to every racer to make them feel comfortable and know that we are taking special care of each of them out on the race course.”
Jeff: Where does the Pisgah Lion come from?
Todd: “People come to the race and tell me ‘You don’t have lions here, what is that all about?’”
“We are a temperate rainforest here in Pisgah, and things are very robust in the way they grow. When you ride here you can see all the fresh trail work we do, but we can’t do enough to keep back all the growth that can reach out and grab at you. By the end of the stage race, you will have scratches on your arms, you’ll have scratches on your legs, and you’ll look like you’ve ‘been through the bush’. That’s the Pisgah Lion. You don’t know when it’s coming, but it will reach out and grab you.”
“When you come out, you’re branded. It’s called the Pisgah Tattoo.”
“That’s what we’ll leave you with. When you go home you’ll not only have stories of the Pisgah Stage Race, and you’ll have the Pisgah Tattoo.“
Jeff: What burns the fire in you, to put on this event year after year?
Todd: “The thing that burns the fire in me to keep doing the PMBSR is that I know it’s a great thing. The riders that come, they understand it too. Pisgah’s a tough place, and the first few years we started out, we really made it a ball buster. We are still recovering from that image. But, the words spreading quickly that it’s a great time, and now the routes are not so hard. The elevation profile used to look jagged, like a saw tooth. But now, our routes have been refined and the profiles are smoother, more flowing. You really notice that when you ride in the stage race now.”
“To me out of all the events I do, it’s the most precious to me”
“It is in my home town. I’m very proud of Brevard. I’m excited to be here. I’ve been here for 15 years now and I’ve seen it really changing here. The outdoor industry is growing, the population is changing, and it’s a younger, more vibrant crowd. We are really proud of the culture here. It’s a very unique place with the first forestry school in America. Transylvania County is the land of the waterfalls. Brevard is home to white squirrels which it is famous for.”
“Also, what drives our economic development is part of it. We have two shoulder seasons here. There are seventeen camps in Transylvania County that very heavily use the forest. There are a couple of weeks between when the camps let out and when Brevard College is back in, and vice versa in the spring. During these shoulder seasons, it’s just a little slower around here and it’s interesting to me to work with the town, work with the Tourism development Authority and Task force to realize when are the shoulder seasons when we need to be bringing tourist in. We work with the town to fill that void and use it as an opportunity to show people what we have here. Hosting our dinners at the Brevard Music Center gets people going to downtown Brevard and lets them experience all we have to offer. For me the stage race is only part of the goal. It’s the whole idea that we are bringing people into town, filling hotel rooms, filling that economic void.”
“People are learning, it’s not just Pisgah that’s cool, it’s also Brevard that’s cool. What a great place to live.”
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