The race starts in the cycling Mecca that is Damascus, VA. The town is located at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail. The bike shops, outfitter stores and bike shops out number all other businesses. Today, though, I think the race bikes out numbered the cushy-seat, raised handlebar variety.
We did ride on the Creeper Trail. But not far. After the neutral start in Damascus Town Park we rode for 4 or 5 miles on the Creeper Trail (at a pretty rapid rate) before hitting the single track and the first climb. It was kinda steep and was technical enough to border on riding and hiking. It was a pretty long climb and really separated the pack. There was a bit of sketchy descending. Not because of the steepness, but because it was side-of-the-mountain, mostly off camber and covered in dry leaves. But it's not a long section and we soon roll into aid station #1 where my lovely wife is waiting with everything I need to get to aid #3 (I hope).
Immediately following the aid station is a long road gradual climb. With no drafting help available behind me, I tuck my head and drill it at a pace I feel that I can maintain for the next few miles. It was fast enough to catch another rider before making the hard right turn onto the next section of single track. ...and more climbing. This section included steep single track and fire road climbs, but most notable to me was a fast, rocky descent. It was loose "baby head" rocks (i.e. the size of a baby's head) covering the width of the double track. It was a constant choice of choosing the smoothest, least-likely-to-flat line and guessing how fast to go without flatting. I guess I did OK because I felt my rear rim bottom out a few times, but all air remained intact.
Somewhere along the line I jettisoned a water bottle (full, of course). Fortunately aid station #2 came up pretty quickly. I grabbed another water bottle and hammered on. Next up was a looong gravel road climb. It's mostly packed-in pretty good - to the point where it's rather like a cobble stone street. I normally excel on these kinds of climbs, and I did OK but apparently I bent my rear derailleur somewhere as I am now rather limited in gear selection. The chain will only stay in a few of the lower gears and I now have the ability to shift right off the biggest cog and into the spokes. Which I did a total of 3 times throughout the day...
While this section was a lot of climbing, there was some sweet, flowy descending that ended at aid #3. I meet my wife and refuel and head into another single track section. Uphill. We actually doubled back onto the "baby head" rocky section. However, this time it was a climb instead of a descent. While the likelihood of a flat is somewhat diminished at the reduced climbing pace, there are riders still descending this section. Fortunately it was wide enough not to cause any issues. We soon turn off for more climbing. A few muddy sections and a fast descent to aid #4.
From here, it's not far from the finish. Feeling refreshed from recovering on the most recent descent I feel like I can push it hard to the end. This motivation carries me the majority of the last long climb, but the constant shifting issues are starting to bother me. I don't always have an appropriate gear for the constant-grade climbs leaving me to spin extra fast or grunt it out in a big gear. When the gravel road climb turns into a single track climb there are sections I can't ride in my choice of gears, forcing me to hike. Many sections are only cleared with a concentrated focus on just getting to the top. But I know this is the last big climb, so I can afford to give it all I have left.
After some welcome, fast descending there is more steep single track climbing, which means a few more short hikes. I don't really lose much time, it just zaps a little extra energy hopping on off the bike.
And then, after the last hiking section, the final descent begins. It's fast and it's hairy. Some corners are banked and smooth enough to take full speed. Others are not. At one point I bounced over a rough, loose, rocky section which nearly bounced me over the side of the mountain. I was just about to "assume crash position" when the tires catch and I make the corner. The second time this happens I decide I need to slow a bit. I enjoy the rest of the descent at a little more reasonable pace. Near the bottom it is less steep and more undulating, crossing over several shallow, refreshingly cool streams.
At the bottom of the descent is the official time clock. It clicks 5:24, good enough for 10th overall. Not a bad day at all.
See you on the trails!