When I signed up for the Off Road Assault of Mount Mitchell, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had done a few endurance races in the 50 mile to 6 hour range so I knew what that felt like, but those races were in Florida. You know, where big climbs are that bridge by the lighthouse, or some old landfill. ORAMM has over 10,000 feet of climbing, so I did what I could to prepare my body and bike to climb, a lot. A few days before the race a few of my racing buddies from South Florida all piled into a couple cars and headed north.
Two days before the race we were fortunate enough to get to pre-ride a couple of the sections of the course. Specifically we rode the lower section of Star Gap/Heartbreak Downhill, and the infamous Kitsuma climb & descent. They had been getting a decent amount of rain in the last week, so there was plenty of mud, slick roots and shiny rock faces to tackle going up and down some real mountains.
We flat-landers started to get a feel for how to handle switchbacks, and how the bikes liked bombing down stuff we’d never seen before. Pre-riding was great fun and we learned so much. Funny thing, we saw a few other people out on the trail doing the same, and they were all from South Florida! I guess all the Florida people knew they were going to need a little more help with real mountains since it was so foreign to us.
After taking a rest day to do a few last minute preparations and check out Asheville (super cool town, definitely going back), we were ready to race. Up early and headed down the highway we saw the most beautiful sunrise over the mountains, which made me understand why people live there: it’s gorgeous! We unloaded the car and set up our plan with our support team for nutrition, hydration, and general encouragement we’d need throughout the day. I was planning on carrying most of what I needed on me outside of swapping bottles at each of the 4 sag stops, but for extra insurance I sent a bag full of stuff to Sag #3 just in case I needed something extra. We got to meet some other rookies, as well as ORAMM veterans like Garth Prosser who gave a pro’s outlook on the cue sheet I had taped to my top tube. Gathering at the start line we saw some familiar faces of other Floridians looking for real mountains and a break from the Florida Summer heat.
The gun went off and we were on our way out of town with the police escort. Navigating the streets out of town our group was able to work our way towards the front as the road kicked up towards the base of Kitsuma. The pace was very fast, but having experienced a mass start of 2000+ crazies at Fakawi made navigating traffic easy. Up and up we went, and about 30 minutes in and we hit a little gate which allowed the fast guys to separate and get a gap on the rest of us. It was around this point where my friends Matt and Ceejay started to motor away as I expected, so I dialed it back a bit as holding pace with the leaders that long had burned matches I didn’t have to spare.
Sarah and I made it to the base of Kitsuma switchbacks and started to climb. There was a decent bit of traffic in front of us, so we had to stop and get off the bike a couple of times, but overall we were able to stay on the bike and work through the hill at a good pace. Kitsuma is steep and sneaky, as once you get to the top you descend a bit and then go back up to the real top. But then came the first descent, and man was it awesome. Ripping down the backside of Kitsuma through prime singletrack showed that the course had dried out nicely since we had ridden it two days prior, and the trails were hooking up perfectly. Trying not to be overconfident, we bombed that section and rolled into the first sag stop.
Sag 1 was right on time, both based on my Cue sheet and on the fact that I’d lost a full bottle while horsing around on that Kitsuma descent. Our support crew included my friend Sean who’d ridden ORAMM several times before, so who better to know what what we need and how we’re feeling at that point? We stopped briefly to adjust a derailleur so Sarah could get into her granny gear, as we knew we’d need all the gear we could get for the next section: Star Gap.
Star Gap is the steepest, most technical climb of the course. It starts by hiking up some roots and rocks that you’ll later be bombing down into the Hecklers. And the Hecklers were already setting up: if anyone has a pic of me and the guy in the yellow spandex singlet let me know :-). This climb ended up being more walking than we’d expected. I could blame some of it on the traffic in front of us, but we were starting to feel the effects of the fast pace early. Once we got to the top there was some fun & smooth switchbacks to descend onto a gravel road down to Sag 3. This section was actually a bunch of fun, as Sarah and I decided to use this section to gain back time we lost in the climbs instead of recovering like many others were doing.
We rolled into Sag 2 with huge grins on our faces on our faces, grabbed a couple bottles and figured we’d made up a little time on Ceejay & Matt that we’d lost on Star Gap. We settled in for what we knew would be the toughest part of the day: Curtis Creek Road. I had broken this section down, seen it looming on the course map, and talked to people who’d raced it many times and they all agreed: this section is brutal. We settled into a comfortable pace and started the grind. It’s not technical, tricky, or even particularly steep. It’s just long: about 12 miles if I recall correctly. After about an hour I just had to stop and gather myself, I was starting to get pretty beat down. Sarah jumped in front of me and gave me a little rabbit to chase to the top of Curtis Creek Rd where Sag 3 was located on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Wow, was I glad to stop and mix a couple of bottles from my nutrition bag I’d sent earlier in the day.
Making sure my lights were ready and bottles full, I started rolling on the Blue Ridge Parkway a little bit behind Sarah. Little did I know she’d start seeing other ladies and start attacking, though had I been on her wheel I’d not have been able to respond. I was pretty shelled at that point, so I settled into a comfortable speed and kept climbing on BRP. That section took way longer than I thought, but on the back side you get a chance to rip the descent on flat smooth asphalt. Here I got a chance to use the bar tape I’d put on the middle of my bars and do my best Chris Froome impression. Ripping down the highway at over 45 mph is something I’d never done on a road bike, much less a full suspension mountain bike! It gave my legs a nice chance to rest, though my heart was still pumping fast with adrenaline. I wanted to take a minute and look at the breathtaking scenery as I was ripping by, but that would surely end in an ambulance trip so I kept my head forward.
At the end of Blue Ridge Parkway, there was a Subaru parked on the side of the road with a sign saying for bikers to go that way. It didn’t look like there was much of a trail and there wasn’t, because it a hike-a-bike up to the top of the Heartbreak Downhill. I definitely like riding more than walking, but this section is pretty much unrideable though not too long. Once we got to the top, the real fun begins. Ridiculous rocks, roots, and speed made me wish I had a bike with far more than 100mm of travel. This section is used in the Pisgah Enduro races and I bet a 160mm bike is much better suited to the burly natural features of this 30+ minute downhill. I was able to work past a few people and got down most of the way down the mountain before I stopped to take a break. After 20 minutes or more of bombing DH that I’d never seen, I stopped to take 30 seconds and grab a gel, drink some water, and get ready for what put ORAMM on my radar to begin with: the Hecklers at the bottom of Lower Heartbreak.
Working past a little traffic I had a clear shot into the rocks and roots that the Hecklers were parked at. You can hear them getting louder and louder as you descend the switchback into this section, and they were pretty amped up by the time I came through. I started off on the super gnar side which brought cheers, but those rapidly turned to jeers as I found the smooth line and cleared it without any blood in what seemed like an instant. I’m not sure if I’ll end up on YouTube, but fingers crossed 🙂
Celebrating with a few other riders who’d just cleared it, we rolled into Sag 4 and picked up what we’d need for the last hour. Sarah was still only 4-5 minute ahead of me and I knew we were pretty close to my guesstimated pace so that felt great. Grinding up Mill Creek road to the base of Kitsuma started to break me and I just had nothing left. Being over 6 hours into the race, we were in uncharted territory, and certainly with 8000+ feet of climbing in the legs already. I dragged myself up Kitsuma, half walking and half riding, but once I got to the top you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I knew I had a long, (mostly) downhill ride all the way to the finish line. Seeing Kitsuma for the 2nd time that day I started to get comfortable with the lines and speeds, and even though I was tired the speeds you can hit back there are just silly fun. I was genuinely sad to leave the single track and hit the pavement, but a short road TT back into town and I was glad to see the finish line.
As the last one to cross the line of our group, I had the privilege of having a large group cheering (waiting) for me at the line. We swapped stories on the day as we sat in the creek cooling off and putting some salt in the water.
This was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done: 61 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing on a bicycle in a little over 7 hours in some incredible trails with amazing people. I cannot thank everybody enough who helped it all come together, Jemma, Sean, Kami, CeeJay, Matt, and Sarah, you are all amazing! Huge shout out to my people at Beyond Bikes for getting my last minute fixes done (yes Coach Smith, I did get new pads!). And a big thanks to all of my friends who’ve pulled me along on training rides this year to get me in shape where I could even complete this. Has planning for next year’s trip already started?….YUP!
These are some of our favorite photos from the trip – the rest are up in this ORAMM 2017 gallery – who knows, maybe we got a shot of you! 🙂