After publishing our feature story about the Carolina “Three Amigos” Kerry Werner, Tristan Cowie and Eric Thompson, one of the trio suggested trying to keep the hype train moving this spring and summer during mountain bike season. I am always up for more hype, but to be honest, I was mostly in it to see more photoshopped posters from Werner.
The first big race on the Carolina mountain bike schedule is this week’s five-day Pisgah Stage Race. Werner won in 2016 and Cowie took the crown in 2017, so the hype level for 2018 was pretty high. Or so I thought.
I reached out to Werner and Cowie and got a response I was not expecting. “You know, I heard Kerry is skipping the stage race this year,” said Cowie.
Say it ain’t so … Kerry. “I just decided it was a little too early for me this year,” replied Werner. “But now TSE [Tran-Sylvania Epic] out, I wish I was doing it.”
In a piece of crack journalism, I did some investigation. “The website says it’s only 98 percent full. They must have a spot for a former winner.”
That day Werner responded, “TBD.” The next day, “I think I am going to sign up for the Pisgah Stage Race.”
Peer pressure, CXM editor pressure, call it what you will, the showdown between two-thirds of the Carolina Amigos was on.
A Mountain Biking Mecca
The Pisgah Stage race is a five-day mountain bike stage race on the trails of the Pisgah National Forest, which is located northeast and southeast of Asheville. The part to the southeast near Brevard is one of the meccas of U.S. mountain biking, with almost 400 miles of trail that travel up and down the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.
For those who mountain bike, especially in the U.S., Pisgah is a well-known and revered name. Last year when I took a mountain biking trip to Asheville and Brevard, I must have heard “Are you going to ride Pisgah?” as much as one hears “What tire pressure are you running?” at a cyclocross race. For the record, I opted for nearby DuPont Forest and its famed Ridgeline flow trail because, um, I am not very good.
The local expert Cowie took a stab at describing the trails. “Pisgah is mostly old hiking trails that were opened to bikes a long time ago,” he said. “The trails here are very raw. They don’t follow fall lines or have many techniques used by modern-day trail builders. They’re very technical and since they are so exposed, it can be tough to picture a line to follow. The trails are as tough to ride as they are to read.”
Home base for the 10th-annual race put on by Blue Ridge Adventures is Brevard, which is at the edge of Pisgah Forest within shouting distance of the start of several of the stages. In total, the five days feature 140 miles of mostly singletrack riding with over 20,000 feet of climbing. What goes up, must shred down, so each day also features an enduro section scored separately.
As an example of what’s in store for riders, the third day is 30 miles long and includes 5,100 feet of climbing highlighted by three major climbs and two smaller ones. The Avery Creek enduro section descends almost 1,300 feet in 2.25 miles.
I asked both of the Amigos why the Pisgah stage race is appealing to them. After all, it looks really hard! “It is hard but only as hard as you want it to be,” said Werner. “It is not like TSE where your whole body gets worked from the constant rocks. The singletrack in Pisgah is more flowy and conducive to maintaining speed. So the smoother you can be through sections, the more speed you carry and the longer you wear a smile on your face.”
Cowie said he does it precisely because it is hard, and compared it to a hard cyclocross race. Okay, so maybe a really hard cyclocross race. For five straight days.
“The challenge of it,” Cowie said. “You have to keep your body, your head and your bike all in one piece for five days of racing. Easier said than done. It’s like doing five cyclocross races back to back to back, except there’s no pit and no mechanic you can hand your bike off to during the race. You have to stay calm and roll with the punches.”
The race kicks off on Tuesday and extends through the week until Saturday’s fifth and final stage. Each day finishes with an awards ceremony and optional massage, and after Saturday’s finish, athletes can head to Oscar Blues Reeb ranch for a late-night DJ party. TBD if it’s a foam party this year.
Late Season, Early Racing
One could argue early April is pretty early in the year for a five-day race like Pisgah, and as Werner pointed out, it is especially early for him and Cowie this year. Both Carolinians were members of the U.S. Worlds team, so their respective seasons extended into February this year.
For Cowie, after returning home it was time for rest, and what else, BBQ. “After Worlds, I threw a big party for our local cyclocross community as a thank you for all their support and help with my racing,” he said. “I wanted to give back a little so my wife and I cooked up a good old Southern barbeque feast and had a great time. Then it was about two weeks of relaxing and not even thinking about the bike.”
While Cowie has been chilling Southern-style, Werner has been a bit busier since his trip to Valkenburg-Limburg. “It’s been busy for me since Worlds,” he said. “I got back and immediately did a trip to Pennsylvania to see family. Then I came back and left the next day to fly to Utah for a ski trip and to drive the Kona Team truck back to the East Coast from Nationals. I got in a good mini-bikepacking trip last week and saw a friend get married.”
Cowie and Werner had a bit of mini showdown ahead of Pisgah at the Love Valley Roubaix gravel race two weekends ago. “Tristan and I have raced each other already this year,” said Werner.” We did a gravel race together a few weekends back. He had a mechanical towards the end of the race but looked strong before that. It should be interesting.”
Cowie lives in Mills River, which is between Asheville and Brevard. With one of the country’s beer meccas to the north and top mountain biking destinations to the south, he said fun rides like the Love Valley Roubaix have been important to getting his miles in ahead of the Pisgah slugfest.
“The past couple of years I’ve been struggling a bit with the monotony of training and I really wanted to bring some of that motivation and fire back so I did a good number of long rides with the cycling computer turned off,” he said about his post-Worlds training. “I still recorded the ride, but I didn’t have a clock or data right in front of me.” He continued, “ I slowly ramped things up around early March, and I’ve been trying to hit some big miles and high intensity in the past two to three weeks.”
Werner and Cowie both said they have not done too much mountain biking this year or really since the start of last ’cross season. Werner, however, was hoping a little recon with a fellow cyclocrossing rival would help out. “I haven’t ridden the trails we are going to race,” he said. “I have ridden DuPont this year. Though, tomorrow and Friday, Travis Livermon and I are going to do some stage recon.”
The Rubber Match
In 2016, Werner topped Cowie by a little under three minutes, with the two matching each other except on the decisive Stage 3. In 2017, Cowie got his revenge, winning ahead of Werner’s Kona teammate Spencer Paxson. Werner finished well back in third, setting the stage for this year’s rubber match.
Said Werner, “I want to make it more of a race this year. Last year Spencer Paxson and Tristan were the two strong men, and I was lagging behind barely holding on. I think I am a bit more fit going into the race this year then I was last year, which should help.”
As mentioned in the intro, the Pisgah showdown between the Carolina college buddies almost did not happen. “Honestly, I could have sworn Tristan said he wasn’t doing Pisgah this year,” said Werner. “I also decided not to.” Fortunately, Werner changed his mind and opted to sign up when the race was only 98 percent full.
Werner will, however, have his work cut out for him. Homecourt advantage is an advantage in football or basketball, and at Pisgah, it may also play a role where Werner’s Kona kit is that of the away team. Since Cowie hails from nearby Mills River, the Pisgah trails have been his backyard playground since he moved to Brevard for college. “I’ve lived in Brevard for over ten years, so I know almost every rock and root in Pisgah,” he said.
Playing (or riding) in front of the home crowd is not without its extra pressure though. “It’s my favorite race, on my favorite trails and I know almost everyone volunteering and helping out at the race,” Cowie added. “Is there any pressure to win in my hometown? I might be kicked out of town for starters!”
Although riders such as Jolanda Neff, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Mathieu van der Poel make the transition between mountain biking and cyclocross seem seamless, there is not a direct correlation between the two disciplines. On the ’cross course, both men would agree Werner has the advantage, especially after his two straight podiums at Cyclocross Nationals. However, come Pisgah time, the results from the last two years show it is a 50-50 fight between the two.
“He’s a really good competitor,” Cowie said about Werner. “Kerry has the upper hand on me with fitness and his skills are right up there as well, but these trails I know like the back of my hand. It evens the playing field out a little bit.”
Werner said … pretty much the same thing. “I think I may edge Tristan out on the technical riding. However, he lives right up the street and he knows these trails like the back of his hand, so it’s really a wash. Fitness-wise I am hoping we are on a similar level and we can make a good race of it.”
Although this completely biased race preview focused on Werner and Cowie, the duo will be joined by other familiar names ready to compete for the win. Cowie mentioned fellow Carolina native Travis Livermon, Tristan Uhl—who won the Singlespeed race at the 2016 Asheville Nationals—and his young co-worker Dylan Johnson.
With not only this year’s title on the line but also an advantage in the lifetime series, I asked the duo what’s on the line. Werner said that his late entry limited the pre-race hype, but he is always up for a quick idea. Although to be honest, everyone may be totally okay with the “didn’t happen” part of “pix or it didn’t happen” in this case. “I thought he wasn’t racing. I found out yesterday he was,” he said. “I think loser has to do a few laps around the awards ceremony in their birthday suit.”
Ready to Rumble
When he’s not racing cyclocross or shredding mountain bikes, Cowie works as a coach for Carmichael Training Systems. In fact, this past week, he was leading a training camp on the roads in and around Pisgah this past week.
His coaching at camp may have included some of his advice for staying strong mentally. “Mental toughness,” he said about what it takes to do well at Pisgah.
“Mentally it’s draining to roll out of bed, choke down some food and get ready to ride as hard as you can for five days straight, especially on day three or four. With a race that long and in this type of terrain it’s rare to escape without even a light scrape or small crash. The final day rolls around and you just want to get your sore, tired body home. But it’s that feeling of crossing the line and putting it all behind you that makes it all worth it.”
He also offered some quick coaching advice for other riders looking to tackle an epic event like the Pisgah Stage Race. First, the cliche. “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
And the more in-depth. “There’s always a really good day and a really bad day during a stage race. There’s going to be a day where you wake up late, you flat or drop a chain in the first hour, and your water bottle falls out somewhere between miles ten and fifteen. Just like a muddy cyclocross race, it’s complete chaos. The better fitness you have, the more mechanically savvy you can develop and the more positive attitude you bring from the start will carry you through. Relax and take each day as it comes.”
Cowie and Werner’s battle at the Pisgah Stage Race will be a battle of mental toughness, technical skill and fitness, and to make it a good story, hopefully one of the two will take the win and get a leg up in the lifetime series. We all, however, will probably be better without Werner’s suggested birthday suit run around the after party.