Wow, what an awesome weekend of racing at the 17th annual ORAMM, in Old Fort, NC. ! The course was in perfect condition and the fast, heavy rains the day before did little but helped pack the dust down…..and keep morning temperatures cool! With over 400 racers line up at the starting line it was going to be a long roll out with a police escort from town. We took paved roads for the first few miles of the race until we reached the first climb of the race up Mill Creek Rd (course reroute from Old US Highway 70 where it washed out).
The mixed gravel and paved climb offered the first real opportunity for the field to separate and the race whittled itself down from hundreds of racers to maybe 40 or so. The real race doesn’t get cranked up until the course hits the first section of singletrack climbing the switchback scattered Kitsuma Trail! If you’re not towards the front at this point you’d be better served wearing hiking shoes b/c you’re going to be doing a lot of that with all the steep switchback climbing. I went into the singletrack sitting 4th and came out sitting 4th! Which is always awesome, because that means I didn’t crash on the long descent down Kitsuma. Success! When we reached the bottom and popped back out onto the road the field had dwindled down to maybe eight racers but on our way to the next section of singletrack (Lower Heartbreak) our group grew to about 15 strong as riders bridge up! I wasn’t concerned much this early into the race, because the next section of singletrack offers plenty of places for things to split up.
If you didn’t get your fill of steep, tight, switchbacks, you’re prayers were about to be answered! The climb up Lower Heartbreak has some of the most severe ones I know of. I slowly moved to the front of our group as we climbed the technical terrain because I wanted to set the pace and I knew the only thing worse than riding the upcoming switchbacks, would be walking them! Going up and over Lower Heartbreak and descending Turkey Pen Gap (commonly called Star Gap), I slowly opened up a small gap over the 6 chasing riders, including Tristan Cowie, Matt Champion, and Brian Schworm. After reaching the bottom of Turkey Pen/ Star Gap and turning onto the long, monotonous, rolling doubletrack know as Jarrett Creek Road I had a small 45 second gap. I decided I didn’t want to sit out in no mans land while a fast group of racers worked together, so I sat up and waited for the chasing group to bridge back. And shortly there after, my “one man wolf pack” was a few more stronger again! (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=fdMxRG9Jol0 ) As our group meandered along Jarrett Creek for the next few miles we had a couple of close calls to crashing…..and in fact I even managed to washout in the least technical part of the whole race! Stupid lose gravel! After dusting myself off and catching up to the group again I was happy to realize I hadn’t bruise much but my ego.
At the bottom of Jarrett Creek we reached feedzone three and turned left on the longest, most miserable part of the race, Curtis Creek. This forest service road climb drudges on for roughly 9 miles and gets steeper as it goes. Even though this section couldn’t be any less technical, it provides a perfect place for attacks to happen and field separations always happen here. Our lead group was six riders strong going into this climb but as the road pitched steeper I decided it was time to see who we could shed from the group. I moved to the front but I honestly didn’t have to ramp the pace up much. I just maintained the same pace as we had been going on the lower, flatter section. As we climbed, we passed the neutral water feedzone around the halfway point, but they hadn’t been there long enough to get set up yet, so there was no relief from the heat and we forged on. Some 45 minutes later we reached the top of Curtis Creek which is always a welcomed sight because there are several false summits that are poised to demoralize racers.
After those 45 minutes of climbing, our group had dwindled down to just four racers; myself, Tristan Cowie, Matt Champion, and William Harrison. But our reprieve from climbing only last about 60 seconds because after passing through feedzone four and turning onto the Blueridge Parkway, it was back to business as usual and time to keep climbing!
For me, feedzone four was hands down the craziest part of the race!!!! My father had been leap frogging from feedzone to feedzone and doing hand-offs for me. It’s always been a tradition for my parents to tag team this event and work the feedzones. And even in years past, they would take bottles for my friends/competitors that I knew would likely be with me at those feedzones. However, this year only my father was able to attend because my mother had to stay home and take care of the critters back at the ranch. So, to be able to hand-off multiple bottles we utilized bottle stakes so my dad could hand me one bottle and I could ride past the stake and grab a second bottle. After grabbing the bottle from my father and making the exchange I then grabbed my second bottle and took a couple big swigs before placing it in my second cage and forging on. We’ll revisit this story later!!!
I turned onto the Blueridge Parkway and because I didn’t have to stop at the feedzone like the other racers I was able to enjoy a few soft pedals strokes. I wasn’t concerned and I didn’t plan to attack along the parkway because the next several miles of climbing and pavement really doesn’t lend itself to getting away. So I didn’t make an effort to exploit my slight gap. Once our group reformulated, we charged on along the parkway making quick work of it, by trading positions and alternating pulls.
Here’s where the race always gets interesting! If you’re hurting, cracked or having a bad day, this next section is going to do you in; there’s just no way around it! And that’s because after having been climbing for almost an hour and a half, the sadistic trail gods figure you need a little more! But not only do you turn off the parkway onto singletrack, but it’s some of the gnarliest of the race, and it’s a spider web of rocks and roots straight up! I had once (previous years) disillusioned myself into thinking this section was ridable but I have succumb to the plain old fact that it’s just faster to dismount and run it. I am not saying it’s not ridable, but 40 miles into a 60+ mile race it’s a waste of time and precious effort to try! Hence, everyone in our group dismounted and began hiking. Tristan and myself were the first two to crest the climb and we were promptly rewarded with the best section of singletrack of the race; Heartbreak Ridge! Heartbreak Ridge is an amazing trail that rips downward along the ridge line at high speeds and through some really technical terrain. Upper Heartbreak starts off by hurtling riders into a narrow chute of jagged rocks hell bent on cutting your tires and converting you from a mountain biker into a hiker. This is where Tristan started to get a small gap on me. I chose to race my hardtail because I feel like all the sustained climbs and doubletrack favors that bike better than a dually. Tristan was riding a dually and I knew he’d have a slight advantage over me on Heartbreak. However, there are several steep, punchy sections along Heartbreak that can really throw a wrench into your “inner down-hillers” day. And after the third soul crushing, cramp inducing, grunt of a climb, I was able to catch a glimpse of Tristan up ahead of me. The next section of Lower Heartbreak, previously ridden in the opposite direction early in the race, is smooth and fast enough that a full squish doesn’t have much of an advantage and by this point I had bridged back to Tristan. After cleaning the last technical section of Lower Heartbreak https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=bCuEVgw9fnY and not managing to crash for the hecklers, it was smooth sailing to feedzone four.
Feedzone four also doubled as feedzone one earlier and is located at the bottom of Mill Creek Rd; the same road we climbed at the start. Tristan and I were together starting the climb and we both knew this would be one of the major points in the race for either one of us to make a move. We took turns pulling but I never wanted the pace to drop too much or we might be caught by Matt Champion, who I knew would be chasing hard. I stayed on the front for a good bit and just before we began that last singletrack grunt up Kitsuma, Tristan made an effort to lead into the singletrack. If riders are still together at this point, this climb and a couple little punchy ones after, are going to be the deciding factor in who will most likely take the race. As we began traversing the climb I kept waiting for Tristan to make a move and attack, but he never did. I stayed close to his wheel so if he did make an effort I’d be there to follow or counter it. About half way up the climb, I think Tristan’s goose was cooked and he waved me around saying, “it’s yours”! So with no hesitation I came around and upped the pace. I knew the couple of little climbs in the middle of Kitsuma would be waiting for me, so I didn’t go too hard too early. I also knew that after I had cleaned them I would have to ride the final descent fast but cautiously; I’d come too far to mechanical for no good reason now. When I finally popped out onto the pavement at the bottom I was able to breath a sigh of relief. At this point it was just a couple miles of pavement back to the finish where a cold, clear creek awaited me!
After cruising in under the finish banner I was happy to be done with this years ORAMM in just over 4.5hrs. What an awesome day of racing! We had a super strong field at the starting line and the race stayed tight all the way to the parkway. I can’t remember when the last time we had more than a couple riders together by that point. It’s days like this that racing is really exciting! Good times, good friends and a lot of excitement.
Oh man, and I almost forgot the craziest part of the day!…….but I am too tired of typing so I’ll continue later!!