(Hand made banner for the Asheville Mountain Unicycle Festival)
Until a few days ago I’ve only ever ridden with two other unicyclists (and never both at the same time). On Friday, September 25th that all changed shortly after I drove not the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area a.k.a. Bent Creek Campground. I’d arranged to split a camp site with Ben King who’d I’d chatted with some on Unicyclist.com but had never actually met in person. To our mutual surprise we ended up arriving at the campsite registration building at nearly the same time! He had come from Louisville, KY and me from Huntsville, AL so it was fairly miraculous timing!
After setting up camp, Ben and I strolled down to the festival head quarters which were just a few camp sites down the road. Arriving in the early afternoon like we did, we’d missed the first group ride of the day (I didn’t want to leave any earlier), but that was okay because we would get our fill of riding in shortly (more on that in a bit). We hadn’t been hanging out long at the festival site when all of a sudden unicyclists emerged out of the woods like some rare exotic creatures! One, two, three, four… I quickly lost count! This was completely mind blowing for me to see so many padded up, mountain unicyclists at one time in one place. I saw 29”, 24” and 20” wheels; all sorts of configurations… Cool! I quickly made the rounds trying to introduce myself to everybody coming in. I met the event organizers and local riders, Ben Richardson, Jeff Ray, Bill Spears and Jack Igelman. Everyone was so friendly! Wow!
As the next group ride wasn’t for a couple of hours, Ben and I decided to get in a short ride for ourselves just to loosen up the car legs.
Once back at camp, we got re-hydrated and met up with some of the riders we’d been introduced to earlier.
(A break in the rain, before my first group ride: L-R, me, Bill Spears, Jeff, John, Robbie, Ben K., Cody, Ben R.)
It was very interesting to ride with other unicyclists as I often wondered how the on trail dynamics would fall out. As a trail runner I’m used to running in a group, chatting and taking walking breaks on hills, but over all we tend to stay close enough together to keep up conversations. Unicycling on trails with other riders was a bit different and way more humbling. We’d typically get going one by one, follow the leader, and then, sooner or later somebody would UPD and then if you were behind you were now ahead (unless that UPD caused you to UPD!) but lest you feel too smug about cleaning a line that the guy ahead of didn’t, soon enough you’ll UPD and somebody behind you will pass you! So it really never mattered if you started out in the lead or bringing up the rear, there was constant turn over! But this all made it quite fun and entertaining to watch people clean a line you just missed, or have witnesses (or be a witness) to some spectacular UPDs.
Anyhow, we continued to climb and climb until we, at last, reached the Greenslick trail head (at the highest point in the Bent Creek trail system). This downhill trail started out with some huge bermed corners and a few purpose built “mountain bike speed bumps” to keep trail speeds down (apparently there had been a lot of injuries on this trail in the past!). These added trail obstacles were just a whole lot of rolling trials type fun for us unicyclists! We just kept dropping and dropping, it was raining steadily but this kept us cool so it was okay. The light was beginning to go by the time Ben King, John (a fellow KH/Schlumpf hub owner out of Tampa) and I exited the trail onto a nice downhill gravel road. Schlumpf time! John took off down the road in high gear on his 24” Ben followed behind and soon I managed to shift into over-drive as well. Within seconds I was flying down the road at over 15 mph and quickly passed Ben and nearly caught up with John before he came to a stop at a trail crossing about ½ mile down the road. We three had separated from the rest of the group and so decided to stop here and figure out where to go next. There was some survey flags at hand that were being used to mark tomorrow’s race so we thought maybe we ought to go that way. I thought we’d be better off going down the road and so back to camp (I thought). None of us knew are way around the trail system so finally Ben came to the rescue by producing a soggy trail map. We’d just determined where we were and how to get back to camp quickest (did I mention the light was fading fast!) when the rest of the group showed up. We ended up proceeding further down the road, to John and my delight as we got to put our Schlumpf’d 24ers to the test by quickly out pacing the rest of the group in the 29ers! (About the only time we’d get ahead of them for very long!) We finally finished up a wet and sloshy ride and quickly dried off, got changed and headed into Asheville for some fine Mexican food and some camaraderie.
Friday night it started to rain, and rain, and rain, right on into the next morning as riders prepared for the 12 mile mountain unicycle race. About 10 minutes before the start, most of the motley group had assembled. We all chatted and half-heartedly listened to Jeff (the race course designer and marker) explain about the markings and in particular how to pay close attention to the first part of the course as it was easy to get lost because of a mixture of markings because there would be an intersection where the 12 mile loop and a shorter 4 ½ mile loop would be coming together. I wish I’d paid more attention because this was about to come back and haunt me shortly!
I’d prepared all my gear the night before but was shocked when I arrived at the start only to find my hydration bladder was nearly empty! I think my pack had been leaning on the bite valve and most of the water mix had drained out! Luckily it didn’t look like I had a leak and also it seemed like we were going to start a little late anyhow, so I quickly found a water spout and re-mixed my hydration concoction for the race.
(And their off! Now I ask you, does that white shirted unicyclist's (Ben R.) tire look flat in the picture above? )
Now climbing up a narrow single-track trail I could see several fresh tire marks so I knew some folks had taken the correct route, including Jeff! Very quickly, things sorted themselves out and it was clear that Ben King and I would be battling one another throughout this race. He was on his 29”, I on my 24”. While I could keep pace and gain at times on the climbs, he’d surge ahead on the downhills. The route wasn’t technical enough to slow him much so I was being beaten purely based his larger roll-out distance per crank revolution. So that was the theme that played out over the next 10 miles. I would sort of catch up to him on the climbs, perhaps just catch a glimpse and then he’d be out of sight again on the next downhill or level stretch. I continued to look behind me, but there was nobody in sight. As there was no telling how far Jeff was ahead, my race came down to just trying to keep up with Ben.
The first five miles or so of the course (the correct one) climbed and climbed and climbed, much like yesterday’s ride on some gorgeous single-track. I honestly couldn’t believe I was able to climb as much as I did. About the only times I couldn’t stay in the saddle was when the grade was too steep and slick; I think if it had been dry I could have climbed a bit more. One a particular uphill stretch of trail I passed by a couple of race photographers who told me Ben was just a minute and a half ahead and that I was second place! That’s when my heart really sunk because if they’d only seen two unicyclists that meant that Jeff was lost (highly unlikely since he was a local and marked the course) or he had a huge lead (which he did)! It didn’t matter to me, I was really just trying to take in the whole experience and live in the moment. In my mind I really wasn’t racing but trying my best to clean all the lines that I encountered. Near Five Points I caught another glimpse of Ben as he rocketed off again up the trail on the final bit of the main climb in the race. Then all of a sudden I came around a bend in the trail and saw a couple mountain bikers coming up the trail. One of them warned me, “Look out there’s a dead deer lying across the trail!” I was thinking, yeah right when sure enough there was a freshly dead deer right across the path! I know it’s morbid but I did entertain the thought of trying to side hop over it, but only just briefly! I dismounted and stepped over it and continued on my way, Ben just disappearing around the next bend in the trail. I remember thinking that Jeff must have been going so fast through here that caught and hit that deer totally unaware! Sure didn’t seem to faze him though!
At last I’d topped out at the highest point on the race course and began a real bomber of a descent, perfect for my 24” wheel it was just technical enough that I thought perhaps I might catch up to Ben on this section of trail. No luck there, but I continued to drop and drop and drop now in a real down pouring rain! Unlike back home in Huntsville, Alabama where the trail surface is either limestone or good old Alabama Red Clay that gets respectively very slick or very sticky, this Bent Creek trail system seemed to drain very well and very few sections of trail were slick or slippery. In addition it also really didn’t seem like I was harming the trail by trenching as the trail surface was very hard-packed dirt and sand, even with all the rain that had been falling over the last 24 hours!
After descending quite a bit on that lovely trail it finally emptied out onto that very same gravel road I had fun riding in high-gear down the night before. Yes! Here was my chance to try and catch up to Ben. I shifted into high-gear and soon I was flying down the gravel road as fast as I could spin; I wouldn’t doubt I topped 20 mph on this short stretch of road. Coming into a long straight-away I spotted Bill Spears and another guy taking photos. They cheered me on as I flew by in over-drive! Wow what fun! Bill yelled that I was 3rd place and that 2nd had just gone by. That confirmed what I’d thought, Jeff way out in front with me and Ben trying to pick up the pieces after our off course adventure. Just up ahead was that same flagged intersection we’d spotted the night before. Today this was part of the race route and as I was approaching the intersection, still about a 100 yards or so away I spotted Ben just turning onto the trail. Yes! I kept it in high-gear (mainly because I’m still very lame at down-shifting on the fly) as far as I could on up the next trail section. I finally came off trying to cross a rain swollen creek and just like that I had caught right back up with Ben, who was also hiking up the next short steep section of trail!
For the next mile or so, Ben and I fought. I’d slowly catch up on the up hills, he’d get ahead again on the downhills, but now I was starting to hold my own on the flats. However I was getting pretty tired myself, I was UPDing far more frequently, the trail was getting a bit more slick and even mounting was no longer 100% I saw Ben was struggling as well, UPDing just as frequently; probably as a result of constantly looking over his shoulder! So with just a few miles to go, I caught up to Ben and proposed a truce. I said that we’re probably a good ways ahead of the rest of the field and probably have no chance of catching Jeff so let’s just stop battling and finish this thing together. He happily agreed and so the intensity eased a bit as we rode and chatting along the remaining miles of trail.
Finally I could see Lake Powhatan so I knew we were very close to the finish. We rode along the trail that was parallel to the spill-way and soon emerged at the very intersection where we’d gotten lost earlier that morning. This time there was no doubt where to go and just a few minutes later, and after two hours and four minutes of riding, Ben and I, together, rolled over the 2x4 that marked the finish line of the 12 mile mountain unicycle race. Phew!
We learned that Jeff had finished the race in one hour and forty eight minutes, some sixteen minutes faster than us! Apparently hitting that deer (and generously leaving it lying across the trail) didn't faze him one bit! So if we hadn’t gotten lost it might have been a closer race after all? I think it was because of this ambiguity that the race officials declared the race a three-way tie between Jeff, Ben and me. I still think Jeff deserves the overall win, after all there is only one Asheville Muni Fest Champion T-shirt and I think he’d definitely have beaten me this day. Ben, on the other hand, I think would have given Jeff a run for his money; he is one strong rider. So with both Jeff and Ben on 29ers I was the first 24er to finish for which I’m proud. As Ben and I shared the same camp-site we also won the camp-site team competition hands down! Look for us to defend in 2010!
After getting cleaned up, warm and eating a wonderful lunch prepared by the event organizers, I joined a rag tag group to do some trials riding. I thought I wouldn’t want to ride any more this day after that wearying race, but after a little down-time I was ready to go again. So me, a young chap named Daniel (who is a very impressive rider with only 6-months experience), Robbie, his daughter and young Jarrett from Tampa spent the next hour or so messing around on some near-by rocks, stair-sets, skinnies and just practicing some flat-land skills. At one point Jarrett’s unicycle ended up in the Lake (I still can’t figure out how) so I had to fix it out! The high point came on particularly tricky cement, curb, skinny that had a few left and right kinks in it. Daniel proposed a $1 ante and winner take all to whoever cleaned it first. After several tries I gave up and practiced some other lines. Robbie and Daniel both got close until Daniel attempted the same line from the opposite direction and cleaned it on his first attempt! Ha! What a hustler!
Once back at the festival camp site, the rain had stopped, temporarily, and a ton of eager unicyclists were hanging out and sessioning on various unicycles available. People were learning to ride five foot giraffes, impossible wheels, 36ers, Schumpf’d 24ers, etc… There was even a tiny 12 incher that a few of managed to ride! It was so much fun to just hang out and watch people riding all this various equipment, it was a regular unicyclist traffic jam!
Eventually the sessioning climaxed with Ben Richardson proposing another, short, trail ride. So a few hardy souls once again strapped on wet gear and prepared to head back out into the woods. Just as we were departing the rain began to fall in buckets, again. We decided to ride the 4 ½ mile race course, most of which was the last bit of the 12 mile course. This was an opportunity to go ride and to pick up any leftover course markings (Ben Richardson had already swept the 12 mile course after fixing his flat earlier that day). As we had a mix of ability levels on this ride, and because of a complete lack of wanting to push too hard, we ended up spending time sessioning fun elements on the sides of the trail as we waited for others in our party to catch up. I had fun riding across slick rocks and ledges and other wise just soaking in the moment (figuratively and literally, it was raining hard!). Still all things come to an end and soon this Muni session was over as we chased the fading light back to our respective campsites to change clothes and get warm.
Regrouping under the large festival tarp, we managed to build a campfire while Bill Spears and company began cooking a whole heaping pile of fresh corn and rainbow trout! The rain came down harder and more and more people began to gather under the tarp; attracted to the warmth of the camp-fire and the wonderful smells emanating from the large boiling pots of food! I was quite content a while later, eating mounds of battered rainbow trout fried in peanut oil and munching on a huge piece of corn on the cob! Wow, thank you chefs! Later on, at the end of the evening, Ben Richardson came forward to present several awards in categories such as “Best Fall”, “Best Wheel Walk”, “Best Socks” and many others. It was a huge laugh and a lot of fun. The rain had finally let up as we parted ways back to our respective camp-sites to rest our weary bodies, our stomachs full of fish…
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” William Shakespeare, “King Henry V”
(Heart Break Ridge Riders: L-R, Jeff, Ben K., Jack, Ben R., Josh from Unicycle.com, Aleks, Daniel and myself)
The tame riding came to end as we all “dropped in” the Heart Break Ridge Trail! The first quarter of a mile or so was an absolute blast; a technical riders dream. The trail was steep, narrow and littered with rock pile after rock pile; you had to choose your line very carefully and keep your speed under control. Absolute concentration was a must and I was so focused that after a short break I realized that I was way out ahead of everybody else! I totally dig this type of riding as this stuff is more like what I’m used to riding back home at Monte Sano State park. My home, staple ride is very similar to this section of trail. Monte Sano is essentially a large plateau with easier, flatter trails up top and very steep, rough, technical, rocky, rooty single track descents off the top onto a bit less technical but no less challenging single track trail system that circumvents the entire mountain. I love it, but for me it is no place for a 29er that is why I’ve grown use to riding a 24er everywhere, and why a geared 24er is almost ideal for me.
I finally paused after clearing the rocky, technical stretch for a breather and to let the other riders catch back up. After a short bit I could hear Ben Richardson’s characteristic whoops and hollers as he was the next to emerge from that treacherous section of single-track. Not long later everybody had re-assembled and was accounted for. Jeff remarked that I must have found an easy short-cut around that last section of trail to have gotten so far ahead so fast!
As we were about to roll off again, Daniel discovered his seat-post was precariously loose so Jeff began to render assistance (it was, after all his unicycle that Daniel was borrowing). The seat-post clamp was a Salsa Flip-Lock type (quick release) and as Jeff applied tension to lock the clamp the bolt parted near the barrel nut! We were a long ways from the end of the ride and trying to ride a unicycle without a secured seat post would be very difficult, if not impossible, even for a seasoned rider! We had a quick brainstorming session. I initially suggested perhaps using some tree bark, or rhododendron leaves to try and use a shim and then wedge the seat post in. Then I produced my Leatherman tool and Josh pulled a MacGyver and used the metal file to cut a notch in the bit of broken bolt protruding from the barrel nut and then unscrewed the broken bolt. Luckily the barrel nut could be moved in its housing enough and there was just enough bolt left that, we just barely got the seat-post clamp to close thus securing the seat-post. Phew! As an aside and for a future idea, I was looking at all the KH’s on this ride with the double bolt seat-post clamps. I realized that there is a pretty good slit around most of the seat-clamp between the bolts. In a jam, and with a metal file like I had, one could cut that seat-clamp in half thus producing two single bolt seat-clamps….
So we were finally underway again, but we’d lost a lot of time dealing with the seat-post clamp issue. We were a bit under a time crunch as we had to finish the ride and be shuttled back to Bent Creek in enough time to break camp and leave our sites by 2:00 p.m. or else possibly have to pay for an extra day! Perhaps the pace became a bit too aggressive because Daniel began to suffer a bit and it became very clear he was getting exhausted. This was a huge ride for him being so new a rider! We tried letting him take the point and going his pace, but as I already detailed earlier, there was quite a bit of lead turn over and soon we’d all gotten back ahead of Daniel. We tried to get him to relax and not force the pace, you could tell he was trying his best to move as fast as he could but all it did was cause him to rush, UPD and get even more exhausted! Poor guy. After a mile or so of this, Ben Richardson made an executive decision to split into two groups. Jeff and Aleks would stay back with Daniel and the rest of us would go ahead to pick up point, still many miles away and a few thousand feet below.
After the group split, we continued on at a bit of a faster clip to make up for our generally slow progress up to this point. We all really pressed and exchanged moments in the lead only to UPD (sometimes spectacularly) and be over taken. This continued for a few miles more along the Heart Break Ridge Line. This part of the trail was very narrow with an often very steep drop off mere inches away. Several times one or more of us would come too close to the edge and auger right off the trail! Luckily most of this section was well covered with vegetation so you or your unicycle didn’t go tumbling into oblivion! Soon it was time leave the main ridgeline and drop to the valley bellow.
This last section of Heart Break Ridge Trail was just spectacular. While the last few miles were mostly a gradual descent this last bit was much steeper, more technical with many sharp switch-backs, and pedal striking roots and rocks. It was somewhere in this section where I had my hardest fall of the weekend. Perhaps it was fatigue or the fact that I was staring off at the panoramic view and not concentrating enough on the trail, but whatever the reason all of a sudden I found myself flying through space and landing hard on my left side! I think I landed right on a rock and Charlie horsed my left quad muscles fairly good! OUCH! It literally knocked the wind out of me enough to just lie there on the side of the trail for a few moments. Ben R. came rolling by soon thereafter and asked if I was okay. I said I was. He then asked what the heck caused my fall as this particular section wasn’t very technical or steep! Ha! Trail unicycling is just like trail running in this respect. I almost never take a hard fall on rough, technical sections of trail because I’m really focused and concentrating, while I might UPD while riding this stuff it usually isn’t too spectacular. No, when I do take a hard fall, running or riding, it is usually on a relatively benign section of trail where I’m not concentrating fully and have relaxed a bit too much. In these cases something as simple as a twig or small rock can cause me to trip and fall! Anyhow, after scraping myself off the ground, wiping the mud off my body and catching my breath, I collected my unicycle (which had tumbled off the edge of the trail some distance) and raced to catch back up to the rest of the group.
Switch back after switch back we descended, I managed to clean most of them often taken more of a trials approach for some of the steeper more difficult turns. Sometime after I lost track of how many switch backs I’d covered I approached the last gasp of the Heart Break Ridge Trail. This last bit was very steep, narrow and full of slippery rocks and roots. I applied my hydraulic brake and gave it my best attempt. I cleaned about ¾ of it until I went a bit squirrely on a steeply off camber, slippery rock and went crashing off the side of the trail into some low hanging branches! So close! (Not really!) Josh was the first to bottom out and he crashed somewhat like I’d just done. We waited as Ben K. gave it the old college try but came up a bit short. Ben R. was next, he chose a bit of a different line but wasn’t any more successful. It was just a bit too steep and slick this time around. Last up was Jack, the smart one, who wisely had shouldered his unicycle and hiked the last bit of trail down!
All that remained was an easy spin down an old fire road, across a wide (and deep) stream crossing, that Josh successfully hopped his way across (often in very deep water!), over an active rail-road line and just like that we were at the pickup location. All things come to an end, but I was quite sad our ride was over. I was very tired and sore (read Charlie horse) but I knew I had a decent drive ahead of me. Luckily in our haste to get off the trail we’d made very good time and were only slightly late. In the end we made it back to the camp area with an hour to spare. I helped the others take down and clean up what was left of the festival camp site and then I bade everybody farewell and headed on down the long road back to Huntsvegas!
I want to personally thank all the Asheville Mountain Unicycle Festival organizers and sponsors and everybody who made my first experience of riding with multiple like minded unicyclists a truly special one. We need to plan to all ride together again really soon. If anybody gets a wild hair and wants to see what kind of riding Alabama has to offer, I’ll play host and I promise you’ll be surprised by the quality of riding there is to be found around here. Until next year…