Racing and Volunteering at ORAMM and The Jerdon Mountain Challenge

Last weekend was one of the best racing and volunteer biking weekends I have had in many years.  Saturday, I raced The Jerdon Mountain Challenge, and Sunday I volunteered at aid station #2 at ORAMM (The Off-Road Assault on Mount Mitchell).  First off, Todd Branham and Heather Wright are two of the best race organizers around and really know how to put together a classic two-day event.  These are not just races, they are more of a cultural phenomenon.  The races are a mixture of colorful and friendly locals, to out of towners from Florida that come here to test the draw of the mountains and elevation.  Pro racers mix with newcomers to the sport, and blend together into a common bond of pain, suffering and technical, single-track descending bliss.  One of the best parts about the event is the after-party, along with ample food, beer and camaraderie that is unmatched even at some major concert venues.  Afterall, the best part of endurance racing is the sharing of war stories at the finish line, while sipping a Fat-Tire and slurping down endless pasta and salad.  Most shorter races are just the racing, and after the finish line, people scatter with the wind and it is over.  At ORAMM and Jerdon Mountain, people mingle and bond in the shared experience, the net effect being bringing the cycling community closer together.  The weekend started on Saturday with ORAMM’s little sister, The Jerdon Mountain Challenge.  The course was a fast 30 mile loop with 4000 feet of climbing that consisted of two long climbs, two fun single-track descents, a long, rolly fire-road climb and descent, and a quick, flat time trial on road back to town.  The first 7 miles of the race was a long, gradual climb up the paved, old railroad grade of Old 70.  The group of 134 riders were very chatty on this section and I knew this race would be fun.  You have to love races where everyone talks and shares in the experience during the race.  The out of towners were wondering about the climb and I said to take it slow and steady and save some for the steeper Kitsuma climb which is on single-track.  I did the first few miles of the climb slower, knowing that many people would go out too fast on this climb.  I lifted the pace the last mile and a half and passed many riders before Kitsuma.  Kitsuma is a five-mile section of trail with about a mile of single-track climbing on tight switchbacks, combined with a fast flowey descent.  It was great to have local knowledge of the trail, because I passed a few riders on the climb and some on the descent as well.  Kitsuma has two tricky false summit sections where you crest a ridge and start a fast descent for a minute or so only to transition quickly into a steeper climb.  I have been dialing in this section on pre-rides, getting the shifting correct.  I passed at least two people in these areas because they did not down shift quick enough and were stuck in too big a gear.  The true Kitsuma downhill was beautiful.  It was dry and fast and I felt really dialed in, and I connected easily with the sweet flow and fall line.  Kitsuma is a fairly long descent and when you get to the bottom, your brakes are usually screeching and not working as well.  The last half mile is usually a little wet, but today everything was really tacky.  I finally dumped onto the road and the 3 mile cruise up to the start of Heartbreak and Star Gap.  I knew Shannon, my wife, would be at aid station 2 to give me a bottle, so I ate some gels and drank the rest of my bottle of Infinite.  I kept the pace steady, but tried to relax a little and rest up for the second climb to come up Heartbreak and Star Gap.  I rode through the aid station and Shannon handed me my bottle on the fly, me dropping my used bottle on the ground and flawlessly grabbing the replacement bottle smoothly from her.  I felt like a racer in The Tour de France and moved forward to the cheering crowd and supportive words from my wife.  The climb up Heartbreak/ Star Gap was next.  The first mile is flat and I cranked this out smoothly.  The last two miles is a steep climb mixed with some hike a bike sections on a few of the tight switchbacks.  I still haven’t dialed in all these switchbacks and had to walk a couple of them.  I passed a few people on this climb as well and felt really strong.  I crested Star Gap and started the fun downhill section to the Jarrett Creek fire-road.  Todd had graciously cut out two trees on this section and I flew down the trail with no hesitation.  The switchbacks are tight here, but they are all rideable.  I passed two racers on this section as well.  Local knowledge is key.  I made it onto the Jarrett Creek fire-road.  The first mile is overgrown and basically a fast single-track descent.  The next few miles are a gradual middle ring climb up to the first gate.  This section I planned to attack and I kicked up the pace on this climb.  Unfortunately, I seemed to be alone now.  I kept pushing onward and made it past the gate onto the first longer downhill section, which is a fast fire-road descent mixed with loose gravel on the turns.  I let it out here and went fast, slowing enough on the turns to not wash out.  I knew that this road is pretty sketchy in places, and I nailed the right lines safely through the loose rocks.  I caught one rider on the second to last small climb on the fire-road.  He was riding a downhill big-hit bike and was casually listening to tunes on his IPOD.  Wow, he must have really cranked the beginning sections to be so far ahead.  I made it onto Curtis Creek road and started the 6 mile time trial back to town.  I cranked this out in about 15 minutes and never saw anyone in front or behind the whole way.  I finished in 2:43, beating my personal record on the course by 11 minutes.  I was 10th in the 40+ category, and 25th out of 134 overall.  I was very pleased with my performance and enjoyed hanging out with everyone at the end of the race.  We ate pasta and salad, hung out in the river, and swapped stories.  I seem to have been bitten with the endurance bug, and have found my niche in these races.

Day two I was not racing, but worked aid station #2, before the dreaded Curtis Creek climb.  This day would prove to be one of the most inspiring days for me.  I arrived early, and talked with a lot of friends before the race.  The area around the museum in Old Fort was buzzing with bikes, people and anticipation.  The sky was a mottled grey, mixed with haze and clouds.  The earlier drive in from Swannanoa over the rise was inspiring.  The sun kept creeping in and out of the clouds and haze in that mystical North Carolina kind of way.  The riders gathered and Todd gave his pre-race speech, and then shot off the start gun.  The crowd of 500 bikers all laughed because everyone couldn’t move and was still.  Only the first wave of riders leapt off the line.  It took everyone else a few minutes to begin the roll out.  The racers took off and my crew of volunteers started packing up all the bags riders left for us to shuttle to aid station #2.  We had a smorgasbord of bags, coolers, and Camelbak’s that contained hundreds of gels, water bottles, bars, pills, tubes, burritos, you name it.  These were all the fuels people would need to get them over the notorious Curtis Creek climb.  We packed up and headed to aid station #2 at mile 26 of 63 at the bottom of the famous 9 mile climb which is Curtis Creek.  I knew we were going to be slammed later, because anyone who knows about ORAMM, has heard of the dreaded and feared Curtis Creek climb.  It is like the Alpe d’huez in the Tour de France.  It is legendary and mythical.  In reality it is not very steep, just long and arduous, and most racers would be hitting it after 11:00, and would be on it in the heat of the day.  This no doubt is how tales of dread and hardship have probably been hatched.  I have friends that won’t ride with us if we plan to do Heartbreak via Curtis Creek.  It is that famous, and dreadfully so.  We packed up the supplies and drove to the aid station and set up for the long day.  Jeremiah Bishop and Sam Koerber, with Thomas Turner on their heels cranked by the stop at 9:45, and did not even slow down.  Sam seemed to want to stop, but since Jeremiah didn’t, he cranked on.

Sam Koerber flying by Aid Station #2

Those guys are amazing and legends in our sport.  I heard they made it up to the Parkway by 10:30.  Inhuman machines they must be.  Well, about 5 minutes later, the fast Experts and Pros started flying through.  Most stopped and we began our rush of filling bottles, Camelbaks, opening bags for the racers, stuffing gels in their jerseys and handing out words of encouragement.  A good chunk of time went by, and the advanced masters and weekend warriors started arriving, along with the first woman.  She was cranking by the way.  The next hour was a blur of filling bottles, handing out electrolyte pills, giving out route information to out of towners and keeping people going with doses of motivation.  We had lots of stretches with no people coming through, and later the novice/ recreational first time racers started coming through.  At this point, we had slowed our frantic rush to a more supportive, encouraging role.  At this time is when the true meaning of volunteering and aid support really took on meaning for me.  We were now coaches and moral support for riders.  We were a beacon of hope to hold onto, and a wind of encouragement that could sail their boat emotionally up the next hill.  I now realized I was part of something bigger than myself at this time.  I was part of a force of movement and hope and overcoming obstacles most would never even consider trying to take on.  Now I was looking into the face of true grit and determination.  People were in over their heads, but it did not matter.  They were moving forward and they were not going to give up.  That kind of raw determination is truly inspiring.  Endurance racing brings out the best in people and I was witnessing it and was a part of it.  I have never helped someone on a journey like this, and it was pumping me up and I was flying up the mountain in spirit with these souls.  You really have to experience this kind of feeling.  The day slowly came to a close and our 2pm cut-off time approached.   One guy came by a few minutes before the cut-off, and I can only hope he made it.  He was pretty out of it, but he was determined to get to the Parkway.  I know he made it because he wanted it so bad.  We then packed everything up and called it a day.  We drove back to Old Fort and joined the after-race celebration.  The winners had already come in and a new course record was set by Jeremiah and Thomas with a time of 4:33 and 4:36 respectively.  Wow, they truly hammered it out there.  What a ride!  We joined in on the celebration, ate pasta, had a beer or two, and relived all that is ORAMM.  The last finishers came in with a time of 12:57, right at dark.  Those guys have even more true grit than most.  They finished and that is impressive.  If only I had half of that determination.  In the end, many lessons were learned on these two days.  Not giving up in the face of hardship, giving back in times of need, pushing on and overcoming obstacles, and moving forward and fast when you feel good.  Thanks Blue Ridge Adventures, and thanks racers, spectators and volunteers alike.  What a great cycling community we are a part of here in Pisgah Forest.

written by Chris, co-owner of

Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures

All pictures are taken from the Blue Ridge Adventure’s Facebook page