Last Sunday (November 11, 2012), on a nice chilly fall morning, organizers, support staff, and riders were getting ready for the 14th Annual Sycamore Cycles Swank 65 mountain bike race. This is the unofficial season closer that runs 38 miles through some classic rooty and rocky Pisgah terrain with plenty of climbing…about 5,800 feet worth. Since it’s always held in the first couple of weeks of November, riders have seen 60 degree sunny days, cold rain, sub-freezing winter mixes, and everything in between. You just don’t know what you’re going to get until you get there. Regardless, Todd Branham and his crew at Blue Ridge Adventures, sells out the 200 rider field about 4 months in advance and pulls in folks from as far away as Costa Rica and California. Needless to say, it’s a tough race, put on by great folks, and lots of good company to share the pain.
We rolled into Cove Creek Campground to check-in and get ready for the 10am start. The sun hadn’t quite broken the ridgeline yet and temps hovered in the mid to upper 30s. The day was looking good though with blue skies and forecast high of low 60s. As riders checked-in, zip tied number plates to their handlebars, and loaded up packs with shots, blocks, and bars, the sun started to creep over the ridge and in an instant, it started feeling good. It was a great day for a ride.
Before we get too far into it, I should probably give you an idea of what the course is like. Over 38 miles, you really do get a little bit of everything. 200 riders line up for a Le Mans start and run across the campground field to their awaiting bikes. After a short stretch of gravel road (complete with creek crossing), starts the first climb of the day. Cove Creek trail is a single track-ish filled with roots, creeks, and log bridges (not the good kind). Although it’s only a few miles long, with 200 riders, bottlenecks are not only likely, but should be expected…especially at the bridges. The nice part is that you know you’ll be flying down this same climb to finish the race. Cove Creek puts out onto Forest Service road 475B and onto a grassy road connector to Daniel’s Ridge. For some reason, this section always seems longer than looks on the map. The grassy road is a fairly gently climb to the top of Daniels Ridge, but always seems to go on just a little longer than I want it to. Like most things though, your work is rewarded. A sweet, and always too short, descent down the clockwise side of Daniels Ridge dumps you out onto the gravel Forest Service road, 475. Here’s where you just sit back, get comfortable, and grind it out for a few miles until you hit Gloucester Gap. After the left hand turn onto Cathy’s Creek Rd, there is still a little more climbing before you hit the long and fast gravel road descent to the base of Butter Gap. Another old, grassy service road climb takes you to the top of Butter Gap. This is a classic Pisgah descent. In about 2 1/2 miles, you get mud (almost always), rocks, roots, creeks, flow, and beautiful terrain taboot, all in one section of trail. It’s good stuff. After this momentary sense of bliss, you take a left turn and climb up Long Branch. Outside of this race, I don’t know if I ever go up Long Branch…so much better coming down. There are definitely some steep sections and some parts are rutted out pretty bad, but it’s all part of the fun. This brings you back to FS road 475, but just below Gloucester Gap.
From the gap, it’s a right hand turn this time and the push up Pilot Mountain. This gravel road climb is a bear. 4 miles and 2000 ft of climbing. There are a couple of very short “flats” to give you that false sense of recovery, but then it’s back on. When your fresh, it doesn’t seem TOO bad….after 20 miles of racing though, it’s just cruel. The best part about it though is from the top, the rest of the race is downhill or flat, minus a moderate gravel road climb at the end. That said, by no means does it get easy. The next section is the famed, or infamous, Farlow Gap. It’s not just rocky, it’s REALLY rocky. Baby heads big enough to stop you pretty much immediately. Throw about 2-3 ft of leaves on top and you can see almost nothing. To make things even more fun, they move. Hit one hard enough and it’ll roll…somewhere. Some you don’t even have to hit that hard. Then, it’s not just steep, it’s REALLY steep. The rock garden to the first creek crossing is just under a mile, drops almost 1000 ft, and comes in around a -20% grade. Hell yeah! That’s what I’m talking about! At the bottom lies the first creek crossing and the beginning of, for most of us anyways, the hike-a-bike sections. After a few more creek crossings, climbing over a random tree here or there, and riding through what I think is some of the most beautiful scenery in Pisgah, you roll into the counter-clockwise descent of Daniel’s Ridge. Continuing the theme of rocky and rooty from Farlow Gap, Daniel’s Ridge eases up a bit, but still keeps you in check.
Back to FS road 475, we head downhill (left) this time and connect up with Davidson River Trail. A short (1.5 mile), low grade, flowy trail that rides high above the river “gorge”, it’s a nice break from the rocks and roots. From here, the last 3.5 mile gravel road climb brings you back to the top of Cove Creek trail. The 3 mile climb that started the race brings you back home, just a little bit faster.
Out of 200 starters, 155 riders finished the race. Our hometown of Brevard, NC and local title sponsor, Sycamore Cycles, had a great showing. Six out of the top 10 and 3 on the podium were sporting Sycamore Cycles jerseys. It turned out to be a great day for a ride and Todd pulled together some great sponsors for the event. Wild Indigo Catering was on hand grilling mammoth-sized, locally raised hamburgers, New Belgium Brewery provided the refreshments, Industry Nine raffled off a sweet wheelset, and if you forgot a change of clothes, Sycamore Cycles was there selling shirts and hoodies. Next November, remember to put this one on your calendar. It’s worth the trip out here…plus, you can stop off at the SylvanSport office and check out the GO trailer manufacturing facility in person!