The 2nd annual Bootlegger 100 is just over 100 miles of North Carolina gravel, with a bonus of 10,000 feet / 3,000+ metres of climbing thrown in for good measure. Naturally, if you drive 1,000+ miles round trip to attend such an event, you sign up for the “100 Proof” version of the ride… even if you reside in Florida where there are no real mountains. For those seeking a tamer version, there is the “60 Proof” variant with 4,000+ feet of climbing. Real… tame.
This mad race was concocted by Jeff and Shawn of Luna Cycles. In 2015, the lads held the inaugural edition as a training ride, mostly to determine if the whole concept was feasible. It turned out the race was indeed feasible, and placed in the capable hands of race promoters Cam Fraser (Blue Mountain Revival Productions) and Eric Wever (Pisgah Productions) to assemble into a race. To read about how Jeff and Shawn came up with the Bootlegger 100, along with in-depth details of the course, click HERE. You can also catch Gravel Cyclist’s video interview of Jeff and Shawn on the eve of the 2016 Bootlegger 100 HERE.
The Journey to Lenoir
I committed to the Bootlegger 100 a few weeks prior to the event, with the hope that Gravel Cyclist teammates K-Dogg and Mrs K-Dogg would join me. Ultimately, K-Dogg had a family obligation that prevented him from attending, which is a shame as this race is tailor made for the flyweight 60yo+ climber… except for the descending bits 🙂
Sometime on Friday, I did a weather check. Forecast for the weekend; rain and more rain with some scheduled to arrive on Sunday, race day. Weather reports are never to be trusted, so I decided to call the boys at Luna Cycles for the inside scoop. According to Shawn, the nearby mountains break up most of the inbound rain bands, meaning that heavy rain seldom falls in Lenior proper. In my mind, this sounds totally dodgy, but I was feeling a bit gullible.
Completely blocking the weather forecast from my mind – as in la la la, it isn’t going to rain – but packing every conceivable bit of cycling kit to deal with rain, I departed my USA hometown of Gainesville, Florida early on Saturday morning. Thankfully, the drive to Lenoir was rather nondescript, and I arrived at my chosen hotel around 5:15pm. After scoring a ground floor room – we cyclist types never enjoy lugging crap up and down stairs – I headed over to Luna Cycles.
Setup for the Bootlegger 100 was well underway outside the shop. Eric Wever from Pisgah Promotions and his crew were dutifully assembling the timing system and finish line. Volunteers could be seen working on the stage area next door to the shop, which would ultimately host the post-race hangout and podium presentations. Once inside the shop, I spoke at length with Jeff and Shawn about the latest course conditions and fun stuff related to gravel cycling and the bicycle industry. As time ticked by, racers began trickling into the shop one by one, all keen to gather intel about the weather, course, tyre pressure and other matters. One such rider in attendance was Raul Negron, a gravel cyclist visiting from Puerto Rico. He provided some handy photographic intel gathered during his drive along parts of the course.
Later, I returned to my room for an evening of rest, relaxation and a bit of bike fiddling. Outside, rain began to fall. Until then, course conditions were dry and dusty, so any bit of overnight rain was welcome… just not on race day.
Poking my head outside of the hotel room around 6am revealed that much rain had fallen overnight. Afternoon rain was predicted with a high temperature of somewhere in the mid 70’s F / 23C. An errant rain band loomed ominously on a track bound for Lenoir, but was likely to pass well before race start.
Figuring out a clothing strategy for this scenario is always tricky. Dress for rain, but not to the point of lugging about rain gear that may cause overheating, or cause difficulty when stowing once the garment had served its purpose for the day. Eschewing my excellent Castelli Gabba jacket and Nanoflex bib knickers (I should probably review these items), I compromised by choosing my regular cycling kit, base layer, knee and arm warmers, and my ever versatile sleeveless wind vest – keep the core warm!
Suitably attired, I departed the room and headed for downtown Lenoir and the start line. On cue as I stepped out of the car, serious rain began to fall… and Shawn from Luna Cycles said something about no heavy rain in Lenoir! Thankfully, my primo parking spot along Main Street was in front of a building with an overhead awning; the perfect place to make final preparations and avoid being soaked. Extra chain lube was applied (Dumonde Tech Original formula is what I use) to the chain of the Parlee Chebacco review bike, bottles loaded and food packed into my Specialized Vital Pack (a small top tube mounted bag). A huge thank you to Shawn of Luna Cycles for the nice deal on this last minute bag purchase. Lessons learned from previous weeks of endurance training proved that calories at hand, or in the bag in this case, were better than calories in the hole.
I rolled to the start line a few minutes before the scheduled race departure of 8am. For now, the rain had abated. The Mayor of Lenoir and other city officials were in attendance to welcome the riders, and wave them off for 100 miles, or 60 miles of North Carolina gravel! Thirty seconds before start, the rain began falling, lightly at first, building to a steady downpour; perfect timing for the start of an epic race.
Well soaked before even one mile had rolled beneath our wheels, the timing clock rolled to zero, and the Mayor sent all 88 riders on their way. Over 100 signed up, but a few decided to avoid the rain and stay home.
The group huddled together, a cold mass of riders following a police car with flashing lights on the way out of downtown Lenoir. Visibility was difficult unless you were at the head of affairs. Otherwise, one was doused in a mix of rain water and road grime from the wheels of those ahead.
Part of gravel racing is getting dirty – once you accept the fact that your lovely kit is now filthy, and will only get filthier as the day progresses, you quickly get over it and focus on hanging as long as possible in the front group… at least that was my excuse.
The early miles of pavement featured several undulating hills, none of which put me into serious difficulty. Gravel sector #1 aka Setzer’s Gap Road began about 4.5 miles into the ride, scaling to an average gradient of around 5%.
Thankfully, the much faster riders than me were cruising the climb and again I was able to comfortably hang around 15 wheels from the front. The descent didn’t give too much trouble, and the lads at the front generally behaved themselves.
Plenty more undulating hills and gravel roads rolled beneath our wheels after the Setzer’s Gap climb, and I was feeling very good. Unfortunately, I had zero tribal knowledge of the course and knew at some point I would have to back off my tempo, to avoid any chance of a total body meltdown on the 100+ mile course.
The next test came at Globe Mountain, 15 miles into the race, 0.9 miles in length with an average gradient of over 7%. All was well until the group began ascending the steeper pitches of the climb. I didn’t look down at my Garmin for the gradient number, but these pitches measured well over 10%. 10% is where I generally begin having difficulty, along with a 10% chance of making it over this berg with the front group.
And so it was, I “sat up”, dropped from the greatly diminished front group, but in some good company. Joining me for a while was Hope Cooper, David McBeath, James Kirkpatrick (also on a Parlee Chebacco) for the 60 mile race, Mark Bidstrup and Beth Frye for the 100 miler.
We stuck together as a group until the climb of Anthony’s Creek Road, which features a beautiful waterfall and creek to distract you from the difficulty of the climb. I backed off my tempo slightly, knowing there were some seriously steep grades coming later, and the longest climb of the race, Roseboro Road wasn’t far away.
As I tapped out my tempo on Anthony Creek Road, I was caught and dropped by Watts Dixon, who was leading the single speed class. I love my front and rear derailleur, but you have to respect how strong the single speed riders are. How do you choose the correct gear to crush a 100+ gravel ride in the mountains of North Carolina?
After a wee bit of descending, the course passes through the community of Edgemont and riders face a choice. 60 miles or 100+ miles? One or two riders in my company were doing the 60 miler, and for while, I contemplated making it an easier day and doing the same. But as alluded to earlier, I’d driven an awfully long way for the race. Riding the Full Monty Bootlegger 100 course was the only choice. Making my decision a lot easier were the encouraging words of single speeder Gary Chambers, who iterated what I was thinking. Thanks Gary!
Roseboro Road is the longest climb of the Bootlegger 100 course, and intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway after ascending some 2,300+ feet. The first 1.1 miles of the climb average 10.7%, and the remaining 4.4 miles average 7.6%. It is no easy task.
For the most part, I rode my 34 x 32 low gear, sometimes alternating to the 34 x 28 as I got out of the saddle to stretch my legs a bit. On the climb, the quiet air is only disturbed by the beating of one’s heart and breathing, along with the sound of gravel crunching beneath one’s tyres.
As the altitude increased, so did the fog. Conditions were moist and humid to say the least, which was also playing havoc with my Go Pro cameras at the front and rear of my bike – lens fogging (a solution is in hand).
At the top of the climb is aid station #2, and a brief section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The fog was at its worst here, and on cue, rain began to fall again. I hastily dug into my drop bag of goodies, and chowed down on some of my homemade stash of rice snacks consisting of sushi rice, egg and Bragg’s Liquid Amino. The savory taste of this treat is welcome after consuming sweet stuff like gels and Gatorade.
Without doubt, the sleeveless rain vest I carried during the race saved me from experiencing extreme cold on the descents. Small enough to fold and pack into a rear jersey pocket, it was easy to don at a moment’s notice. Consider adding such a garment to your clothing collection.
The rain was pouring as I rode the brief sector of pavement along the Blue Ridge Parkway, before making the turn to the tricky descent of Pineola. In the dry, decending Pineola takes well over 20 minutes.
In the wet and with zero tribal knowledge, its technical nature combined with rain and heavily rutted corners, meant I had to exercise caution. The ruts in many of the corners prevented me from taking my optimal line – or, if I did ride through the inside corner, I had to completely get off the brakes to avoid skipping the bike wildly across the ruts just a little out of control.
The brakes on the Parlee Chebacco review bike are superb – Shimano’s Di2 hydraulic shift levers matched to their equivalent hydraulic brake calipers provide power, moderation and absolutely superb braking with no fade. I’ll spare you the details for the long term review of the bike, but if you haven’t ridden hydraulic disc brakes on a serious gravel descent, do yourself a favour and get them. They are that good. Well done Shimano.
Unfortunately, a badly mistimed rut while I was dabbling the front brake really jarred my left wrist, causing pain when braking from the drops – and the energy bar “yard sale” I had somewhere along the descent. My new Specialized Vital Pack with its magnetic closure (velcro would be preferred) popped open, ejecting the contents all over the road. Stop, ride back uphill and collect. D’oh!
Somewhere not far from the bottom of this difficult descent came the third rest stop, hosted at Ole Betsey’s Country Store. This spot also served as a rest stop for the 60 mile route. As I refueled one of my bottles with Gatorade cut with Coke (don’t ask), I briefly united with Locke, a rider out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately for him, he made the unwise decision to descend Pineola sans vest and was on the edge of hypothermia. Thankfully, trained medical staff were at hand and tended to his needs… he did get rolling a little while later.
I connected with a group of four riders who worked well together, making our way to the next serious obstacle along the course, Maple Sally Road. The third placed rider in the Single Speed class, Mr Chris Joice, was among us, and spun his single cog flat out as he contributed to the workload of the group. Sadly, we dropped him during one of the many descents before Maple Sally Road, but he would later catch and drop all of us once Maple Sally Road began. Nice!
Maple Sally Road comes at about 70 miles into the course and is about 18 miles / 30 kilometres in length. Its elevation profile resembles the teeth of a shark’s jaw, and ascends over 1,380 feet during this time. It is relentless in nature. Climb, descend, climb and descend. For those with front derailleurs, you’ll switch to the big chainring, then the small chainring, over and over. The road comes a long way between rest stops, so riders must meter their efforts accordingly.
Things I observed during my time on Maple Sally Road:
- Space and time stopped, Maple Sally never seems to end. A Garmin navigation device with course plot is handy, as one can see how many miles / kilometres remain to the next turn. That kept me a little sane.
- Every man and woman for themselves! Ride your own tempo.
- Shawn Moore of Luna Cycles blew out his brakes towards the start of Maple Sally. Brake pads gone. He was forced to DNF the race 🙁
- Cramping – I spotted a bloke aboard a Rock Lobster CX bike, walking his machine not long after I passed him. I spoke with him during and after the race, sorry, I forgot your name. Cramping is never any fun.
- The beauty of the road.
- Plenty of tricky descending.
Towards the end of this heinous road, I was rejoined by Locke (the hypothermia dude), who had found his body temperature and legs again.
Together, we finished the lengthy sector of Maple Sally Road almost devoid of fluids on the bike. Thankfully, the fourth and final aid station was nearby.
I must pass along a huge thank you to all of the volunteers associated with this race. The riders have to contend with difficult conditions, but the volunteers must also brave the rainy conditions while standing around for a good part of the day.
Locke and I took the opportunity to reload on fluids and snack items at the aid station. Rejoining us was David Clark, and I believe Kevin Sigrist (bloke aboard the lovely Serotta Ti CX bike). Kevin and David had been part of our four man group before Maple Sally Road split us up. There was a fifth rider with us, but I don’t recall your name, sorry.
Our newly formed quintet departed the final aid station together, and set about ascending the biggest obstacle that remained on the course, Globe Mountain Road. Incidentally, we’d ridden over this berg earlier in the day. Surprisingly, I was feeling great, but it was apparent that Locke and David were feeling better. I guessed both lads were in the same age category as I (40+), and did my best to stay reasonably close to them during the climb. By the summit, I was distanced by about 15 seconds, but had Kevin Sigrist for company. The unknown fifth rider was off the back.
Descending in a rapid fashion, I began making inroads to the leading duo. Locke had pushed the pace on an earlier descent after Maple Sally Road and gained a little descending confidence. However, he overcooked a corner during the Globe Mountain descent and ended up in a ditch by the side of the road. I slowed to inquire into his well-being; thankfully, he indicated he was fine. At the bottom of the descent, I waited for David Clark and Kevin Sigrist to rejoin me.
The remaining miles were mostly pavement and not overly difficult, but having two strong riders to share the workload with was better than riding solo. I observed that David was riding strongly anytime the road tilted uphill. I could hang with him, but Kevin was put into difficulty each time.
Remembering the conversation I had with the lads at Luna Cycles, I knew that one tough climb remained with less than a mile of racing to go. On Strava, it is marked as the “Muur de Main Street”. Remember, the Bootlegger 100 is a race, and even if we’re racing for 500th place, there has to be a sprint or attack!
To test the waters a little, I climbed part of the “Muur” out of the saddle, leading our trio. David quickly came around me and bumped the pace significantly. It hurt a little, but I was able to grab and hold his wheel; Kevin had been dropped. All that remained was about 500 metres of racing!
We came upon Beth Frye (leading the Bootlegger 100 for Women 40+) and another rider, someone who I thought may be in the Bootlegger 100 40+ men’s category – this rider turned out to be Gregg Cromer of the US Military Endurance Sports Team. All of these placings count, right! I sat David’s wheel as long as possible, before launching a covert and sneaky attack at the final left turn that lead into the finish straight. I caught Beth and Gregg by surprise, and managed to roll in a second or two ahead of them and David at the finish.
I was pretty happy with my time. While it didn’t set the world alight, it wasn’t too bad for a regular bloke who lives in Florida most of the year. In the end I placed 7th in the 40+ category, and 18th place overall for the Bootlegger 100.
By contrast, the winning time of Reid Beloni was almost an hour and 45 minutes faster!, and the second place overall and fastest woman on the course, Nina Laughlin, an hour and a half faster! Wow!
Reid and Nina are super athletes, their efforts demonstrate how much faster naturally gifted cyclists really are – but, devoid of any ego, which is what I love about the gravel scene. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you may be, participation and having a blast is what counts, and the fact everyone encourages each other – great stuff.
Finally, I must give mention to Owen Shott, a Floridian who resides in Jacksonville, Florida. I believe this was his first time at a gravel race event (he races on the road with VeloBrew Racing). He finished fourth fastest overall, in a moving time of 7:16:56. Incredible – congratulations Owen!
The Bootlegger 100 is a must-do event, and among the hardest gravel events I have ever raced. From the climbing, length of the course and possibility of challenging weather conditions, it is not an event to be taken lightly. The event itself is professionally run by friendly volunteers and promoters, and finishes at one of the coolest shops in North Carolina, Luna Cycles in Lenoir. As a bonus, the City of Lenoir is 100% behind the event and hopes to see it grow.
Congratulations to everyone who finished this tough event.
Coming soon… post race interviews from Reid Beloni and Nina Laughlin, an interview with Chris Moore (promoter of the Hellhole Gravel Grind), and Gravel Cyclist’s race video. Watch this space…
For those so inclined, JOM’s Strava data from the Bootlegger 100.
Thanks for reading!