Pisgah Monster Cross has been around for many years, long before “gravel” was a mainstream entity. Eric Wever, the man behind Pisgah Monster Cross and host company, Pisgah Productions, has been a fixture in the North Carolina scene for many years. Do yourself a favor and visit the Pisgah Promotions website for details of his other events. I first appeared at the 2013 edition of Pisgah Monster Cross, almost a year before founding Gravel Cyclist website and its related entities. Since then and my last appearance at the 2016 edition, the race has undergone some changes.
Quick history lesson. Pisgah Monster Cross originally included a 25-mileish stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway which brought its own set of problems.
- People in cars, farting about the place looking at the scenery, phones and not paying attention to cyclists.
- Tunnels along the Parkway proved to be dodgy, especially when the course was run clockwise; think descending in darkness and you get the idea. *
- When the course was run anti-clockwise, climbing the Parkway was purgatory for me. I’m not the most stellar of climbers, and 25-miles of Blue Ridge Parkway is a long slog.
* A front and rear light is recommended if you ride the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Links to my earlier Pisgah Monster Cross experiences:
- 2013 Pisgah Monster Cross (before I founded Gravel Cyclist… don’t subscribe to this old channel) – I was aboard a dropbar MTB at this race, which solved the problem of big tyres on gnarly descents, back when gravel bikes were mostly cyclocross bikes. This was also a time before good camera stabilization and 4K video.
- 2015 Pisgah Monster Cross
- 2016 Pisgah Monster Cross
Hats off to Eric for ditching the Blue Ridge Parkway and too much pavement, leaving us with an extremely challenging course that is about 80% dirt, gravel, rocky bits and several challenging descents.
Back to 2019, where I was coerced by my 64yo teammate, K-Dogg, to join him at this year’s edition. Joining us would be another Gravel Cyclist crew member, Jimbo, who now makes his home in Upstate South Carolina. You should probably check out our South Carolina gravel camp video to see some of the sweet gravel roads in the Upstate of SC!
Normally, K-Dogg and I make our hotel selections based on price. I mean, does anyone ever use a hotel website search engine and actually sort by “Recommendations”? Tight arses across the globe default to sort by “Lowest Price”, which usually means “Lowest recommendation” and “Lowest rating”. Did I mention we’re frugal? Turns out that Mrs K-Dogg booked this particular hotel, which was conveniently located about two miles from the start line of Pisgah Monster Cross. Convenience costs, somewhere in the neighborhood of $US 250… and Mrs K-Dogg isn’t a tightwad. Say what?! Dafuq does a Holiday Inn Express cost $250? I grumbled quite a lot about that all weekend but thankful I was splitting the room 50/50 with the Dogg. At least the breakfast was good… moving on 🙂
The 2019 edition of Pisgah Monster Cross featured a star-studded lineup including Garth Prosser (don’t tell him this, he reminds me of Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons), Reid Beloni, Nina Laughlin, Thomas Turner, Lauren De Crescenzo (former winner of Crusher in the Tushar, Rouge Roubaix and current Collegiate Road Nationals Champ!), Andrew Pooser, Michael Sencenbaugh, Jay Price (dodgy reporter for NPR), Thundah Sheep (whoever you are) and many others.
In the days leading up to the race, I conversed with one of the locals concerning tyre choice. Historically, Pisgah Monster cross has been suited to anyone riding a hardtail mountain bike, or a gravel bike shod with a 45mm wide tyre. Seeing as not every gravel bike can squeeze in a tyre that big, that leads to compromises in tyre width and increases the requirement for good skills when it comes to descending. This race and others prompted me to build a drop bar mountain bike some years ago,(here’s K-Dogg’s El Dorado bike), but bike designers and manufacturers have caught up a little since then, meaning I don’t have to compromise with an oddball bike and related handling.
Pictured above is my steed from the 2019 Pisgah Monster Cross race, the 3T Exploro LTD mega long-term review bike, kitted out with SRAM’s Red eTap AXS 12-speed system, 46/33 chainrings, 11-33 cassette, complimented by ENVE G23 rims and hubs / Berd spokes (watch this space for a review of the G23 / Berd spoke wheelset). Tyres were WTB’s superb Resolute in 700c x 42mm with Orange Seal Endurance formula inside.
Pisgah Monster Cross – Race Day
Alluded to earlier, our overpriced hotel was conveniently located close to the race. Thus, we sauntered out of our room at a more casual hour than usual. Arriving at the race about an hour before rollout, I socialized with many of the friendly people I’ve gotten to know who are regulars to this race, or residents of the area. Curtis Eaby and Ron Albritton also make their home in Florida, a mostly flat state, but having seen Curtis’ recent performance at the 2019 SBT GRVL race, I expected a good ride from him.
I understand Ron hadn’t ridden mountains since an injury sidelined him at the 2018 Pisgah Monster Cross, which typically means he’s been sandbagging all year, so expect a good ride 🙂
Gravel races are a much friendlier affair than the roadie races I did all those years ago. Do you reckon I’d be able to squeeze into the front row, last minute, to line up for the race? Admittedly, my place there was undeserved, but sometimes, you have to go where you shouldn’t, all in the name of capturing good images for the race report and video! Thanks to everyone who let me sneak in.
3-2-1 the race starts and clunk, into the pedals we all go. By a miracle of timing, I clipped in fast enough to lead the assembled field under neutral onto the short paved section of 276, which led to the right-hand turn and the first big gravelly climb of the day.
Pictured above is the elevation profile of the first climb, courtesy of my Garmin 830. One mile of warm-up followed by about five-ish miles of sustained climbing. Red = getting nice and steep.
Above is the official elevation profile. Warming up properly cuts into socialization time, so you can probably guess how I fared on the first climb. D’oh!
I carefully selected a nice looking wheel to sit on and hoped the tempo being set by the front-running trendsetters wouldn’t be too brutal. For a short while at least, the tempo was manageable, even enjoyable, until the Garmin’s ClimbPro screen indicated I was now on the yellow part of the climb… yellow indicating a grade of three to six percent. My legs and lungs were rather displeased with this effort, so I parted ways with the main group of climbing types and set about my own tempo.
My teammate Jimbo rolled slowly by, and happened to set the perfect tempo for me to glob onto his wheel. Mind you, wheelsucking at 7mph / 11km/r isn’t exactly saving a lot of energy, but it is nice having a teammate pace you up the climb.
K-Dogg rolled past a short while later, at a tempo above our comfort level, but one that ultimately placed him about 50 meters ahead, dangling ever so close. It was evident a few minutes later that K-Dogg wasn’t riding away from us, rather I think he wanted us to know he was climbing better than us (a given). If you’ve not met K-Dogg, he’s very handy on the climbs but descends like a plucked chicken. We all have our talents.
The Garmin’s ClimbPro screen that I was mostly ignoring, indicated we were now traversing the Red section of the climb, gradient 9% to 12%. I was all over my 1 to 1 gear ratio of 33 x 33, but honestly, I would have preferred something a smidge lower, to further please my legs.
Eventually, after pacing myself behind Jimbo, we crested the summit and began the first of many descents.
Remember earlier when I spoke about this race favoring bigger tyres? This is when they come in handy. I believe Jimbo was rolling the Schwalbe G-One tyre in 700c x 40mm, which I felt wasn’t the best choice for this course. Regardless, we descended for about 3.2kms / two miles before dropping onto the pavement of 276 for a brief moment. During the course of this descent, we caught and passed K-Dogg, who was descending like his spirit animal, the plucked chicken.
The next gravel climb began on 475B. This climb was relatively short before dropping away again, but the bad news was we’d be ascending this section of course later in the race. The first and last 35km / 22ish miles were an out and back affair, which lead to a lollipop loop measuring approximately 27 miles / 43kms.
Pictured above is an image you never want to see or experience first-hand. Somewhere during the descent of 475B, Jimbo’s front wheel slid out on a corner and he hit the deck. The sound of a bike and rider hitting any hard surface is unnerving at best, but I’m pleased to say Jimbo popped up almost immediately, straightened his bars and took a mental collection of things. At Jimbo’s request, I kept riding, although our elderly teammate K-Dogg, wasn’t far behind and would keep Jimbo company a while.
Aid Station #1 was located at the end of Indian Creek Road and was the start and endpoint of the lollipop loop, as in, it also served as Aid Station #3. I took my sweet time refilling bottles and imbibing in several hits of Coke… Coca Cola that is. Jimbo and K-Dogg arrived as I was leaving, so I figured they catch me soon enough. Soon enough came earlier than expected, because the course was ramping up again, this time on pavement. It’s a shallow goal, but I was hoping I could finish ahead of K-Dogg on this day. Not once have I finished ahead of him at a race with serious amounts of ascending. With approximately 1km ridden of about 7km/4 something miles to the summit of this road whose name I do now know, I heard the dreaded K-Dogg “Oi!”, followed by “it’s your worst nightmare come true”. $hit.
The Dogg caught and passed me like I was standing still. With so much climbing still to come and a paltry 37km / 23 miles into the race, I shelved any plans of putting a beatdown on K-Dogg and chugged away at my own tempo. I’d been yo-yo’ing back and forth with Jay Price (aka the dodgy NPR reporter) who was on an off day?, or I was riding better than I thought. Mind you, Jay would slowly grind away from me on the climbs and roller hills, but I was handily rolling past him on the descents. I’m not here to make fun of anyone, descents down sketchy mountain roads have to ridden within one’s own comfort zone. If I wasn’t clear before, Pisgah Monster Cross is a race that demands attention on the descents.
I did eventually crest the unnamed climb, which led to some very remote and scenic gravel roads, some of which would test the mettle of every rider. Of particular note was the gnarly mixed surface descent that dropped riders onto the pavement of Charley’s Creek Road. This descent was best tackled with a mountain bike, but with good skills, and weight shifted way behind the bottom bracket, it was a matter of carefully picking one’s line through this garden of rocks. I caught and passed K-Dogg on this descent, who was exercising caution, using one leg to propel himself slowly down the mountain. I impolitely advised him to hold his line, as mine was precarious at best.
The pavement of Charley’s Creek Road was a nice respite from the technical descending madness; a sweet downhill run where I could enjoy the curves of the road and switch off a little. Climbing is hard work but tricky descending is just as demanding. The next section of gravel took us to the summit of Wolf Mountain, a peak measuring about 1,250 metres above sea level.
Somewhere around here lay Aid Station #2. Naturally, I stopped to avail myself of the potential for dehydration and loaded up on hydration. Once again I was relying on a mostly liquid mix, which does best for me during these moments of duress… like extended climbing. I’m not all about liquid sugar, so whatever I took on board at this aid station was cut with some water. I’ve found too much sugar can definitely blow my stomach up, which can and has in the past, left me running into the woods to relieve a rather disturbed gastro system. Sorry bears.
Tribal knowledge is an important benefit. That’s what the Gravel Cyclist crew refers to local knowledge of a road system, gained from being a local or during a course pre-ride. I heed the advice of the tribal elders, and one such rider at the aid station kindly informed me of the extremely dodgy nature of the descent immediately following Aid Station #2. My video shows this section the best, but think of loose gravel, rocks and other goodness to further test your descending and weight shifting abilities. Weight down low, arse behind saddle, onto the drops, and don’t drag the brakes. This is a course where I could see a dropper seatpost coming in handy. On the subject of descending, I produced a video, “How to Descend on a Gravel Bike”, filmed over the course of four or five years, with tips from Dave Zabriskie (ex-World Tour Pro) and others, linked right here.
The bloke with the tribal knowledge also made mention of the uber steep paved descent that was a mile or two away from Aid Station #2. I thought to myself, how bad can it be? The Garmin ClimbPro indicated it was quite bad, and the sight of riders groveling up the hill was confirmation. With a 1 to 1 33 x 33T gear I thought I could take a straight line up the hill, but with dodgy legs and sweat leaking from just about every pore, I adopted the tacking / paperboy method of climbing on and off to get over this berg.
See this screen capture above from K-Dogg’s camera that amply demonstrates riders snaking up the climb. My cameras weren’t enjoying the climb too much and chose to misbehave somewhere before or after this climb. If you saw me fiddling about on the side of the road opening and closing camera cases, switching batteries in and out but mostly cursing, you’ll know what was going on. I love these GoPro’s, but they can be a little temperamental at times.
On the paved run into Balsam Grove, I made the acquaintance of Katie Mantz. Katie, a local, informed me of the virtues of being caught by a rider in the Master’s category, in language that can best be described as colorful. As an Aussie native, I can appreciate such language, although sadly, I cannot share with you the audience. On-the-bike conversations are always a good laugh and capture some of the best moments of a rider’s experience. Feel free to ask me how I’m going the next time I’m ascending a 12% gravel climb, whee! 🙂
Aid Station #3 came into view, which was well-timed. I’d gone light on my bottles for this race, packing two by 20 ounce bottles which held just enough fluid to comfortably ride between aid stations and cater to my needs for the forecast high temperature. I’m a reformed weight weenie but even so, I don’t like lugging unnecessary weight up mountains!
Katie rolled into the aid station, followed shortly after by Gravel Cyclist teammates Jimbo and K-Dogg. Katie was in a hurry, figuring she might be in contention with a podium in Women’s Open. It turned out she would take fourth place in the end, but I captured amusing video of her anyway, fiddling about with her drop bags.
Teammate K-Dogg left in a hurry, figuring he was chasing a podium spot in the Mega Ultra Super Masters category aka 60+ Men. Hardwick Gregg of Alabama (60+ stud rider) had already dropped his arse on the first climb of the day but I figured K-Dogg may be in with a shot. I still had my goal in mind of finally beating K-Dogg at a mountainous race… not a lofty goal I know, but if you saw the email conversations that go back and forth between us, you’d better understand… all in good fun of course.
Some 22ish / 35kms were left to ride, on the out and back road to the finish line. I had teammate Jimbo for company, who was doing an amazing job of setting tempo on the climbs and blazing the descents. Despite hitting the deck earlier and sporting some light gravel rash for his trouble, you wouldn’t have known he’d been on the ground.
With approximately 15 miles / 24kms to ride, the course deposited us at the base of the climb(s) between the finish line. I believe the summit is Rich Mountain?, but either way, there were several steps of tough climbing to ascend before the long and bumpy descent towards the finish line. Somewhere along the way, I dropped teammate Jimbo (sorry mate), and caught a glimpse of teammate K-Dogg up the road, somewhere on the penultimate climb of the race. Muahahahaha… I joyously caught him on the following descent where he complained of a chain jam and dodgy shifting on the front derailleur. Now, K-Dogg and I aren’t going 1x on our drivetrains because we don’t like parking lot gaps between our gears. But whatever happened to his bike, his de-jamming of the chain had knocked the front derailleur out of proper alignment and thus, front shifting was less than stellar.
Just one more climb to scale before a mega gravel descent down towards the finish line. Teammate K-Dogg promptly dropped me, handily dancing away as I gingerly turned over the cranks. My left quad had shown signs of a cramp, but by soft-pedaling on the left and staying seated (my climbing style for 99.5% of the time anyway), I coaxed enough performance to keep K-Dogg within striking distance. Riding in the Men’s 40+ category is a guarantee of a humbling performance when you consider the winner of said category finished just 15 minutes behind the overall winner. Yikes! Thus, you have to adjust your goals, like finishing ahead of your more elderly teammate.
The squiggly nature of these mountainous gravel roads doesn’t always jive with the proposed track of one’s navigation device. The Garmin 830 is the latest and greatest, but even it didn’t play nice with the route up the mountain and complained of about 1,000 off-course errors followed by suggestions to make a U-turn. I quickly got sick of that bollocks and turned the course navigation off, at least until I’d crested the summit.
The final descent of Pisgah Monster Cross also serves as the first climb. When you’re tired (knackered) and dirty, descending in a safe and controlled manner becomes even more important. There is nowhere on these gravelly descents where you can switch off. The inside line is rutted from vehicular traffic and there is plenty of loose gravel along the way. It’s nigh on impossible to train for mountains living in North Central Florida, but we do our best, even if that means hands cramping from braking and shoulders aching from the intricate body movements of weight shifting and general pounding from the gravelly roads. Am I complaining, no, although I did curse several times when I got the line wrong, smashed into a pothole or two and wished the finish line would hurry the eff up and get here.
I did eventually cross that finish line, cyclocross style with barriers and all, for a grandiose 24th in Men’s Masters 40+, or at an official time of 6:32:23. Not blazing a trail by any means, but I was happy with the ride. I seldom Strava due to many reasons, but you can check out my workout from the Pisgah Monster Cross, right here.
I did catch and pass teammate K-Dogg during the descent (see image further up of that glorious moment!), although I tried not to gloat too much, as the payback would be twofold. The Dogg ended up taking 5th in Men’s 60+, which also proves the competition has gotten much faster in the Mega Senior Ultra Uber Master’s category.
In closing, thanks to Eric Wever and his crew of volunteers for putting this race together. Holding such an event is a guarantee of stress, sleepless nights and dealings with the local county, police department, forest service and so on. Also, a huge thank you to all of my fellow gravel cyclists who rode the event! I had a blast making new and old acquaintances before, during and after the race.
Next up is the Pisgah Monster Cross race video, which I’ll get around to sometime soon. Thanks for reading, hope to see you soon!
JOM aka Jayson, Founder of Gravel Cyclist