With some stoke built up from having obtained such good result at the SERC # 1 race in Haile’s Trails, I was so ready to race at Tsali Recreational Area for the second round of the Southeast Regional Championship Series known as The Knobscorcher MTB Race. I had to weeks in between these two races to continue a build-up phase of training, and follow that with a slight taper to best prepare me for the SERC # 2.

Tsali Recreational Area is within the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina. This trail system is to be used by mountain bikers, hikers and equestrian riders, therefore the whole trail system has been divided in 2 parts to alternate users on both loops every day of the week. While other similar multi-use trails allow users wherever they want to ride at the same time, Tsali keeps us shredding fast while having full confidence that we will not run into a horse’s mouth. This year’s SERC race took place in the Right/Left Loop, which is also my favorite side.

In simpler words, this all just means that you can BOMB every downhill and let the bike GO. This is my favorite type of trail; it offers some incredibly flowy, rollercoaster-like sections with challenging climbs that lead to beautiful overlooks, and some screeching fast descends with switchbacks tight enough to require a few gear shifts, but not tight enough to slow down the carried momentum on to the next climb. All this while riding mostly on a narrow ridge around the perimeter of Lake Fontana. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. I don’t have a better explanation for this trail. If you are a mountain biker and you have never ridden this trail, you must go and experience this at least once.

Taking it back a few years.

This is particularly where I discovered the joy of being a mountain biker “in the actual mountains”. For those who live in Florida, this will make sense. I rode Tsali for the first time back in 2013, and have had the chance to ride there multiple times since. I have always used this trail system as an indicator of my fitness through the years by comparing my Strava Segment time records, and somehow those climbs never get easier, they just get shorter (thankfully).

For the sake of memories, I’ll share a picture of me at the very top of the Lookout  feeling like my legs had fallen off my body. Trust me, that smile hurts.

View of the Smoky Mountains across Lake Fontana, from Tsali Recreational Forest’s Lookout on the Right/Left Loop.

Though I have ridden here a few times, I have never participated in any races at this location, but felt confident that it was the kind of course that suited me well for a maximal 2-hour race effort. So it appears my competition felt the same level of confidence. It was RACE TIME.

The gun goes off and I got my shoe clipped in really quickly. A few gear shifts and I found myself at the very front of my group, pacing a group of 7 Pro/Cat 1 women up the gravel climb that would lead us into the Singletrack. My plan was to be second or third in the line and save some energy while drafting, and sprint for the Holeshot Prize point. Who doesn’t need extra beer money? But being in the front was not going to get me even a bottle of water. So I pulled over, and here comes Annie Pharr around me with her super strong climber legs, letting me know right away she was going to be a problem for me. And boy, she was! I only took that Holeshot Prize by inches, and it cost me some good matches to do so. Annie then took the front for the remainder of the gravel climb where she slowly opened up a gap by the time we reached the top. That was only 7 minutes into the race, and I found myself looking down at my Garmin seeing a Heart Rate of 181 bpm and a Normalized Power value that put my IF at 1.07. Wait for it!!!! ALL THIS, while she’s off her saddle cranking uphill and letting that bike GO in the downhills. So I focused on settling into the pace I knew I should hold in the singletrack, and then found myself right behind her wheel. My hopes were that her strengths really were in the climbs, but she’d need to use the flowy singletrack to recover, which would put me in the complete opposite scenario.

(I will allow this space so we can all laugh together here).

When she realized I was back on her wheel we were approaching a section of trail that was relatively flat, with lots of rocks and roots hidden underneath dry leaves that had me praying I was putting my front wheel in the right place. And then, just like that, came the end of her race against me. This woman put down an attack that I was only able to respond because I was an irresponsible bike racer at that moment. I felt the bike dancing underneath me, and I found the limit of my Hardtail Mountain Bike and Skill Level combined for this race course. WOAH! It was right about there where I realized that Annie does not have any weaknesses while mountain bike racing. It was so impressive! My best legs that day had me chasing her for the first 12 miles, which was close enough where I could see her in front of me, but far enough that it would require me to put out too hard of an effort for a chance of not even catching her. I then shifted my focus on putting out my best race on the bike yet, having a clean race and securing that 2nd Place because the ladies behind me were coming for me!

Action shot courtesy of GoneRiding.com

The beauty of this course at Tsali is that the long 12 mile loops separate all the classes racing at the same time enough that we don’t have to pass or be passed by too many riders, and I found myself riding my bike in full bliss all by myself for that second half of my race. I knew I had opened up a gap between myself and the lady sitting in 3rd Place  while chasing the leader, so I took some time to play and catch some air in some sections. I did quickly realize that I needed to get back to “business”, but I did have some good fun.

Race file showing Heart Rate (red), Cadence (yellow), and Power (pink).

Count your small victories…

Huge shoutout and recognition to Annie Pharr of the Appalachian State University for such great riding/racing. Thank You for inspiring me and pushing me this weekend, you are the Queen of Tsali!  One of the reasons why I love racing is that I come across new faces that put so much into perspective for me, and push me to continue getting better. It was an absolute honor to get my butt kicked by you! Same goes to Bonnie Kleffman of JA King Racing MTB Team for putting out a great effort and obtaining the 3rd Place, and Jenna Hoover for totally KILLING that “Right Lookout” section and taking the QOM on that Strava Segment (Yes, Strava does count!). This is a good time to be reminded that we should always count our small victories…or big ones. They all matter.

Podium Picture courtesy of GoneRiding.com. Anna Pharr 1st Place, Josselyn Gutierrez 2nd Place, Bonnie Kleffman 3rd Place.
Overall, it was a great day for me. Not only was the weather perfect and the trail conditions ripping fast, but I have now accumulated enough points to take the SERC Series Leader Jersey which I hope to keep with more consistent placing in the remainder of the series. Two down, Five more to go!
Josselyn Gutierrez and Charlie Mullins hold the SERC Overall Leader’s jerseys in their respective Pro classes.


Special Thanks…

Thank you to Coach Drew Edsall/MTB Fitness for designing a training plan for me that keeps me sharp for racing, and Alex’s Bicycle Pro Shop for their continued support through all these years. I am grateful for all the support around me from family and friends, and fellow mountain bikers that share my passion for racing. You fuel me, thank you!

What is next?

This upcoming weekend I’ll be racing at the 1996 Olympic Mountain Bike Course in Conyers, GA. This will be the SERC # 3, and it is yet another super FAST, not-so-technical race course that I thoroughly enjoy racing in. I hope to once again line up with awesome competitors that make my racing experience so much better.

Selfie time with some awesome people! Hannah and Wes Dickson, Michael Hodges and Carlos CacaPooPoo