Just like signature Kaliedescope trophies, this race includes the full range of the mountain bike spectrum. The course incorporates groomed cross country trails, gravel and country road touring, and classic back country Appalachian mountain single track. It's a big day adventuring through varied landscapes with surprises and even southern charm around the bend and in the hollers.
A lively morning sun greeted me at Hungry Mother State Park with mild temps, clear skies, and a wonderful view of the lake nestled in valley. Heading to registration, I saw many familiar faces and friends from last year’s race. As I signed in for the expert course, I noted that the race always has more than enough supplies, right there at the start. Need some gels? There's plenty available. There are also other nutritional options available to power you through the race.
Back at the car, while kitting up, I overheard a conversation with a local rider and another racer. His warm southwest Virginia accent and pleasant personality provided a preview of the southern hospitality all racers would experience. The laid back atmosphere of this event was a welcome way to start a 50+ mile XXC mountain race and I felt at ease while I got dressed, mixed my bottles, stashed my energy food, and rolled around the park's paved road for a warm up. I noticed lots of fast looking folks rolling about, some familiar faces, and others I did not quite recognize. But all of them looked fit and fast!
The race director, Mark Prater, gathered us for a very thorough explanation of the course with marking descriptions, route notes, aid stations, and other valuable details. As we waited for start gun, I got a chance to quickly catch up with one of my fellow racers, and last year’s women's expert course champion, Laura Hamm. Her full suspension race bike was a change from the full rigid she was racing on last year, and I marveled at the dual integrated lockout control. I'm a big fan of talking to a friend at the start line as it really helps get rid of any nerves or unnecessary anticipation.
Ready...Steady...Bang! The race is on, and I put in a short lived and moderate sprint to position myself behind the lead three or so riders. Cory leads us out in a very moderate and enjoyable single track pace line. The first mile or so of gravel single track snakes a long side of the lake and descends down to a wooden bridge next to the spillway for the lake’s Dam. I'm glad the pace was comfortable because it gave me a chance to take the awesome lake views in.
As we got into the park’s trails, the pace was still surprisingly mellow. I resisted the urge to jump ahead, because I knew on the 1st major climb everything would fall into order. And so the first piece of the race spectrum began. We started winding up Hungry Mother’s wide bench cut trails that are a smooth surface of crushed shale. Some of the initial climbs have a few surprisingly steep pitches as the trail carves up the contour of the mountain. The tree canopy was thick and provided some nice shade, but occasionally there was enough clearing to allow great views of the lake.
I stayed close behind the lead group of five riders for most of the initial climb, and could occasionally see the second group below me on the switch backs. The climb eased and topped out, so I got to work going fast. The trails around the park flow well, and can be very fast. However, you’ve got to be careful, because some of the turns can be sharper than they look and if the turn is bending around the contour, you could easily fly right off the side if you overcook it. However, turns where the trail banks into the curve of the mountain can be ridden flat out. The deep bench cut provides a natural berm that’s almost vertical. Heavy and fast on the insides, and more conservative on the outsides. The shale has some grip, but due to the loose over hard-pack nature, you can get sliding in a jiffy.
I lost touch with the lead group and stayed in front of the second group. A short section of paved park road took me back to more climbing and descending near the start/finish. I made a point to firm up my fork and hammer out as much of the up and down bench cut that remained. Some sections of trail were lined with large purple Rhododendron blooms. Very picturesque. Eventually, the final section of this bench cut descended down a less winding section with lots of little booters. Jump, pump, jump, pump. Braaap!
I headed back on Rt. 16 for just a stitch and then climbed back up the trail next to the Dam and the lake. When I got to the country road I rolled solo as I climbed past the Alpaca farm.
I refueled on cliff blocks and tucked in as I tried to cut a small profile through the wind. This section of the race reminded me of Ireland. Rolling hills and mountains free of trees with grazing livestock and lots of rocks mixed in.
When the race course turned off pavement and onto a gravel road, I quickly came face to face with a small cow in the middle of the road. I said, “what’s up cow?” as I got close, and then it buggered off across the road. Next, I found myself approaching the posterior of a farm tractor out for the day’s work. Timing was just right as the dirt road split and he went right, where I needed to go left.
Zooming along this dirt farm road was a little precarious because of a fair amount of small rocks. I passed a rider who had gotten a flat, then I realized I had just blown by a turn. I was surprised to hear another rider skidding behind me, from the same mistake. Turns out, Ben Coleman had made a wrong turn earlier, and was catching back up to the leaders.
I tried to ride through a really deep and muddy stream crossing and ended up with a dash of mud and pebbles in my left shoe. The course then seemed to go right through a farm construction site where I think new fence poles were going in. I felt a little odd through riding this spot, but everyone seemed cool about the situation.
Ben I and I were now rolling on a paved country road, and we talked about the beginning of the race. Then we came upon a guy with a stop sign. We asked, “what’s going on up there?” … We rode past, to the signal man’s dismay. There was a tree trimming operation, and 5 or 6 guys working, a couple playing soccer, and a few more looking at their phones…
After we were through the work zone, I suggested that Ben and I work together, and we took turns with 30 second pulls, all the way to the single track. We passed over a possum tail that was in the road. Just the tail.
The Crawfish Trail rolled through multiple Rhododendron tunneled stream crossings, with a few twisting and turning bits thrown in for good measure. I bobbled on a particularly rocky stream crossing where my poor line choice bounced me about and Ben slipped away. When Crawfish made a crossing with the Appalachian Trail, four through-hikers gave me some encouragement and told me the others were not too far ahead.
I motored through the rest of the single track and tucked in for the remaining gravel and pavement road leading to the day’s big climb up Walker Mountain. When I stopped and filled two water bottles, the volunteers told me I was in 5th. I got back on and started cranking, hoping to hold off the single speed rider that was probably going to pass me. It didn’t take too long.
Bob Moss caught up to me fast, and motored by as we passed the forest road gate and headed into the long double track climb. I kept him in sight for a little while but he was motoring up that climb like a beast. A couple of hunters I came across said “careful, there’s a bear up there in the holler… keep your eyes peeled”. That added a little excitement for the next ¼ mile or so as I scanned the woods.
The only thing about the climb I found annoying was the constant satellite of a deer fly or two, orbiting me as I rolled along slowly. I had to periodically swat at them as they tried to make a meal out of me. When climbing, you are going too slowly to outrun them.
Finally the ridge section of Walker Mountain began and a cool breeze was a welcome relief. Several more moderate pitches awaited and then the ridge and descent started. The trail at the top was very, very, faint. Ribbons of sheriff’s crime scene tape marked the way, every couple of trees! So I rode it like I stole it. Next up, there was a fun and technical set of turns. These were followed by a short hike a bike section, and then the downhill opened up. Some very fast single track chutes seemed a bit rougher than last year, with fewer leaves and more water erosion with rocks. The purple Rhododendron bloom tunnels were just a pretty as last year. I was careful to go as fast as I could, but not be so reckless as to invite a pinch flat.
The descent eased, and I popped back onto the Crawfish Trail I had ridden earlier. This trail was definitely more fun this direction and I enjoyed riding it.
Soon, I was dispatching rolling double track that was nicely shaded. I drank the last of my water and refueled. Crossing through another service road gate got me back onto a gravel road that finished with a nice, fast, downward section. Deep water ruts added excitement.
I stopped at the aid station, refilled my bottle with Gatorade, and got back to work as the volunteers cheered me on… “go, go, go!”
I recognized the hillside quarry at the turn in the road. A backhoe stood still like a rusted dinosaur, waiting to be re-animated for the next stone wall. I knew there was not much road left before turning right onto another connector of double track, punctuated by a few sections of secret single track, and one oddly placed tanning bed on a junk pile.
Finally, the trail joined up with a gravel road that runs in front of a house that looks like a castle. The scenery once again reminded me of Ireland, and I smiled because I knew I was closing in on the paved road through the park, and the finish.
Riding on the pavement, a couple of over the shoulder checks showed told me that no one was closing in. I was happy not to turn myself inside out as I rallied to the finish!
Mark Prater greeted me with a high five, and handed me a nice cold beer while I told him my stories from the day. I was six overall, and generally pleased with how I rode the race.
I was surprised to find out there would be a single speed category, and that bumped me up to 5th place, and into money and prizes!
Karl’s Kaleidoscope is always a great day of racing, and I’ve met some fine folks along the way while competing, and experienced the warm hospitality that’s always present at this great event.