Before you go any farther, realize that this isn’t your typical PMBAR race recap post. No way I’m fit enough for that event. I did volunteer to run the Sassafras Gap checkpoint for the race, however. The checkpoint was far enough “out there” that I needed to camp at least on Saturday night, and then pack out on Sunday morning. I opted to camp Friday night, also, since I’m not so much of a morning person, and I wouldn’t have to get going at 4am to be at my checkpoint by race start time.
Considering the location, I had 2 main access options. Shortest would have been to hike down from the Blue Ridge Parkway (bikes are not permitted on trails in Parkway land). I could have hiked my bike through, but it would have meant dealing with some of the steepest and chunkiest terrain in that area, with a loaded bike. Meh, no interest in that. Hiking that route was the better option. The more bikeable option was to park at the bottom of the Laurel Mtn Trail on Yellow Gap Rd. and ride up. It’s over 5mi of fairly consistent climbing from Yellow Gap Rd., but the grades are much more reasonable, and the terrain is far less chunky. That was the option I went with, since I’ve been itching to bikepack in the area since I moved down here last summer, and this was a good excuse.
Unfortunately, all I’ve got from my ride out is my GPS track. My phone is on the outs, and I’ve been putting off buying a new one until higher priorities are addressed. So of course, my phone deleted all of my photos from Friday. Yay.
Sassafras Gap makes for a pretty nice campsite, fwiw. The site was marked well with orange flagging tape with the promoter’s logo on it, as well as a Marmot tent, check-in gear, and a first aid kit in the event that racers need some help. Sassafras Gap is pretty level with open forest, and a really nice, soft soil. It’s a great spot for ground camping, since there aren’t many rocks to poke you in the back. There’s a fire ring built there already, though I never bothered to use it.
This was my first bikepacking trip, honestly. I learned a few things. For one, I think the Salsa Bucksaw works pretty darn well as a bikepacking bike. I didn’t want to fiddle with my suspension air pressures for this relatively short trip, so I totally locked out the rear suspension, and cranked down the compression damping on my fork. This kept the tires from rubbing on the bags (especially the Revelate handlebar harness) as the suspension compressed. Having fat tires for this was truly a godsend. Laurel Mtn Trail isn’t super chunky, but it does have quite a bit of smaller chunk, and the fat tires worked especially well for it.
The Bucksaw handled well with bags on it. My dropper post was off to Thomson for service (after 2.5yrs of flogging, it finally needed some TLC), so my only option was to run a rigid post. It’s honestly the best way with a bag that straps around the post, to avoid rubbing/scratching of the stanchion. I felt a little topheavy so my handling wasn’t perfect, but that is more due to the heavier-than-I-wanted pack I carried. A few reasons for the heavy backpack. First, I rode without a frame bag. I’ll probably get one eventually, but that’s a fairly high cost item relative to the amount of storage space it would actually give me on my medium FS frame. I had the Revelate Viscacha seat bag already, but I had to buy a handlebar harness for this trip as it was. Second, since I was going to be camped atop a ridge above 4,000ft all weekend, and I wasn’t sure how far away the nearest water source would be, I chose to pack 6L of water out for the whole weekend. And finally, I needed more storage space in order to fit the race organizer’s gear on the way out.
I slept in my ENO Doublenest hammock with Warbonnet bugnet and Guide Gear 12×12 tarp. At this point, it’s my strongly preferred lightweight sleep setup. The forecast did call for some storms Saturday afternoon/evening/overnight, so the big tarp was definitely part of my plans. Even though it’s bulky and has some weight to it, it’s really worth it when the weather is rowdy.
On race day (Saturday), it was mostly overcast, though the sun did peek out a few times early on. The first racers didn’t show up until just before 1pm, so I had several hours of mostly downtime beforehand. One guy hiked up the social spur trail nearby (racers weren’t permitted to use that one) looking confused. Turned out, he was meeting a buddy to hang out at a different checkpoint and he made a couple wrong turns and wound up at Sassafras Gap. Lots of extra climbing for him, unfortunately. I sent him back down the way he came in order to catch the key turn he missed.
Also saw a group of several backpackers heading down from Turkey Springs along the Parkway. This is the second group of backpackers I’ve seen carrying WAY TOO MUCH weight. This group looked like mostly teens, with the leader possibly younger college-aged. They were mostly carrying pretty large packs on their back, and a few even had pretty large daypacks hung over their chests, I suppose in part to balance the heavy packs on their backs. But holy smokes, I just couldn’t be comfortable with that. I think my first backpacking trip, I carried maybe 45lbs, and that was too much. I’ve since pared down to what I suspect is a sub-30lb total weight.
Speaking of which, I cut some weight on this trip with some adjustments to my water treatment. Ever since this ride, I’ve been wanting to add a light gravity filtration setup.
My MSR Miniworks EX works well when I have to pump from tiny sources, but it’s heavy and pumping sucks. When water is plentiful, I wanted a lighter, faster method. I never got to test the filtration part of it. I filled the new Platypus Hoser bladder (which will be my “dirty” bladder) with fresh water for my extra 3L for this trip.
At around 9am or so, when I was making my breakfast and coffee, I heard quite a commotion in the brush behind me some distance. I turned around and stood on a log for a better vantage, and looked for a few minutes to try to identify the source. Turns out, a smallish black bear was the source of that crashing. First I only caught a glimpse of black behind some trees, but it eventually came out into a more open area where I got a clear view for a fraction of a second. It was absolutely hauling ass. I like to think it caught a whiff of my BO and ran for the hills. No time even for a picture attempt. It’s the first bear I’ve seen in the area since moving here (but it’s definitely not the first black bear I’ve seen in the woods).
That sighting kept me on my toes regarding food security for the rest of the weekend. I brought my ursack with OP saks, and it turns out, that may have been unnecessary. When the racers started showing up later in the day, I noticed that they were dropping a lot of trail mix and whatnot while they fueled up for the next leg of their race. At that point, I really felt like my own attempts to keep my food secure were kinda moot. I don’t think I had any other visits from large wildlife over the weekend.
Aside from those few events, I got pretty bored while I waited for the racers to show up. I had grand plans of bringing a small solar-powered radio along, so I’d have some tunes. But during my gear checks before leaving, I learned that the solar panel was dead. The hand crank worked to give the radio a charge, but I wasn’t going to spend all day cranking so I could enjoy some music. And I didn’t want to bring my ipod and portable bluetooth speaker, since I was pretty sure I’d drain the batteries before the day was over, and I didn’t really have a good way to keep them charged long enough. A small, portable solar panel would be useful in situations like this…but how often would I be using it? Infrequently enough that I have a hard time justifying the purchase.
So, I wound up taking quite a few pictures of wildflowers and insects and such. Of course, my phone deleted a bunch of it (including some recordings of bird songs I wanted to revisit for identification when I got home). So only a few made it.
The first several racers into the checkpoint were pretty serious bidness. Check in, quick bite, and back on the course. As the day rolled on, racers lingered a bit, and I started seeing some gaps between teammates, as one rider was stronger than the other. Those teams definitely lingered longer, so that they could recover a bit before getting back on the course. Later teams also spent a bit more time strategizing about their approach to their next checkpoint(s). Maps came out, conversations ensued. Some teams made questionable decisions with race-brain. You can read a pretty entertaining account of one team’s race here. I get an honorable mention near the end of Part 1 of their race recap.
Most of the riders hit the Sassafras Gap checkpoint between probably 1:30pm and 2:30pm, with teams coming in at a trickle after that. The last team rolled in right as I was boiling water for dinner at 5:30pm. Makes me curious how they finished.
Right after the last team left and I got my food rehydrated, the rain started. It was kinda light and steady at first, but then became spotty for awhile. It got a touch cool out, so I climbed into my hammock early, mostly to get out of the rain. I browsed my bird field guide (iBird Pro Android app) trying to identify some bird calls for awhile before I got sleepy enough to nod off. I was awakened sometime in the middle of the night by occasional thunder and some heavier rain. I stayed pretty cozy in my hammock, but it took me awhile to fall back asleep.
It was pretty brisk when I woke up in the morning, but it was clear and sunny and the birds were pretty active. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning. None of my pics can do it justice.
After breakfast and coffee, I started packing up camp. It took me awhile, because I had some extra gear to deal with. I found a millipede “friend” while collecting my things.
I had to organize things a little bit differently this time. Instead of 6L of water, I was down to about 1.5L-2L. Most of my food was also eaten, so all I had from that was some fairly light (but somewhat bulky) trash. But instead of those things, I had a surprisingly bulky tent, extra first aid kit (I ride with one of my own), clipboard, and timing chip scanner. The organizer’s tent didn’t fit very well in my back, so I wound up packing that in my handlebar harness along with my sleeping pad. My down quilt (which was on the harness on the way up) ended up going into my pack with the clipboard and trash. Hammock kit went into the seat bag, same as before. The extra couple pounds on the handlebar harness seemed to make the bike handle a little more balanced.
Being largely downhill, the riding was pretty easy. I still had to walk some of the weird rocky seep sections because I was topheavy, but no big. It was a super relaxing morning ride. It was incredibly beautiful out there that morning.
The overnight rain, if anything, improved trail conditions. They were pretty dusty on Friday on my ride up, and the racers continually mentioned that the dustiness made the trails a touch sketchy on Saturday. The rain made the trail surface just a bit tacky. Spots that were muddy (around seeps) on Friday were still muddy, and the rain didn’t make anything muddy that was dry on Friday. Just a perfect amount of rain, IMO.
Again, the bike handled great when loaded. Being a little more familiar with the handling, I rode quite a few more technical spots that I walked on my climb up Laurel. Log-overs were super easy. It was just a great ride. There was a couple about to climb up Laurel when I reached my car at Yellow Gap. I let them know the condition of the trail, and informed them that I cleared all the spiders off going all the way to Sassafras Gap. I think they were appreciative.
Overall, I had a great time volunteering for the event. The racers all had great attitudes throughout the day. I brought a little bit of food for handups, and the racers were pretty appreciative. It was just about enough, and in light of that, I’m glad I was running an optional checkpoint instead of a mandatory one. If I was mandatory, I’d have probably needed twice as much food, I think. If I do this again, though, I think I’ll put some more effort into finding friends to hang out in camp with me, rather than sitting around solo all day Saturday.