The Dragon's Back(a racing tale from year's past)

Back in early 2008 I attempted to slay the Dragon of Roanoke, Va on a singlespeed. This is that story

Like an epic quest of a Paladin, so is the tale of the Dragon. After an all day tour of Roanoke on Saturday we drove out to the race site Saturday afternoon. The race start was some 6 miles off the main road on a curvy, hilly wildlife forest road. It was supposed to be a field that, at least I thought, we could park our cars in and after a few miles we spotted a horse trailer and some port a potties on the left but no wide open field. I thought nothing of it but when we came to a stream crossing that was at least 15 inches deep and 10 feet across, I drew a blank.

NO way was the race going to start on the far side and if it is, I’m having my wife drop me off here in the morning and I’ll ride in. I started to back up but like a good trooper my wife said, “If the race start is on the far side we need to see where it is.” Ok, that settled it for me. Nissan’s were built to be rally cars, right? I told the girls to hang on and gunned it through the stream, water flying over the hood and a look of paralyzed fear on my wife’s face as I could hear river rocks grating the floor boards of the car. With a mighty spin of tires we broke from the water’s grip and clawed our way up softball sized rock that I guess the Forest service in Virginia calls gravel.

My wife asked me the mileage we had traveled and I honestly had no clue. I had figured the start, being the day before the race would be well marked and again I was looking for a field that could support the number of people that would be coming. We came upon a second crossing and I made the executive decision to turn around. I was already worried I had gotten us trapped between two streams on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t even have a bike with me to ride for help as I had left it at our hotel. So with my heart beating rapidly we made our second ford of the first stream crossing and made it through with success. On our way back we found some riders setting up camp at the port a potties and turns out this was the start after all. One of the guys had done the race a few years back and as a racer you just parked on the side of the road and lined the road for however many car lengths it took to fit everyone in. Well, I’ll be damned.

That evening we met Chris Davis for dinner and after figuring a bit of logistics, decided I would ride with him in the morning so the girls could sleep in a little. I was looking forward to a good night’s rest but turns out the hotel we had decided to stay in, had rented out their conference room for a birthday party that started at 10pm and lasted till around 2am. We were only 100 yards or so from the party room and after complaining they said it was rented till two am. “We could move you”. People, do you not understand we have a 3 year old and an 8 month old? Later my wife told me we got a 15 percent discount. Their lucky they had to deal with her, as my kindness would have asked for the night for free. I didn’t rent an all night bar and dance club, I rented a quiet room and that’s what I expected.

Sunday morning after a night’s fitful sleep I woke to grey skies and wet pavement. It had rained all night long but the storm had passed and left temps in the low 50’s and a perpetual gloom that hung low in the sky. I met with Chris and drove to the start. The beginning section of wildlife road had recently been redone and it was crunchy peanut butter slop. We arrived to find a group of 30 or so guys hadn’t pre-registered, signing up. Maxing our class out at close to 50 people. Cool thing was there were about 8-10 other single speeders ready to face the boys with gears. We checked in with the lady whooped up on speed.

Finally lining up for the start and a quick pre-race discussion about the course, we were off to slay the Dragon or at least, ride its spine. Settling in pace on the fire road I let the lead geared boys take off on the attack. I was keeping pace with most of the lead single speeders and had Chris right behind me on his geared 1x9. The peanut butter slop was throwing everyone around a bit but it really wasn’t too bad. After about three miles or so I was alone. The lead group was way ahead, within sight but out of earshot and the remaining group was about 150 yards behind me as I hit the 1st Singletrack of the day. I was able to climb about 300 yards or so of Deer trail and then I was forced to walk. At this point the steepness of the trail wasn’t that bad but you add in the loose rock, wet roots, and thick piles of wet leaves and my Nano Raptor and 32x21 gearing were no match.

A few geared guys settled into granny gearing passed me and then Chris passed. We established a slinky run of passing then being passed until the trail got so steep it forced everyone to walk. I advanced into hike a bike mode behind two geared racers with Chris about four guys behind me, and it would be the last I saw of him for the day. As we ascended the slope of the mountain the air thickened with fog, the temperature dropped, and a fine mist crept upon us. After several switchbacks we finally crested the ridge of the beast. Craggy rock laid all about and the air was so thick with stewed fog that I could barley make out a rider 10 yards in front of me. Occasionally I’d hear a whoop or a piece of shale rock clack against another rock as a rider rode over but other then that I was in my own world of the beast’s spine.

In several places the spine narrowed to just a few feet wide with rocks jutting out of the ground like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and the slopes fell off in 70 degree drifts below. In other places I would temporarily lose the trail as it descended shortly down into one of the slopes and be filled in with leaves of the previous year’s fall. More then a few times, I had to back track to find the trail again as it would round a tree and disappear in drifts of leaves almost as deep as my thighs. Several of the climbs would of been climbable but the leaves being so thick and the rocks that they hid being so loose I would just get off the bike and walk.

Finally I caught another rider. A guy, who I would play slinky with all the way across the ridge, Mr. Trek/ Volkswagen. Where he could walk away from me on the climbs, I would make up for on the descents. Finally after one long descent and another climb I heard, “Hey, bro. I’ve got your jacket. Do you want it or do you want me to carry it for you? I’ve got room in my pack”. My trusty Wingnut pack, which I’ve had for almost 3 years, had ripped one of its mesh pockets and dumped my precious jacket. I thanked Mr. Trek/Volkswagen for picking it up and the offer to carry it but I took it and let him go ahead as I deposited it in the center pack pocket of my pack.

For the Dragon’s tail I searched. The thick soup of miasma surrounded me and finally I started hearing voices behind me. For 5 minutes I heard the cackles and coos like Jackals playing to the shadows while the echo of the mountain shifting beneath their wheels approached me from behind. Finally three singlespeeders burst from the primordial cloud like Jesters coming to entertain, they were merry making and dancing along the trail with smiles on their faces as they passed by. This helped lighten my mood and quicken my pace and soon we had picked up Mr. Trek/Volkswagen’s trail again and we were five.

Finally after miles of craggy rock outcroppings, hike a bike, ride a bike repeats every 100 yards, or so we hit the final descent off the Spine of the Dragon. His tail was curvy, narrow, and fast as a whip. We hit it with our big wheels spinning as fast as we could turn them, hoping to hop off the beast before he could turn on us and breathe his fire down our backs.

The tail had broken our small brigade with two in front and two behind I was alone when I hit the dirt road. Taking chase after the two in front of me I quickly came upon three deep stream crossings that were close to thigh deep, swelling, and surging with the force of what appeared to be, class 2 river rapids. Unfortunately I let Dora take rescue pack for the day and Diego was nowhere in sight so I sucked in a deep breath and plunged through the cold water feeling the current threaten to rip my steel steed from beneath me.

My legs immediately wanted to seize from the cold water sapping any heat and energy they had in them. I instantly went from high energy to struggling to turn my legs over. Just as I was about to catch the two breakaways from the spine, the short steep rises in the road soon became too much and I had to get off and walk my bike for about a eighth of a mile to relieve cramps in my hamstrings and calves. I backed my pace off and was able to remount my bike and make my way back to the start/finish where I had a bag of muffins and more of my Perpetulum/Heed mixed in another bottle. I downed the muffins, switched bottles and jumped off for my second loop starting with another two miles of road and then a steep climb up Grouse Trail.

Grouse for me was climbable for the first half mile or so then it became a hike a bike/ ride a bike ascent of the mountain on a trail that hugged the 70 degree slope in a series of narrow switch backs all the way to the spine of the Dragon’s Back with views for twenty miles to the northwest. At the spine of the Dragon I was met by the Forest Leprechaun. The little man skipped about the ridge as acting guardian of the single track bestowed upon the local townsfolk. I immediately called him out and he was so shocked and awed that I knew his name that he let me pass without a question of my intentions for the narrow ribbon of dirt and rock that lay before me.

A quick bound of the ridge and I was back to Deer Trail. The trail had hindered me at the start of the race with its steep pitches and narrow switchbacks had come back to revisit me now as a friend. I took off down Deer like a flash and imbued the spirit of the trail’s namesake as I sped down the mountain side with reckless abandon.

A quick left upon the wildlife road and a quick right down the Circle of Fire, more aptly named the Circle of Mud and a mile later I was back at the wildlife road cruising towards the start/finish. Just about a mile from the start/finish I passed a double XC racer going the other way who exclaimed, “You’ve got to be shitting me”. The only thing I could figure and almost two hours later learned was this racer was just starting his loop of Grouse and Deer that I had just finished. A half mile from the start finish I spotted my car but no family and with the peanut butter slop of a road being just the right percentage of grade loss I just cruised into the finish area like I was completing a Sunday afternoon ride, my single gear all but spun out. Whew!!! What a race. 36 miles, 8,000 feet of accumulated climbing, 5 hours and 20 minutes out and racing, 18th place out of 50 starters, geared and singlepeed alike.. Chris ended up finishing 24th, 17 minutes behind me, awesome job brother!

My family had just beaten me to the finish line from the car. I learned that my wife had trekked the kids; my 32 lb 3 year old on her back and my 8 month old strapped to her front through a half mile of slime sucking peanut butter slop mud just to see me finish. You go girl!



August 2, 2009 at 9:43 PM

the dragon's back, so hurtful yet fun!


August 3, 2009 at 7:40 AM

I read this before on your blog of past. Great write up, sounds like a blast!

  the original big ring

August 3, 2009 at 2:37 PM

stop living in the past man . . .

when you going to get on that bike and tell us a new story?

Oh, that's right . . . too busy poking fun of the colour pink to ride your bike. Last time I checked, my pink bike was dirty from being ridden.