Words by Connie Ferrell // @ConnieFerrellMTB
Race weekend getaway. Amazing views, NC weather, muddy everything, and my first CAT 2 win.
Driving up. Anticipation. The Pre-ride.
Heading into the weekend I had a lot of mixed feelings. I was beyond excited to ride the ever coveted Tsali Trails, but after jumping into CAT 2 this year, I still haven't figured out my place in the much harder world of double the distance and twice as fast! Since this race was a combination of the Southern Classic Series(S.C.S.) which I am competing in and the South Eastern Regional Championship(S.E.R.C.), I expected to have even more competition which adds a little more pressure. I also made plans for Saturday morning in my hometown because the weather called for rain the ENTIRE weekend. This also meant I wouldn't be pre-riding a course I had never been to. These things combined left me with no clue for things would turn out.
After a week of telling people I had no “real plan", Saturday morning it came time for me to finish packing the last of my shit. Tsali called for rain all day for the whole week, until I checked Saturday morning and it said clear. Originally I was going to meet friends for brunch at a local farmer's market because the was no hurry for me to get to there… I couldn't pre-ride anyway. Well once I saw the coast was clear, I frantically packed an extra kit, quickly stopped in on my friends saying “hi" and “bye" in a matter of minutes, and hit the road.
After pushing the pedal for 5 hours, watching the mountains come more into view and the roads become windier, I got to Tsali! The weather was holding out with some sun still peeking through the clouds and I came to find a few of my friends at the trailhead taking advantage of the good weather while we had it. I quickly changed in my “camper”(aka my SUV with home made curtains) and found a fellow racer and riding buddy to go explore!
The trail immediately was noticeably smooth and fast for a mountain trail. I knew it was man-made but Tsali(dry) was flow city! Weaving along Fontana Lake the trail was in perfect conditions to hit every berm and bombing the bench-cut downhill as fast as you heart desired. The pre-ride was crucial because I found many spots where a hard turn after a fast downhill while manageable on a normal day, needed to be fresh in the mind when racing on 3 inches of mud and the brakes only work so well. I got the obligatory Tsali Overlook photo I was stoked on how the days events turned out. I still had no idea what I was in for!!
Raceday. Mental stamina. Topstep podium spot.
Ohhhh raceday. Knowing the crazy day ahead of me, I woke up early to get to the trailhead to snag a close spot to the race course. This came in handy come time to strip 10 pounds of mud-coated gear. While dreary during registration, the rain didn't actually start until it was time to warm up, which meant I REALLY didn’t want to warm up. I still had no idea how many women I would be racing in my field as everyone was taking shelter in their cars or tents. Not much warm-up was happening, and I embarrassingly admit I hardly did at all. My warm up was slowly weaving to the startline in what now was the pouring rain.
They set us up at the bottom of a gravel climb around 200 yards from the entrance to the trail and called out for a holeshot prize if you were the first into the singletrack. As we rolled closer to the startline, with the help of my friend hovering over me with an umbrella(Thanks Hayley!), I noticed it was only going to be me and one other female CAT 2 racer. While bummed more women had decided not to come, I felt my competition, Jenny, would be good as she was from the area and knew the trail well. A lot of times, some people will say “Let's just have fun” which is totally a motto I can go with, but Jenny and I actually decided we were gonna duke it out for the win, and our holeshot prize which was two zipline tickets to the local outdoor center in the area. I was pumped for this!
From the start, it was a sort of a mental game. The wave in front of us took off and we rolled up and he said “5 seconds” which was the oh shit moment to be ready! He called it and I took off, I grabbed the whole and shot and fought the hard climb up into the first part of the singletrack. From the start, you could see the best line to follow was the river of water flowing down the middle of singletrack. Large puddles were everywhere and along swooping turns. Each one I just stood up, leaned back, and hoped it wouldn’t be too deep to throw me over the bars. Around 3 miles in, with Jenny right on me heels the whole time, I noticed my laces on my shoes had come untied and wrapped around my cranks. I had to pull off and Jenny passed. I tied my shoe with a double knot(I thought) and took off again down the muddy trail trying my best to catch up.
Another 2 miles, and my laces had done it AGAIN. I was so frustrated and angry as I knew each time I stopped Jenny just kept creeping further and further away. This time, I simply took the whole wad of mud that was my laces at this point and just shoved it in my shoe under the instep of my foot. Mentally I was slipping and the mud was making even the simplest of downhills a mental strain just trying to hold your line and not fly off the side of the mountain. Mud flinging in your eyes leaving you picking which eye to squint and blink at any given moment, grinding uphills that could only be done seated as to hold your traction, and heavy rainfall just made it seem like this race was going to last forever.
I made it to the overlook and started singing to get in a groove(I do this sometimes). I was thinking it was half-way over and now I just need to let go of the brakes a little, trust the bike and my legs to get the rest of the job done. Flying probably too fast down a descent I came up on Jenny and passed chuckling as we both got our first glimpses of what each other looked like. The final 7 miles winded along the lakes edge where each right hand berm to had turned to muddy slop, the water was falling in waterfalls across the trail, and I think I even saw a houseboat on the lake probably watching us thinking we were all crazy! I started to see the bulb flashes from Mario’s camera which meant it was pretty much over and my laces stayed in place.
I rolled into my first place finish completely exhausted with friends cheering me on from the nearby showers(they were perfectly placed)! I was beyond elated but had no energy to show it and was still trying to figure out how to get the mud out of my eyes. I saw a lot of people had cleaned up and about the time I was going to snag a shower, Jenny finished up her lap and the promoters called over the microphone “Well, this is going to be the best podium picture of the day”. Jenny and I carefully stood on top of the metal boxes with our slick shoes and flashed our smiles!
Hayley Mangum Mathers
My biggest take-away from this weekend was that I LOVE TSALI! From the adoring little town of Bryson City that offered discounts to racers, to Turkey Creek Campground that had ever-lasting long showers, and most importantly, the trail that offers ripping downhills and one-in-a-million views. I know I need to invest in new shows and consider Boas again. I’m thankful to Gone Riding for putting on this race despite the conditions with all the amenities you would expect at a dry race. There were no shortcuts taken, they still brought food, they still blasted music, they created the atmosphere all of us racers crave on an otherwise crappy day. As if I need a reason to go visit other than the trail, I also have two zipline tickets to check out now!
Thank you to all of the people and sponsors that continue to help me grow and build myself as an athlete and person. Thank you Team Massage Envy, Ridge Supply Arsenal, Weevil Outdoor Supply Co., Crank Arm Brewery, Carborocket, Honey Stinger Hive, and the Misfit Mountain Crew. Most importantly, thank you G.R.I.T.S for allowing me to be a part of this rad fellowship of lady shredders.