Editor’s Note: This is the third part of an eight-part original GP series, The Road to La Ruta, in which contributor Dirk Shaw chronicles his training for the Fool’s Gold 100 and La Ruta de Los Conquistadores — one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. Check back throughout the summer to watch the story unfold.

T
he Off Road Assault on Mt. Mitchell is a 63-mile epic mountain bike race in western North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. Really, the day itself was epic, starting with the beautiful drive out of Asheville where thick fog filled the Smoky Mountains as the sun started to rise. The key word here is sun. The weather in the southeast has been extremely rainy of late, and I was fully prepared to race all day on a muddy course. But mother nature had something else planned, at least for the first five hours of this mid-season race en route to La Ruta.

As you can imagine, my strategy for this race was to go all out (after all, it was a race, and my goal was to win it). I broke the course down into 4 parts, all based on the climbing sections: Kitsuma, 10 miles to peak; Star Gap, 20 miles to peak; Heartbreak, 40 miles to peak; and Kitsuma, 50 miles to peak. Since I’d never ridden any of these trails, this would help me pace myself without knowing what was around the next corner.

road-to-la-ruta-promo-200x75Road to La Ruta is a series of dispatches, essays and features captures the intense journey of a cyclist as he trains for a mountain biking race across Costa Rica and what many consider one of the toughest in the world: La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. Read the series »

The first five miles were on the Blue Ridge Parkway as we made our way to the first climb on the Kitsuma trail. I had been warned that I needed to be in the top 50 out of the 500 total racers when entering the Kitsuma single track or I would be at the mercy of other peoples’ paces. I made it there before the majority of the pack. Kitsuma was a beautiful set of switchbacks that went on for a few miles to the ascent. The reward was some of the finest single track you could find: tight turns, rolling and smooth as butter on my 29er.

It was a high-risk move that could have gone really bad. But it didn’t and the adrenaline made all the pain go away. It was like I’d been given a shot of morphine.

The climb up Star Gap had a few hike-a-bike sections, and this was where the extra energy I expended for the first 90 minutes really paid off. According to the Stages Power Meter I use, my normalized watts for this time period were 247, which is slightly higher than my lactate threshold. The group of guys I was with all rode at my pace, yet we still had to slowly pick our way through the technical climbs. If I had taken it easy at the start of the race and had to do this section with the mass of racers it would have taken forever and been super frustrating.

Two of my mental stages were done and I was feeling great, but I also remembered that the race was not even halfway completed. No time to get overconfident. The Heartbreak Hill climb was next. It started off at a very easy grade, during which I caught up with a guy from Guatemala and chatted with him about La Ruta. Just as we wrapped up our conversation the climb got serious. After nearly two hours, we made it to the ascent of Heartbreak Hill where we had a hike-a-bike section. My hamstrings were starting to twinge with that feeling of cramping, and I immediately reached for my bottle full of Skratch Labs and drank nearly the entire 21 ounces. Stage 3, done!

The descent on the backside of Heartbreak was rooty, rocky and brutal on a hardtail. My triceps and hands went numb trying to hold on. Near the end, I picked the smoothest line in what was the most technical section and cleaned it. It was a high-risk move that could have gone really bad. But it didn’t — it was flawless — and the adrenaline made all the pain go away. It felt like I’d been given a shot of morphine.

It was like Mother Nature knew I was hot and needed to be cooled down.

The final stage was now in sight. Just one more climb. We started the gravel road back to the Kitsuma single track and I was starting to feel the fatigue of going all out for five hours. A couple of guys passed me going up the gravel road; I let them go as I talked to myself, visualizing the finish. I kept it slow and steady as I worked my way back through the tight switchback climbs — and then I was rewarded again with amazing single track. The difference this time was that it started raining. Actually, it started pouring — and it felt great. It was like Mother Nature knew I was hot and needed to be cooled down. As we got off the single track and back on the Blue Ridge Parkway to head back to the finish, the rain kept coming.

I time trialed the entire way back to the finish line hoping to come in under six hours and missed it by 46 seconds. Six hours and 46 seconds was good enough for a 10th place finish in my group and 35th overall. This was a great day on the bike and a milestone race on The Road to La Ruta.

Dirk Shaw is the Group Director at WPP / Ogilvy & Mather. His pursuit of two-wheeled adventure includes training for long distance mountain bike races, commuting to work and ripping through canyons on his Daytona. Follow Dirk’s musings about cycling on Tumblr or his blog for insights and observations on media. @dirkmshaw.