Origins of the Red River Gorge MTB 100

In 2010 I went and watched Race Across the Sky 2010 in the theater.  My father-in-law (Tomahawk) recommended that Mandy and I watch Ride the Divide after he saw it on the Documentary Channel.  We watched it, were hooked, and then shortly thereafter heard about the premier of the Leadville movie.  Before I even got home from the theater I had decided I wanted to do the Leadville 100.  Over the next two years as I schemed there was also the idea that maybe the Red River Gorge would be a good place to put on a hundred mile mountain bike race.

Mandy and I had never put on an event before.  Part of my job in Colorado was to review special event permits which included a lot of road rides (including the first two years of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge) and the Bailey HUNDO.  I knew what it took to put together a good event.

We had volunteered at Leadville, the Copper Triangle, the Denver Century and others, and both of us always watched and critiqued the events we participated in.  After we moved back to Kentucky in 2013 we volunteered for the Horse Capital Marathon, I proofed for the Mohican 100, and we began volunteering at trail running events and helping our friends Mike and Brandy Whisman with their Next Opportunity Events.  And in the meantime we rode the KY Century Challenge, the Mohican 100, and did a bunch of other cycling and running events, always keeping an eye on the logistics and the nuts and bolts of how events were being run and categorizing them.  Except for the Next Opportunity Events we always felt like we could do as good or better a job than the organizers.

After we moved back I ran in and then we got involved with the Rugged Red trail half marathon.  I’ve told the story elsewhere, but that fell through.  During the time we were helping Joe plan I mentioned more than once that we should also plan a hundred mile mountain bike race like the Leadville 100.  Joe (supposedly) reached out to Ken Chlouber and invited him to come visit us in Kentucky.  That never materialized.

However, the seed had been planted.  I didn’t have a route.  That had always been the problem.  I had been trying to come up with something for at least a couple of years going back to the time we still lived in Colorado.

6-20-12 RRGMTB

This original version was all over the map…literally
I had chosen the name we ended up with way back in 2012

 

5-22-13 RRGMTB

Before I knew anything about the Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway
I was getting close to tracing it with this configuration

 

By 2014 we were kicking around the idea of putting on a road event.  We invited a member of a central Kentucky cycling club to discuss it with us, but we felt like the meeting was more about maintaining control over events in the area and not really in helping us succeed.  We were told that we—the local cyclists—weren’t welcome to put on a road event in October because it would compete and potentially interfere with a club ride they put on.  The club was made up of folks outside the Gorge geographic area.  We decided no one was going to tell us when we could plan an event in our own hometown, but didn’t want to burn any bridges. At the same time Cliff Cantrell had given me the signs left over from the Tour of the Red River Gorge race.  Those signs were a constant reminder of the unplanned race.

The dream to put on a one hundred mile mountain bike race on my home turf was always there in the background.  I would sit at my computer at work and map routes on Map My Ride, but nothing ever seemed to be a good enough route; too much pavement, too much work to make broken connections, too many sections that would not be consumable for a race audience.

When I rode I dreamed about some day in the future when it would be possible.  I started working toward getting new trails built…looking for opportunities to make connections, trying to work out and develop stretches of forgotten roads and old trails.

In late 2016 it all finally came together.  I had been riding sections of the Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway with the personal goal of doing it all in a single day on my mountain bike.  I wasn’t sure of the exact mileage or route that fall, but when I saw a social media post with a map of the byway and the length listed as “90+ miles” it all clicked.

Over the next couple of months I kept riding little sections of it and trying to map out something reasonable.  There was a progression of course configurations before I finally settled on one that was fairly close to the final route.

11-7-16 RRGMTB100

Back when I was still considering it as a virtual race
This is about 60% of the final course

12-24-16 RRGMTB

With this one I hadn’t yet decided to use the tunnel or
Walker Creek and was still looking at routing through Hollerwood

 

I had been working on new singletrack in the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP) owned by the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition.  I was also exploring possibilities within Hollerwood Park (motorized off-road).  After a couple of rides with friends through Hollerwood they talked me out of using that area.  It was simply too muddy, and there is too much off-road traffic and issues that I wouldn’t have time to solve before a fall race.  At that point we had decided on fall…late September…though I can’t remember if we had announced it yet or decided on an exact date.  But the prospect of trying to build new trail in two different locations (PMRP and Hollerwood) was daunting as I was already having trouble getting help in PMRP.  I decided to abandon the Hollerwood area and focus on one system of singletrack to maximize the distance for the race.

The original format of the race was going to be a virtual, underground, grassroots type race like those in the Colorado Endurance Series.  I had participated in the Cougar Slayer after my first Leadville attempt and I figured that format would work and that way I wasn’t on the hook to a bunch of mid-packer and elite racers who would expect too much.  There would be no overhead on my part and it could just be a way to get folks together to see what the Gorge area has to offer.  Initially my working title for the race was the Red River Gorge Epic.  That never really pinned it down for me.  It left too much unexplained.  But that didn’t matter when it was a virtual race.

Then I heard that Joe Bowen was planning on putting on a hundred mile mountain bike race in the Gorge.  Without really consulting Mandy I put it out there that we would put on the first ever one hundred mile mountain bike race in the Gorge.  I didn’t know at the time if that meant the underground race or a legit paid event.  It didn’t matter.  I had to get it out there.

Joe eventually told me he would bow out, and by then we had committed to a full blown paid event.  From early summer on the race loomed and there were so many unanswered problems that just wouldn’t get solve until early to mid-September.  I had my moments of doubt.  There were a couple of times I did the math and figure I could refund most of people’s money as we hadn’t spent much yet.  And then we bought the finisher belt buckles.  Then we ordered t-shirts.  Then registration was growing.

Folks kept asking if there was going to be a shorter version.  Out of the gate I responded with a resounding NO.  I tried to map a viable shorter option, but nothing materialized that would be efficient without including a lot of extra pavement.  I finally decided it would take a lot more resources to try and put on an event with multiple distances spread out over the region and that it wouldn’t be a good idea.  People still ask for a shorter distance.  I stick to my guns for now.

The course at that time started at 4 Guys RV Park in Nada, then it went through Nada Tunnel, turned west on North Fork Road until it picked up the Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway (DBBB) on Cane Creek and followed it all the way until it hit KY 11 near Zoe.  There the course deviated into Bald Rock to access the singletrack before rejoining the DBBB at Caves Fork.  I was never happy with the section that went into Campton on a long stretch of busy paved road.  I finally decided to explore Walker Creek, which was an internal spur of the DBBB shown on the official maps.  Walker Creek turned out to be pretty amazing.  It’s an old railroad alignment through amazing terrain.  I decided to deviate onto it, picking up a few more miles of off-road and bypassing the bad section or paved road.

A couple of days later I had a meeting with Wolfe County Search and Rescue and one of the members asked how I was getting out of Walker Creek.  I told her, and she said “Oh no, you need to come on down Walker Creek and come out through our property.”  Mandy and I went the next weekend and met with Carol Schoolcraft and walked through her horse pasture and down a steep road through the woods to where it met with the old rail line over two miles further south from where I had originally intended to climb out for a total of six miles on the “rail trail” in Walker Creek.  We had our final course minus the singletrack which was still under construction.

For three years I had been working on trails in Flat Hollow and Bald Rock Fork.  I had a few successful trail days, but progress was slow and frustrating.  I built a lot of trail alone, clearing old logging and oil access roads and establishing treads to form a four mile loop around the valley.  With the help of a few dedicated friends we managed to eek out a couple of miles of actual trail, but I never could seem to get the other two miles on the north end finished.  Finally it came down to needing 0.2 mile of singletrack cut to make the crucial connection to pick up the north side for the race.  I schedule two trail days.  No one showed up for the first one and no one expressed any interest in the second one.  To say I was fed up is an understatement.  I was downright pissed, and burned out, and just tired of begging people to help me.

My vision for the race was to bring more mountain bikers into the area.  I figured if we could boost some interest maybe we could get more people to come help build trails.  I know it’s a long drive for a lot of people, but that’s absolutely no excuse.  The Red River Gorge became an international rock climbing destination because climbers drove from Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus and beyond to develop and promote the routes that have become known throughout the world.  The excuses that it’s too far to come and build trails or come and ride don’t hold water.  And once the nearby Sugarcamp Mountain Trails stated gaining popularity and Cave Run began seeing a revival mountain bikers from Central Kentucky and points west have been flocking to those areas which are deeper into Eastern Kentucky than the Gorge area.  I began to take it personally.  A month before the race I decided I was done building trails.  Someone else could take up the torch.  Four days after the race I’m not sure yet if I’ve changed my mind on that.

9-30-17 RRGMTB.png

Final version of the race course without singletrack section

 

There was one final course consideration to make.  Mountain Springs Road on the Powell/Estill County line was a contentious segment of the DBBB.  Legal access had been tied up in court since soon after I began seriously planning the race.  I held off putting out a course map for a long time waiting to see what would happen.  Finally I put it out with a caveat to be careful riding it for training.  Two weeks before the race and a couple days after the judge determined the road should stay open for public use I rode Mountain Springs road from the 90 mile point on the race course.  I remembered why I enjoyed it the few times I had ridden in in 2013 and 2014.  But it was tough, technical, and it would come late in the day.

In the end I decided to drop Mountain Springs Road from the course because I didn’t want racers to be going in there late in the day into a remote and difficult to access section of the backcountry and risk getting seriously hurt and then pulling search and rescue into a night extraction.  I opted to drop it for safety reasons even though it meant trading those few miles for more pavement.  I still feel like it was a wise choice and will stick with it in future years unless conditions change favorably.

Anyway, the cutoff for registration was coming up and we still had a lot to do with only three weeks to go.  At the last minute registration spiked and we ended up with 102 signed up for the inaugural race.  Immediately after registration closed we had quite a few people ask if they could sign up late, so we decided we’d allow a Friday night late registration at packet pickup.  It looked like maybe we’d have another ten to twenty sign up Friday night.  We mighty actually have one hundred racers start on Saturday morning.

Most of our volunteer and aid station commitments came within the last month.  Almost all of the volunteers confirmed in the week leading up to the race.  In a way that was better for me because I have a feeling even if I had people committing six months earlier likely I would have had to be pinning down the details that last week again anyway.

With each new item checked off our to-do list in that week it was looking more and more like things were going to go extremely well.  By Thursday everything had kind of fallen into place.  On Friday evening I told someone “I’ve done everything I can do to make this a success; at this point its up to the racers and the volunteers to carry it home.”  Don’t get me wrong, Saturday was a lot of hard work, but the ball was rolling determinedly down the hill at that point.  Nothing was going to stop the race.

It went off relatively without a hitch.  We had a few small issues, but really nothing to write home about.  All the complaints and issues raised were things that didn’t affect many people or things we had thought of but were unable to incorporate into the event the first year.  In the end we were both incredibly happy about the outcome and so overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that our hearts near burst with gratitude.

2017 was a test run.  We needed to see how the course was going to be received and I have heard almost unanimous positive reviews of it.  We needed to see if w could rally enough volunteers to make it a safe and enjoyable event and we pulled that off too.  Going forward there is no reasons for us not to pursue this event like a full-fledged mountain bike race with everything you would expect including sponsors and prize money.  And now that we have a successful inaugural event…

The race is a vehicle.  I want to see it improve the communities it passes through.  I want to see it bring sustainable tourism business into the area.  I want to see it support the construction of new purpose-built bike-optimized singletrack trails in the area.  I want the race and any other events we develop to raise and channel money directly into the hands of local young people and to be a conduit between the communities I love and the outside world in a positive way.  And the truth is I would love for this race and other events to be an opportunity for me to get out of office life and back into the outdoors more.  Whether that happens or not is secondary to my other visions and dreams for the race, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I hoped for.

The race is finally starting to wrap up, wind down, and demand less of my time.  I figure in a week or so everything will be organized and put away and folks will stop asking about drop bags and the kudos and comments will taper off.  That’s a good thing.  I feel really good about what we did.  And it was a big WE effort.  Maybe it was my vision to begin with, but I get the distinct feeling it’s not just my thing anymore.  A lot of people are invested in this now, and a lot of people are looking forward to coming back next year.  And I don’t mean just the racers.

There you have it, the whole story, or as much as I care to tell, of how the Red River Gorge MTB 100 came to be.  I’ve chronicled the personal struggles I went through during that time, but that part doesn’t need to go down with this more concise summary of this past year.  If you care to go back and read I won’t stop you, but it’s unnecessary to understand or enjoy riding your mountain bike in the Red River Gorge.

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