Stuck In The Snowshoe
Racing With The Coastal Racing GASGAS Team
Story by Trevor Hunter, Photos by Mack Faint & Trevor Hunter
Very few events, especially off-road, are known and respected by most around the country and sometimes even worldwide. Dakar, ISDE, Erzberg, the Baja 1000, and Vegas to Reno are some of off-road’s most prestigious and commonly known events here in America, but one other that might be on that list is the Snowshoe GNCC. No matter what coast you are on, most off-road racers and riders will recognize the Snowshoe name for its annual GNCC race held every year since 2007. Located in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, the Snowshoe mountain is one of the highest points in WV sitting just under 5000’ elevation. Known for its skiing in the winter and mountain biking in the summer, the resort gets taken over by thousands of motorcycle and ATV enthusiasts to host the toughest GNCC of the year.
The Coastal Racing | Bi-Con Services | GASGAS Factory Racing Team invited us out to a GNCC, and with the Snowshoe weekend open on our calendar, we put in a request to visit what they consider the grandest event on the circuit. While I’ve been to my fair share of races and riding spots on the west coast, I have only been to the east coast one time before Snowshoe, dating back to 2019 for Yamaha’s XC model intro. To boot, my riding time in the trees was also very limited with only a handful of experiences spent busting through bark and sliding across slick tree roots. With that in mind, the best prep in my minimal leadup time was to do some desert training and lastly head out to Glen Helen to ride the tightest terrain I could find, though I later found out it had nothing in common with what I was about to experience.
The weekend started early Friday morning at 3AM where myself and Cycle News tester Ryan Nitzen would head to LAX for our early morning departure for Pittsburgh International. A full day of traveling found us arriving on the mountain by 9:45PM local time. After a quick check-in, we stumbled upon the big party taking place in the village square where thousands of people were hanging out with fellow like-minded enthusiasts. Right off the bat, the atmosphere was nothing like anything you’d see at a west coast off-road race. All of the top pro’s are partying and hanging out with fans and the camaraderie is pretty cool. After hanging out for a while and meeting some of the Coastal squad Friday night, myself and Ryan shared a condo right there on the mountain courtesy of Racer Productions and the GNCC crew.
Saturday was spent doing some final bike prep and checking out the impressive Snowshoe facility. The setting is very unique and with the GNCC crew renting out the entire mountain, the activities are endless and the freedom is a treat. Of course, Saturday afternoon saw a trip down to “Howard’s Hole,” quite possibly the most popular mud hole in the entire GNCC circuit. We had heard about it prior to going to the race and knew it was something we needed to see, but it blew away our expectations.
Thousands of “mud fleas” surround a little section where you can get as close as you’d like to the action. Literally. Some fans were doing swan dives into the mud puddles, then jumping onto the course to help the quad riders get unstuck. Meanwhile, the quads are doing burnouts on the fans’ legs and feet and dumping beer on themselves as they attempt to assist the quads through the tricky mud. No video or description can even remotely describe the setting accurately and it’s truly something that must be experienced in person.
After a long day on the mountain, the Coastal crew was generous enough to invite us into the team dinner at the rig Saturday afternoon. Like a lot of things GNCC, the atmosphere is pretty cool around the GNCC pits. Everyone stays at the track, or in this case on the mountain, and hangs out going from pit to pit and mingling with the fans, something we don’t quite get at the same level on the west coast. Again, Saturday night saw another party breakout in the village square, though the bike guys were more mellow and it was the ATV racers and fans who spearheaded the action.
Come Sunday morning, it was race day and the nerves had settled in. I watched some amateur racing in the AM race and supported Nitzen in his Sportsman B effort and all he could say was how gnarly it was. I tried to tune it out so that I could remain confident and not be too intimidated by the terrain up until it was race time. Around 1:45PM, Rodney Tomlin announced the “Tennnnnnnnnnn Seconds” and the top XC1 bikes were soon off the line. A few moments later, I was heading down Snowshoe Mtn. Rd. with some fellow XC2 racers on Row 10.
The course immediately hit the ski slopes for some high speed stuff, but the dust was very thick and didn’t allow for much high speed racing for the first mile or so. We quickly dropped into the trees and funneled into Howard’s Hole. Racers were scattered everywhere and fans popped up everywhere I looked, immediately reminding me again that I wasn’t in SoCal anymore. With fans and race team personnel roaming throughout the area, they were helping point out the good lines to keep me and the other racers from burying the bike in the deep, thick mud.
Once out of Howard’s, we jumped back onto the ski slopes and weaved in and out of some woods patches for the next few miles. Through the first 10 minutes of the race, I thought to myself that Snowshoe isn’t all that bad and that the regulars were right — this is the easiest Snowshoe GNCC they’ve seen in recent memory. However, that all changed as soon as we hopped over onto the other side of the mountain. Immediately after crossing the paved road, we dropped into the thick woods and traversed the hillside on some slick, rooty, muddy singletrack. I immediately began slipping and sliding in every line I went, and losing some positions in the process. Out of the off camber roots, we began descending down the steep mountain through more roots, though more rocks were now thrown into the mix. I immediately retracted my thoughts of this being not so bad and went into some sort of shock.
I’ve never ridden, seen, or experienced anything like the terrain I was now on and it threw me for a loop. Luckily, it briefly opened back up onto a little fire road and I could regain my composure. However, as soon as I caught my breath, we were back into the woods and it was harder than ever. The rocks were bigger, more pronounced, more slippery than ever, and the struggle was at an all time high. For the next 5 or so miles, it felt like it never let up and there was nowhere to hide or catch a breath. As I was riding along, I kept thinking to myself “I can’t believe this is the easiest Snowshoe ever…”
The course was littered in rocks and roots and it was always on a slope, whether it was up, down, or off-camber. Though it wasn’t super wet aside from a few spots and the mud wasn’t that thick or deep, it was constant and enough to make everything really tricky and intimidating for a west coast desert racer. One of the hardest sections was a downhill rock garden that had a couple of twists and turns and the rocks were covered in moss and mud. It was hard enough as it was, but every lap I came through racers were stuck, stalled, on the ground, and everything in between making it that much harder with extra obstacles to deal with. I felt like a ping pong ball through here, going from one edge of the course to the other with very little control over myself and the bike. Nearing the end of the loop, the course made a hard right hand turn up a muddy, wet, rock waterfall straight into a super slick, rocky and muddy uphill, and again, racers were scattered everywhere and those who were stopped in their tracks were being used as traction and getting bounced off of as no one could keep the bike in a straight line.
Thankful that I made it up without too much effort, I hit a steep pole line road up the ski slopes and it brought me back to what I would always see on TV when watching GNCC come to Snowshoe. Again, TV did it no justice and it was much steeper and harder than I would have imagined, though it was nothing a tough desert race wouldn’t go up. It’s what was at the top that was tricky. When skying off the top of the hill it went back into the woods and up what was probably the gnarliest uphill on the 12-mile circuit. It was a little ravine with nothing but roots and rocks leading the way. By now, I learned that Rocks + Roots = 0 Traction. There was quite the bottleneck through here and I only added to it. I had a decent run going until I ran into the back of the next stuck rider and from there, it was me and some GNCC fans pushing the bike up the hill. Seeing the likes of Ben Kelley, Josh Strang, Stu Baylor, and more all struggling with this hill made me feel just a tad better about myself after the race. Surprisingly, I made it up the climb clean every other lap except this first one despite it being in the back of my mind every time I came up to it.
With lap 1 in the books, I couldn’t believe I had another four more to go. I slowly made my way through the pits and was completely worn out less than ⅓ of the way through the race. Following the pits, it opened back up and we hit some pavement and fire roads. Finally, I was back in my element and I started passing guys again. As good as it felt, it didn’t last long as they’d later blow my doors off in the woods and were never to be seen again.
On Lap 2, nearing the end of Howard’s Hole, I crossrutted in the water and went face-first into a mud puddle, soaking my gloves and grips and reminding myself that I’m out of my element. As the laps continued, I never really found my groove and struggled to keep the bike off the ground and maintain momentum. The day prior, everyone was warning me about the third hour and the cramps that come with it and boy did I feel it, though I was thirty minutes early. Halfway through my third lap the cramps started to assert themselves mainly in my legs, though they’d creep up to nearly every inch of my body by the checkered flag.
At the end of my third lap, I finally made it to the pits where the Coastal crew dumped my gas, gave me a gel, and some electrolytes. Shortly after the pit, I ran out of water in my hydration pack. I started with 3 water bottles or 1.5L and I was already out. The heat wasn’t bad in Snowshoe, but the humidity was rough at 80+% as rain and clouds were looming all around the mountain. The lack of water started to get to me and by the end of the lap, I was struggling to get around. Thankfully, the Coastal crew gave me another bottle of electrolytes as I headed out for my fifth and final lap.
The last lap on course was a bit weird feeling as most of the spectators and team personnel had left to go see the finish, and the racers were all very spread out. I felt like I rode most of the lap by myself and was praying I’d make it through everything clean. Well, that prayer didn’t last long as I started to fall apart as soon as I crossed over to the hard side of the mountain. I went to pass a stuck rider in one of the rock gardens, only to shoot off the side of the trail and into the trees. It took me another minute or two to get unstuck and back on course as I was lodged in some trees and rocks and couldn’t seem to get myself unstuck. After finally getting out, I was completely drained. I had no water, was running on fumes, and mentally done as I knew I still had some hard miles ahead of me. About ½ mile later, I ran into a course worker and was able to bum a bottle of water off of him which helped tremendously. I felt reinvigorated and was ready to tackle the last miles of Snowshoe.
3 hours and 46 minutes later, I finally saw the checkered flag. I had never been so happy to finish a race in my life as I just completed the hardest dirt bike race I have ever entered. Snowshoe didn’t hold a candle to any National Hare and Hound, any desert race or Grand Prix, or even most of the Last Dog Standing terrain that I had ridden before. The constant lack of traction for miles upon miles was extremely difficult and something I couldn’t grasp in my near 4 hour excursion on the track. The physical and mental fatigue was something else and proved to be a challenge, though I’m glad I was able to conquer it. After the race, I was elated to hear some of the pro’s say that this year’s Snowshoe was indeed much more difficult than they expected and that the rocks were some of the slickest they had ever ridden on.
Overall, this was an experience of a lifetime and something I’ll never forget. I always thought of the GNCC racers as being some of the best in the world, but I have even more respect for them after this one. The whole Coastal Racing Team was a blast to be around with every single person under the tent being more than welcoming and helpful at all times and it wouldn’t have been the same without them. Lastly, thanks to the GNCC crew for the accommodations and working with us as we were totally new to all of this and were out of our element. I hope to make a return trip to both Snowshoe and maybe another GNCC or two in the near future in hopes of bettering myself and building on this experience! For now, I’m going to continue to have nightmares about those pesky West Virginia rocks…
Stay tuned for a deeper look inside the bike and what makes up a Coastal Racing Factory GASGAS.