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Sunday, August 16, 1998 -- Seneca Rocks, Franklin
Gnarly North Fork
Story by Don Parks with photos by Don Parks, Dave McKain and Karen Jones.

[Creek Xing] [Climb Rt33] [N Fork Mtn] [Cow Pasture] [Downhill Finish]

Update: We received this initial report from Paul Buschi's friend Julie Lindsay: "Peagusus (UVA's Helicopter) medivaced Paul to UVA. He got out of the UVA hospital last thursday [8/20], is doing better, broke 3-4 ribs, punctured a lung, broke his wrist and may be having further surgery [on his wrist] on thursday [8/27](yet to be determined.)" We were then updated on August 26th with this message: "Paul has a temporary cast on his right arm, and the potential surgery is to determine whether or not he needs a pin and screws in in right arm to stablize his wrist (which was a clean break-a definite good thing in terms of healing). No nerves were damaged in his arm as a result of the fall, also a good thing in terms of recovery. He had a chest tube in his plural cavity to drain and keep the lungs open so that they can reinflate. The tube has been removed and his lungs are fully healed, aside from the bruising which may cause some pain. He broke 4 ribs and those usually heal themselves. He is out and about today and hoping to return to work within the next day or so at Performance Bike Shop in Charlottesville."

Putting a little gnarly in the Gnarly North Fork right from the start
The Gnarly North Fork 40K mountain bike race was simple in design, head Northwest out of the town of Franklin, climb to the top of North Fork Mountain, ride North across the ridge, then drop down the Northwest side of the mountain to the new Seneca Rocks Visitors Center. So where does the word "Gnarly" come into play? Well, what we didn't mention is that you start right out with a nasty creek crossing and then a climb that is more typical of a mountain stage in the Tour de France than a WV mountain bike race. So, if over 2000 feet of climbing right up a mountain on gravel roads and switch back laden paved highway doesn't blast your legs, how about some brutal single-track? After a mere 10 or so miles of non-stop climbing, you are sent right into rock and root filled trails for another 10. Now that you are sufficiently drained how about a four mile down hill that drops you back down those 2000 feet you gained earlier? Throw in a little rain, and an incredibly steep single-track finish, and "Gnarly" is an understatement.

Just another 2000 foot climb up a mountain in WV
At half-past-noon, under skies that threatened rain at any moment, the mass of riders rolled out of Franklin, but the riding didn't last long. Just out of town, the racers were sent off a gravel road into a patch of thistle. This was far from an obvious route and you would have never known it was part of the race course if it were not for the orange streamers. After slight confusion, the riders dismounted, threw their bikes on their shoulders, and trudged into the brush. It quickly opened up into a wide, shallow creek crossing that consisted of large, smoothly rounded rocks. Riding across was not an option. Once across, the riders were able to re-mount their bikes, ride off through a cow pasture, and back onto more gravel roads to begin the relentless climbing. Climb, climb, climb... that just about sums it up for the next hour or so of riding.

Riders head down the rock strewn North Fork Trail
After the riders finished their lung busting hill climb at the fog covered top of Rt. 33, it was time to head off the pavement and into the woods. (A special thanks to the group of riders, who momentarily put their racing aside to stop and assist an injured motorist who had suffered facial burns from an overheated car.) Following a narrow single-track along the mountain ridge, the trail slowly crept higher up towards Seneca Rocks. While the trail would normally offer a nice view at points, there was no time to sightsee while trying to navigate the difficult terrain and look for suitable passing lanes (which were few and far between). Even if you wanted to catch a glimpse of the valley below a mist/rain hung over the area which limited visibility to less than one hundred yards at times. After passing over approximately 2 miles of single-track bordered by tall vegetation, the racers encountered a challenging rock garden which slowed down even the most skilled riders. At the end of the garden, many cyclists could be spotted off to the side of the trail repairing flattened tires, desperately trying to get back in the race.

Jonathan Martin concentrates in less than ideal conditions on top of the mountain
A short distance beyond the rock gardens the course changed to a double track and made a slight descent where many decided to pick up some speed. Unknown to most, as the path carried down the incline, the going got a lot tougher than it appeared. Under a carpet of green and brown lay many small but jagged rocks which would toss unwary riders around like spit on a griddle. Paul Buschi, leading the race at the time, encountered this section and literally stopped the race. Paul was thrown from his bike at high speed. While the subject of the wreck could not be reached for comment, it is safe to say that it was a nasty (or should we say gnarly) fall by any means. Luckily, the wreck occurred in a somewhat accessible point on the trail where volunteers were able to get a pickup truck with a backboard (which had been standing by) and oxygen tank to the scene. At this point the race became secondary to the safety of the injured rider. More than enough assistance was offered by the stopped racers who helped administer first-aid, place Paul on the stretcher and load him into the back of the truck.

The treacherous downhill was even more challenging in a steady rain
Dave McKain, with WVOutside, arrived on the scene after the crash, wondering why everyone (about 50 riders by then) were stopped on the trail. Since he wasn't racing, he decided that he should lend some assistance to the race volunteers in getting Paul down the mountain and let the rest of the field continue with the day's task. At the time of the writing of this article, we haven't been able to get updates on Paul's status (anyone who has further info please contact us - a lot of people are concerned). It is positive to note that Paul kept on talking all the way to the ambulance and seemed fine with the exception of being a little on the thirsty side (you're not supposed to give an injured person too much water but what if he just rode his bike up an extremely long hill?) and definitely feeling the results of the impact. His brain bucket took a beating, which probably saved him certain critical damage, while it appeared that he sustained a big hit all along his right side and maybe broke some ribs.

The downhill is about to claim another victim in Dale Blankenship
What was to become of the race now that it had been literally stopped in its tracks for the last 20 minutes or more? Many of the riders had now conglomerated in a large crowd with no one having yet passed beyond the scene of the misfortunate accident. Mountain bikers, being the great group of folks that they are, took it upon themselves to restart the racing in a relatively fair and democratic fashion. Most classes of riders used a staggered restart for the racers within their class using what was basically an honor system. Based on a best guess of how they were spaced when they arrived at this point, they allowed the riders in front of them a head-start, then resumed racing in turn when they felt it was appropriate.

As the racers battled down the remainder of the course, in what soon turned into a steady rain, Kyle Dixon (2:40:41), Chris Eatough (2:41:57), and Gunnar Shogren (2:42:39), who had restarted in that order, finished one, two, and three at Seneca Rocks. In the women's competition, the first three to drop down the suicidal single track off North Fork Mountain to the finish were Sue Haywood (2:53:38), Melissa Showman (2:58:06), and Christine Nicholson (3:20:20).

All said and done, the rather strange circumstances that surrounded the day's race, coupled with the fog, drizzle and rain, and the brutal and varied terrain, certainly this race more than lived up to its "Gnarly" billing.

More Ramblings from Dave McKain:

After helping take Paul to seek emergency medical attention, I can only offer personal reflections on the race and the course. This due to the fact that after getting him into the ambulance and returning to the trail to see what had happened, everyone decided to restart the race leaving little old me, seemingly alone on the top of the ridge with the rain starting to come down a little more seriously, and about 12 miles of gnarly, solo riding ahead. Luckily, after passing a few riders who decided to bag early and head back on the pavement, I ran into a young rider who was slightly bonked from the earlier hill climb. To hell with the rules on outside assistance, I offered him some crushed up frosted brown sugar pop tarts and M&M's for which he thanked me. After a few minutes we hit the trail, basically trying to finish out the ride. While I wasn't able to take many more pictures I did get to have a fun ride. The most demoralizing part of the ride was having to climb up the last hill before reaching the muddy/rooty/nasty singletrack leading down to the gravel road and the finish line. I definitely got myself and my bike dirtier than they had ever been (Halleluia for the relatively warm stream close to the finish). By the time I reached the awards table everyone was packing up but thankfully there was still some grub and beverages left over.

Having a biker get seriously injured definitely brought home that while the race may seem pretty darned important at the time, most participants knew that it was much more important to make sure the injured rider was being taken care of before heading back down the trail. I'm glad that everyone was able to keep things in perspective.