Pisgah? Where’s that?
If you didn’t know where Pisgah was back in the ‘90s, you probably do now. Many people have made Pisgah a destination, but probably none more so than Todd Branham.
The Blue Ridge Adventures owner has been exploring these hills since the days of elastomer forks and bar ends, building a lifestyle and a career out of mountain biking, taking a passion for riding and turning it into a success story.
As a kid, Todd grew up racing BMX and skateboarding. BMX racing was huge at that time and laid the foundation for some impressive bike-handling skills.
“I was always on wheels as a kid,” said Todd. “Then I got into BMX so much I wanted a half pipe. So, my dad helped me build a huge 24-foot-wide masonite half pipe with coping on top. From that day on, biking was my thing. That was a pivotal point for me. Everyone was at my house all the time.”
While in college at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, Todd started hanging around the bike shop in Columbia. The guys who work there brought him to the mountains to go mountain biking.
“Coming to Pisgah lit me up,” he said.
Fast forward a few years and Todd was racing mountain bikes all the time, and he was even the S.C. state champ at one point. He was working at the shop in Columbia, and then started his own touring business, Blue Ridge Adventures.
“With the kids in the bike shop, I was kind of the racing hero. They would ask me, ‘Where do you train? How do you get fast? Where’s the best riding?’”
“I would tell them Pisgah National Forest,” and they would say, ‘Pisgah, where’s that?’”
His first touring vehicle was a Ford Explorer that would fit three other people, but he asked his dad for help to buy a 1997 Suburban so he could transport more people, and then he started leading trips in Pisgah. He started running races in Pisgah in 1999, such as the Swank 65, which will be 21 years old this year, and the Off Road Assault on Mt. Mitchell, which will be 20.
These days, there are all kinds of races in Pisgah, but what helped Todd succeed was basically a monopoly on mountain bike racing in the early days. Aside from unsanctioned races, if you wanted to race in Pisgah and have legit bragging rights, then you signed up with Todd.
Mountain bike racing has changed a lot, according to Todd. Back in the day, the forest was just wide open, and he learned quickly that people unfriendly to mountain bikers would remove his course tape, sending out-of-town riders into the middle of nowhere. The sport has become more accepted since then, and it’s no longer just a bunch of hard bodies who want to go punish themselves. And, although Blue Ridge Adventures has a reputation for putting on challenging races, Todd says in many ways that’s just the nature of riding in Pisgah.
In addition to promoting races, Todd has always been an active racer. In 2007, he was the Super D National Champion in his age category. The race format combined cross country and downhill, usually starting with a sustained downhill and including a punchy climb or two somewhere in the middle of the course. It’s no surprise he earned the title; that describes pretty much every Pisgah downhill.
These days, he spends most of his race energy traveling the world to different mountain bike stage races. He’s raced in Africa, Canada, Switzerland, Iceland, Costa Rica, Peru and Guatemala. He likes the discipline of the stage race format, which he says is a thinking man’s game, not necessarily about who is the strongest rider. This year, he is headed to Poland for a stage race.
“I love the ability to view different countries on your bike in a non-touring form. With a race you don’t have to wait at all the turns, but really why I do it is to enhance the Pisgah Stage Race and figure out what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
The Pisgah Stage Race has grown into his flagship event, and draws riders from all over the world. From an economic standpoint, Todd says the event provides a tremendous economic benefit to the county. His racers travel to Brevard for at least a week at a time and they often bring their families. They rent houses and hotel rooms, shop in the stores downtown and eat at the restaurants.
“Now, Pisgah is known,” he said. “People are flying over to ride the trails of North Carolina. It’s incredible.”
Todd’s extensive riding experience led him to another mountain-biking-related enterprise: he is the co-owner of a professional trail building company, Long Cane Trails. Not only did he spend his entire youth hunting down the trails and connecting them on massive rides all over western North Carolina, but trails have pretty much become his area of expertise.
Todd first learned how to build and maintain trails from a local trail builder, Woody Keen. The folks at the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club saw all the volunteer work Todd was doing to help maintain the trails in Pisgah and made him a trail crew leader. Then, his current partner in Long Cane Trails got wind that he was working in Pisgah and said he had some trail work down in South Carolina. At the time, Todd didn’t know he could get paid to build trails.
“I went down there and it lit another fire. I said, ‘You can get paid to do this stuff?’ The next thing you know I am 50 percent owner of Long Cane Trails,” he said. “It feels good to give back to mountain biking in this way, and it’s pretty easy to do as a trail builder. It just feels good.” He said many trail builders get push back on what he describes as “cookie-cutter trails,” but Todd brushes that criticism off when he gets asked how he feels about what some call “dumbing down Pisgah.”
When someone asks me that, it shows how disconnected and impatient they are. People don’t want to remember history. They don’t want to accept there was a narrow gauge railroad all over this forest, and they don’t want to accept that trucks went up and down Black Mountain for logging operations,” he said.
“Over time, those logging routes became the trails we ride today. Their practice for logging was straight up the hill back in the day, and, when you do that, nature wins. Water will erode those steep sections and rut it out.”
His favorite trail project to date is the Bracken Mountain Preserve trail system, which he volunteered a good bit of time in the layout and construction of the trail. Volunteers from the Brevard community spent hundreds of hours coming in behind Todd, dragging rhododendron and mountain laurel down the hill so he could come in with a machine and cut the trail.
“Bracken was the best for me because of the hype it gave to the community and it got people excited,” he said.
Todd is currently working on 2 miles of new trail on the Bracken Mountain property, which is owned by the city of Brevard. One of the projects on Bracken will make the initial climb from the parking lot much easier.
He’s also got some new events he is working on, like a running event and a big gravel grinder further west through North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. His first gravel event, the Dirt Diggler, begins at the Oskar Blues REEB Ranch and goes through DuPont on a tour of some of the paved and gravel roads in Transylvania and Henderson counties.
Todd is a firm believer in a life worth living, which, to him, means following your passions with a plan.
“I think I’m a good story for people,” he said. “When you grow up, people say you can be anything you want, but in reality you’re probably not gonna be an astronaut. But you really can do what you want in life if you have some patience and have a plan.
“I fell into it. I wanted to live and work and play outside. I could have a big old house in Charlotte, but, you know, living your dream is worth it. That’s a million-dollar lifestyle.”