TNGA 2015......sweet, sweet suffering
Pre-race - The Nerves
Backside of a cue sheet I made. So true.
Photo credit: Mulberry Gap
I sit here writing with swollen legs, numb fingers and a chapped ass. I am happy to be home with family but I long to be back on the bike in the solitude of wilderness.
For those not familiar, the
is a 350 mile off-road bike race across the northern mountains of Georgia. Starting at the South Carolina border and ending in Alabama. There is mixed asphalt, gravel, doubletrack and singletrack but make no mistake.....there is an enormous amount of climbing involved, totaling 56,000 feet. That is over 10 miles of vertical elevation; the equivalent of climbing Everest early twice. The
was set by Eddie O'dea in 2013 with a time of 1:14:57. My goal was a sub-3 day finish.
In the weeks leading up to the race, I was going nuts. My training plan was starting to decrease in volume to give my body a chance to completely recover before the TNGA. A month before, I was putting in 20-24 hour weeks of intense riding to get prepared, and then the last couple of weeks cut back to around 10 hours. To fill the time, I spent countless hours going through my packing list. Laying things out, adding things, removing things. What did I really need? What is a nice to have? For my first bikepacking race, I was taking the "I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it" approach.
My pack list for TNGA was essentially the same as the practice run I made earlier in the month. You can read about that here:
The Wednesday night before the race I headed up to Birmingham and stayed with friends Sean and Danielle. We ate
some smoking indian food, then
stayed up for a while making some last minute changes. The next morning we packed up and headed to Crestwood Coffee to get some breakfast with Danielle and our friend Tiffany on the way out of town. The 3.5 hour drive to Mulberry Gap flew by as Sean and I discussed everything we had already talked about....not knowing exactly what we have gotten ourselves into.
Despite the fact that I had been to
only once before, pulling into the driveway felt like I was returning to a second home. Cool people, great food and sweet trails right out the back door. We checked in with Kate and chatted for a while before heading down to the barn to see if anyone else had rolled in. The first person we ran into was a talkative and entertaining fella named Monte Marshall. He had done the TNGA many times before and had many war stories to tell. One thing I vividly remember is him talking about how these new guys would pack out their bikes with 50 pounds of gear and then regret it on the first climb. I am that guy.
All smiles from this guy
Our cabin wasn't ready, so Sean and I decided to get a quick ride in. He had never ridden any of the Pinhoti trails so I took him down the gravel road and onto section #2. Easily my favorite trail in the Cohuttas. The trails were a little wet from the previous day's rain, but very well drained. We had lots of fun and got back to Mulberry just in time for dinner.
The meals here are just as good as the riding; we ate a h
uge salad, roasted potatoes, flank steak, pork tenderloin and soft bread. After dinner, we unpacked the truck and sat around with some others telling more stories of the TNGA. I crashed hard with dreams of all-day riding.
The next morning, we hopped out of bed and headed up to the barn for breakfast. Bacon, eggs and the best waffles you have ever had. So good. Fueled up, we started sorting our gear in preparation to shuttle towards the South Carolina border that afternoon. More and more racers started to trickle in. I wanted to get a quick ride in and asked around to see if there were any takers. A really nice dude from Savannah named Bill Bailey said he would be up for it so we set out on an easy 8 mile gravel loop. We chatted about the TNGA and other bikepacking routes he had been on. He told me about the Huracan 300 and CFITT in Florida.....both of which I'll check out for 2016. Back at Mulberry, I got cleaned up and packed up for the east bound trek.
Get the tots
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
There were a couple of options for shuttling to the starting line in the east. Brett Davidson, whom I made friends with on my previous trip to Mulberry, offered to give Sean and I a ride. This beat the shit out of the other option, piling into the church van, so we quickly took him up on it. We spent some of the ride with Brett telling us about how brutal the route was. I knew part of this was drama mixed with some sober reality.....Brett's style. On the way to the yurts we stopped at a restaurant in Clayton called the U-Joint and ate burgers. While there, some of us decided to order something to go so we could eat another meal before lights out.
Getting to the yurts, Sean and I made a beeline to one of the smaller units that only had three bunk beds. Less people, less noise, more sleep. Some of the other yurts had up to eight bunkbeds......no way, no how. We hauled our gear in and set out the kits that we would be wearing for the duration of the race. I had once thought I would take a second set of bibs to keep my ass happy, but I found during my test run a few weeks ago that this was completely unnecessary for a 3 day journey. We were joined in our bunk house by the infamous Monte as well as someone with a really interesting story.
Yurts were really nice
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
Ryan Brown made his way to the race start via bus from Pittsburg to Chattanooga, and then rode to Mulberry Gap. He had some really great stories about bicycle touring from Canada to Central America over a 10 month period. The next journey on his list struck me with much jealousy. In a few months, he plans on picking up where he left off in Central America and making his way down to Tierra del Fuego. When Wendi and I traveled to Argentina earlier this year, I was completely enchanted with the thought of riding the length of Chile and Argentina by either Ruta 40 or Carretera Austral. This guy is doing my dream ride and then some.
Awesome food, early chatter.
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
I tucked into my sleeping bag on a top bunk and drifted away. I have never had much issue sleeping the night before a big race, and this night was no different. The alarm went off at 5am and I hopped up, trying to sneak out of the yurt as quietly as possible. I walked over to the dining hall to see I was the first rider in there with Andrew, Brett and Kate. The food was starting to come out so I started grazing. Bagels with cream cheese, some fruit, coffee. The second course was eggs and bacon. Beating the rush, I headed back the yurt and grabbed my kit and toiletries to occupy a bathroom for a few minutes to take care of business and don the spandex I would hopefully be wearing for three days or less. I filled my water bottle and my 2.5L bladder in the kitchen sink. Sean and I quickly got our bikes loaded up on Brett's car and there was plenty of time to chill before we set off to a non-descript parking lot on the GA/SC border. Nerves in camp were getting high.
Sean and I....riding buddies 4 life
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
The drive to the start was a pretty quick 45 minutes and conversation was light. Brett, being the awesome tour guide he is, pointed out significant mountain passes and waterways on the way. We pulled into the lot and hopped out of the car sizing up other racers who had not been staying with us at the yurts. It is pretty
to see the wide variety of bike setups. From the ultra light side of the spectrum carrying only a few bottles and maybe a small saddlebag to the fully loaded bagged out variety. I would say I fell into the latter. Some wore backpacks but most did not. I do not tolerate weight on my back very well, so I definitely did not go the backpack route. I only carried a large bottle with Tailwind in my middle jersey pocket and a smaller shorty bottle in my right jersey pocket to carry reserve water. My phone was typically in my left jersey pocket unless it was raining or when I was charging it.
Just before the start at the South Carolina border
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
There was a lot of nervous milling around and short conversations at the starting area. Everyone was making last minute checks and tightening down their loads. The only final adjustment I made was putting a few extra pounds of air in each of my tires as they felt a little soft. From the back of a truck bed, the race director Derek Kozlowski gave a quick recap of the rules and route and asked everyone to line up on the bridge. Once lined up and without much fanfare, a subtle "ready, set, go" was commanded by Koz. Everyone clipped in and rolled out at a very mellow pace. The small crowd of supporters on the bridge cheered us on and that was it.......we were off on a 350 mile journey.
All year long I had been training with a power meter. This became my best friend in knowing what kind of an effort I was capable of sustaining for different periods of time. With much practice, I had determined that my all-day pace was between 200 and 220 watts. Rolling up some of the early climbs while we were all warming up, I really focused on getting a feeling for what this effort felt like out here. I'm not one who is glued to the screen constantly, but I will occasionally glance to see where I am. Conversations up the early climbs were nice. Up front, I chatted with Chad Hungerford about his experiences with this route and he actually remembered reading a blog post of mine from a couple weeks back. Super humble guy.
The feet were never dry....
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
The early climbs weren't bad at all, but I dropped off of some of the riders who had packed lighter. Never in the entire race did I regret p
acking what I did, but I definitely have goals to cut weight. Miles ticked by pretty quickly. Although finding the entrance was difficult, the Darnel Creek trail was great fun....very rugged, rough cut and some blowdown to hike around. Some sections followed water and were a little slippery. The Rabun post office w
as passed without stopping. At some point we were cooking down a gravel road and I noticed there were some familiar cars parked on the side of the road and my garmin was telling me I was off track. I didn't remember seeing a turn but headed back to see where the route was supposed to go. I remember being told about a water crossing where you couldn't see the trail until you ventured out into the shallow bottoms and this had to be it. I plunged into the water and was surprised to see Brett and Kate standing in the water tucked up under the trees on the shore to the right. I started laughing at them when I spotted them, stopped pedaling and stopped for a minute to chat with them in the middle of the river crossing. I spotted where the trail picked back up across the stream and headed that way. I believe this was the last time my feet were dry most of the route.
One the few easy descents
Shortly after this, we popped out on to highway 76 for a shallow road climb. I was accompanied by a singlespeeder named Matthew Sweeney and another fella named Phil Canning. Researching from years past, I knew that we were about to come upon a place called Top of Georgia Hostel. In years past, people have camped out at the end of the driveway offering riders ice cold cokes and peanut butter sandwiches. I could almost taste the bubbly sugar rush of the Coca-Cola, but was disappointed to see the driveway vacant. Oh well.....only about 45 miles to Helen. Luckily, on the way to the yurts the day before we drove along this same stretch of highway. I heard that finding where the trail jumped off of the highway could be a little tricky to find, so I asked Brett to drive slow so we could pick it out. And there it was.....just after a break in the guardrail, a trailmarker with the number 164 on it. Finding it on this day was very easy after spotting it the previous day. Matt, Phil and I turned onto the trail and headed down some singletrack for a while before dumping back out onto a gravel road. The road made its way down the mountain and we decided to stop in at a campgroud to top off on water and grab a bite to eat. The park had a pretty well stocked camp store where I grabbed a can of sardines and a snickers bar. I scarfed the oily fish down in the parking lot and ate the candy bar on the road. Weird combination but it definitely satisfied.
Somewhere down the road we turned off the fairly busy Unicoi Turnpike and onto a really nice gravel grade. I knew that just before Helen there was an infamous climb named Tray Mountain. I asked Matt if that was indeed the section we were on and he confirmed. After about 800 feet of climbing the road headed down for a little relief. No way that could have been all there was to this legend of a climb. I caught up to Matt and asked him if that was it. He said that sadly, it was not. He explained that Tray wasn't necessarily a hard climb but a relentless one. Pedaling on, I found this road was cut like many other big climbs I have encountered. Up, up, up.....curve or switchback, up, up, up.....repeat. It was a pretty pleasant climb with a consistent grade that allowed to you stick to one gear and just grind away. Eventually the gravel gave way to a open red dirt parking lot of sorts. There were quite a few trails that shot off in different directions. Luckily Matt was right there and pointed me in the right direction.
The first trail down the backside of Tray was my first real taste of the difficulty of TNGA. Going down is just as hard as going up. The first section down the back of this mountain was a very rocky jeep road. My heavy bike wanted to go fast, but you really had to maintain your speed so you had the time to pick a decent line through the chunder. After a few miles, this gave way to another parking area that looked very similar to the previous one. Matt said this is where the notorious Hickory Nut Trail began. Once again, there were a few roads and trails that left from this parking lot so it was nice to have an experienced guide with me. Hickory Nut was fairly well covered with canopy and the sun was starting to go down, which made picking a good line through the singletrack a little difficult. To add to this, there were big rocks strewn everywhere on the trail. Like head sized rocks. Just sitting there in the trailbed. Misplaced. Evidently these rocks got here from bears and wild hogs flipping them over looking for grubs and whatever else bears and hogs eat from under rocks. By this time, I am starting to feel some of the fatigue of the day wear on me, and it takes all of my concentration to either not run off the side of the trail and spill down the mountain, or smack into one of these nice sized rocks and eat shit. Before I knew it, I was back on asphalt and descending towards the town of Helen.
should be just ahead.....and then I whizzed by it on the right. I turned around and then headed up the gravel driveway to this oasis, where I was greeted with cheering and cowbells. Just short of 100 miles into this epic journey.
This guy loaded up on waaayyyy too much sugar at Woody's
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
Rolling into Woody’s I racked my bike, pulled off my helmet and gloves and made a line straight to a tub where they had some glistening red cans of Coke iced down.
Cracked it open and took in the refreshing nectar, limiting myself to little sips although all I wanted to do was chug it.
I found a seat at a picnic table next to Matt, who had gotten there a few minutes before me, and walked over to see what the food offering looked like.
I grabbed a plate of eggs and a few pieces of bacon for my first course, and then went back for a bagel with cream cheese, a banana, some pickles and topped it off with a piece of cake.
I sat around chatting with some of the other racers for some time.
Justin Hurd informed me that his race was over as he blew his fork out.
Next to the shop, I saw this wild haired kid named Sam Harney working feverishly on his rear tire, pulling a brand new Schwalbe out of packaging.
I remember passing this guy early on where he was working on the same wheel.
As I was washing my bike off and cleaning up my drivetrain, I gave Wendi a call at Mulberry Gap to let her know everything was going great.
Bike cleaned, I topped off my water and packed a few to-go snacks to keep me fueled for the ride ahead.
Back on the road, I knew the infamous climb over Hog Pen Gap lay ahead of me.
As the sun was setting I started heading up this paved climb, but I soon found that I just couldn’t get my legs under me.
I started getting passed by other riders, and I had to stop a few times to take a break.
hen it dawned on me that I made a total rookie mistake back at Woody’s by gorging myself on entirely too much food.
All of the blood in my body had evacuated my legs and instead was focused on digesting the immense amount of food I had just loaded in my stomach.
I slowly continued up the climb, taking breaks as I needed and eventually crested the gap.
Just as I hit the top, the sky was starting to light up with a crazy amount of lightning and crashes of thunder were stealing the quiet silence of the night.
This continued during the screaming fast descent down the backside of the gap, and I was just hoping that I could make it to Vogel State Park at the bottom before the inevitable rain set in.
Surprisingly, there was no rain yet with all of the noise and light in the sky.
I started to see signs for the park, and began thinking whether I should just push on past Vogel to the next mountain pass.
I decided to swing into Vogel to finish letting my food digest and see what this storm did.
Pulling into the registration building, I saw a couple of other racers sitting on benches next to a glowing red coke machine.
Hank Campbell, a teammate of his and a young kid from the Sewanee Cycling Club named James Dunaway were all talking about how far they were going to push on when I rolled up.
I sat on a soft patch of grass and pulled out my phone surprised to see I had a few bars of LTE.
Opening up a weather app I couldn’t believe that it only said that there was slight drizzle in the forecast for the next hour.
Maybe this was just a big electrical storm?
I was really on the fence as to whether I was going to push on over Wolf Pen Gap or sit around and see what this storm was going to do.
The trio I was chatting with decided to push on and I resorted to finding a place to rest for a few hours.
On the way into the park, I remember seeing a pavilion with some picnic tables.
This looked like a perfect place to stay off the ground and out of any rain that may head our way. I peeled off my kit and put on a pair of running shorts, some thick wool socks and my rain jacket.
I threw my buff on my head and laid down on the picnic table.
Before crashing out I drank a couple of liters of water as well as a serving of
I set my alarm for 3:30am and started to snooze off.
Somewhere in the middle of the night the wind picked up and the rain started.
I pulled my bivy out of my seat bag as I was starting to get a little cold and zipped up.
The sound of the rain actually made it a little easier to get some rest.
Every once in a while, I would wake to the sound of thunder or a set of squealing brakes of another racer pulling into the park.
Breakfast of champions
Around 3:30am I woke up to the sound of the alarm on my phone.
The rain had stopped and it was nice and cool.
I packed up most of my gear and headed over to the laundry facility at the park to dry my wet kit before getting on the road for the day.
After the torrential downpour just hours before, I was actually surprised there wasn’t a racer sleeping in the laundry room.
I put my kit in a dryer and ate a breakfast of canned sardines and a Belgian waffle, washing it down with two packets of Via instant coffee poured in a bottle of cold water. I was starting to feel pretty human.
I grabbed my kit from the dryer and slipped the warm, dry but stinky kit on for another day of pedaling.
As I was getting packed up, a few other racers followed the light into the laundry room and happily threw their wet clothes into the dryers as well.
I spent some time chatting with Chris Joice, Peri Garite and a few others. Knowing that Chris had done the route before, I asked him what he thought the Aska trails would be like after getting a bunch of rain. The answer wasn't awesome.
After getting back on course you almost immediately turn onto Wolfpen Gap Road. Getting into the climb, I was pleasantly surprised at how well my legs were feeling and that it was a pretty consistent grade. After about three miles there was a slight relief which I wasn't expecting. After a couple hundred more feet, I
I had missed a turn off to the right so I doubled back. The turn was a little tough to see in the dark, but I found Duncan Ridge Rd and continued climbing on gravel for about a mile before the grade turned down into miles of very fun rollers. A couple of turns were made on the way down passing through some rural residential area and I vividly remember coming to a pretty deep creek crossing, which marked the last time my feet would be dry that day. A few miles later, I popped out of the woods and hit highway 60 where there was a pretty well known convenience store which, unfortunately, wasn't open yet. Bummer. Not too much further down were some really nice and tacky gravel/dirt roads - I believe it was the Cooper Creek area - where I saw at least one person camped out. I found out later that it was to John Hightower.
Pretty cool bridge crossing
Just up the road I came upon a really cool bridge which crossed the Tocca River. Just on the other side of that, I saw a few buildings and the Iron Bridge Cafe, which I heard had great food. It was closed for business. Bummer.....getting hungry. The good news was that the water spigot on the side of the building still worked, so I topped off and back on the road. I was now on Aska Road, so this could only mean I was getting close to the trails. After dealing with a little bit of fast traffic and a stout climb, I was in the trailhead parking lot. I pulled out my cue sheets, looked at the map at the kiosk, and mapped out my course through the network of trails. On this section I was going to have to pay pretty close attention to cue sheets and mileage. I gave Wendi a quick call to let her know I was in good spirits and hit the trails.
Just as I put tires on dirt it started sprinkling. No big deal... I've ridden trails in the rain before. The first few miles on the Aska trails were really nice.....until I turned onto Stanley Gap trail. I had heard that this was a tough climb but that was a huge understatement. In the rain, this trail has significant portions that are completely unrideable. It would level off to where I could remount, I would ride for a couple hundred feet and then round a corner where I was met with extremely steep rock and root stairs. Get off, hike it up, repeat. This seemed to go on forever. Somewhere along the way, John Hightower and another rider caught up with me. We chatted for a while before they went ahead as I struggled up some of the technical bits. I was completely frustrated, but when I get into these types of situations, I rationalize it by telling myself that it will eventually be over. A section or a trail cannot go on forever. At some point I crested the gap, descended down about a mile or so of trail, and then spit out onto gravel for the rest of the descent. Looking back at the effort, it is easily some of the hardest hike a bike I have ever done. A measly 8 miles of trail took my 2.5 hours to complete.....ouch.
After a few more miles, I ended up in a small town called Cherry Log. I remember noting that in this town there would be a convenience store or gas station. Or wasn't Jack's here? I still had some snacky bike food, but I was pretty cooked and hungry for some real food. I tried finding something in the vicinity on my phone but cell service was sketchy. Just when I was getting ready to head back on the route, a friendly face named JP Evans came pedaling down the road. I asked him where Jack's country store was, and he said it was still a good two hours down the road. For a split second I freaked out and then just grabbed reality and JPs wheel and headed down the road. We had a fantastic conversation talking about previous times he had done this route and his experience doing the Tour Divide a few years ago. The riding was pretty easy, mostly paved and the miles just ticked by. We hit highway 2 and JP proclaimed that the country store should be right up the road.
Getting to this store was an enormous mental relief. Opening the door we were greeted by the owners and I was visually overwhelmed. Rows and rows of shelving with packaged foods and coolers full of cold drinks. A really nice lady named Donna told JP and I about all of the sandwiches and hot food they had available, and we started placing our orders and grabbing things off of the shelves. My focus was on getting snacks to refill my feedbag. I grabbed some trail mix, small candy bars and a few granola bars. I ordered a BBQ sandwich and a chicken salad sandwich. Grabbed two bags of chips and an ice cold Coca Cola. As we were settling up, Donna was really sweet, taking our pictures and telling us where we were currently placed according to Trackleaders.
This sign seemed so much bigger.....really. I <3 Cohuttas.
Stepping outside to eat, we saw another rider named Jon Livengood who was just finishing up his stop and packing up. JP and I both ate one of our sandwiches, some chips and a Coke as we shared stories. I was still hungry but I remember what happened the night before after the stop at Woody's so I packed up the rest of my food and refilled water. With a nice 30 minute stop to get refueled, JP and I were back on the road. We were back onto gravel pretty quickly and winding up a really nice gravel grade which I later learned was Watson Gap. At the top of the climb there was a sign I had seen before, which put me on top of the world. "Welcome to the Cohutta Wilderness" I knew right where I was. I had been looking forward to the sweet, sweet singletrack that lies ahead all day long.
Cresting the gap led into a really fast gravel descent down to the South Fork trail. This lead sinto the northern terminus of the Pinhoti trail system. Visiting this area about a month ago gave me some really good familiarity with the trails in the Cohuttas, and I was having a great time ripping down the mountain. A couple of rollers led up to the Mountain Town overlook and then DOWN Potato Patch dropping into the Bear Creek Trail parking lot. Lots of technical descending on the spur and then great riding on the main trail. The best thing about these trails is how fast they drain after a good soaking. Nice hard trailbed, lots of elevation and great design make these trails so much fun to ride. Before I knew it I was on P2, which is easily my favorite trail in the system, and I was feeling great. When I popped out onto gravel I knew I was just a few miles away from Mulberry Gap.
Feeling good.....should have hit P3
photo credit: Mulberry Gap
Cruising down the road making my way to my stop for the day, I saw a silhouette in a black hat at the top of the road. I knew right away it was Brett Davidson, snapping pics. I stopped and chatted with him for a bit, talking about how miserable Stanley was and how awesome it was to get to the Cohuttas. Making my way down the road, I really considered skipping Mulberry Gap and just getting into P3. Next year I will probably make the skip, but for this year it was a nice planned stop to get a good meal, cleaned kit and a most excellent surprise to see my wife when I climbed up the driveway. Pulling in, I was feeling really good and it was nice to sit down and chat with some other racers that were taking a break at the Gap. Scott
was there taking it easy, JP rolled in a while later and Eddie O'Dea was there hanging out.
After eating and changing clothes, Wendi and I got a few hours of sleep in the cabin. I set my alarm for 2am but somehow missed it and woke up at 3:15. Eek! Got up, got dressed, ate a light breakfast, kissed Wendi goodbye and hit the road. I could have used a LOT more sleep and really did not feel like getting on the bike, but once I got my legs spinning my mood quickly changed. After following the gravel road back to the trails I got onto Pinhoti section #3 (P3), which was pretty climby with some really tight switchbacks. My mindset getting into this section was to take it easy to get good and warmed up, and that worked out really well. I cleared lots of spiderwebs and was surprised by some bats swooping into the beam of light from my helmet light to snatch attracted bugs. Close to the end of P3 I saw a light coming towards me. This was really weird.....5am and someone coming up this section of trail wasn't quite right.
When I caught up to the light I was surprised to see it was JP Evans. I sat and talked to him for a couple of minutes, and it turned out he had gotten turned around somewhere at the bottom of P5 and accidentally backtracked up the mountain. He had decided to head back to Mulberry Gap and pack it in, completely smoked and mentally exhausted. I tried to get him to grab my wheel and come back down the mountain, but it was a no-go, which really bummed me out. Wrapping up P3 and popping out onto highway 2, I had a bit of trouble finding the trail entrance for P4 in the dark. I had to pass by it a few times before catching a reflection off of a turkey foot trail marker. I was getting good and warmed up, and feeling amazed at how well my legs were feeling with 200+ hard miles in them. P4 went quick, rolled down Tatum Lead and into P5 which is a great section of trail. Not at all technical, mostly flowy and quick. One thing I remember about riding this section of trail was that it felt very "bear-y" for some reason. Pretty low lying trailbed, very dark from canopy cover, creek crossings...
just felt like a great place for bears to hang out. I was disappointed that I didn't actually see any bears.
Peeples Lake road led into a really awesome, easy to miss newer section of trail called Dennis Mill (nothing actually says this though). From previous riding I remembered a white trail marker on a tree to the left, and there was a broken Stihl bar cover at the base of the tree. It should also be noted that a ton of trees on this trail have orange spray paint on them, which I can only assume was used to mark out the trail when it was being built. Mostly downhill, machine cut with tons of flow and speed are the trademarks of this section of trail. The sun was starting to come up which made riding this trail even more fun. After about 3.5 hours after leaving Mulberry Gap, the trail dumped out onto a two lane road and I knew the next section was a flat road ride to get over to Dalton.
Soup.....easy on the
before a big climb
Although the profile of the 20 mile section looked relatively flat, it had enough curves and rollers to keep it interesting. Little did I know I would be begging for some easy asphalt in the coming hours. I rolled into
in Dalton around 11am and was a little surprised to see it was so quiet. I was greeted at the door by the race director Derek Kozlowski, who grabbed my bike and threw it up into a workstand to get the drivetrain cleaned up for the final leg of the journey. When we were chatting, he mentioned that I would be done in about 12 hours. Huh? 12 hours? This was the first sign that I had grossly underestimated the difficulty of the last 75 miles ahead of me. While he was working on my bike, I freshened up and walked across the street to Panera Bread. I grabbed a soup & sandwich and sat down inside to enjoy my chicken noodle while deciding to save my sandwiches until after I got back on top of the next mountain.
I walked back over to the shop, refilled bottles, packed up and headed out the door thanking Derek for the service. Just a little more road getting out of Dalton and then right up a very steep climb for a couple of miles on Dug Gap to get to the top of the ridgeline. I found the start of the trail, which is a continuation of the Pinhoti trail but called "The Snake", and found a shady spot to sit down and eat half of the sandwich I had picked up down the hill. Evidently this trail claims its namesake from both the fact that rattlesnakes love to coil up on the rocks to sun, and for the way the trail wraps and winds back and forth across the ridgelines. I heard that the Snake was basically 30ish miles of singletrack covered in rocks that you had to pick your way through, similar to the rocky sections of Jekyll & Hyde at
in Birmingham, Alabama. Over the past few years I feel like I have gotten much better at technical riding, so I just locked myself into taking it easy through the tough parts, keeping my head up and picking good lines.
Even a sign welcoming us!
It was slow going through the rocky ridges, which I expected, but overall pretty enjoyable riding. Most of the sections through very technical lines were very straight which made line selection fairly easy. The hardest part was dropping off of one ridgeline and then climbing back up to another. Every one had more of the less the same characteristics, and after a while got somewhat monotonous and boring. Up, ride some rocks, down.....repeat. I wasn't exactly sure where the Snake ended but at some point around 30 miles in I ran into a clearing just before Armuchee Road and looked to my left to see horse stables. Derek and team had mentioned that one of the only places to get water on course on this final 75 mile section was at a stable, so this had to be it. I rolled over and saw a sign welcoming racers to refill their bottles right next to a water hose. I wasn't completely tapped out on water but I ended up taking a little break to grab a bite to eat and top off my bladder and bottles.
Cuesheet says "big stone column on the left"
Took me a while to find this guy....
After a short section of road riding, I was back off-road and climbing up another ridgeline. Another ridgeline? I thought after the 30ish miles of the Snake it was just an easy, mostly downhill, spin to the state line. Not the case. More ridges, more climbing and darkness setting in. Singletrack or gravel ends, cross a road and then back onto singletrack. At this point in the race there were moments where I honestly just wished it would end, but as the air cooled and the stars came out it once again became really fun riding. Complete darkness other than the lights you are wearing and a humbling sense of solitude in the wilderness. On the last few ridgelines there was a LOT of deadfall, presumably from storms that had passed through in the previous week. Some of them were pretty challenging, requiring you to either pick your 40lb bike up and over tree trunks and then climbing your way through, or hiking you and your bike up the slope off the trailbed to find your way around the base of the tree, and then back down the slope to find the trail again. This definitely killed momentum but it did make it a little more interesting.
If I remember correctly, the last ridgeline after crossing highway 27 was mostly doubletrack with fast and fun rollers. This made the miles tick by pretty quickly. The last few miles before dropping off the ridge turned back into twisty singletrack, where I once again started seeing signs of fatbike tires. Scott had to be really close. I was almost immediately on highway 100 and then a turn was indicated which lead to an old rail trail which was assumed by the Pinhoti system. More turkey track trail markers made it fairly easy to spot. Being a trail converted from an old railbed, it was dead flat and mostly straight. Within just a few minutes of being on this section, I saw a faint blinking red light about a half mile or so ahead. This could only be one person! I clicked down a few gears and got on the pedals. It took a few miles to close the gap, but in no time I had caught up to Scott. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked if he was still going to turn it around at the state line and head back to South Carolina and he confirmed that was his plan.
Done and done
After turning up the heat, my legs were feeling really good so I kept pouring fuel on the fire. The rail trail eventually ran out and dumped back onto highway 100. This only lasted a few miles before it intersected highway 20.....the final stretch. I made the right turn and kept it going. This road had mile markers, so it was dead simple to know how much asphalt remained. 3 miles.....a few rollers.....2 miles.....1 mile. Almost there. Keeping the pressure on the pedals. I passed one gas station on the right which by this time was closed. I stood up, dumped my cassette and sprinted across the state line to finish. No more than 100 feet past the "Welcome to Alabama" sign a semi flew past me with maybe only a foot to spare sucking me into the middle of the lane. That would have been a pretty horrible way to finish a 350 mile journey.
I checked over my shoulder for any other oncoming traffic and turned it around to head back to the gas station and call it a night. Andrew was there waiting and we chatted for a while and in just a few minutes Scott came rolling down the road. We reminisced about the past couple of days and talked about his return trip home. The TNGA route had never been yo-yo'd before and Scott was hoping to be the first riding a singlespeed fatbike. What a stud! I was starving, so Andrew and I headed into Rome, GA, to grab a bite to eat before the next rider came across the state line. Once we rolled back into the gas station it wasn't but a few minutes before Peri Garite came rolling through. We all chatted for bit and then piled into the truck and wished Scott a safe ride back east.
It took a few hours to shuttle back to
, but it went by pretty quick between chatting with Andrew and catching some sleep. Once back we unloaded, I ate a half a pizza and a beer and made my way down to the cabin to take a quick shower and pass out. By the time I got to bed I think it was close to 5am and falling asleep was easy. I was surprised when I woke up at 8:30am full of energy and ready to go. Soreness in my legs was starting to set in, but I got everything packed up in the truck and drove up the hill to grab some breakfast on the way out of town. The barn was pretty quiet, but as usual the food was awesome and I was starving. Eggs, bacon and two blueberry waffles. Finishing breakfast, I had a really good chat with Sam Harney about his race, coming in second just behind Chad Hungerford, and all of the other bikepacking routes he has raced. Oregon Outback, Stagecoach and more. The coolest thing about this discipline of cycling is how laid back and humble most people are. I said my goodbyes to Mulberry Gap crew and headed home for the 6 hour journey.
So that was my race. My first bikepacking race. Two days, sixteen hours and thirty eight minutes. Just a few hours under my three day goal. For about 3 days after the race, my legs were pretty swollen so I spent a lot of time rolling, stretching and sitting in my
. The only real injury I sustained was some tendonitis in my left lower leg and almost a month later I still have some numbness in my toes and right pinky. Being on the bike that long, you have a whole lot of time to think. I kind of grouped my goals and areas of improvement into three buckets:
- Lighten the bike. I'll be working on getting a lighter setup this fall and ditching unnecessary items. My hope is to get my loaded rig, including food and water, well under 40 lbs.
- Continue with strength work. For a vast majority of the race I could feel where the core and upper body work my coach put into my plan came into play. I felt much more stable climbing and I never really felt any upper body fatigue while making technical descents (and there were a lot of them) until the last day.
- Increase FTP. First and second day I had no problem holding 220-240 watts while under power. The third day was tough to keep the mojo on the pedals and many times I just felt like I was out of fitness. I'll be working hard with Lynda this winter to get ready for some solid early season races in 2016.
Would I recommend this route? Yup. It is hard......really hard. The climbs are tough, and you get very few breaks on the descents as they are pretty technical. There is a good amount of hike-a-bike through some sections like Stanley Gap, and ridge climbing on the Snake. The gravel sections are really well groomed and the singletrack is so, so sweet. Cannot wait to crush this route in 2016.