Saturday, September 10, 2011

TNGA Day 1

The Trans North Georgia Adventure is a 350 mile mountain bike race across the North Georgia mountains. Racers start at the South Carolina border and then race across the state to the Alabama border. It is a self supported race in the same spirit as the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race. Georgia might not sound like the best choice for a trans state race but with a wide variety of terrain and 56,000' of climbing along the way Georgia might just surprise you.

I went into the race well prepared in my mind. I'd been preparing for the TNGA since spring and had done multiple gear tests and had practiced riding at odd hours and on little sleep. I did two 100 mile Pisgah rides over the summer. I had never done an event like this before but had a hunch about what to expect so I tried to prepare the best that I could. My goal was to set the single speed course record. I knew I was going to face competition but figured I stood a real chance at it but it wasn't going to be easy.

In the two weeks leading up to the race my left knee became inflamed again and I was secretly more than a little concerned that it might not be able to 350 hard miles. When a tropical storm entered the forecast for Monday and Tuesday I made some last minute gear changes and headed down to Mulberry Gap with a head full of questions. There was an odd vibe at Mulberry Gap, a lot of nervous energy, so I kept to myself and tried to relax. I got to bed late and with the shuttle leaving for the start at 4am I was sleep deprived before the race even started.

Two other single speeders were there: Scott McConnell and Mark Sackett. Both are strong riders so I knew I had some competition indeed. My plan was to go slow and steady and to ride for a long time each day. I had never ridden or even seen any of the course before so I was going into it blind. I had my gps with the route and track loaded into it and the cue sheets but had opted not to carry maps. At 8am we rolled over the state line in the middle of the Chattooga River and I settled into dead last as the race started with several flat miles. Last is where I wanted to be as I wanted to let my knees warm up slowly and wanted to test my navigation system. Everyone else took off at what seemed like a blistering pace. I knew I would be catching and passing riders eventually but was surprised when I didn't see the first rider until the second climb, ten or so miles into the race. Shortly thereafter I passed a half dozen or more racers on the way to highway 441 where the town of Dillard offered the first chance of resupply. It was off course and I wasn't planning leaving the route or stopping for a break until I got to Helen at the 100 mile mark so I rolled right past the turn and stayed on route.


I was now 30 miles into the race and from what other racers had been saying the first 30 miles were supposed to be the hardest. Regardless of the amount of climbing I knew for me there was no way the first 30 miles could be harder than the last 50. As I worked my way across some backroads and then through the flats along the Tallulah River I was feeling good. My IT bands had been rubbing and threatening to agitate my knees but that had worked its way out as I gradually warmed up. It was very hot out, pushing 100, but I was drinking a lot seemed to have my electrolytes in check. I was feeling good and looking forward to the race ahead but in the back of mind I was having visions of hanging in my hammock somewhere along the Pinhotti as a tropical storm passed by overhead.

Somewhere along the way I had passed a trio of riders I knew: Matt and Jeff Fusco and Curtis Burge and they passed me back just before I pulled into Moccasin State Park. We would continue this game of hopscotch for the remainder of the race. I stopped at Moccasin for water and more chamois cream (in the end I would go through almost an entire tube of the stuff) and Fusco, Party of 3, were right there with me. Ruth Cunningham pulled in a minute later. Both Ruth and Matt had done the race last year so I took a minute to ask them some questions about what was coming up and where they were planning on spending the night. It sounded like there were two big climbs before we got to Helen and then one big climb shortly after Helen. I made a mental note and resolved to at least top the climb after Helen before calling it a night.

On the climb up Wildcat the five of us stayed pretty much together with me pulling slightly ahead as I walked my way to the top. I rolled over the top and had a nice gravel descent to recover on. Then a short pavement stretch before heading up FR698 which took us right back up the other side of the mountain we had just climbed and descended. This climb was a dozy and I took it nice and slow. I knew Fusco, Party of 3, and Ruth weren't too far behind but no matter how slow I walked they never caught me. Somewhere along the way the sun set and I put on my lights but there were still no lights behind me. Down the backside of Tray Mountain I went with Helen so close it seemed like I would be there by 10:30.

The gravel roads I was riding got very rough and then at what I know now is the start of the Hickory Nut Trail I had a hard time finding the trail and got stumped for the first time of the day. The road I was on ended and there were two old roads to the left and the right. I took the right and it quickly died out and I was off the track. I went back to the gap and took the left road but it too died out and was off the track. So, back to the gap I went. I was 100 miles in and had only stopped long enough to get water all day so I decided it was time for a break. I sat down and called Terri. She asked how it was going and I said good, but slow. She said, what do you mean slow? I've been watching you on the computer and you have been in 4th or 5th place all day. Huh? How can that be? I had thought that everyone else was still in front of me. It never occurred to me that a lot of people had likely gone off route to resupply along the way. I knew I was in front of one of the single speeders but figured Mark Sackett had to be one of the four in front of me.

I then told Terri how I was currently stumped at a section of trail and was thinking about pulling out the hammock and getting some rest and then pushing on to Helen in the morning. She told me it was still early and to take a quick nap if I needed to but reminded me I was prepared to ride long hours. It was 10:30 at night, I was somewhere in Georgia, perhaps near Helen, and had already been riding a bicycle for 14 hours and my girlfriend was telling me to keep going. Now that's support!

I decided to take a quick break and then to just follow the gps track even if it meant bushwhacking all the way to Helen. I hung up the phone, pulled out my safety kit, had a swig of whiskey, got my mp3 player and cued up a 1973 Dark Star for the adventure ahead. Just as I was getting ready to follow the gps track four lights appeared in front of me and Fusco, Party of 3, and Ruth came rolling up. We all figured out the trail together and took off on our first real bit of trail of the race. It was fast and technical and very overgrown. It was surprisingly challenging and I could not have been having any more fun. While walking up Tray Mountain had been a low point, riding Hickory Nut in the middle of the night with friends was a soaring high point. I felt like all of Georgia was mine and I could ride all night! At the bottom Matt Fusco broke his derrailluer hanger and everyone else stopped at Unicoi State park as he fixed it while I pushed ahead.


It was after midnight when I got to Robertstown and the gas station where I so desperately needed supplies was closed so I had to ride all the way into Helen. I didn't want to leave the route but I needed to eat something other than gels and bars for a change. Almost everything in Helen was closed except for the many bars and a single gas station. I managed to stock up on some food and fluid and headed right back out of of town aiming for the top of the next climb at Hog Pen Gap.

It was 7 miles up scenic highway 348 to the gap and those 7 miles tested me like I have never been tested before. The high from the Hickory Nut downhill was completely gone and I was hitting yet another wall. I was completely spent and was walking almost everything. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn't bring myself to get back on the bike. I had my mp3 player on and that helped but didn't make the miles come any faster. Seven miles is a long way to walk and I wasn't surprised when near the top a bicycle light appeared behind me. I kept walking forward and eventually Shey Linder caught up to me. He has started the route several times and got off and walked a bit and we chatted some. He had slept in Helen and was looking strong and fresh and was intent on finishing. Just as easily as had appeared behind me he quickly disappeared in front of me.

Like always nothing lasts and those seven miles eventually ended and I found myself at the top of the hill at Hog Pen Gap. I knew there would be a long downhill and somewhere down there a place called Vogel State Park that was supposed to be a good place to spend the night but it was already 3am and I knew I should sleep soon so Hog Pen Gap it was. If I would have known that bears would prevent me from sleeping I would have probably kept going just a little bit further.

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