Saturday, September 8, 2012

Trans North Georgia Mountain Bike Adventure 2012

Of course I was completely unprepared going into the race. My idea of training for a 350 mile bike ride was to take the dog for leisurely afternoon jogs around the block and once a week, or twice if I was really lucky, I'd actually ride a bicycle. Just an hour two, nothing too crazy. At one point Terri asked if she should be concerned about my lack of training. Of course not, I'll be fine, it is just a little ride, I reassured her. On top of the lack of training there was also a lack of logistical preparation. In the days leading up to the race I tried to get all my stuff together but before I knew it it was the day before the race and I still hadn't done anything. That Friday ended up being a whirlwind of scrambling to try and buy what I needed and get everything packed. Copious amounts of beer were had and the night ended with me deciding in a blur that whatever was in the pack and on the bike was good enough. It is just a little ride after all, I reassured myself.

Saturday morning we drove to the start and when I turned on my gps the route I'd programmed in did not appear on the screen. That didn't seem right, but the track was still there so I resolved not to worry and put it out of my head. This year's start was a little slower than last years but I still quickly fell to last place as I coasted along on my single speed. My plan was to pace myself from the start and not get caught up trying to race anyone at the start. I was on a three day plan and even though last place is not where anyone wants to be I settled in and reminded myself I would be passing many of those people when they derailed in Dillard or Helen.

Most of the climbing comes in the first third of the race as you climb to various gaps where the Appalachian trail crosses the route no less than five times. I found myself walking up all the steep pitches and was a little worried I might have picked the wrong gearing and would be walking all the way to Alabama. Eventually I started passing some riders and then fell in with Ruth and David. We started leap frogging where they would pull away on the flats and then I would catch back up on the climbs. Ruth was on a similar plan as me - long days at a steady pace. We were both aiming for Vogel State Park for the night and I knew our paths would be intertwined for much of the race.

At the start of the mandatory hike a bike down the Ramsey Field Trail there was a trio of riders from Florida making a head set adjustment and I hiked down the trail with them. They had no real goals and were on the party plan and were a lot of fun to ride with. Although slower than me on the climbs (and over the long haul as a result) I was tempted to just hang back and enjoy the ride with them. Out on Darnell Creek Rd. the first notable event of the race happened when the track suddenly disappeared from my gps. Uh, oh, that wasn't planned. A short time later it appeared again briefly and then was gone once again. I had planned on using my gps exclusively for navigating and had only packed cue sheets at the last minute as a back up. I was glad I did as I ended up needing them for the remainder of the race. It took awhile to figure out how to use them but once I did it was surprisingly easy. Of course having 30 sets of fresh tire tracks in front of me helped as well!

Day 1, 12:15pm, just after my gps stopped working:


The Florida crew went off route into Dillard to eat and rest but such luxuries were not part of my plan so we bid farewell and I wondered if I would see them again. As I followed the route up the scenic Tallulah River I fell into a 'touring pace' and just took it slow and enjoyed the sights. I stopped for lunch on the river and though I thought about swimming a five minute break was the most I could allow myself before continuing on.

Tallulah River, 2:48pm day 1:


A little more walking up some steep pitches and then I found myself actually riding up the longer climbs at a steady clip. I was starting to warm up and felt good about my new gps-less touring pace and once again caught back up to Ruth and David.

Tray Mtn., 6:40pm day 1. Image

Not only was I relying on the gps for navigation it was also serving as my primary time piece. I could have turned on my phone to check the time but that would have been a lot of work so instead I just relaxed and rode my bike and tried not to think too much about where I was, how long it was taking or how well I was doing. I had a hunch I was several hours ahead of last year and that felt good and gave me the mental boost to go just a little faster.

7:04 pm day 1:


By the time we hit the big Tray Mtn. climb I was feeling great and knew if I could stay on the bike and ride that climb fast I would be to Helen in no time and then at Vogel at a reasonable hour. With their fancy gears Ruth and David both went click, click, click and dropped into easy climbing gears while I stood and ground my way up the mountain. Last year it was 10pm and dark when I finally walked to the top of the mountain but this time it was still light out when I hit the top. I wanted to stop and wait for Ruth before dropping down the technical Hickory Nut trail into Helen but knew if I did that would cost me precious time so I rolled over the top and down into Helen.

It was 10:30pm, the store was still open, and I was an hour and half ahead of where I had been the year before. The burritos and sandwiches I had thought would last me the entire race were long gone and I was in desperate need of resupply. I stopped at the gas station and loaded up on processed sugar and got a 24oz Natty Light to help with hydration. As I enjoyed that tasty beverage I vowed to go eat at the Huddle House and get a meal to go but when I got back on my bike I couldn't bring myself to leave the route and took off up the scenic highway instead.

The climb up the Richard Russell Scenic Highway is a real bitch. It is seven miles and never seems to let up. For me on a single speed it is a slow seven mile walk. Last year it almost killed me but this time I took it in stride and knew once I made it to the top it was downhill from there and I would be sleeping comfortably by 3am.

2:07 am day 1. I called it an early night and slept for 3 hours here:


Vogel was nice. I set up my hammock in the pavilion, where Ruth said she would be staying, and got a good night's sleep. I kept expecting Ruth to roll in at some point during the night but she never did. As I was packing up at 7 the next morning Ryan rolled in and got some water. We chatted for a bit and then he rolled out as I got ready to go.

8:24 am day 2 on the climb out of Vogel. These roadies made for the perfect carrot to chase:


Most of the second day was filled with long stretches on hot, exposed roads. I pulled into the first store at Cooper Creek and loaded up on supplies. Several other racers were also there: Ruth, Ryan, Alex and Dan. It turns out Ruth had stayed at Vogel, as had Dan, but we were all in different parts of the park. We all left at our own paces but a short while later rallied again at the store and restaurant at the Shallowford Bridge at the race's halfway point. After an $8 tuna fish sandwich it was onward on our journey and into the first single track of the day. Ruth and I stayed together through the trails but split up once we were out on the road again.

I was making good time and was feeling surprisingly good. My gps was still not working so I still didn't know what time it was on where exactly in the world I was but everything seemed right. My goal was to make it to Dalton, and maybe even just past Dalton to the towers, and I thought I might actually have a shot at it. At the very least, I would pass Mulberry Gap without a problem.

I stopped at the closed on Sundays Jack's Store at the base of the Watson Gap climb and had two cold Mellow Yellows out of the drink machine, ate, adjusted my gear and prepared for the long night ahead. I had been trying to troubleshoot my gps problems but hadn't actually taken the time to do more than just think about what might be wrong with it so I took two minutes and put in the fresh set of batteries I had bought in Helen. I turned it on and it worked perfectly! Alex, and then Ruth, both pulled into the store a short time later. Last year it had been dark by the time we got to the store and when I finally made camp at 4am I was still 8 miles from Mulberry Gap. This year it was still light out and with my gps to tell me the time and show me the way I knew I would be passing Mulberry Gap without a problem. Dalton was still far away but my hopes were high. After a leisurely 15 minute dinner break, my longest stop other than Vogel so far, I bid farewell to my friends and headed up to Watson Gap. We were all shooting for Dalton that night and I wondered if I would see Ruth and Alex again.

The key would be to climb fast, descend faster, and waste no time but of course my newly fixed gps started causing me problems. I was used to using the cue sheets and when it kept telling me I missed the turn onto Jack's River trail after I'd hammered out the Watson Gap climb I believed it. I wasted ten minutes backtracking up and down the road before I realized the trail was still further down the road. I vowed that would be my only mistake and only trusted the gps grudgingly afterwards.

When I hit the Pinhoti Northern Terminus it was still light out and I was hours ahead of schedule. That gave me an enormous energy boost I was feeling great.

7:53 pm day 2. First taste of the Pinhoti:


Most of the rest of that night it just one long blur but the Pinhoti trail and all her glory will forever be burned into my mind. It started great, in fact beyond great, with me noticing a distinctively shaped rock on one of the climbs. It deserved a second glance so I dismounted and walked back down the trail to confirm what I had seen - an arrowhead! That sent me to the moon!

9:18 pm day 2:


A short while later on another climb I found a second arrowhead. It was that kind of night and that kind of feeling got me down to Mulberry Gap just as I was starting to feel warmed up.

After crossing Mulberry Gap the Pinhoti started to show her other more sinister side. I had no idea how far it was to Ramhurst but based on what other people told me it didn't sound like it was far. I had grand illusions of being in Dalton by 2am and then resupplied at camped at the towers by 3am - it would be easy. Except it wasn't easy. Every section of trail took way too long and was way too hard. I got behind on water and then on food. I refilled my bottles at some stream, somewhere in the madness and kept pushing on.

After too many hours spent going too few miles I came across Hightower and Woodell who were just waking up for a nap. We exchange pleasantries and I went on by. Then, as if it couldn't get any harder there was a tree across the trail. This wasn't just any tree  or just any trail and it took all I had to figure out how to get around or over it. I went for both around and over and by the time I was past it I was down to a quarter of a bottle of water a gel and a bar. And I still had a long way to go.

I passed Ardie bivvied on the side of the trail and then Hightower and Woodell caught up to me. It was 2am.

"Are we close to Ramhurst?" I asked.

"Not as close as you want," Hightower responded.

"Is there water anywhere?"

"Yes." There is a god!

After that it was just more of the blurry dream scape that comes after eighteen hours of pushing a bicycle through the woods. Some fast and sketchy descending. A trail that dead ends into an overgrown field and a stream with nice and cold water.

As I filled my bottles my head lamp caught a tiny little salamander out doing whatever it is salamanders do at night. He was just a tiny little guy and quickly retreated behind a rock. It is the creatures like him and the sounds and sights that accompany them that stand out most to me. The sound of the night, the smell of the morning, the frogs and spiders, and spider webs and leaves and trees and flowers and rocks and forest....

It was getting late and I was getting tired. As much fun as trying to be a superman and pushing through the night is I knew the next day could be challenging and a little rest before the sun came up might do me good so I started looking for a suitable place to hang my hammock. I finally found it just past Peeples Lake. As I settled in for two hours sleep I dream of Dalton where I would be in the morning and then the finish which now was looking very reachable in under three days. I hadn't quite made it as far as I'd hoped for the day, but I was right outside of town and feeling a little thirsty and very hungry but overall rather good.

I slept soundly and awoke feeling refreshed.  Ardie rolled past as I was packing up my bedroll and with 20 miles of flat pavement in front of me there was no reason to pretend to try to chase anyone on my singlespeed. Once I was back on bike and rolling on to Ramhurst it was clear I had gone too long without water or food the day before. I still had a bar left but could not stomach swallowing it. My body was craving real food and I vowed to get it some real soon in Dalton. My achilles heels were also both a little sore or tight, that was my first and only pain of the race, and I blamed that on dehydration. Dalton would fix it all.

The only problem was Dalton was still a long way away and I was on a singlespeed. I foolishly passed the gas stations in Ramhurst and it then took me hours to slowly spin my way across the valley and into Dalton. It was impossibly flat and rush hour on a Monday morning out there in the sticks. I had been training all summer by only buying 'energy food' at gas stations and practicing eating 'real food' I might encounter on the route like Burger King which is where I went as soon as I got into Dalton. After eating too much I then wandered over to Kroger where I wasted even more time looking for food to get me to the finish. I didn't know what to buy - I'd practiced shopping at gas stations, not fully stocked grocery stores - but eventually settled on a box of oatmeal creme pies and a pound of peanuts.

11:11 am day 3. Leaving Dalton.

It was hot. I was full and quickly found myself walking up the road out of town to the towers. Once I got to the towers I was then faced with what people call "The Snake" section of the Pinhoti. It was very rocky and rather technical, but flat, for about three miles and I walked a lot. I started to get concerned about water, because everyone said there is no water after Dalton and I was only ten miles out of town and almost out of water, as well as how long it was going to take. Everyone said the Snake section was 35 miles and according to my math if I had to walk all 35 miles that would take a long time. But according to my gps, which was evidently working again, I had only traveled 98 miles so far. That seemed low for over two days on the bike so I didn't know what to think or believe. I was just some guy, out for some ride. Following some cue sheets. Sleeping when tired, eating when hungry, and having the time of my life.

Luckily, the Pinhoti was only very technical for a few hellicious miles and I was quickly back on the bike again. I was well rested from the pleasant hike and ready to ride on to Alabama. As soon as I could get back on the bike I did and from then the rest of the day is just a blur. I put some music on for the first time of the day and just rode as hard as I could. It turned out that there was plenty of water on the last section of the route so that concern quickly faded and with the finish so  close I couldn't fail to grasp it the miles started to fade away.

At some point my all but worthless gps stopped working again but I deduced that the route was just following the Pinhoti so I followed the blazes and didn't worry about the cue sheets. I'm not sure how far it is from Dalton to the end or how much of those final miles on the Pinhoti are single track but it is a lot and seems to go on forever. While the first half of the route had been on roads for the most part, the last half seemed to be all trail and good trail at that. I was having a blast and riding strong and fast. I had no clue how far ahead or behind me the closest racers were but I was determined not to get passed and was hoping to do a little passing of my own. The way the trail followed the ridge and went up and over every knob made for perfect single speeding and I was making good time.

8:03 pm day 3. View from the cockpit on a push:


one minute later:


One minute after that:


Somewhere along the way I topped out on a knob and Ardie was sitting there against a tree. I asked how far to the finish and he told me 28 miles. That was a firm number and he seemed confident so I took him at his word. 28 miles is no short distance and could take up to five hours, depending on the trail, but I knew I could get through those final miles fast. I didn't linger to chat and ask Ardie his plans but instead took off, determined to stay in front of him. I assumed Ardie was just taking a break and would be back on his bike soon. I also assumed at some point, probably soon, Georgia would run out of mountains and there would be a flat stretch to the finish. So, I hammered as hard as I could.

The trail was fast, and dare I say flowy, and I was riding it like it was a Wednesday Night and I was drinking in Dupont. There was a rhythm to the riding - climb an knob, drop to a gap, climb another slightly smaller knob, drop down into another gap. Sometimes the climbs were pushes and after passing Ardie I went to do a cyclocross dismount into a run and fell. That was my first time on the ground in the race and I had to tell myself to keep it under control and not do anything dumb (like falling while running). I was amazed at how good I was feeling - here I was 300 miles and 60 hours or so into the ride and going on little sleep but yet I was riding stronger than ever and feeling great. I poked my left quad with my finger and when pain shot through my body I was relieved.

I kept expecting Ardie's light to appear over my shoulder at anytime and was not letting up. My water ran out and I didn't stop to refill it. I ran out of food and didn't think about it. I just rode. The Pinhoti went on forever. Every time I thought it had to be over there was another gap and then another knob. When I hit Mack's Gap near the end I thought it had to be some sort of joke and the trail would never end.

When Georgia finally ran out of mountains the Pinhoti continued on. A little stretch on a road and then onto a rail trail that ran right next to the road. Flatness finally came and with my silly single speed it was only a matter of time before Ardie caught me. The rail trail was very slow and frustrating, especially with the road right there, and I was ready for it to be over. But it wasn't. And there were still several turns. I missed a few and found myself standing there on the side of the road trying to make sense out of the cue sheets. After an eternity the rail trail ended and I was left with a few final miles on the highway to the finish.

Ardie's light never caught me and when I finished his wife was at the finish and told me he ran out of light the night before and had bivvied right where I passed him. Even though he hadn't been chasing me he did help me get to the finish faster than I would have on my own. Along with Ardie's wife Ryan's family was at the finish waiting for him and they all fed me and gave me water and showed me great kindness for which I am very grateful.

I hadn't made any logistical plans for the finish so I rolled out my tarp and bivy and went to sleep right there in the gas station parking lot just a few feet from Alabama. It started raining at some point and slept out in the rain until my tarp and bivy both filled with water. I then crawled under a flat bed truck in the parking lot and slept some more. In the morning the store was opened and I got some coffee and a much deserved beer and then it was time for a little 15 mile ride to the Lock and Dam park where I spent the next few days relaxing in the Georgia sun.


  1. Bravo Clay! Thanks for taking the time to write about your experience. We had a fellow rider (Scott Thigpen) from Birmingham finish also. It was fun following you guys progress with the spot GPS. Check out Scotts Blog about his adventure.


  2. Readers can feel that they have pedalled their way to that route as well! Congratulations and well done!

  3. Hi,

    Please provide me the email id of webmaster of your website:


  4. Hey Clay,

    Congrats on the great ride. I enjoyed riding with you some the first day. Thanks for the write up. It was great to relive the ride!

  5. Out of curiousty, what gear ratio did you run?