Let’s start at the very end at the Alabama border where the Silver Comet becomes the Chief Ladiga trail if you are heading west, or vice versa if you are heading east. It’s a special place. I’ve ridden through that spot about twenty times, but those twenty times have each been so epic that it feels like I’ve been through there hundreds of times instead of just 20. Here is the top 5 epic rides through that spot sorted by suffer score which combines heartrate and time to determine how much you suffered:
|Date||Title and Blog||Distance||Climbing||Suffer score|
|2016/03/25||Birmingham to Clemson and Back (paris-brest-paris distance)||756 mi||58K ft||746|
|2019/08/19||TNGA 2019||363 mi||43K ft||661|
|2014/04/04||Heart of the South 500||517 mi||36K ft||630|
|2018/08/18||TNGA 2018||364.3 mi||43.5K ft||623|
|2019/04/05||Skyway Epic 2019||303 mi||31K ft||312|
Also, even though it was only mid pack in terms of suffer score, one of the most off-the-wall rides I’ve done through there was when I rode from my house to the Camp Sumatanga training race, did the race, and then rode the rest of the way to Atlanta to meet the family there for a Packers play-off game the next day. 233 miles, 9K climbing, 260 suffer score.
The lead-up to TNGA 2019 – Ride4Gabe 4.0 (1500 miles), Riding home from the Beach (880 miles), and a short Clayton Getaway
At the top of Pike’s Peak just two weeks before the start of this year’s TNGA. Ride4Gabe 4.0 was an amazing 1500 mile ride from Birmingham, Alabama to the top of Pikes Peak, Colorado to raise awareness and funds in the fight against Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
The lead-up to this year’s TNGA was quite a bit different than last year. Last year, I rode to Mulberry Gap a couple days before the start of the race (200+ miles) and had one day to recover at Mulberry before starting the race. This year, my wife dropped me off at the start after a short getaway in Clayton at an AirBNB on Friday before the race on Saturday. But just a few weeks before that, I left our annual beach vacation in Savannah and rode home to Birmingham, Alabama via Orlando from July 20th-23rd (880 miles, avg 220 miles/day). A few days later I took off on Ride4Gabe 4.0 riding from Birmingham all the way to the top of Pikes Peaks, Colorado July 27th-August 4th (1500 miles, avg 200 miles/day). We finished that ride less than two weeks ahead of the start of TNGA. So even though I didn’t ride to the start of TNGA this year, my body was a bit tired with over 2500 miles of riding in the three weeks leading up to the start. The plan was for me to ride home after the finish of this year’s race, but that didn’t happen as you shall see by the end of this blog.
The start – friends and family
It was important to me to get the South Carolina state line in the pic. I raced for the Clemson University cycling team from 1994-1998 while I got my undergrad degree in computer engineering with a minor in computer science and math. During that time, I had numerous adventures mostly in the mountains of South Carolina and North Carolina but occasionally wandering over into mountains of Georgia including this very spot where the picture above was taken. The times I crossed that spot all involved epic adventures from Clemson that usually included Brasstown Bald and/or Highlands, North Carolina. South Carolina was so meaningful a place to me that a few years later after having met Kristine in Texas, I took her to the shore of Lake Hartwell to propose to her – less than 50 miles from this spot in the picture above where the TNGA starts. I could go on and on about these adventures, but let’s get back to TNGA…
With the limited parking availability, Kristine debated just dropping me off and not seeing the start. I really wanted her to see the start, so I double parked the car in front of somebody on the Georgia side of the bridge. As it turns out, it was my good friend Brent Marshall and his wife Jacquelyn and their kids. Brent and Jacquelyn are the race directors for the Skyway Epic race here in Alabama. Skyway is the sister of TNGA in just about every way … essentially the Alabama version of TNGA … and what is beautiful now is that the races are connected physically via the courses. TNGA ends near the turnaround spot for the Skyway.
It was time to get ready for the start … pulled the bike out of the back of the car, threw on the giant saddle bag, mounted the Garmin with battery extender, rear light, front light, phone, and pumped up the tires. I pumped the rear tire up to 30 psi knowing that it would drain some throughout the race, and I pumped the front up to 25psi thinking I still wanted some good traction up front. My only flat was in the rear at some point during the Snake, and it was sealed enough that I only had to use half of a CO2 to bring it back up to reasonable pressure and it lasted the rest of the race. I think it may have been a leaky valve stem. On some of the slower climbs, it felt like I heard a whistling whenever I hit a bump. I’m guessing the Snake exacerbated this to the point that it went flat (still sealed but maybe 10 PSI left in the tire).
As this was the 10th anniversary of the race, Honcho called out all the previous winners and had them lead a neutral start along with the two youngest riders – a 15 year old rookie (The Kid) and a 16 year old (Joe Urbanowicz) who had completed the race last year as a 15 year old … amazing! We were neutral to the top of the first hill on GA-28, and at that point Eddie O’Dea (previous winner) took off! I was near the front and followed wheels to the front and was second or third going into the first dirt turn. At this point, it was a long dirt climb that I kept a steady pace on with Dave Chen. I believe Joe was up the road with Eddie but can’t remember for sure. Several miles later, Dave and I had caught up to Eddie and Joe. It was great following Eddie’s lines on all the descents and I had just taken the front when I blew right past a turn. Eddie followed me, but Dave and Joe made the turn. We turned around pretty quick and caught back up to Dave and Joe on this super steep, super loose gravel climb.
We were all pretty much together at the top of that for the next descent with Eddie pulling away from us being much faster on the descents. Unfortunately we could see Eddie up ahead sail past one of the turns but he was out of ear-shot for us to yell up to him. Joe had dropped a bottle and backtracked to get it, so at this point it was just Dave and I together for a while. We started the Darnell singletrack together, but Dave dropped me and then Joe and James Dunnaway (eventual winner) passed me too. I was on my own at this point. It was amazing how much more of this was rideable this year as there had been a lot of hike-a-bike requirements with overgrown mountain laurel that was a cutaway low enough that you could ride under it like a long tunnel. The other guys were far enough ahead of me that following my GPS I turned too early and started down the wrong singletrack. I realized it fairly quickly when I ran smack into a huge spider across the middle of the trail. This meant the other riders hadn’t come this way, and I looked down and saw on my GPS I had turned to early. After a short 2-3 minute hike-a-bike back up the trail, I picked back up the course and found the correct turn onto the double track.
By the time we popped out onto the next pave road, I was definitely a few minutes behind, but close enough that when I came across the satellite tracker checkpoint (Amish store?) I ran across the other three guys who were filling up bottles from trail magic located there at the checkpoint. I wasn’t expecting this so I still had a ton of water left in my camelbak. Since it was water only and since my tracker was working, I took off ahead of everyone else. This was kinda cool because this meant it was my first time ever leading the race. Last year, I finished second but never even saw winner Kurt Refsnider after the opening paved section. So he had led the race pretty much from start to finish last year.
I wasn’t going particularly fast and played some Pokemon Go through the whole paved section knowing that there was cellphone service. I also called Kristine to see how far she had made it home on her drive back to Birmingham. I was still by myself when I came across the next trail magic with an actual sign saying “trail magic”. An awesome group had setup a table with water, cokes, food, and more for all the racers at the really wide river crossing. Knowing that the Top of Georgia hostel on Hwy 76 wasn’t going to be open this year for supplies, I was super thankful and grabbed two cokes and some food. I also refilled my one water bottle but didn’t touch my camelbak trying to find that balance of weight and having enough. I was by myself when I arrived, but Dave caught up right as I was leaving. There was a large convoy of 4WD vehicles that had crossed the river ahead of us, and I had to ride through all their dust but they were still faster than me on the long climb until one particular creek crossing where they had all stopped taking up the entire trail. I was able to squeeze around them, but the lead vehicle stopped just on the other side of the creek instead of driving on up the other side, which meant I had to stop and put a foot down right in the middle of the creek. Dave caught up with me at this point, and we basically finished the climb together leaving the 4WD convoy far behind us because it must have taken them forever to get across that creek.
James caught up to both of us somewhere on the descent as we made it back to pavement. James and I rode together for a while with Dave falling off a bit on the pavement descents before US-76. We were all together by the time we turned onto highway 76. James must have been feeling great because there was no way I could keep up with his pace on the paved climb. Similarly I was going a bit faster than Dave so all three of us split up at this point. The climb was super, super hot with no shade in mid day sun. I knew that the Top-of-Georgia hiker hostel would be closed from an announcement made before the race so I was wondering about (but not regretting) my choice of not refilling my camelbak at the second trail magic stop. We were still all pretty much within sight of each other, though, by the top of the gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses over Hwy 76. I lost sight of James at this point as he hit the gap far enough ahead that he was out of sight by the turn off Hwy 76 on the descent. I didn’t look back so I don’t know if Dave could still see me.
In any case, that stretch of Hwy 76 is special for a number of reasons but probably the most memorable for me was three super long solo unsupported epics during college as a 19, 20, and 21 year old having climbed up Brasstown Bald and on my way back to Clemson. I just remember that whole stretch of Hwy 76 having hard climbs and super fun descents. I have since done it in more recent years (2016) as part of my ride from Birmingham, Alabama all the way to Clemson, South Carolina … and back! This more recent crossing wasn’t as memorable because it was raining a bit and there was a lot of nasty traffic, which I’m sure has just gotten worse and worse over the years.
Back to the ride, after the turn off of Hwy 76, there is a few miles of abandoned forest service roads which has turned into singletrack. It doesn’t last long, though, and then you hit pavement again at a nice state park, campground, and lake. Unbeknownst to me, James had stopped at the campground store to resupply, whereas I just kept on going trying to make it to Helen. I had plenty of food, so that wasn’t a problem, but as it turns out I was low on water. I didn’t realize it at the time until shortly after James passed me on the long steep gravel road climb up Tray Mountain. This one was particularly vicious because of how loose the rocks were. It felt like a lot of the dirt roads (particularly climbs) had recently received a fresh layer of gravel. Plus, with not very much rain to pack anything down, everything was loose and dusty.
I was slowly plugging along up Tray Mountain when I hear James behind me! I didn’t realize he had stopped, so I told him I had been chasing him for many miles not realizing that I had been back in the lead. He told me that he had stopped at the campground. He also told me if I was low on water that there was a nice creek coming up after the false summit and before the second half of the climb. I told him I had plenty of water (based on how heavy my backpack was) but only a mile or two after he dropped me (I was cramping really bad) I took a sip from my camelbak, and it was empty!
Thankfully, I hit the short descent and a group camping alongside a perfect creek for filtering. I rode straight down to the creek, propped my bike up against a tree, and started to dig my water filter out of my backpack. This was much earlier in the race than last year for me to need to filter water. Loaded up again with what I figured was the minimum amount of water to get me the rest of the way to Helen, I took off with still the second steeper part of Tray Mountain still to climb.
I was fighting off cramps nearly constantly by this point, riding super slowly until my hamstrings started to cramp and then stop at the first sign of a lock up, stand around for a few seconds and take a drink of water until the cramp subsided. I used all three of my “right stuff” packets, and each one helped for about an hour or so before the cramps would start to come back.
After a lot of slow climbing, I was still surprised that no one else had caught and passed me. This motivated me thinking that everyone was suffering and going pretty slow. Finally, I made it to the top of the second peak and started the descent. This was the super nasty descent absolutely covered in treefall last year. This year, people had spent a ton of time and cleared out so many of the trees. There was still a few tricky sections, but overall it was significantly faster getting down the mountain.
The descent still took a while, but eventually I made it back onto pavement knowing that the Helen gas station was close by. I cruised into the gas station, and James had already left. One of the guys who was following the race around commented that James had come through on a mission and taken off again already. I had been looking forward to the gas station for forever, and thought that I needed to get enough food to last me all the way to Dalton.
Plus, I was really wet from a ton of sweat, so I wanted to go ahead and change into my first of two spare bibs. The bathroom in that gas station is tiny, tiny, but I was able to successfully change into spare bibs before getting a plastic bag to go shopping for food. $30 later, I had everything, and headed back out. By this time, Joe Urbanowicz had made it to the gas station. Actually, now that I think about it, Joe may have gotten to the store before me.
In any case, I sat on the ground and ate my big bag of salt vinegar chips. Afterwards, I refilled my bottle with gatorade and rearranged food in my bag. Then I was ready to go, so I went ahead and pulled out shortly after eventual third place Daniel Jordan from Vermont pulled into the gas station. It was cool meeting him, but I was ready to head on out again. I called Kristine since I knew I would have cellphone reception for a while and played Pokemon Go for a bit before the dreaded turn onto the Hogpen Gap climb. I thought I had resolved my cramps, but the effort on the steep pitches of Hogpen brought them back. I stopped several times on the climb to wait for cramps to subside.
Joe caught and passed me on the climb, but there was nothing I could do but continue to plod along slowly and stop every time I started to cramp. By the top, it was well past sunset but still just enough light to bomb at least the first part of the descent. It was dark enough, though, that I had to put my light on before the first sharp turn. I kept it on and made it all the way to the gravel road turn off. Unfortunately, I forgot that this road had a fairly deep water crossing where I proceeded to soak my dry socks again. Not much to report about the rest of that climb up to the dropoff down to Wolfpen other than I didn’t cramp because I had settled into a very slow steady rhythm.
After dropping down to the turn onto the Wolfpen climb, I started to settle in the climb when I noticed a bike rider with light on waiting at the side entrance to Vogel. It was Joe, and he was coming back out onto the road after having refilled at Vogel. I thought he would drop me again on the climb, but he was happy riding slowly beside me. We would end up riding many miles together for the next 7-8 hours.
Along the way we passed another bit of trail magic – one of the gas stations was still open at 11:30PM. They had stayed open late just for all the TNGA racers coming through. Unfortunately, not knowing this was going to be open since it wasn’t last year, we didn’t need to stop so we kept on going all the way until we were completely out of water by the Iron Bridge store. It was closed (as it was closer to 1:30AM by this point), but the bathroom was still open. By this point, it had cooled down quite a bit so it was great to get into clean, dry clothes, and dry socks, use the bathroom, fill bottles not from a creek.
Refreshed, recharged, and refueled, we continued on until the next place to get water … a hose in Cherry Log. Joe was feeling pretty sleepy by this point and contemplated stopping here to sleep. I wanted to keep going to cover as much ground as possible while it wasn’t super hot. We kept going until we made it to the same vending machine I stopped at last year. This year, they had the dollar bill receiver covered over with tape so all the $1 bills I had brought were pretty much useless. Joe had brought quarters, but as it turns out I was still pretty full on water and food so I didn’t really want a drink. Joe decided he wanted to stop and sleep. I kept going because I wanted to try to make it all the way to Dalton and sleep there at a hotel if it was still crazy hot in the afternoon.
This worked out well, except I wasn’t quite fast enough. The climb up Fort Mountain on the Pinhoti was quite warm, but still with pockets of shady cooler air. Even dropping down on the Pinhoti through the long section before hitting the road was still relatively cool. I ran out of water through here and was thinking I’d have to make it the next 10 miles to the gas station I knew was at the pavement, but as it turns out there was one creek crossing where I could filter water. I was thankful to not have to get even more dehydrated before the store, especially since I had stopped a couple times with cramps in my right leg on the climb up Fort Mountain. Also, especially since the temperature absolutely skyrocketed as soon as you rolled out onto the pavement. This was a combination of the heat reflecting off the pavement, the complete lack of shade, and the early afternoon timing. This was a triple whammy of the absolute wrong time to arrive at that spot.
I made it to the store and one of the top things on my list was a jar of pickles for the cramps. As soon as I got all my stuff and went back outside to sit at the picnic bench and reorganize and refill, etc… I drank the pickle juice straight from the jar and then poured the rest into a now empty plastic bottle that I had used to refill the one reusable water bottle I had brought with me. I had also bought some foot powder because the creek crossings and sweat made for wet feet from the very beginning of the race. The skin wrinkling had reached a point where it was actually painful so this helped dry out my feet a bit. It was ridiculously hot by this point … in the shade, so I was not looking forward to the hour left to get to Dalton on pavement with no shade. As it turns out, this was worst than I imagined – baking all the way there.
I was definitely sleepy by this point with some giant yawns while riding, but I could have kept on going except for the heat. I went straight to the Subway to get a sandwich (I had been thinking about this for hours) and had a bit of a crisis when they asked if it was dine-in or carry-out. At that moment when I said “carry-out”, that was committing me to stopping at a hotel. If I had said “dine-in”, then I was going to get a large drink and chill inside the restaurant for 30 minutes to an hour. But as soon as I said “carry-out”, that meant I was committing myself to a hotel stop to shower and sleep. I guess I wasn’t completely committed, because I was also debating about finding a truck stop shower to use with no sleep. The thought of a shower, though, was really what drove me to get the food to go.
Now … which hotel? I had tried to book a free IHG room (Holiday Inn Express) using my phone while in the Subway parking lot because I knew the IHG was at the very edge of town at the bottom of the climb up to the Snake. But I couldn’t use my points and had to check-in without a reservation at the front desk. It was tempting to stop at the Days Inn just before the highway as I knew it would be cheaper. My concern, though, was that with all outside rooms if the air conditioning hadn’t been on all day that the room would be very hot. I knew that the indoor rooms at the IHG would be ice cold, so that tipped the scale in that direction. What I didn’t plan for was that there was absolutely no gas stations on the IHG side of the interstate. This meant that when it was time to go, I would have to cross back over the interstate to make it back to the gas stations with multiple left turns and traffic lights and a decent overpass that had to be climbed both ways. Super annoying, but at least it was going to be a cold room. When I checked in, I begged the clerk for the cheapest room possible that I was only going to be there an hour. She gave me the ultra discounted rate and a handicapped room on the first floor next to the lobby. Showered, ate my sub sandwich and chips, slept for 30 minutes, woke up and put on clean cycling clothes. I waved goodbye to the clerk about an hour and a half after I had checked in and then had to annoyingly backtrack across the interstate to the gas station to buy enough food to last me to Coosa.
Even after doing all this, I still made it to the Snake about an hour faster than I had made it last year. Also, I shaved exactly an hour and a half off of my time traversing the Snake with a medical boot on last year. This was primarily from the opening section where I rode everything that wasn’t completely vertical as opposed to walking everything technical last year. Big shout out to Boris Simmonds who helped show me the good lines on the West Ridge trail at Oak Mountain, which is the closest analog to the snake we have in Birmingham. I think once you learn the technique of “sight-reading” trails and get the confidence of rolling over tricky looking stuff, it becomes a bit more natural even for trails you’ve never ridden or only ridden once before exactly one year before in the same race.
Backtracking in my blog, good cellphone service on the climb up to the Snake so I had called Kristine and found out where everyone was … many people had dropped out because of the heat, including Joe. Also, the next person closing in on me was Daniel Jordan who I had met at the Helen gas station. I was worried that he would ride the Snake so much faster than me that he would catch me by the end of the snake. Also I was worried because at some point I had knocked my helmet light off during the day. I hadn’t notice it until much later so I was going to have to do the snake with just one handlebar mounted light. As it turns out, I think we rode it at about the same speed and I had plenty of light to make it through as I was about halfway through by the time it got dark. I listened to a lot of music on the second part of the snake where I was getting sleepy. I didn’t fall on my bike at all until after the snake, where I had then had three falls in pretty short succession. I wasn’t using my taillight on the snake, but I had left it mounted to save weight from my backpack. Unfortunately my Garmin Varia radar light fell off in one of those crashes and I didn’t notice it. So between two lights and a hotel stop, this year’s snake cost me over $300.
I will skip mostly to the end now not only because it is taking me forever to write this blog, but also because in my mind, the TNGA is over once you make it to US Highway 27. Even though you still have almost 60 miles left to ride, they are so easy by comparison that they almost don’t even count. I ran out of water this year (just like last year) going across Taylor Ridge so I was a bit desperate to filter water at the Taylor Ridge gap. Unfortunately, there’s no water there. So I did the same thing as last year – 1.5 miles straight down the hill to the gas station … which, of course, means a 1.5 mile climb back up to the gap. This year my timing was quite a bit earlier (almost 3 hours) so it put me into the 5AM rush hour for all the people that live in North Georgia and commute all the way into Rome or Atlanta for work (that’s nuts).
I had no rear light, so after refilling at the gas station, the climb back up US 27 with all the other people commuting into Chattanooga was quite harrowing. I made it though just as it was starting to get light and had to finish the super steep gravel climb loaded down with gatorade and water. The highlight of the gas station, though, was a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit. This was great because it had gotten quite cool overnight combined with sweat from all the effort made for a chilly descent down to the gas station. I was super happy to not only clear all the gravel climb without stopping but also the steep singletrack climbing that followed to get to the top of the peak. I think there are three or four separate peaks up there on that section of Taylor Ridge, but each one meant that you are that much closer to pavement and the end.
No flat tires for me this year on the gravel rails-to-trail, but I did get chased by several dogs including one huge German Shepherd that came very, very close to biting me despite a lot of frantic yelling. After the rails to trail, you hit Friday Rd which was on the Heart of the South 500 mile road race. You also hit a gas station, which I didn’t even stop at this year, because I had enough to get to Cave Spring.
By this point, it was getting super hot again, and I had just run out of water by the time I made it to Cave Spring. Honcho was there in the park area so I stopped to say high before backtracking to the gas station. After the gas station was the fun new little drop down onto the Pinhoti trail. I knew it was super steep so I was looking forward to riding it, but messed it up and ending up riding straight into the bushes beside the trail. Still a fun drop, and the new sections of trail were absolutely amazing. I am already planning on taking the family up there for Fall break this year to explore that area. It seems like there is a lot of cool hidden stuff there.
The last section of the Pinhoti drops you out onto Essom Hill Rd, a cool dirt road that takes you up towards the Silver Comet. Hot, tired, but thankful to be almost finished, I cruised up this hugging the left side of the dirt which still had a bit of shade in spots. On the silver comet, I knew that nobody would be there. My original plan had to been to ride down to Jacksonville, spend the night in a hotel, and then ride the rest of the way back to Birmingham. But with the heat, I was so exhausted that I asked Kristine if she would come pick me up but she couldn’t make it until about an hour after I finished.
So right after setting up the selfie at the top of this pic, I fell asleep on the bench until she made it there to take me home. Super fun adventure, exhausting this year with all the heat, but super fun, challenging, and rewarding.