At 4:00 am we were back on the bikes. The next 15 miles was the low point for me. The forest service road that we were supposed to ride out on was covered in huge blow downs from the storm. Massive trees covered the road, and later the trail. We were forced to bushwhack around, over, and through tree after tree after tree. At one point we walked through a creek for 100 yards because it was easier than carrying the bike over more downed trees. It took us nearly 3 hours to get through this 15 mile section. It was slow and frustrating.
We finally made it out to pavement as the sun was coming up. It was time to hammer out the 30 or so miles into Dalton. We stopped into Bear Creek bikes, which was right on the route. When we walked in, the guys in the shop grabbed our bikes and started working on them. They adjusted our brakes, tuned out the shifting, and gave the bikes a good cleaning. They did a really great job. Koz was hanging out behind the desk and gave us all the latest details on how other riders were doing. He told us that there were only 5 riders ahead of us, and that over 25 people had already dropped out. He also told us that it would take us probably 14 hours to get to the finish. My heart sank. The crew at Bear Creek Bikes said that we were only 80 miles from the Alabama border, but almost all of it was on technical single track. If that was true, we wouldn’t finish till midnight or later.
We left the shop at about 9:00 am and started up the ridiculous pavement climb that leads out of town. Shortly after reaching the top, we got back onto the Pinhotti Trail. As expected, it was technical rocky ridge riding. There were a few steep hike-a-bike sections, but mostly it was ridable. Some of the vets we had talked to described the ridge as a 7 mile long rock garden. I would describe it as fun. It was slow going, but at least it was enjoyable. We weren’t carrying over massive downed trees anymore!
The next 25 miles of ridge riding is known as the Snake Creek section. It consisted of more rocky technical singletrack. A lot of people consider this the hardest part of the race because of the steep climbs and the technical descents. Because it rides the ridge for such a long time, there really isn’t anywhere to get water. Fortunately, the temperatures had calmed down a bit from the previous two days and we were not drinking as much. We still ran out of water by the end of Snake Creek, but were able to stop at the Extreme Horse Riding Center to fill up. A woman standing on two horses showed us the way to the water hose. It was like something out of a movie.
It was getting late into the afternoon as we made another climb up onto the ridge. There was still about 40 miles to go and it wasn’t going to be easy. We rode short sections of the Pinhotti Trail and lots of gravel until the sun went down. As we climbed a long section of singletrack, the sun set. Alex pulled out his light and turned it on. The red light on the back blinked. His light was on low. We didn’t make another 2 miles before his light totally died. My light was doing a little better and showed about half power. Fortunately, I also had a head lamp on me for a backup. It wasn’t bright but it might get us out of the woods. We still had several hours of riding ahead of us.
We pushed on in the dark. I put my light on the lowest setting so that I could to conserve power. Alex rode behind me and tried to use my light and his to see the trail as best he could. We had to slow down so that he could see what was going on. It is super disorienting trying to navigate in the dark in place you have never set foot before in your life. On top of that, we were both exhausted and running out of food. As we topped out another climb, I started seeing flashes and colors. I had to stop. I laid down in the grass and the sky started spinning. This was crazy. I closed my eyes and polished off the last of my bars. I just needed a few minutes.
I slowly threw my leg over the bike and started the 5 mile descent down to the highway. At midnight, I turned onto the pavement of highway 100. I smiled and for the first time, I realized I was going to make it. I shifted the chain up to the big ring. I had been in my granny gear since I left Dalton. We cruised the last 15 or so miles downhill to the Alabama border. I was ecstatic.
At 12:52 am Alex and I crossed the state line. We were the first two “rookies” to cross into Alabama. It took us 2 days, 16 hours and 42 minutes. Of the 52 people who stared only 18 finished. It was a very uneventful end to what is certainly the hardest thing I have ever attempted on a mountain bike. I guess that’s what makes this event what it is. Is not a race, and I don’t think I really understood that when I started. The TNGA is an adventure designed to push you to your limits. It’s about seeing what you really capable of. There are a few people who race it, but for most of us are just trying to finish. In the end, that’s all that happened. We did it, we finished…