By Joey Parent (Rider for Chumba Cycles and Wanderlust Gear) As I pushed my bike up another hill in the dark, I wondered if it would ever end. I had been riding my bike since 4:00am and it was now 10pm. We still had 20 miles to go. It seemed so far away. I wasn’t really even sure if it was true… Maybe there was no end.  After riding 325 miles in twi and a half days, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. All this time in the hurt box and we were going to scratch with the Alabama state line so close.

Day 1

My friend Chris and I drove down to Georgia in his 1982 VW Rabbit Pickup. Like most road trips in the little truck, it took longer than usual. The speedometer didn’t work, but we figured 65 was about all she could do. The two of us camped about 3 miles down the Chattooga River from where the race started. We were the first ones to arrive in the small parking lot in the morning. The sun was just starting to rise as we boiled water for coffee on the tailgate. I was making last minute decisions on gear and eating yogurt as riders slowly started to pull in and unload bikes. I looked around I wondered where all their gear was. I mean, some these guys had nothing. A light, a half sized frame bag, couple of water bottles, and maybe seat bag. My enormous 29+ Chumba Ursa full with bags looked like an elephant next to some of these bikes. Did I miss something? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A little before 8:00 I rolled over to the large group who was congregated on the South Carolina side of the bridge. Koz stood on the back of a trailer as he gave us a few last minute details about the ride. The tension in the air was thick. We all knew that what was about to happen was going to be hard and it was going to hurt… a lot. For the veterans, they knew what they were getting themselves into. For the rookies, like me, we had no idea just how bad it would be. The group of 52 riders rolled off the small bridge at the border of Georgia and South Carolina at 810pm. A total of 345 miles of pavement, gravel, and trail lay between them and the Alabama border. The first miles of the TNGA follow gravel forest service roads. The climbs are fairly mellow at first as they lull you into a false sense of security. There were several quick turns that kept me on my toes trying not to get off course. The first big climb comes pretty quickly up to Wilson Gap. At this point everyone who had started was pretty close together, and we started to settle into small groups. The overall vibe was pretty casual as we talked back and forth with one another about where we were from, and how we liked this or that bike part. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA By mid-morning the climbs were coming one after another. It seemed like the only switchbacks in east Georgia were at the bottom of mountains when we started climbing straight back up again. The climbs were long and sustained, followed by equally long and continuous gravel descents. From time to time we hopped onto trail, but it was mostly gravel roads that we were riding. It was getting hot and I was having a hard time getting all of the water that I needed. The forecast was calling for a high of 98 degrees. It felt like 198 degrees as we climbed the exposed dirt roads. After passing the outskirts of Dillard we began climbing up towards Dick’s Creek Gap. On our way up, around mile 58, the wonderful folks at the Top of Georgia Hostel were standing on the side of the road handing out PB&J sandwiches and cold water. Awesome! I crammed a sandwich in my mouth, downed some water and stuffed another in my bar bag. As a rode on up the mountain, the wind kicked up and it started pouring rain. Finally, there was relief from the scorching heat. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the biggest climbs of the day were still ahead. As the sun started to set on the first day, I had had made my way up the brutal climb to the top of Trey Mountain. The long climb had left me hungry and tired. I stopped and lay down in a patch of grass with James Hightower. We had been riding together for the past hour or two. This was James’s 4th TNGA and he told me that the descent was not going to be easy. The rest wouldn’t last long, as we both wanted to get down the Hickory Nut Trial while there was still light. Sure enough, the trail was covered in small loose rocks and boulders. It was too congested to really open up on, so I had to ride my brakes pretty much the whole way down. The last third of Hickory Nut was almost too dark to ride, but I didn’t want to stop and set my lights up. By the end, my hands and back ached from the rocky four mile descent. We pulled into Woody’s Mountain Bikes as the last glimmer of light dropped below the horizon. We were some of the first people to come through. Several of the folks hanging around we surprised to see a 29+ rolling through so early in the race. Woody and crew were grilling food and had a pretty awesome spread for all the riders. I ate several helpings and pounded water and Gatorade. I was starving. I thanked Woody and Mrs. Woody profusely as I peddled away in the dark. They did a great job of keeping all of us moving that night. John and I were now riding with the young gun, 20 year old James Dunaway. These guys were pretty quick but I did ok keeping up with them as we went up the monster 7 mile pavement climb over Hogpen Gap. Apparently several sections are over 20%! It was late and we were all tired. Towards the top, we were walking the steeper sections to conserve energy. The backside of the mountain was steep and scary in the dark, but it put us down into Vogle State Park in a hurry. It was almost midnight and John said the next climb over Wolfpen was going to be just as tough as the last. I was tired and didn’t really want to drain all the energy I had – we were 120 miles in to the ride. I bid farewell to the boys and made my way over to the picnic shelter at the end of the parking lot. It would be a nice dry spot to rest for a few hours.  

Day 2

At 4:30 am I rubbed my eyes and rolled over. There were about 5 or 6 other riders spread out around me. They had all trickled in during the night. I quickly packed up my gear, squeezed some shammy butter into my shorts and took off. My legs felt great after 4 hours of rest. The climbing was surprisingly easy. As I turned onto the gravel at Dunken Ridge, the sun began to make its appearance. After descending down into Cooper Creek, I turned my lights off for the day. The morning fog was rising over the creek and the early morning light glimmered through the trees. It was beautiful. photo 3 (2) (1) I stopped into the small convenience store at the end of Cooper Creek Road at 8am just as they were opening. The only thing on my mind was coffee. I bought 10 dollars worth of food, and sat in front of the store eating my 450 calorie Apple Ugly and sipped coffee. By 8:15 I was back on the bike cranking. The rest of the morning was pretty uneventful. There was a good bit of pavement and flat forest service road that followed the Toccoa River. The riding was easy and the views were quite lovely. I turned onto the Benton Mackaye Trail just before 11:00am. The trail was wide and climbed gradually. I was able to keep a good pace despite being on singletrack. Shortly after turning onto the Stanley Gap Trail, I ran into Alex Alexiades pushing up a steep hill. We chatted a bit and started riding together. Little did I know that Alex and I would be spending the remainder of the race together pushing each other along to the finish. Alex and I made quick work of the up and down singletrack over Stanley Gap. Before long we were ripping down the sweet trail on the back side of the mountain. We pulled into the parking lot at Rock Creek Road where the Pro Gold van was waiting with HoHos and iced water. We were both feeling pretty good and hopeful that we wound make Mulberry Gap by 5:00pm or so. The next 40 miles went quickly overall with lots of gravel and pavement. We started to pass several of the folks who had ridden throughout the night. Most of them looked like zombies. Alex and I had gotten good sleep overnight and enough rest to keep our energy level up. Those who had ridden all night on the other hand were in rough shape. I honestly don’t know how they did it. I also think this was part of the reason so many people didn’t finish. We turned onto the Pinhotti trail in the early afternoon. There were only 20 miles to go until we reached Mulberry Gap. I was sure we would be there in no time. The Cuhutta Wilderness however had something else in store for us. The first several miles were chewed up, eroded, muddy horse trail. It was slow and sloppy, but didn’t last long. Forest Service Road 64 on the other hand was a bear. The road climbed straight up to the ridge and stayed up there forever. It went over Buddy Cove Gap, Poplar Springs Gap and Betty Gap before screaming down the other side of the mountain. Each of the climbs over the gaps seemed to get steeper and longer. We pretty much spent the entire time in our granny gears clicking up and down the ridge. By 5:00pm we were finally back onto the Pinhotti. We still had 15 miles of singletrack to knock-out before Mulberry. Both of us knew it was going to be a tough ride. To make matters worse, a huge storm and tornado had come through only a few days before and the trails had a lot of debris on them. Koz and the crew from Mulberry Gap had done everything they could to clear the trails, but they were still in rough shape. The riding was slow going with lots of climbing on singletrack. As the sun began to set, neither Alex or I had eaten any food in a good while and we were out of water. I think we both just wanted to get to Mulberry and kept putting off eating. We were bonking, and just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, it began to rain. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We pulled up to Mulberry Gap in a driving rain just as the sun was setting. We were three hours later than we had anticipated. Of course there is a super steep climb up to lodge. Everyone, including my friend Chris, cheered us on as we pulled in. Inside was a huge spread of food. Everyone was asking me questions, but all I could focus on was food. After my first plate of dinner I began to snap back to reality and talk with all the nice people who were there to help me out. The food was awesome, and it felt great to be off the bike for a bit. Several riders who had dropped out were hanging around. Apparently, people had been dropping left and right throughout the day. They were bringing riders back by the truck load. As much as I wanted to, we couldn’t stay. We had to keep moving. The plan was to ride the last 20 miles of trial before the road section into Dalton. It stopped raining, but fog had set in making it hard to see. At first the trial seemed pretty good to go. Nice bench cut that climbed at a reasonable grade. Before long, the mountain got steeper and the bench cut went along a very exposed hillside. I was riding downhill and coming around a corner when a slimy wet log in the middle of the trail deflected my front wheel off the side. I locked the bike up trying to keep it together, but it was too late. I did a full front flip off the side of the trail. The bike went over my head as I landed in a pile of brush about 10 feet below the singletrack I was just riding. Was everything ok? I think so… I felt around. There was no pain, I didn’t see any blood. “Damn, that was close” I thought to myself. I got up and shoved my bike up the hill. Alex gave me a hand pulling the bike back onto the trail. We both decided that we needed to slow down and think about stopping as soon as we could. Alex and I were both tired and making stupid mistakes. We weren’t going to finish if we got hurt. Just after midnight we reached the bottom of the mountain and crossed over a small stream. There was a small campsite. We could rest here for a few hours. The two of us had only ridden 6 miles since leaving Mulberry Gap. Day 3 can be found HERE

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