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51 Hours Racing The TNGA – Part Three

We were both looking forward to mile 284 since we could get water from Tommie’s Ranch. When we got to the ranch, David Chen appeared. You could tell he was frustrated. We learned he had three flats and couldn’t fix them anymore.

We conclude our 3-part series; 51 Hours Racing The TNGA

Click here to read Part One…

Click here to read Part Two…

We were both looking forward to mile 284 since we could get water from Tommie’s ranch. As we arrived near the ranch, we could see a bright light. I thought it might be David Chen, but it turned out to be a documentary guy filming. When we got to Tommie’s Ranch, David Chen appeared. You could tell he was frustrated. We learned he had three flats and couldn’t fix them anymore. He walked over to Tommie’s and began telling us his woes. I definitely felt for him; he had prepped well by using a new set of tires but still had issues. I’m not sure what gave him the flats. Maybe he said, but I was concentrating on getting water, figuring out what food I had, and one last look at my bike light. That’s bikepack racing, or adventure racing, “adventure,” or whatever you want to call it. Things break, things you can’t believe fail. Part of me did wonder if he was having a hard time fixing things being exhausted and hungry - was skipping Dalton too much? Was he pushing it too much with sleep? Either way I felt for him, and I hope he comes back next year.

Once filled up, Hart and I continued. David Chen mentioned he had checked Trackleaders and we had about 30+ miles between us the nearest riders – Jon Livegood and Jason Shearer. At that point, I let myself think about the finish, just a little. I enjoyed riding with Hart and I believed we would ride together for a while but then what? We headed out and had a difficult time finding the next section of Pinhoti trail, once we did it was quite a bit of climbing to get to the top. He mentioned I could go on if I felt like it but I don’t think he knew how tired I was as well. I was coming around but definitely having another low. We hit pavement, and I got a gap but I figured we would come back together once we hit trail. Sure enough, I missed the turn for the trail too, not by much, but enough that we hit the trail together. It was fine though, it was the middle of the night and I think we were both happy to ride together. Plus, it was in the creepy spot near Corpsewood Manor. More on that here. As we got the ridgeline back we spooked something, probably a deer. It ran up the hill to the right. This second to last ridgeline was pretty nice other than the giant spiders that built their webs across the trail. Grown men screamed or groaned every mile as
we swerved to miss the Barn spiders and their webs. Thankfully, as far as I know, they were only Barn spiders; I didn’t see any Black Widows. It was nice being able to trade off for spider “clean up” with Hart every couple of miles.

The ridgeline trail was hard to follow in parts, but overall, Hart and I both knew we were zeroing in on the last of the singletrack. It was surreal to be up on the ridgeline, staring down both sides and to see small town lights below. It was uniquely peaceful. We dropped down to HWY 27 and began the last big climb back up. I knew the trail was more singletrack and I didn’t want to miss the junction again. I kept looking at my GPS thinking that this blaze on the left was the trail. It went straight up the side of the road- literally a cliff. Hart got there, and I tried to convince him this was the trail. He looked at me like the crazy person I was. “That’s definitely not the trail, Dude.” I knew I was tired. He knew I was tired. We kept walking up the hill, it felt like a sauna. The temp had dropped, but the humidity had to be near 100%. We walked to the top where the trail actually was just in time to see round eyes staring at us. Probably a bobcat. It ran off. At the top, we discussed what we wanted to do. It was 4:30 in the morning. Sleep, anyone? I looked down where Hart was sitting to discover some “trail magic.” Someone had placed a Powerade there! I checked the lid to make sure it had never been open, hammered half of it and then Hart had the rest. We decided to find a good spot along the ridgeline, sleep for an 1:30 then get moving again.

By sleeping at 5 a.m., we knew we were done night riding and could do the rest of the singletrack in daylight. I was enjoying the ridgeline singletrack, but was looking forward to being done and escaping down into the valley with its paved and gravel roads. The hammock setup quickly and before I knew it, I was out.

My alarm woke me up groggy, but thankfully, morning light was peeking through so at least my body kind of felt like it had a full night’s rest. My body felt good for riding so far, and the hammock sleeping really helped. I liked the ability to get complete air flow all around and use the lines as drying racks. I started forcing myself to eat so I could stay on top of nutrition as much as possible. I didn’t want to bonk in the last 50 miles. I got my stuff together a little quicker than Hart and walked to the trail and looked around. I was trying to guess as to how this last ten miles would be; it looked like it could be good singletrack. I also wondered how Hart was doing this morning; I must admit I was allowing myself to think about the finish a little now and how it would end. The other morning, he had ridden away from me before Mulberry Gap. Maybe another “nap” would have him at full gas again, plus, if he did want to go for it, trying it on the singletrack would be the move for him before we hit gravel/pavement where the Cutthroat was an advantage. With these types of events, it’s really you versus the course at the end of the day. The difficulty and length usually make it a war of attrition anyway. It was unspoken; but I think Hart and I believed it was us
versus the course. Could we finish, and how fast? Other racers were brothers in arms and hopefully motivators to each of us. I was glad to have made a quick friend and hoped we would finish it together since we had already been riding with each other for a while.

We got moving, and it was a surreal experience. Another morning and day of riding my bike on little sleep. At least the trail was good. The ridgeline singletrack rolled decorated with early season color change. My legs began to warm up, but I was feeling the soreness. Hart was leading and moving quickly. He either wanted to finish, see how I felt, or get a gap; either way I had to turn it up a bit. He did get a little gap on me but I think he was just trying to warm up. If he really did gap me, I knew I could catch him once we were off singletrack. It was an amazing trail that finally had us pop out on overgrown FS road. We kept moving until we got close to a cell phone tower and it was easy to see we were at the end of the ridgeline. We missed the hidden left the Pinhoti singletrack made, but finally found it.

This started the full-on descent, and Hart let me lead. It got rocky, or at least I was tired, and I began to worry I was going to make a mistake or get a flat. At some point, I missed a
turn and Hart went around, but I could almost see the parking lot. We finally came out to the road, and Hart recognized the left we needed to make. It was surprising how fast the road felt and how I suddenly knew the hardest trail was behind me, but still plenty of miles to go. We caught the old railroad bed that paralleled Hwy 100. The trail is good, but I imagine it’s used more for horse riding or four-wheeler rips than bike riding. It was nice just to sit and spin, stretch the back, and enjoy the sunny morning before it got hot again. Hart relived the race from two years ago and talked about where people were and how the course had changed. We passed the junction where in previous years they took a right and finished in just another six miles. Hart and I were now on the new course with another 40 miles to go. I kept trying to eat but could tell the exhaustion was weighing me down. Just get to Coosa I told myself. I couldn’t believe how much I was looking forward to this gas station.

The path, how tired I was, and the nice morning made me just want to slow roll, but no matter how it turned out, I wanted to give it all I had and leave it on the course. I was trying to gauge how Hart felt. I wanted us to finish together, but I also wanted to give it all that I had and see what I could do in this last 40 miles. I knew my road racing this year and “puppy dog” practice could come into some real use here at the end. We kept moving and eventually talked about what we were craving. I kept thinking about hamburgers at the time if I remember correctly.

We popped out at mile 326 to the gas station I’d be dreaming of. Hart’s dad was on his way to the finish and stopped to watch us and say hello. We both wondered around like Zombies in search of the perfect breakfast. Thankfully they had a little kitchen inside, and we both had sausage biscuits and sat at a picnic table drinking Coke, Gatorade, Mello Yello, chocolate milk, etc. Drinks just get more desirable by the end because you are tired of chewing. I also put more air in my rear Race King. It had lost some air coming into Coosa, and I was worried it was leaking. I’ve had a bad year of flats and this was just another one to add to my list if it got worse. I started worrying this was the start of something – of course in the last 40 miles! I got more air into it, and it seemed to hold.

As we finished, we joked about the end and what we were thinking. With the food and drink+ caffeine, I was coming back around. I wanted to finish with Hart, but I also wanted to give it all I had at this point and see what I could do. I decided that I wouldn’t do any roadie attack moves, but I would just slowly ramp it up to my tempo pace and if Hart and I stayed together great, if not then we would just finish at our own paces. If we did finish together, Hart said he would give it the “old college try” with a wink but that I would likely win. I thought I had a good chance but was also worried about my energy level falling flat or getting flat tires.

We headed out from the gas station around the Rome bypass. It was full daylight now, and the shoulder was huge. It rolled along, and it was hard to believe we were getting close to the finish. I started working up to my tempo pace and felt good. Maybe I did have some left in the tank. I got in my slight aero tuck, and it felt good to move. I looked behind me, and Hart was right there. We kept rolling along the big rollers. I think on one of the longer rollers the gap started. I thought about what I should do and what was Hart thinking? At this point I believed both of us knew it was each person against the course, what we had left, and how hard we could go. I decided to keep up my pace and if he caught back up, great, if not, then I could keep giving it what I had.

I put my earbuds in and kept jamming along. I was feeling surprisingly good, all that forced eating was helping me out it seemed. I had fuel for the fire. Miles kept rolling, and it seemed like I was riding the roads around my parents’ house. For most, it was a normal Monday - get to work, drop kids off, mow the yard. I felt like an anomaly going along the road trying my best to finish a journey that I started long ago, out of place in their world. The miles were ticking off, but I didn’t look at my GPS very often, just kept pedaling. I made the outskirts of Cave Springs and pedaled down main street. The Hearn Inn, a new TNGA destination for us, passed on my right. They were out setting up signs and tables for TNGA riders. Someone yelled at me, but with my music in and exhaustive state, I have no idea what they said. I waved and kept moving down Old Cedartown Road. Because of some work, a detour was ahead. I kept my eyes glued to my Garmin and was getting very worried I was off course, but then the right-hander appeared, and I calmed. The road turned to red Georgia clay gravel, and I kept looking for the next left. I knew I had one more section of trail before I was done. Sure, enough I missed it and started thinking Hart was right behind me. I got on the singletrack and barely found the route. It was rarely-used trail with just blazes to guide you. I finally hit Esom Hill Road as the sun really began
baking the course. It felt like a normal southern summer day. I was ready to be off the bike. I kept rolling along, the legs still feeling reasonably strong.

Around mile 354 a rider was standing at the top of the hill. As I got closer he clipped in and started moving. I thought it was one of the documentary guys at first. I just kept pedaling hoping for the finish. I finally looked over to realize it was Honcho! Now I felt bad, just head down pedaling along barely saying a word. I greeted him and apologized. I’d seen Koz several times now, so it was a real treat to see Honcho and he said I was so close to the finish. I think I mentioned thanks
and how great the course was and then probably rambled on about food I wanted. He gave me some words of encouragement and said my dad was waiting at the finish. I made the quick right, quick left, and could see the Silver Comet junction. I couldn’t believe it. There it was!!! I took the right-hander and knew it was still 1.5 miles to the finish. I thought about slowing and taking it in, but I wanted to finish and do it as soon as I could. I wanted to give it all that I had. I somehow felt like this was honoring the course and those who had put in all the time to make it happen. Then it came into view – the Arch. I wish I knew more history about the arch, but either way, I was glad to see it. I could see my dad, Derek, and some documentary people standing there. Looking back on it I should have slow pedaled once I was within 100 feet and stopped at the arch, but at the time for some reason, I just couldn’t help but pedal right through. It was like I was worried that at the last minute something was going to happen and I wasn’t going to finish. Once I got through the arch, I finally felt like I could relax. I made the U-turn and came back to give Koz a fist bump. I got off the bike and gave dad a hug, super glad to see him! He knows me well and handed me a chocolate milk.

I eventually put the bike down and talked with Koz and crew about how the adventure had unfolded. I mentioned how the last miles from Coosa had worked out and that Hart should be here any minute. I had looked over my shoulder several times expecting to see him charging after me! Eventually, Hart rolled in, and we congratulated each other on an amazing race. There was part of me that was glad it was over and part of me that wanted it to keep going. On Monday at 11 a.m. I finished, 51 hours after starting. I thought about all the riders behind me moving this way, and I hoped it was going well for them. It was great to finish the course the fastest and get the new course record, but I have a good feeling somebody will do it faster next year.

The best part of the whole experience was being in the Appalachians with a lot of great people. I was happy with the Cutthroat and drop bar setup. I think for the course it’s perfect, having multiple hand and thus back positions was so nice, plus, I could get in a nice position on the road. Having the Fenix flashlight on my helmet saved my bacon since I almost sabotaged myself with my own 3D print. That’s bikepacking though, it’s always amazing the things you can break out there. I’m glad I had a hammock, it’s worth the weight. If you aren’t getting a lot of sleep, at least make sure it’s good sleep. With the ample numbers of trees along the course, the hammock worked very well. Nutrition went well with a mix of Skratch, water, real food, and grocery store snacks. I’m still craving the vegan fruit snacks I randomly picked up in Dalton.

The TNGA is an amazing event, as are the Appalachians. Go check them out and do the TNGA. Thanks to my amazing family who has supported me along the way and brings me chocolate milk at the end of races. Thanks to Koz, Honcho, and all the others that support and make the TNGA such an amazing experience. Congrats to all the racers who finished and towed the line. If you didn’t finish, congrats for starting, challenging yourself, and not being afraid to fail. Come back and finish it next year!

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51 Hours Racing The TNGA – Part Two

We got moving and stopped at the Cooper Creek store for water around midnight. We found a tap outside, but it said not potable. Thankfully I had talked with local fast guy Shey Linder who was first a couple of years ago, and he had shared that the tap here had been fine before.

​We continue our 3-part series of posts sharing Salsa product engineer Sean Mailen’s experience racing the Trans North Georgia bikepacking ultra.

Click here to read Part One of 51 Hours Racing The TNGA

We got moving and stopped at the Cooper Creek store for water around midnight. We found a tap outside, but it said not potable. Thankfully I had talked with local fast guy Shey Linder who was first a couple of years ago, and he had shared that the tap here had been fine before. We both filled up and headed out. We kept rolling on valley gravel roads and paved sections, making very good time. The temps were nice and cool, and the roads felt fast. We went back into the forests around rock creek for the millionth creek crossing. The bats were flying around like crazy, and one must have been on the sauce because he ran straight into my helmet! We hit trail and climbed for a bit and then as we turned a corner could see a red blinky. David Hall was at the top and had just fixed a flat. We talked a bit, and he told us about his two bear encounters. We then rolled as the three amigos, and would be together for a while.

We rolled along peaceful roads until finally reaching Iron Bridge. I wanted to see the bridge and Toccoa River in the light, but it wasn’t meant to be, instead we rolled through a quiet town at 1 a.m. We reached the Aska trails and began riding the singletrack to Stanley Gap. We stopped at the top of a singletrack climb. I pulled out the Mello Yello I’d been hauling. Hart looked at me with a wry smile “Holy crap, that looks good.” I think David laughed a little. We talked a little but mostly communicated through grunts, yawns, or tired blank looks. I don’t think any of us felt like we had to ride in a group, but at 1 a.m. we were happy to be with some other crazy people. Hart mentioned that getting over Stanley Gap and into Cherry Log for sleep would be nice. David said that’s what he was hoping for as well. I had read some previous stories of people sleeping inside some type of barn or something there, so that sounded good to me. The Mello Yello had somehow revived me, and I was ready to go again.

We started up Stanley Gap and mostly hiked it. It’s a tough hiking trail, really tough at 2 am. We missed a turn but eventually made it back to the trail we were supposed to be on. Hart took off on the downhill trail, I did ok, and I think David was feeling tired and eating somewhere behind me. David finally caught me on the really rocky stuff, my wrists finally feeling it. I could see their lights so knew they weren’t that far ahead. Finally, the trail ended, and we flew down into Cherry Log. Once in Cherry Log we looked for water at the post office but found nothing. We went over to the voter building shed and setup. David found a nice table to sleep on and Hart setup his hammock. I found water behind the building
and came back to setup my hammock as well. Hart mentioned he set the alarm for an 1:15 of sleep. Good grief, an hour and 15 minutes!!! I was thinking three or four - shoot. Well, I guess I’m getting up in an 1:15. If not, I’m sure David will and then I’ll be chasing. I liked being a part of the front group since the pressure was off chasing somebody. Plus, I knew these types of races could be decided by who is willing to go without sleep. I got in my hammock and was glad I brought it. My Eno hammock with Helios Suspension was quick to setup and felt amazing to be in. No extra pads and bags needed, plus I was comfy and off the ground. If I wasn’t going to sleep much, I wanted it to be good.

After what felt like 10 minutes, I could hear rustling and a phone alarm going off. I took my time getting up, forced a rice cake from Woody’s down, and told myself it was the perfect breakfast. At some point, Chad had showed up and was sleeping on plywood in the corner. David Chen had come through as well and kept going. So now we were chasing, but I
knew he would have to sleep, so we would probably switch with him at some point.

David and Hart got water, and we got rolling. I put on my long sleeve woolie and was glad I had grabbed it. I wore it over my jersey since at 4 a.m. it was around 60 or below. I don’t know how Hart and David did it with nothing else on but short sleeve jerseys. Somewhere around mile 178, we hit the Coldwell Country store. The giant Coke machine was like a beacon in the night calling us. It would have been great if they were open, and the owner was excited about the racers coming through, but not excited enough to have roller dogs going at 4:30 am. We each pounded a Coke or two. I heard David talking to somebody and realized David Chen was sleeping under the car port! Sadly, for him, the neighborhood dogs wouldn’t shut up. I just imagined if you could drive backward on the route at this time you would discover zombies every 10 miles asleep on picnic tables and plywood sheets.

We headed out and began the climb towards the Pinhoti Trail. Once we really started hitting the singletrack, I was worried about how much time David and Hart could put into me. I wasn’t losing that much time on them, but on long sections, if they wanted separation, I think they could get it. I could still make up a lot of time going across to Dalton and near the finish, but I didn’t want to get too far back. We climbed a gravel road and at the top the sleep monster fully attacked. The ground looked so good. I laid down, Hart and David pulled up. “Anybody up for a 30-minute nap?” I asked eyes already closed and head resting on my bike. David said something about it not being a bad idea and that it can kind of trick you if you wake up with the sun rising. I set my alarm, and we slept there in the middle of the gravel turn around. After what seemed like five minutes we got moving again. Hart was leading and riding strong. The FS road dove and then climbed steeply. We hit some horse trail that started fun but then just kept kicking up. Hart was going strong on the climbs, and all of us were dreaming of Mulberry Gap. He had that “I’m pissed off riding and want to eat and get to Mulberry Gap now” kind of look and style going. I couldn’t hang with him, and David didn’t seem to need to come around.

On a longer gravel climb, it began to really set it that I was going to ride all day again and that I was tired. It began to piss me off. The climbing, how tired I was, how I was not getting any closer to Mulberry Gap. I knew I was mentally showing some cracks. Time to eat. Time to drink. Time to take inventory of the good things I had. I told myself my whole family was waking up and checking my Spot Tracker and seeing how far I had gone that night and were so proud of me. Our little baby Eden was proud of me, and I needed to keep going so I could see her. I walked the hill and stretched my back. “Keep going Sean; you’re fine,” I told myself. I was hitting a low; it would pass. Get to Mulberry, get some food, then think about Dalton. Only worry about what’s in front of you. The sun lit up the sky and the mountains. It was gorgeous out, be thankful. I got pedaling again and felt better.

I was on singletrack, and good singletrack at that. I descended to Bear Creek and got water. I kept pedaling and missed the hard right-hander. As I came back, I heard somebody yell down to me, “Come on up, brother.” It was Koz. He was out riding again meeting us, seeing how things were going. I said something jokingly about having to go all the way up there. I remounted and pedaled up passing a photographer. He let me pass him and asked how things were going. I mentioned the low but I was coming around and looking forward to Mulberry Gap. He only had positive things to say and said we were doing great. I told him a summary of last night and knew he had already seen Hart. I’ve learned to speak positive to feel positive. Humans are happiest when we are praising. I said something about thanks for doing this, and it was great to be riding these trails. Something about my past, I can’t remember everything - I was slightly delusional. It was just great riding with him, he brought a slice of normalcy back to me. He turned back, and I knew it was time to get to Mulberry.

I finally hit the road to Mulberry and was worried I was going to miss it until David came up behind me and said I was on the right track. Seeing Mulberry Gap MTB getaway was a sight for sore eyes. I got there and saw Hart’s stuff along the wall. I started taking care of business – throw away trash, check the bike, take off the super stinky jersey, get water, order food, etc. I plugged in my phone since my setup was having a hard time charging my giant iPhone. Ordering was hilarious and surreal. I just kept naming things on the menu, and they kept writing it all down without a blink of the eye. “Coffee, coke, well two cokes, Gatorade, full breakfast with bacon, cheesy grits, oh, and a Mello Yello, two mini loaves of banana bread, oh, also some of those bars.” I caught up with Hart and his dad. He was tired but really happy to get food. I think he even got a milkshake. Somebody mentioned that my Spot wasn’t working well. I tried to text family again and see if I could figure out the deal with my Spot Tracker. It had worked perfectly weeks before, but now it was going on and off. Annoying. I packed the bike but wasn’t excited to leave. I had thought so much about Mulberry Gap that I hadn’t thought about what came after it. I told myself to focus on the details and get moving, and the rest would sort itself out. Hart had already gone, and David was gearing up. I left figuring David Hall would soon catch me on the singletrack. I would never see him again; sadly, a failed pedal would have him dropping only 30 minutes later.

From Mulberry Gap to the bottom of the Appalachians is good singletrack. Even the climbing wasn’t horrible. I’m sure having lots of food in me helped. I eventually came out on gravel road and kept it moving until sure enough my Garmin showed me off track. Then I saw Hart heading back my way; he had made the same mistake. The old Jeep road that we were supposed to be on paralleled this road, so it was hard to tell. We made it back and kept moving on the overgrown trail. It rolled nicely until becoming a singletrack descent. I was sticking with him but them my chain broke. Thankfully it was an easy fix, and I just stuck with my mantra of “keep moving.” I didn’t have to do everything fast, but I just needed to keep moving. Before I knew it was on an old Federal road and had left the Appalachians behind.

I arrived at the Rammhurst gas station seeing Hart’s bike up against the side. It was hot, midday in the south, and now we had about 20 miles of pavement. Gross. I decided to drink another Coke or two plus a Gatorade. I hadn’t cramped yet and didn’t want to. I made sure I had a full bladder as well. I was also slightly excited to start this section because I knew the miles would roll and I could probably do a lot of Snake Creek Gap on the other side of Dalton in the daylight. David Chen pulled up and mentioned his stomach wasn’t doing great. Hart and I rolled together but he said he was feeling tired, or food wasn’t sitting well, I can’t remember. Anyway, I wanted to stay together, but I also wanted to test the speed of the Cutthroat on some road. Could I make time on these guys near the end? I figured they would get some miles on me between Dalton and Coosa, but then I could make them up hopefully, but I needed to see what felt good at what speed on the Cutty. I told him I was just going to try and get aero and hold a good pace. He said he would ride with me if he could. I settled in and felt good. I just kept up my pace and soon didn’t see Hart, but I also knew a grocery store stop in Dalton would likely bring us back together. I pedaled to some of my favorite jams and got into Dalton. It was nice knowing that my family was only 45 minutes away, but also that I was going to keep going. I pulled into the Kroger excited for food, real fresh food! I grabbed some fruit snacks, bananas, bars, baked goods, peaches, a Caesar wrap, and some chocolate. I had a goal to always be eating. I’ve paid for it in some longer gravel races by getting behind on my nutrition. I knew that I was burning plenty of calories and that no matter what, I couldn’t keep up. Hart arrived and told me David Chen had ridden straight through! What?! How can you not stop in Dalton for supplies/food/milkshakes/candy/everything?! I couldn’t believe it. I guess we were chasing him now. Hart said he flew too; wow he must be feeling good. Either he was going to crush it, or he was going to blow up. Only time would tell, and I knew my appetite was roaring, so I was going to feed it and hit the “Snake” on a full stomach.

I waited outside and saw some folks who were following the race. Cool that people knew that we weren’t just homeless people with fancy bikes. I ate my food, and waited on Hart. I liked riding with him, he was an honest standup guy from what I knew, plus he’d been here before. I liked the idea of trying to stay with him on the Snake and then seeing if I could get him to stay with me on the climbs. This would push both of us and motivate us. He got his food, and I fell asleep for about five minutes waiting. It was a nice nap. We climbed up to Dug Gap, and he told me how steep the climb gets in sections. We saw the documentary crew again, and the drone got a close-up shot of me. It was like having a giant fan blowing on me! I figured I should tip him for the kindness. We hit the trail, and the Snake started.

I had heard the horror stories, and thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be. It was an overgrown, skinny trail with lots of rocks though. I could definitely imagine the
Confederate troops setting up their breastworks to try and stop Grant’s march to Atlanta. Koz soon joined me, and it was nice to see him again. He was there with perfect timing as I totally did an endo over the bars. His GoPro captured it perfectly. We laughed about it and I told him this was the area I knew I would pay the most for drop bars. I hiked for a bit longer and apologized to him for making him walk. He was happy to do so and eventually turned around to find other riders. I rode by myself for a while and again wondered if I would see Hart again. If I were him and felt good, this is when I would have seen how much time I could put into me, plus catch David Chen. It began to become twilight dark, and this area had seen much less use than other forests. It was almost eerie at the bottom of the mountain before climbing back up to more ridgeline. I began to wonder what I was doing riding my bike for this long. Thankfully, I was gifted with an amazing sunset - one of the few pictures I was able to take. I plugged in my Garmin for more power and turned on the K-lite to keep moving. All of a sudden, the entire trail looked like a horror movie! My light was completely strobing. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. What’s going on? I stopped, checked cords, checked connections, everything looked normal. I looked at the box I had 3D printed for the K-lite electronics so I could mount it to the stem. It hit me; I bet the electronics inside were moving around too much and the connections were coming loose. I could touch the box and make the light come on and off - yep that’s definitely what it was. Shoot, that’s bikepacking for you. Well, I thought, I have this Fenix flashlight that can go up to 700 lumens so if it works I’ll be fine. Thankfully, I could still charge my electronics. Ok, so far so good. I kept moving.

I finally reached the HWY 136 Pinhoti parking lot. The Snake is done! Hart was there eating, so I must have stayed within reasonable distance. Any sight of David Chen? No. I asked if he was doing ok. He said he was but was going to need to sleep soon. I kind of wanted to go harder for a while, but I also knew that was a good idea. We had a whole night ahead of us and were at mile 270, still 90 miles to go. After 30 hours of riding, 90 miles was going to take a lot of time. We kept going, taking the next ridgeline and descending the other side. Thankfully we were rewarded with pretty fun rolling trail. We crossed Pocket Road and decided we would take a trail nap soon. I still hadn’t eaten my chicken Caesar wrap with lime ranch dressing and 20 oz. Coke, so now was the perfect time. We decided to nap in the middle of the trail where it was sandy and covered in pine needles. My Caesar wrap was amazing. The Coke also hit the spot. I set my alarm, and we awoke 30 minutes later. I finished the Coke and we got back to work.

We conclude 51 Hours Racing The TNGA on Friday…

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51 Hours Racing The TNGA – Part One

This year the Trans North Georgia “adventure” started on August 19th at 8 a.m. on the Russell Bridge between Georgia and South Carolina. It was a beautiful morning, with the sunrise spreading golden light across the bridge and the other 75-ish riders.

We begin a 3-part story from Salsa product engineer Sean Mailen’s experience racing the Trans North Georgia bikepacking ultra earlier this summer.​

Click here to read Sean’s pre-race post…

This year the Trans North Georgia “adventure” started on August 19th at 8 a.m. on the Russell Bridge between Georgia and South Carolina. It was a beautiful morning, with the sunrise spreading golden light across the bridge and the other 75-ish riders. Derek Kozlowski (Koz) and Jeff Williams (Honcho) gave us a pre-race meeting. “Make sure your tracker is on, don’t be stupid,” and a prayer before we kicked off. Three days before, my family and I had arrived in my hometown of Chattanooga to 90’s and 100% humidity. I questioned my sanity in entering this event, and if I still could handle the hot blanket of moisture. Thankfully, when my dad and I had driven over on Friday afternoon to Clayton, GA, the temps and humidity had both dropped. It was shaping up to be almost perfect weather for the race with the chance of rain below 20%.

After the meeting, I said thanks to Dad and pedaled over to the front of the bridge. Staging for a 359-mile bikepacking race doesn’t matter compared to an NCC crit, but I wanted a good photo of my Cutthroat on the bridge. She looked ready to go, and my nerves were in a good spot. A boxer once said, “It’s ok to have butterflies as long as you can get them in formation.” I was feeling good and finally excited to start. All the preparation and packing had gone well, and I was confident in the gear I was bringing. The night before, my Dad and I discovered the Fenix flashlight I planned to bring had a bad switch. Thankfully, I had brought my backup. This would save my bacon later in the race. We also discussed the weather, and I decided to add a long sleeve woolie which I was thankful for at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning.

I got my photos and stood next to other riders as we anticipated the start and what was about to happen. I looked around at the other smiling faces and tried to get a good photo or two. Would I make it to the finish? Top five? How would the others around me fare? Doing events like this before, I knew how even the most meticulous preparation still
couldn’t prepare you for what can happen out there. The most random, unthinkable things can break. Nutrition can go south. Weather can play havoc. One small error, a bent derailleur, bearing failure, hole in a water bladder, ripped tire, or broken wheel can lead to you limping home. I knew my fitness was good from a solid race season and that my experience guided me to good gear decisions, but now it was me versus the course. What did it have in store?

Bobby Wintle pulled up and gave me a big hello. He’s a bike shop owner in Oklahoma and puts on the Land Run 100. He’s an incredible guy and always positive, plus he was also on a drop bar Cutthroat, so I felt a kinship with him. Most folks were on flat bar hardtails, so Bobby and I were the weirdos. I didn’t know many people doing the race except Bobby and Ethan Frey, a Salsa Brand Ambassador and coworker. I knew a lot of strong Georgia riders were signed up this year, but I wasn’t sure who was who. It’d be interesting seeing who would make up the front group and who I would end up riding with. My race plan was to ride smart, pace myself, and try to stay around top five. If that
worked, then I might be able to take advantage of the Cutthroat on rolling gravel and paved roads in the last 50 miles. I knew if my fitness was good I could get in a decent aero position on the Cutthroat/Cowchipper combo and make up a good amount of time. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, though.

Koz finally got us started, and the pedals began to turn in an effort for us all to arrive at the Georgia-Alabama border that seemed forever away. It felt good to get moving as it always does the first mile of any race. The pace was good, not too fast, and the group was talkative. At the first real climb, things began to stretch out and within about 15 miles, the front group already established itself or so it seemed. Later, I would learn I was riding with David Hall, Chad Hungerford, David Chen, and Ethan Frey. Ethan was the only guy I already knew but don’t get to ride with that much since he’s out on the East Coast. I knew he was a very strong rider and very fast on a mountain bike. He was on a Spearfish. Since we get some of the hardest singletrack at mile 260, I knew that his bet on dual suspension might pay off very well. He could put some time on us quick. I thought the group was fully established, but then I heard the whiz of tread on gravel come up fast on my right. A determined rider made his way past me and up towards David Hall. He kept going, and before I knew it, he was on the front and moving. This guy means business I thought! Eventually, I would learn that this was Hart Robinson, a rider I would spend a great deal of time with on this journey.

The “group” kept rolling up and over climbs. You could tell everyone was riding their own pace, but the combo of climbs and descents kept us together for a while. I’d gain time on the climbs but lose time on the descents. Everybody knew that we had 340 miles to go, so there wasn’t any need to crush it. I could tell David Hall, and David Chen were climbing especially well. Chad Hungerford climbed with sheer determination and mentioned this was his fourth attempt, hoping for a second finish. Everyone had setups that looked like they brought in good experience. David Chen’s looked to be the lightest. I was not envious of David Hall’s backpack or Chad’s hip pack, but to each their own. I was the weirdo on drop bars. I didn’t necessarily want to ride with a group the whole time, but I knew those with experience would know where some of these hidden trails and turn offs were. I knew the TNGA could be tricky in spots. I had a GPS, but it’s hard to tell you are off route until about two-tenths of a mile off course so any turns not missed would be helpful, at least for a while.

Chad warned us of a quick left coming up that is easy to miss. As we hiked-a-bike of babyhead gravel, Chad warned us that we would “suffer.” An ominous warning for sure, but true. Hopefully, the highs would be better than the lows. The trail then got confusing going through overgrown pastures and rough forest road. I got gapped but knew I could
make up time on the climbs. Koz and the documentary crew greeted us at the junction with another forest service road. It’s cool to see the promoters out on course. They love sharing their event, and you can tell they truly want everyone to finish and do something they didn’t think they could.

The road eventually turned onto seldom-used singletrack. I knew I was going to get passed in this section, paying for my drop bar setup, but it was still a blast to ride. Ethan and then David Chen flew by on the rocky, wet section. We did one of the first creek crossings of countless more. I paused for a moment trying to take in the beauty of the area. Mount Laurel made a tunnel of the trail, and the creek was flowing with clear, cold water. This, in the end, was why I came. This area is beautiful and probably too often overlooked. I felt like I was home for a bit, back in the Appalachians where I had learned to appreciate the mountains and adventure. I was excited to push myself and see what I could do, but in the end just happy to be here. I got moving knowing that if I lingered any longer, I would never leave.

The trail finally popped out into a parking area and then to a quaint mountain road. This little valley was beautiful as were the small old farm homes. You got the feeling that these
folks still did a weekly trip to town for goods. Once again, I was having to motivate myself to get moving. “Get Going!!!” I told myself. This section of gravel and pavement rolled, and I knew the Cutty was moving. I didn’t need to kill it, just stay within the range of top five as long as I could. We hit the valley around Dillard, and I got in my very comfortable aero position and pedaled away. I could tell I could make up good time on those with flat bars, so knew I needed to take advantage of these sections. I saw Chad again as we climbed out of Dillard. I knew Hart and David Hall wouldn’t be too far ahead, but I didn’t need to worry about catching them. Plenty of miles to go. I turned on the music and settled into what I hoped would be a good climbing pace for TNGA. I wanted to ride at mid-tempo, nice and strong, but not too hard.

I missed a turn on a paved road andEthan and David Chen ended up passing me as I realized my mistake. Once back on course, I looked for water since I was getting low at mile 44 already. Shey Linder had mentioned an old, concrete shack that had water. I found it, nowater, lots of trash – nasty. Just another minute down the road and I found David Chen filling up bottles at the campground – yes! Perfect. David was mixing Infinite in multiple bottles. I had considered bottles but just being able to fill up one 2L bladder and go was so enjoyable. I told him I would see him later and kept pedaling. Riding along the Tallulah River was amazing. Actually, a lot of the climbs in the first 100 miles are gorgeous. Creeks were full of clear water tumbling over rocks. Plenty of people were out swimming in the holes and waterfalls, others fishing. Plus, most of the climbs on the TNGA are shaded; trees are everywhere down here. It might be hot and humid down here, but the shade plus cool creek water made the climbing fun! I wanted so badly to get off and sit in the creek awhile, but I knew I had other business today, and I could come back later.

At mile 54, we came out on highway 76. It was hot, and I was going through water, so I knew I would stop and pay the Top of Georgia Hostel a visit. I originally didn’t want to stop here, but seeing the cold soft drinks beckoned me in. Ethan pulled up and we both slammed off-brand fruit-flavored sodas. THEY TASTED SO GOOD. I also bought a Coke and a Mello Yello. This wouldn’t be the first time I bought multiple soft drinks and stuck one in my frame bag for later. The caffeine and sugar revived me. I filled my bladder and asked Ethan if he was ready. He wanted to hammer a Gatorade and told me to go ahead. I knew another singletrack downhill was coming and figured he would catch me. I set off to catch Jon Livengood if I could since he passed us while we were draining liquid sugar into our bodies.

The next climb was up Wildcat Creek, and the entire climb was amazing. My gearing (32 x 10-42T) was exactly what I needed. I passed David Hall at some point, and then he passed me after the AT junction. Hart was nowhere to be seen, and I thought I may never see him again. He was doing a solid pace on the climbs and putting time into me on the descents. A lot can happen though, and I was really enjoying the ride. I turned off Unicoi Turnpike and began the climb up Tray Mountain having no idea what I was in store for. Corbin Creek seemed to climb forever. Once again, I was running low on water, so I had caught Chad but told him I was pulling over for water the next time I see it. I found a creek pouring over rocks and filled up. I treated it with drops so I knew I would need to wait 30 minutes, but it ended up being the best water I had; it was so good! I reached the top of Tray Mountain and began the descent. It’s a torn-up Jeep road that is all rock. You just kind of end up screaming down it hoping for the best. A rear derailleur could be ripped off at any time. You could slide out at any time. A Jeep could come up the road at any time. I made it to Hickory Nut and was glad to get back on singletrack. I would regret this thought. Hickory Nut is a forgotten trail with lots of overgrowth and cinderblock sized rocks thrown in. This was the only point where I seriously questioned using the Cutthroat with suspension fork. I felt bad for Bobby who would eventually hit this section on a Cutty with no suspension. At the bottom of the descent, you arrive in Helen and to a much-needed rest stop at Woody’s Bikes.

Woody and crew were amazing! The TNGA is a great event because of the people. Koz, Honcho, Woody’s bike shop, Top of Georgia Hostel, Tommie’s Ranch, and the folks at Mulberry Gap are all fantastic. They love the event, and they love the racers who come to take on the challenge. They are incredibly kind and go out of their way to help you out
when you arrive. These oases of sorts are much needed since along the course, most gas stations and country stores aren’t open except at banker hours. Woody’s had
free drinks, free bacon pancakes, and anything you needed for your bike. I needed a little oil on the chain, but that was about it. Ethan arrived and needed a whole new tire - he cut his charging down Hickory Nut. I arrived just in time to see Hart, David Hall, and Chad head out. After 100 miles, I knew I still had plenty of time to catch them but didn’t want to give them too much time. My goal was not to rush but always keep moving. This usually meant eating and doing things on the bike, but I needed to make sure I was good to go for a long night of riding since it was around 6 p.m. already. I forced more food than I wanted in my system and kept drinking tea, Cokes, and coffee. It was good to catch up with Jon a bit, and also talk with David Chen a little. I tried using my phone to let my family know things were good but it was having issues. Every time I would try to use it I wouldn’t have service, or it was so humid the touchscreen would freak out. I think I got one text out and started heading up Hogpen Gap.

I settled in and made it over, did the fastest decent of the trip, and then made it to the base of Wolfpen Gap. As I went up Wolfpen, I turned my K-lite on and continued listening to a Mike & Mike Podcast. I arrived at the gap and took a right onto gravel. Within about aminute, a light was coming back in my direction. I couldn’t believe it; it was the guy who was leading, Hart R. “I think we are going to wrong way,” he said. I checked but was confident we were on the correct road. “This is right; you were going the right way,” I said. He acknowledged and turned around. “How you doing?” I asked. “I’m ok, I’ve been better,” he said (or something similar). We got moving and didn’t say anything else to each for a while. Not too much to talk about really, we were both doing the TNGA, we were both getting tired, David Hall was somewhere in front of us, and the long descent was good.

After what seemed like an hour we arrived on a rolling gravel road. It was 11 p.m. on Saturday, and you could tell the miles and climbing were wearing on us. By that point we had done about 130 miles and around 16k of climbing. I told him I had to stop to eat since it was hard to see my food and needed to plug in my Garmin to the dyno to charge. He seemed happy to stop and stretch his back. We finally did our introductions and talked about how we were feeling. It was easy, to be honest since these events are tough, and
there was nothing to hide. We were both tired. We discussed strategy and what we had planned for sleep. I said minimal as did he, and we wanted to go until completely exhausted. I knew at some point I would figure I had enough and pull the hammock out for three or four hours. This being his second time, he mentioned something about Stanley Gap and getting to a certain point. I figured we could ride together for as long as possible, at least confirming navigation, and eventually split ways when somebody got tired. I figured he was having a low but once he got some food or sleep in him he would be flying again and I would see if I could keep his pace.

Stay tuned for Part Two on Wednesday…


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Taking On The TNGA Bikepacking Race

Plan.  Pack. Rethink.  Update gear list.  Rethink.  Pack.  Look at map.  Solder something.  Plan.  Update gear list.  Pull it all out of my bags.  Rethink.  Plan. I feel like this has been the process I’ve gone through in my basement and in my head for the last two weeks as I prepare for the TNGA (Trans North Georgia).

Plan.  Pack. Rethink.  Update gear list.  Rethink.  Pack.  Look at map.  Solder something.  Plan.  Update gear list.  Pull it all out of my bags.  Rethink.  Plan.  I feel like this has been the process I've gone through in my basement and in my head for the last two weeks as I prepare for the TNGA (Trans North Georgia). The TNGA is a 359 mile off-road route pushing you up and down the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia as you make your way from South Carolina to Alabama.  It’s a mix of forest service road, jeep trail, a little pavement, and some rocky singletrack that'll have you climb 38,000 feet by the time you reach the finish on the Silver Comet Trail.  Logan Watts has great write-up with photos over at Bikepacking.com that sums it up well (http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/trans-north-georgia-tnga/).  I'll be taking on the course with about 70 others this Saturday (NOTE: This past Saturday. -ed) for the yearly "race" that Derek Kozlowski and Mike Honcho put together.  

It's an event I've wanted to do for a while now, especially since it's a bikepacking race so close to where I grew up.  Originally, I thought I would use the TNGA then Colorado Trail to build up to do the Tour Divide.  Instead, I ended up doing that order in reverse but it doesn't mean the TNGA is any less formidable, just that I bring in more experience to this.  The climbing alone makes the TNGA a challenge, but then throw in a hot blanket of southern humidity in August, and some rocky singletrack 260+ miles in and it becomes throat gulping task. 

Part of the fun for me with the TNGA is the packing and prepping.  I've found each bikepacking race/event I've done to bring its own set of challenges for packing.  I usually make a rough plan for how I want to race the event then hope for the best and plan for almost the worst.  For this event I started with my Colorado Trail gear list and then pared down.  I also added a K-lite light and dyno hub.  Since the TNGA is relatively shorter than other bikepacking races a lot of guys opt to ride through a bulk of the night and get minimal sleep, hoping to finish around 48 hours.  I've used a combo of headlamp and Fenix flashlight before for Trans-Iowa and the CT but for this I want more light and the ability to charge electronics – thus the K-lite gear.  My hope is that it'll be nice to have more light than just a flashlight provides when I hit a lot of singletrack around Mulberry Gap in the middle of the night. 

For sleep I'm going to use a hammock.  I've always wanted to do a hammock when bikepacking but I've usually run into issues of not having trees available during some part of the race so instead went to a tarp or bivy setup; which then means sleeping bag, pad, etc.  Hammocks are simple and I'll have plenty of trees available to me along the course.  When we arrived yesterday the hot blanket of humidity hit me as we got off the plane in Chattanooga, hopefully a hammock can help me stay a bit cooler than being on the ground.     

The bike choice becomes the most interesting or fun depending on how you look at it for the TNGA.  With the course conditions, length, climbing, and amount of singletrack it really produces quite a variety of setups.  I'm opting for a Cutthroat with a sus. Fork.  I want the large frame bag volume and drop bar that a Cutthroat provides.  The drop bar will provide me with a lot of different hand positions that can be so nice after 20+ hours of riding.  The sus fork I hope will help me make up for mistakes on the trail when I'm just goofy tired.  I may pay for this setup on the singletrack but with more than 70% being on forest roads I'm willing to gamble. 

Overall, this setup may have more in common with my previous Trans-Iowa setup than my Colorado Trail kit.  I could get everything in my ginormous XL frame bag but I've found its just quicker to use a frame and seat bag together and not have to worry about packing everything perfectly when you use them. 

I'm looking forward to the event and can't believe it's finally here.  It's entertaining being a part of the Facebook TNGA group seeing other's setups and feeling the nervous anticipation.  There will be highs and lows but I'm hoping for a fast run.  Looking forward to hitting the trail with 70+ others and exploring the Southern Appalachians that I still like to call home. 

Follow the race at:

http://trackleaders.com/tnga17

https://www.facebook.com/TransNGA/

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