Thursday, September 8, 2016

Cherohala Crossing #9 Ride Report

HillBilly, aka Wayne Nix.

Way back in 2007 when gravel racing was first cutting its teeth, Wayne started a ride/race/adventure over the mountains and through the woods of Tennessee and North Carolina.  He suckered in a two of his closest friends, Farmer G and Troy Adams, to ride bikes on, of all surfaces, gravel!  From that epic day was born The Cherohala Crossing.

This was the 9th edition.  The first/last time I had ridden this was in 2013 and I remembered it as a brutal, but beautiful ride. Essentially it is an 82 mile route with 3 big gravel climbs/descents connected by some buttery smooth and scenic pave.  Most of the 8500 feet of climbing occurs on those 3 climbs.

This year timing was perfect.  My training called for a 6 hour day, spent riding at 100 miler race pace. However, it was also my daughter's birthday weekend.  Luckily for me, the ride was rescheduled from Sunday to Saturday due to HillBilly's need to show his shine at an event on Sunday.  This worked out well for the party to be on Sunday so that my Mom and Stepfather could make the trip from South Carolina.  It's all about priorities!

25+ showed up for the ride.  We had 3 SAG's, following us around and keeping us stocked with water and food and carrying any personal items we desired.  It's nice to have such a small event where they can tailor to our individual needs.  A big thanks to Sharon, Jared, and Micah for making us feel like real pros!

After a huge effort on Thursday that thrashed my legs, the 16 mile flat start was what they were needing ... a nice easy wake up.  I was able to shake most of the concrete out of them by the time we hit the first 5 mile climb up Tathum Gap.  Although the competitor in me wanted to go faster up the gravel climb, I stayed in my happy rhythm as I watched 8 or 9 guys ride by.  There was only 1 other woman, Jessie, who was riding and she was already up the road by a few miles as she and Troy started on the route in Andrews.

Aside from a couple steep, but short pitches, this climb was pretty mellow.  At the top, I stopped and refilled a bottle.  Then came the tricky descent.  With no rain in a long time, the road was pretty chewed up.  Lots of loose rock and stutter bumps. I was riding my Cysco Cycles cross bike with 33c tires.  I was passed by a few on mountain bikes, but was o.k with that as I still felt this course was better suited on a cross bike due to the amount of pavement in it, which I estimated to be about 50%. I was fortunate to be able to hook up with Travis towards the bottom and was able to tuck in behind him for the straightaway gravel portions and then when we continued descending on Hwy 143.

But when the road began to pitch up, I popped off pretty quickly.  My legs were still angry with me; they were more in the mood of stretching out on the couch while the body watched some nonsense about big guys running around on grass protecting their little balls.  I just had to make the most of it and settle into a sustainable L2/L3 pace, drinking and eating, and hoping for the diesel engine to eventually kick in.

Now we're talking.  The mountains made me come alive!

I had to stop and take a picture just before the FS 81 climb into Cherohala country.  I also grabbed a little more water to ensure I had enough fluids for the 9 mile gravel climb up to Stratton Gap on the Skyway.  This section is my favorite as it follows Santeetlah Creek. Very calming to listen to the running water as I made my way up 2100 feet of elevation.  The gravel here was worse than the first climb; like riding on marbles.  There were 2 long, steep pitches where I had to just grind away like a single speeder, but sitting down.  Anytime I would try to stand, I would lose traction.  Having no other choice but to pedal hard and suffer, I was able to blow the last of the grunge out of my legs. Towards the top with just a couple miles to go, my legs felt the best they had all day.  Slowly but surely I was able to pass several guys who were just hangin' on.

Stewart Cabin on FS 81

At the top, I took a short breather, and refilled my bottles for the last push back to Murphy.  There were alot of riders hanging around the SAG vehicles and talking.  Most looked pretty spent.  I was feeling good and not wanting my legs to seize up, I did not linger.

SAG at Stratton Gap

The first couple miles of descending on North River Road (gravel) was loose and stuttery, but then it smoothed out and I could carry my speed through the curves.  Top speed was 37 mph in a few sections. HillBilly even came up on me on his moto and tucked in behind me for a few minutes. When the road opened up, he came on by, and I gave chase.  After about 30 seconds of staying with him, I realized that my speeds were getting a little ridiculous, and that I was a mother first, bike racer second.  So I backed off, which was a good thing, as the holiday traffic was crazy!  I counted no less than 12 vehicles coming up as I was going down.  And I passed two on the descent.

Heading up River Road to the next gravel climb, I attempted to pick up the pace.  I was really wanting to at least equal my 2013 time, but knew that it would be hard to do, since I was alone for most of the day, whereas the last time I had help.  At least the 1 mile steep portion of the Harshaw Gap climb was paved this year, but it was still a beast.  The sun was shining, it was hot, and the legs started barking! The total mileage for this climb, including the paved Tellico River Road section, was 8.5 miles.  The hardest, steepest, and gravelly bits totaled 3 miles.

13% grade right here!

I stopped and took some photos, managing to capture one of my fellow riders making the climb.  I followed his wheel to the gap, but then he dropped me on the descent.  The previous time I had been able to rail this descent as it was "hero dirt," but today the corners were super loose with lots of stutter bumps.  The shadows cast by the trees also made it hard to see the holes and large embedded rocks sticking up. I had a couple squirrely moments, but managed to save my precious skin from some serious road rash.

After 5 miles of gravel descending, the road turned to pavement and the descending continued.  At some point I saw a sign:  Murphy 12 miles!  Fortunately the road continued to descend, but a headwind picked up.  Arghh!  I was pedaling as hard as I could, feeling the need to see the finish line, as my tank was on E!  But before I could roll in to the park, I still had 3 little hills to climb.  Although none was longer than 1/2 mile, each one felt like another Tathum Gap. No amount of gel or my new favorite ride food, Gluten Free Honey Stinger Waffles, could revive my legs.  They were done!

So, to make the ride just that bit harder, I missed the super sharp left hand turn back to the park.  I ended up back in to the center of town, adding another mile to the ride. This course was not marked, so you either had to rely on a GPS or your memory.  Note to self:  memory does not work well when the body is spent!

Discovery Channel:  Moonshiners, season 3, Mr Wayne Nix himself!

I was about 15 minutes slower than my previous time, but still content on how my body responded when called to duty.  I used this ride as my last long ride leading up to the Marji Gesick 100 in Marquette, Michigan, on September 24.

Thanks, Wayne, for the invite to this year's running.  I am anxious to see what you will have for us on the 10th year anniversary in 2017.  Perhaps moonshine shots at the bottom of each climb which, for the takers, gets them a 60 second time bonus for the Strava KOM/QOM.

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