This route, designed by Kim Murrell, is one of three races hosted by Tennessee Gravel. This year it is happening as an ITT event, which I kind of like, because I got to choose my date, ensuring that at least I would not be out in the rain. But not wanting to do it alone, I invited my Rescue Racing team mate, David Jolin, from Ohio. A race of this magnitude would be much more endurable with a friend to share the highs and the lows.
We managed to start a little before 6 am. The temperature was 40 degrees, but we warmed up quickly as the first 10 miles was all climbing. Knowing this route, I had not turned on my navigation, in order to conserve battery life. We went by where the Great Pyrenees lives. He barked but did not give chase. My one and only navigational error came at mile 2.5, where I proceeded straight up the hill (Chestnut Mountain Road), as opposed to going slightly left onto what would turn into FS68. My intuition immediately kicked in, but I stupidly chose to disregard it. I turned on my navigation then, but it was confused and so I wasn't getting the "off course" message. A half mile later, I finally realized the error, we turned around, and got back on track.
The sun began to rise as we approached the top of the climb. As we headed on to FS 80, I stuffed a banana into my mouth. No enjoying eating here because of the harshness of the terrain and it soon began going downhill. This 6 miles of mostly descending was super chunky what with the embedded rock and several wash outs. I descended cautiously, as I did not want to flat. What warmth I had obtained in the previous climb completely left me about halfway down. Because I have Reynaud's, my fingers and toes became painfully cold. With extremities that felt like cinder blocks and eyes watering so badly I could hardly see the road, it was a miracle I stayed upright. When I turned right onto FS 23, the descending and the misery continued. All I could do was endure, knowing that I would eventually warm up. I was frustrated as I knew I could go faster, if I just wasn't so friggin' cold. Garmin was registering 36 degrees.
Left onto FS 103, and my body slowly began to warm up. Climbing never felt soooo gooood! The re-freeze began on the next descent down to Lost Creek. Climbing out of Lost Creek, my little reptilian body began to feel the warmth of the sun, and I was almost done with this freeze/thaw situation. Hitting Hwy 30, I was finally 100% warm again and relishing life once more. Although I could have done without the 60 minutes of being miserable, it's this hard shit that makes me feel alive and so appreciative of the "easy" parts.
We stopped at Webb's Store for a pee break and bottle refill. It was here that I enjoyed one of my rice cakes. Although the air was still cool, the sun's rays beemed down into my soul. Pedaling on Hambright towards the creek crossing, a very aggressive pit bull mix shot out of the yard right where the road ended and the ATV double track began. Fortunately I had just enough momentum to get around him before he latched onto a body part and just enough "runway" left before I had to brake hard to avoid the overgrown trail.
We stopped at the creek to take our socks/shoes off and wade across. Although there was a perfectly good railroad trestle over the river, it was off limits. This ate up a good chunk of time as we had to dry our feet and brush all the sand off. But well worth it, as my feet would have been popsicles had I waded through with shoes on. At this point in the day (9:30 am) it was still in the mid-40's.
|Knee deep for me, mid calf for David|
|Praying my foot would not find a fish hook or broken beer bottle.|
After negotiating the multiple mud holes after the crossing, we hit the flat gravel section back to Hwy 315. I had managed to get my shoes a little muddy in the process, but the annoying Sponge Bob sound I had been hearing like a metronome with each pedal stroke for the past 35 miles mercifully went away. About the only time that I have been happy I sunk my shoe in mud.
The Starr Mountain gravel was in primo shape. It felt that we were through that section and sailing down the pavement to Hwy 315 in no time. The sun was shining, the last of the bone-chilling cold left me, and my pistons were firing quite well. The next 10 miles, on pavement, included Ivy Trail, Towee Falls, Epperson, and Hotwater. It took almost just as long to ride those paved miles as it did the Starr Mountain gravel. Some of the steepest grades of the day are on Ivy. The same dog gave chase on Towee as it did back in 2018. But this time it's owner was not firing up its shock collar. Fortunately its aggression had mellowed, and deemed us not worthy of any extra calorie expenditure.
|Enhanced rollers between Hwy 315 and Hwy 68|
I was hoping to meet Zeke along the flats of Shuler Road, but we ended up seeing him on the descent off of Unicoi Gap. We stopped briefly and I introduced the OG's to each other. The conversation was interrupted by a truck coming down the gravel. Not wanting to get caught behind it on the descent, I told the guys that we needed to mosey along. Zeke was doing hill repeats so he continued on up to the gap, while David and I cruised down to the flats of Shuler Creek.
We stopped at one point to filter water and I ate my last rice cake. The remaining 7 miles before the Buck Bald climb, I tried to take it easy and spin a higher cadence because I knew one of the toughest climbs was about to begin. Being 78 miles in, although the spirits were bright, I was feeling the fatigue start to set in. 1000 feet of mostly rugged double track in 5 miles; I set my mind to thinking about enjoying that PayDay up top and showing David the stunning view. Half way up we were passed by 6 dual sport riders. I thought to myself: betcha we were covering more distance than they today! It was karma that at the top we videobombed the dual sport riders beginning their descent off the bald.
|Buck Bald reward!|
How many people get to enjoy a one of the best ride candy bars on one of the most beautiful balds in the Southeast? We took several minutes to soak up the view and just appreciate life.
|Caption this 😆😆😆|
|This guy: so fortunate to have met him at the 2017 Marji Gesick.|
The road back down to Hwy 68 had deteriorated since 2018. The forest service must have put fertilizer down because the embedded rocks had grown tremendously. Even though I wasn't going all that fast, I still managed to bang my rear wheel on one, which gave me a moment of concern. Fortunately the tire held. A brief respite on Hwy 68 and then the cursed dog alley on Bailey. As the big dog gave chase, the owner called out, "He is just wanting to play!" Seriously?!?
As the pitch steepened to 14%, I knew I was about to enter the "world of hurt." Why does time always seem to come to a crawl when the pain intensifies. Over the next two hours, from Bailey Road to the top of the FS 236 climb (20 miles), I was a hurtin' buckaroo. There are always lows in these races, but I do believe this was one of the longest ones. I did have a brief respite when I crossed paths with Eddie O'Dea and Audrey Tanguye on Powerhouse, who were out for a 3 day bikepacking trip. I stopped momentarily and talked with them. Seeing their fully loaded bikes, I scolded myself for being a wuss. Seeing them was exactly what I needed to regain my focus. I pulled out a caffeinated Clif double expresso gel, took a hearty dose of liquids, and kept a slow, but smooth pedal stroke up the FS 236 climb.
|Eddie and Audrey|
That climb was brutal, but I just kept telling myself that there was only one climb left. Not to mention how loose the gravel was so that I could not even stand without the rear wheel spinning out. For a large portion of the course, I do believe the graders had come in over the winter and just scraped up all the shit in the ditches. At first when my energy levels were high, it was just bothersome. But not as my fatigue grew, it was becoming evil!
Even though there were 25 miles left, I told myself just 15, as the last 10 were all downhill. I was trying to stay positive, even though the most heinous of climbs loomed ahead. Cresting 236 I inwardly screamed for joy. Two tasks left: find the piped spring and finish off the last climb. The piped spring came at mile 108. So ... dang ... refreshing!
|No need to filter.|
David had been a beast all day. He would stand and hammer quite a bit on the climbs and never once had anything bad to say. The perfect partner. For the most part we stayed in our own little bubble, he always slightly ahead, but never out of sight. He paced off of me, never straying too far or going too hard.