Trans North Georgia: A Quest For Spring Dirt

2015_0306_14280700

It’s been a long, cold winter. I often claimed that the better the skiing, the worse the biking. Somehow, this year in Vermont, the skiing and biking were both phenomenal for most of the season. The steady cold temps and frequent grooming of VAST trails allowed for some great day biking. With the conditions the way they were I managed to exchange time on the trainer for time in the woods most days. The hardest part of training was keeping my feet warm on longer rides, and 6 hours was about all I could manage with my boots and poor circulation. Frequency of rides was high all season, but length was lacking.

I hadn’t seen dirt since New Year’s Eve, and hadn’t ridden anything other than a fat bike in the new year. I needed dirt, I needed to test the bike, and I needed high mileage days. Financially limited already I made the decision to take a week off and head south. Originally, I was going to ride North and South Carolina singletrack for a few days, but it was cold and snowy there this winter, too. OK, Georgia should be warm enough! I began making plans to bikepack the Trans North Georgia Route. As time ticked away and the trip drew near, the weather wasn’t looking so great for Georgia either. Trying to figure out a way to get far enough south in the time allotted became a daunting task. A few days before departure a 3 day weather window seemed to pop up for the following Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Perfect, enough time to get down there, get ready, and complete the route.

Long days in the car are never very fun. 14 hours one way, alone, my iPod dead from sweat while on the trainer. Addicted to the seek function on the radio, and stiffer than ever, the anticipation of riding was killing me. I entered the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee as dusk began to set in. The golden glow of a song sun spayed the mountains, highlighting the sharp, steep switchbacks of 4wd roads that traversed the mountain faces around me, and my mind became restless and excited for what the next days would bring. Happy to be out of the car, I was greeted by my amazing parents, who were vacationing in the area, and agreed to help with drop off and pick up for the ride.

The next day was easy going, final packing, and a mellow ride. My front wheel had never been ridden on, but it was built by a highly reputable shop with the best components. 3 miles in on double track, something felt loose. I just put this fork back on, it must be the headset – they always settle in after a few miles. To my surprise the headset hadn’t budged. As I locked the front brake and rocked the bike, the front wheel nearly contacted each fork leg. Spokes, like rope. Nipples, finger tight. I used the spoke wrench on my multi tool to get the wheel to the point I could ride a few miles back to camp. Thankfully, Dad had a real spoke wrench that fit, so I made a truing stand out of the fork and some cardboard. A confident bike mechanic, but little experience building wheels, I was concerned as the wheel had been so loose it was like starting from scratch. After about half an hour, the wheel was spinning within a millimeter of true, with no hop, feeling pretty good to my finger tension-o-meter. I put the spoke wrench in a jersey pocket, and blasted into the trails trying to put the wheel to a fair test before starting the ~350 mile route the next morning.

Calvin Decker bikepacking trans north georgia

Waking up to the forecasted clear day was nice. It was chilly, but the sky was clear. Pre-tour jitters were kept at bay by the shining sun. GPS, check, SPOT beacon, check, food, check, water, check. A few moments to get some photos at the start, and then depart at 0800, on the nose, from the middle of a bridge on the SC, GA border. The route began with about 2 miles of paved road, quickly transitioning to Forest Service dirt roads, littered with down trees and mud from recent storms. To be honest, I didn’t do my homework for this tour very well. I knew there was a lot of climbing, I like hills, that’s why I choose the route. The hills continued to climb and fall. Some surface conditions in better shape than others, but the recent freeze and thaw cycles had left a squishy, soft top to the dirt roads, where I was usually leaving a rut, about 2cm deep. Every mile was earned, and high speed coasting a mere dream. An occasional fire road with large water bars made for some exciting descending. Ever jump a bikepacking rig?  No, me neither.

road closed bikepacking

Loaded rig bikepacking trans north georgia

Around a gate, no one has traveled this leaf covered and stick littered derailleur hell in quite some time. Time for some horse trail single track. As I leave the top of the mountain for the valley, the rhododendron gets thicker and thicker, along a mountain creek. The now common sound of babbling brooks is replaced with a crashing splash of a giant waterfall to my right. My trail, now a dark green tunnel, only head height and handlebar width, continues down what might make a good downhill course, and I emerge to my first of many stream crossings. The hills, mud and streams continue as I work my way generally west, each river crossing longer and deeper than the last. I was able to hop scotch rocks or ride most of them, but it only takes one to get your feet wet, I found that one too.

bikepacking trans north georgia spring foliage

bikepacking trans north georgia stream crossing

As the sun set, I traversed a ridgeline on a slow muddy road, that was beginning to get a frosty crust. I met a guy car camping, who was marinating that section of the AT, and had a friendly conversation of long distance travels. At the end of the ridge, my GPS track cut hard right, into what seemed like nothing. Four wheeler trails split in either direction, both shortly dead ending at camp sites, neither following the track I needed. The trail showed that it cut a switchback about 300 feet below me, so on a hope and a prayer I bushwhacked down towards the line on my screen.

A cobble filled footpath following a logging grade appeared, where I was hoping to find a trail. The next few miles descended out of the mountains I had spent the last few hours climbing. Large, loose rocks, hidden under a thick layer of oak leaves made for challenging riding in the night. Thankfully, I packed heavy on the food. I hadn’t researched much about resupply. Every paved road I hoped to find a supply stop, it never came until a bit after 8 pm, about 100 miles in. A fairly busy road with no shoulder brought me to Helen, GA. A small corner market would be my first new food since the state line. The town was only about a mile off route. I stocked up with some Subway, and ended up going to the thrice recommended Big Daddy for some incredible chicken tacos and a burger. The south is so friendly!

At first timid to walk in to a busy Georgian bar in riding tights, I decided to keep my helmet with me to look like a cyclist, not a nondescript semi-retarded superhero. I got into a nice conversation with two couples at the bar. My plan had been to ride on and camp, but I started getting too comfortable. My legs were feeling strong,  but my lower body was soaking wet and it was going to be a cold night. The next 13 or so miles would be paved, and potentially busy, so I opted for a hotel room. Had I been racing or warm, this decision would have been different.

sunset trans north georgia bikepacking route

Calling it quits early on day 1, I wanted to get an early start leaving Helen, GA. By 4 am wheels were making progress under artificial light. With the first longer pavement stretch of the route, the miles ticked by smoothly, even with the steep grade. A short dirt connection had some significant water crossings. I tried to keep my feet dry, to no avail. With the puddles still crusted with a layer of ice, I was glad to have worn my winter riding shoes. The sun climbed over the horizon as I climbed up Wolf Pen Gap. When the tarmac topped out, I continued to climb forest service roads, climbing over 5000 vF by 7 am. The frozen ground allowed tires to roll quickly, and I actually dreaded things warming up to a tire-sucking warm temperature. As the time for soft ground arrived, I felt my speed dropping off, simply to conditions. The steep long climbs on slow roads came, and seemed to come again after seemingly non comparable descents. With fantastic weather, blue skies and shining sun, I just accepted the slow pace, and chugged on through the mixed forest and steep hills. As the route brought me down another stream valley, the rhododendron was so thick it felt rain forest-like. I kept imaging the snake from Jungle Book descending from the trees. I hate snakes.

2015-03-12-15-31-41--870570106

shadows bikepacking georgia

As I scrolled ahead in the GPS to see what was ahead, I was less than thrilled to see a gap in my track file. It was a good while ahead yet, but I figured it would be a good time to start using the written cue sheets I had downloaded to my phone. Cues are tough, especially when they are old. Gates on forest roads open and close. At an intersection with two gates, the cue may specify direction by “open or closed gate” and if the gate changed, this adds more confusion than direction. I found several places the cue sheets and GPS track did not match.

Realizing I would be entering my area of no direction around sunset, I tried to make as much time as possible during daylight. When the line on the screen no longer informed me where to go, I was in a place that did not exist on the cues. After posted signs and dogs kept me away from an intersection I had to find to get back with the cues, I resorted to make my own route, bypassing a short section of trail, and adding a few miles of road detour. As I turned my headlights on, I turned onto a dirt road I recognized from the cue sheets.

A few miles later it was completely dark, and I had not yet reached the trail, where I would regain GPS directions, just a bit ahead to my right. I stopped to dig out a snack. Woof woof, a dog came out from a house better described as a shack, and he either wanted my snack, or to snack on me, I wasn’t gonna wait around to find out. Hot on my heels I was pursued into the night. A trail to my left, downhill, this must be it, and I drop down, finally losing the dog. The path I followed to escape dead ended at an old garage. I checked my GPS, wrong turn, wrong side of the valley. Much like the night before, I charged into the woods through the thick brush, in the direction of the trail “only” about a half mile away. Beyond excited to be back on route, and almost out of water, I continued down the valley to a stream, filled my water, and set up camp in a field.

break scenic views trans north georgia bike route

Daylight savings screwed me over on night two. I guess it never changed my total time, but I wanted wheels rolling by 330, and they were, until I noticed GPS time was 430, while my phone, still in airplane mode, had me an hour “earlier.” Not a quarter mile after breaking camp I had another series of steam crossings. Again, the frozen road surface was fast, and I could make good time. Soon, I came to another spot of navigational confusion, where the cues were useless, and the GPS track would have disappeared into never never land. I tried the road that forked to the right, which seemed to be closest to the track at first, but it kept bringing farther and farther from where I wanted to be.

The road to the left “cut” a corner, but soon drew a prefect connection between where I had been, where I was, and where I wanted to go. Atop a grassy forest road, I cut into narrow, freshly bench cut singletrack, switchbacking along the steep topography. The layer of dried leaves made a smoke screen for the greasy freeze thaw mud below. The trails were a blast! After a few miles of playground I came out to a section of pavement, with relatively low climbing. I was happy to see the glowing lights of a gas station, as I hadn’t had more resupply in nearly 30 hours. I had plenty of food, I just really wanted a coffee. It took a locked door to remind me it was still 530 on a Sunday morning. A few more easy paved miles flew by add I made my way into Dalton, GA. By this point I had my heart set on Waffle House, not having a clue if I would find one. The most urbanized section of the trip, Dalton had my waffles!

bikepacking camping georgia night

As soon as I passed under I-75, I was greeted by the short, but very steep, Dug Gap climb. Though paved, the grade kept me pinned below 5mph. The Pinhoti Trail, which shared several sections of trail with the TNGA, broke off to the left, and continued to even steeper. Drop to granny in the front, two clicks stiffer in the back, my standard “prepare for hill” shift pattern. I did this all about three pedal strokes too late. The cracks went oddly slack, then locked. Not good. I get off to investigate. First thought is it just missed a shift and dropped the chain, but why was my rear derailleur in my spokes? I start with positive thoughts, just a bent mech cage, maybe a cable adjustment issue. Shift to the middle of the cassette. Damn, chain won’t feed through the derailleur. As I pull a kink out by hand, a female chain side plate drops off the pin. Broken chain. Easy enough, I’ve got quick links, but what’s with the mech in the spokes? Bent hanger, bummer. As I begin to repair the chain, I notice that a few male links are twisted, I can’t fix that here, nor am I really setup to straighten a hanger. I ride single speed, RUN IT! I choose a gear that I can make work with the remaining straight chain, 38:24, about 32:20, a tad soft, but very reasonable for these hills.

I had debated replacing my chain prior to departure. There are times in life when you need to decide if you should replace worn drive train parts, or eat steak this week. I like steak. Had it been a race, I would’ve replaced it without second thought, but I hate throwing out half played parts, especially since I had checked the chain growth when building up, and it was very acceptable. Riding through so many streams,  so much mud, and such steep hills, I had been over conscious of keeping the chain lubed the whole ride. It was just its time.

Singlespeeded and now fired up, I charged up, still nervous of my chain. I had decent tension, with sliding dropouts, but alignment wasn’t quite as straight as I would’ve liked. The trail passed a service tower of sorts, and turned to technical, rocky, singletrack. Too focused on my chain, I ignored the fact that I should have added a few psi, and within a few miles, I pinch flatted. Simple enough, keep calm, charge on. Descending into another remote valley,  the riding was awesome, maybe better fit to my all mountain bike, but I won’t complain. What goes down,  climbs back up. Pop! Neutral, pinned. Chain’s not broken, but it is now twisted. I spin it back on, hoping for the best. The next time came too soon after. I have more quick links, but I’m going to burn through them quick at this rate. I push up the steps for a bit, when I bump into a nice rider. We chat a bit. I knew a road was coming up and had debated planning for pick up there. The switchbacks across the road were steeper and gnarlier than what I was on. I was only about 55 or 60 route miles from the border, but my drive line was not sustainable. After my chat, I ride a bit farther, throwing the twisted chain twice more. Frustrated, mad, sad, depressed, and defeated I call my parents, moving my pick up point. Within a mile after hanging up, I broke the chain again.

sunshine loaded bike trans north georgia

After the call, a full range of emotions filled my mind, on my 5 mile scooter out. I hate to quit. Had I quit, or been defeated? I could have pushed my bike and coasted the downhills for the last 50 miles, but that’s not really training, that’s being stubborn. I’m not in a race, or any sort of event, nothing but pride on the line, but man, that’s the hardest thing to lose. I came here for a shakedown. I got shaken. Break, don’t brake, my chain broke, I’m taking a break.

It was great to get some long days in the saddle, through beautiful country, during a time of year is not typically ridden. I feel much stronger going forward, and I hope to be back to finish the route, maybe during the race one year.

Thanks to all those who support me. As always, my incredible parents, this trip, with my time frame, would not have been possible without them! My first trip on board with Lonewolf Cycling, I look forward to the future with these guys! Also the first test of my bags from Dave over at Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks LLC, flawless!