“B&D Crossing” reads the sign above the door of the only store for miles around. Two picnic tables rest along the wall. One lined with lightly loaded mountain bikes. The other with dirt-stained stinky cyclists halfway through a race across the state. “Oh no,” I moan as I slowly rise from laying on the bench. I walk towards the wood line and I stain the once green grass a colorful rainbow of dried mango and gummy snacks, the only food I had left on my last-ditch effort to reach this outpost.
“There’s an abandoned house next door with a couch on the front porch. Why don’t you go over there and sleep a bit,” Donna – the “D” in “B&D Crossing” – kindly suggests. With my stomach still in torment and unable to accept food, I trudge next door with my bright orange bivvy and curl up on the dusty, moldy couch to finally sleep. When I wake, it will be dark and I will be hungrier than I have ever been in my life. A bonfire in my gut ready to consume any fuel thrown upon it.
The day before my distress, I pedaled up and over mountain after mountain, through rivers and streams as deep as my knees. I pedaled through a thunderstorm after sunset and I kept pedaling on through the night ignoring the searing pain of chaffed privates and trench foot. Trench foot! My feet were so water-logged and tender by morning I could not stand or even pedal. I thought the gooey white, wrinkled and swollen skin of my feet would peel off like an overripe orange exposing the pink flesh beneath. An hour-long nap in my bivvy at sunrise dried my soaked skin restoring my vigor and allowed me to pedal on to the puke station.
The event that’s kicking my ass is the Trans North Georgia Adventure (TNGA), a 350 mile mountain bike race across northern Georgia. Passing through the Chattahoochee National Forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains, the route is one of the toughest of its kind boasting 56,000 feet of climbing. 56,000 feet… That is almost twice the elevation of Mount Everest; not that the two are, by any means, comparable activities! Most folks on this course are competing only against their own pain and torment. This is why the organizers call it an adventure and not a race. Only a few are capable of the mind numbing pace required to “win” (all who complete this grueling course are winners) an event like this. The rest seek adventure and a test of their mettle. I sought the experience of riding continuously without sleep and I sought the boundaries of new limits to push past.
With over 10,000 touring miles up, down, and across North America, I am uniquely prepared for an event of this nature. Or so I thought. Bike touring taught me the discipline to ride, and continue riding, when every fiber of my being screamed to stop. Bike touring taught me to ride through whatever pain life dishes out; from severe chafing to explosive diarrhea caused by drinking bad water in back-country Guatemala. Touring even taught me how to climb when I pedaled dirt roads into the Grand Canyon of Mexico, Copper Canyon. What bike touring did not prepare me for was the requisite hunger of riding 350 miles in three days. Touring makes one ravenously hungry. This adventure… whew! I am still hungry days later siting in a coffee shop! I failed my body nutritionally and payed the price at the convenience store.
When I woke in the dark, I found the store stayed open. Brian and Donna are incredibly kind in the way they catered to the participants. They stayed open late into the night monitoring the website for the last stragglers to their store. Without them, I would have dropped out of the race. I ran out of food midway through the day as a restaurant marked on my map was closed for service. I pushed past the pain and the nausea to their store where I slept on the moldy couch next to a dead rat. When I woke, they filled my belly with a bbq sandwich and a hotdog both topped with slaw. In the preceding twenty-four hours I learned bars, snacks, and trail mix were not enough. My body requires real food. I filled my pockets with egg and biscuit sandwiches and a hotdog before pedaling off into the night.
After a long climb up a mountain on a gravel road and the descent down the other side, I passed the “party crew” preparing to camp in the cemetery. I had the option of sleeping in a hotel with these guys last night, but instead chose to ride into a thunderstorm. “You only live once,” I exclaimed as I set off towards the lightning illuminated sky. My goal for this adventure was to push my limits to the extreme and finish in three days on my heavy touring bike; goals that left little room for socialization. The dichotomy of life! Friends or intense training…
Having slept a few hours on the couch, I stayed true to my goals and pushed on hoping to make Mulberry Gap before sunrise. This would not happen. In the night I ran out of real food once more on a windy section of single-track. I bonked. And I bonked hard becoming almost delirious. I kept thinking I was minutes from resupply at Mulberry Gap so when I ran out of water I did not filter from the streams. I pedaled and I walked myself into dehydration as well as starvation. Eventually, I snapped to awareness filling my bottles and munching granola bars. I reached Mulberry Gap after sunrise and ate the most satisfying waffle and egg breakfast before an hour-long nap.
The next stage passed effortlessly. I am familiar with this section and I’m learning how to eat. I traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee by bus where I assembled my bike and rode to Mulberry Gap in time to catch the shuttle to the yurts at the start of the race. Instead of taking the easiest, most direct path, I routed my course to that of the race riding into the town of Dalton and following the track backwards. In a way, I regret this decision. I did not anticipate the difficulty of the single-track on the way to Mulberry Gap. What I thought would take an hour or two required four or five. I arrived at the start already tired! And a little smelly. I was sprayed by a skunk. “Did he just light a joint?” I overheard someone saying as I returned from the shower. “I wish! Stupid skunk…”
At a gas station, I ate with the “party crew,” a name they earned with their cheerful demeanor and relaxed pace sparing no comfort. Not that much comfort available on this race through hell! I ordered a large french fry and a chicken sandwich which I ate on the spot. I stuffed another chicken sandwich into my jersey pocket for the paved ride into Dalton.
The road miles passed with barely a thought, touring mode. In Dalton I stopped to fuel my tank for the ride ahead. I filled my belly and my bags with Arby’s sandwiches taking three beef n’ chedders, a large fry, and five piece chicken strip to go. I almost got it right this time! Although, I still did not carry enough to see me through to the end.
I’d meet the “party crew” and many other riders at Bear Creek Bike Company, another store catering to us crazy riders. They stayed open 24 hours providing much-needed tune-ups for our bikes and food for our bellies. The entire counter lay scattered with food items. Advice of the night, “Ride the next five miles before dark.”
The next five miles, a section of trail known as “the snake,” were a minefield of nearly wheel-sized boulders waiting to destroy steel and bone. I quickly walked most of the section as the sun set over the mountains beyond. The next section of trail proved to be one of my favorites. Anticipating an “easy” downhill finish and being so close to the end that I no longer feared not finishing, I pedaled an all out pace. The single-track wound up one ridgeline to drop into the next. I spun my legs as fast as they would spin powering up the climbs and bombing the descents. I’d push myself to redline then walk while chomping down a beef n’ cheddar. Riding is so much more fun with food! If only the end was what I expected.
The final section of trail climbed to a ridgeline off a road. In my tired, delirious glance at my topo map, I observed the purple track of our course crossing contour lines down to a valley and waiting pavement. The reality was far from my fantasy with the end seemingly the most difficult section of the course. Oh, how I cursed the route creator for his evil cunning. The masochist! How dare he leave us with such a brutal finish. Morning came and went as I pushed up one hill after the next.
By the time I’d come to see the road, my brakes would no longer be working. Neither would my brain. In the night atop the ridges staring at the stars, they appeared to spin at a rate that would make for a six-hour day. I began to hallucinate. I would see objects move. Rocks and trees would walk out of my way. Animals randomly appeared. During the last ten miles on a section of rail-trail, I began to hear voices. Familiar voices carrying on a conversation in the back of a room. A conversation I was not apart of yet keenly aware. What they were saying I can not recall. The entirety of my focus was required to remain upright on the bike. I was falling asleep.
The rail-trail ended on a road near a store where I awoke terrified. I fell asleep somewhere on the rail-trail continuing to ride into the middle of the road. Not willing to risk my life, I stopped in the store to rest an hour. I inhaled two ice cream sandwiches and multiple peanut butter and jelly’s offered by a duo of fellow tree guys. I noticed the chainsaws and ropes in the back of their ATV and commented, “the 46 is one hell of saw.” I rested for roughly an hour before riding the few miles to the state line where a shuttle was waiting for me and a fellow rider who finished shortly after I did.
Like all good adventures, the finish is never the end. Back at Mulberry Gap I gorged myself on food before passing out on their couch. I’m told I woke to the arrival of more food, burritos with chips and salsa, but I don’t remember. I woke for a bit to converse with two arriving riders – and eat left-over chips with guacamole, but was fast asleep once more.
In the morning, at a breakfast of eggs and waffles, I would ask the question leading to the next adventure, “anyone headed to Chattanooga?” Luckily, Eric, a fellow rider and part of the “party crew,” was driving past Detroit. He offered a ride all the way to Cincinnati! Oh man. How much better a ride with someone who understands all I experienced the last few days than the same ride on a greyhound bus sharing half my seat with a very large crazy woman speaking to herself the entire ride.
Now in Cincinnati, nearly a full day ahead of my bus, I assembled my bike and rode around the city. I found a stage with a dreadlocked band of reggae musicians downtown in the central park . I found myself a concrete pillar to lie back and lose myself in the rhythm. Near midnight the plaza cleared and I found my way to an open ice-cream parlor. My god, is ice-cream good after a 350 mile ride!
Being thoroughly exhausted and used to sleeping in greyhound stations – along with other weird public spaces – I assumed I’d sleep just fine saving money over the cost of a hotel. I forgot one key point: I did not bring my bed, my trusty foam sleeping mat. A terrible night’s sleep led to an even worse bus ride sharing my seat with the large crazy women who mumbled to herself the duration of the ride into Pittsburgh. “Are you talking to me??” I asked. “No,” she said resuming her rant on killing someone she seemed to hate (and who I think was me, but maybe I’m paranoid in sleep deprivation). If I call the cops, I can have the seat all to myself… Ughh, if only.
Safely in Pittsburgh, I drag my boxed bike from the bottom of the bus and into the lobby where it is reassembled in front of a curious crowd. “That’s insane!” Says a young, blond women. “I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” says an older man with a crooked cap. “I would never want to do that!” Exclaims a boy. I drag the box to a dark corner where it will probably be put to use by someone sleeping rough. Cardboard is as good as a camp mat when your used to going without. Or so I’m told. I pedal home dreaming of my next adventure. South America, here I come!
The TNGA is an incredible event I am happy to have been a part of. I learned many lessons over the painful course of 350 miles. I learned how to eat and what it feels like to be a crazy person. Most importantly, I realized how lucky I am to have the freedom in my life to take off on crazy adventures such as these. A huge thank you to all who were a part of making this event a success. Thanks to the awesome riders I had the pleasure of meeting and occasionally riding with. And a very special thank you to Brian and Donna. Brilliant job everyone!
The ride to Mulberry Gap where a shuttle awaits.
Revelate Designs Viscacha saddle bag nearly filled with food.
Lacking riders ahead of me, I have to clear my own way along the Pinhoti Trail. These spiders are EVERYWHERE and they are BIG!
We slept in yurts near the start of the race.
DInner the night before the start.
The border! I finished! I survived!!!