Our final trip to Georgia was a fruitful one. Cleveland's cold weather was holding on to a foot of snow, and at the time of our Friday morning departure, it had started snowing again. While this makes for poor driving conditions, it does serve as motivation for the third drive to Dalton this early season. The change in latitude turned the precip to rain, and then rain, and when we got to Tennessee it turned to rain, and only when we finally reached Georgia did it turn to rain. We pulled in to the Mulberry Gap Bunkhouse and ran for the warmth and cover of the dining room. Ginny filled us with pasta with Italian sausage and ground meat sauce, some salad, and some red velvet cake for desert. Some fellow Midwesterners made for good dinner company, regaling us with tales of their past few days riding in Georgia and Tennessee and their upcoming excitement/fear of the Snake course. I don't know, do I make it sound that bad?
Strategy time: I was sitting in fourth, and I'm not one to really shoot for much. Hodge was sitting about 2 minutes back, and Doug was just 2 minutes behind him. In front of me was Jamie "I have a lot of time on my hands to ride and often get paid to do so" Pillsbury, with a 2 minute lead, and Shane another 2 and half minutes up, with Chip just seconds ahead in first. Shane was battling the flew, so he wasn't going to be there. Oh yeah, and it was 11 pm and still raining. So the decision was made that Chip would probably be out of reach, Jamie's miles over the last month would carry him up a bit, and I would try to capitalize on Shane's absence. Goal time 3:24 if it was dry, aim for third. If the trail was soaked, and no one could improve, I'd be happy with fourth, just had to try to keep an eye on Hodge and Doug sneaking threw in the mud.
Chip and I slept in a bit, ate a big breakfast of belgian waffles with strawberries and banana, some sausage with maple syrup, some scrambled/whipped cheese eggs, and corn muffins. We lumbered full bellied to the car, 20 minutes behind schedule, and drove rally style out of the national forest roads, and sped to the trade center (apologies to the other racers I passed left of center to make the left into the parking lot at 40mph). Pulled the bikes out, assembled and made some last minute tweeks, and made last call; the Dierengers taking the last two seats on the trailer, and Chip and I found the last two seats in one of the vans. Of all the luck, we get stuck with the loud mouth South Carolinian himself, his smack talk rhetoric fueling a little pre race battle within the confined space of a fifteen person van. He brought along an ally, and both were excited to tackle the course for the first time.
I lined up with a large group of racers. I felt bad for the girl that was tracking start times. This thing used to go off in 3's, then this year it was 4s and 5s. Apparently elbowing through to the front, cramming 9 guys across the line was apropos here at the finalé. I got off in the fourth group after messing with the iPod and finding a spot. Chip was gone. I had one SS guy with me, and a bunch of geared guys. I found out quickly that the SS racer was the Carolinian's comrade, and we tried to help each other out as we spun 120 rpm off the line. This section of the course had taken some abuse from the rain. That and apparently a bulldozer. After the first 20 or so riders had been through already, we had a tiny little trail of packed mud to work with. We tucked into a pace line of riders and hung on. Then we hit the first (15ft) hill climb, and click.click.click.click oh c'mon!!! To avoid performing an intrusive colonoscopy on the deraileured racer ahead, it was off to a cx style dismount and run through sanded peanut butter. My heartrate had now achieved a level I was trying to save for much later, and much higher in the course. "Dry Creek" was about 2 feet deep this time, leaving no other option than full splash down. Thankfully my chain only had one place to be for the next 3 hours.
Caught and dropped a bunch of geared folk on the climb, including one of the now familiar "apb" guys in the green jerseys (WHO ARE YOU????) and my SS start mate. Hit the first section of single track, made the climb I never make, got some clean passes throughout the section, got dusted by Harlan (christ he looks fast this early in the season) and finally hit the gravel descent feeling pretty good. I actually like this next little climb up the pines, its short, and there's a bunch of coasting (for a SS anyway) afterwards, so I always hammer it, passed the other mystery "apb" guy and a few others, carried good speed through the flats and hit the road crossing behind the music blaring fanny sac of one Jamie Pillsbury. I pulled out the earphones and listened to what Jamie had to offer for a bit. We rolled through the red-clay-rollercoaster section together, and this is when I noticed two things. First it was much drier than it had been in February. Second, I was still putting enough power into the pedals to spin out. I dropped into the last little creek crossing, made the slick climb out and continued upward, Jamie now no longer in site. After a quick flat and some Stan's sidewall trouble, he figured that he was out of contention in this tight of a race. See ya buddy, good riding with ya. Enjoy your beers.
I made the sharp left switchback, another first for this season, and killed it up the hill, saving a little energy at the top. This climb is straight forward, not rocky or anything, but you gain the ridge and get a false sense of accomplishment. I left a little in the tanks this time, and reaching the true top didn't feel so bad. I railed the downhill as best as possible for someone with my descent history, and made the halfway point in about 1:24, where I managed to drop a gel, skid into a U turn, bend over to pick it up and nearly fall over. Stupid thing better give me jet legs for all that effort.
Second Half. I finally managed to make it out of the parking lot and start the big climb. In February my legs started to complain as soon as the gravel left the grip of my tires. This time around I was still feeling pretty good. Who's that up ahead. Chip. This means I've closed about 2 minutes or so from the start, my GPS could probably tell me that, but I never really learned how to use it. I climb for about 4 or 5 minutes and come up catch Chip, who has dismounted right before a rocky switchback. I soft pedal, ask what's going on, and can only hear a "keep it up, your killing it" over the Kings of Leon in my ears. I figure he knows best and continue up the climb, his words putting a much needed motivational grin on my face. (Chip, I later find out, had drastically over tightened his chain, to the point that I could barely back pedal, yet he did all 34 miles. The fast just got faster)Adrenaline gets me to the top, through the ridge, running up the sand pit, and towards the crest as I see a tired looking Carson having an off day. I ride up behind him (he's a fellow iPod-er) and give him a big pat on the back and tell to get going and grab my wheel. I'm happy to help. Oh wait, I'm just happy to pass a fast geared guy on an uphill. I still feel good, but spun out on the descent and flat creek crossings, so I keep an eye out for Tim behind and coax him along because I can't really do anything in the flats anyway. We roll through the grassy roller coasters of the forest road together, but as soon as the gravel rise starts, I had to leave him. Good luck buddy, another day. I made the top, catching David Hall for, I think, the third time this season at exactly the same point, the left hand back into the singletrack. Those useless guys were there again, but apparently they don't read my blog, so any further lashings would be a waste of time here.
Ahh the last 8 miles. And I've never felt this good. So it gets a little mental at this point. I'm super happy with my performance so far, having a great time, jumping unnecessarily high over logs and weaving through the trees on the last few meteres of unrocked singletrack.....but how much do I have to hold back. What's my time. Look at the GPS. One of the little boxes says 1:05. I take this to mean I'm only a minute ahead of my 3:29:11 time I was racing against. Well that sucks. Must have been all the mud in the beginning that took it out of me. Oh well, I'm still having fun at this point, so I pushed the pace a little bit. I found myself actually riding this section for the first time in 5 tries. My typical M.O. here is to hang on and bounce zombie like from rock to rock, stretch out the cramps, and smile at some cute female racers. After 4 tries, I don't expect a whole lot more, but my legs are surprising me, so I stick with it. I make one of the ridges, and start the descent down through the leaves and that blue tent that always hangs there. What the hell is that thing? A landmark, so I guess it serves some......CRASH. I somehow manage to stack it on an unidentifiiable object hidden under the ample leaf cover. This is crash two. I don't remember what happened on the first one. My knee does, as usual. I gather myself, straighten the glasses ala revenge of the nerds and clip back in mid descent. I climb what I always think is the wall, and then get to what is actually the wall, and dismount well before the grade steepens. Just knowing I'm going to have to get off eventually drains any semblance of motivation. I jazcerise up the hill, taking little steps, trying to keep my feet moving quickly. I owe all this fitness to Eric Wever. Thanks for making me practice walking next to my bike! While walking I take the time to familiarize myself with the course features of my GPS. Wait. This number says 47:11 and then this number says 28:45. One of them is "goal time." The other is "time to finish." I don't know what either one of those means, but I'm either 20 minutes behind or 20 minutes ahead, and I sure as hell don't feel 20 minutes behind. That means I better turn up the jazcersize soundtrack, put the other headphone in, and hit it. I pass the familiar landmarks of the last ridge climb; the old rock wall, the tree that's laying horizontally across the trail, just high enough so you don't have to duck, and finally the 3 trees in the trail where I always choose to squeeze to the left and clip my bars. Its over. Some subjectively speaking less rocky trail, a quick dismount over a collapsed wall, back on for a manageable short climb, time a waive at a really cute girl taking pictures at the top (anyone find these pictures yet?? or the girl for that matter?) and hit the descent. The gods of gravity smile upon me as I go drifting through some turns, launch off the exposed rock in the short rise, slide down the steep gravel, hit the-3-month-old-yet-still-rides-like-freshcut-singletrack trail to the road, blindly fly up onto the pavement sans crossing guard, spin out, and assume a tuck, not this stupid, but still aerodynamic enough to pass some geared folk (pedal you fools!! you just worked very hard for 34 miles) and nearly lose my line into the cones as I come pedaling into the parking lot. SingleSpeeders chasing a few seconds must look ridiculous crossing the finish the line, legs all crazy and out of control at 140rpm. Done.
The aftermath. Bruce finally gets my name right crossing the line. This is the last in a series of events where everything just worked out in my favor over the last 3:16:30. I grab a cookie from Ginny at the finish line, a beer from JutRut, Shane from Bear Creek comes up and takes my bike for me, and I jump on the back of Sharp's truck and sip my....WHAT....a Yazoo racer just handed me a can of Coors? poor form, but I didn't have anything to offer, and there's some stupid saying about beggars and choosing right?
Many thanks to SpinBikeShop and the rest of our sponsors for their support, Zak Dierenger for crafting a great sled that rides well even after UPS dents it in shipping (riders take note) White Brothers and Ergon for letting me abuse their stuff with great success, everyone who puts this event on from SORBA/NWGA; the girls at Mulberry Gap Bunkhouse for their hospitality, hottubs and healthy grub; Shane at Bear Creek Bikes for being my shop away from shop when I need something/anything, the rest of the SS racers for stepping up this year and making ours the most fun and competitive class out there. Who's in for Cohutta?