Weekend of Mayhem Fried Clay and BeltGrind

Fried Clay 200k starts with a quick conversation with my allofitp friend Craig D before I get nervous and take off to join the front group. We ride along at a fast but manageable pace. The dusty dirt roads wind us in and out of the early morning sunshine. It’s cool but warming fast. I stop to take off my pullover and catch back up to our little peloton. We roll along with around 20 riders.

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Minimal conversation, excess nervous energy. Who’s ridden a 135 mile gravel race before?

Each hill puts a few more dents in another set of legs. Slowly we shed riders as the miles pass. 20 to 14 to 11 to 7 to 6 as we roll into the Peidmont NWR. We’ve all judged each other so there’s no sharing work. We move along in the little pack at the whims of the climbs and descents. Sometimes a rider or two goes off the front but as we slow for turns the pack keeps coming together. There’s a rider far off in the distance and the first time he turns and sees us he stomps on the pedals and expands his lead inch by inch until he disappears again. Creek crossings keep us together still.

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Smoke drifts through the trees as we roar down loose grey descents. A change from the happy ochre of the earlier roads, not as steep, not as secluded. Easy to get lost here.

The group fights with itself on some of the shorter steeper climbs and we lose one rider and a couple voices request a nature break but the stronger riders stare ahead, stone-faced and not interested.

We pedal on, easy and manageable. Closing gaps and pushing my legs like it’s a 3 hour race. I feel great and am setting myself up to fail later. I can’t stop. I’m racing and I love it.

Shortly we come to Juliette, as does a train. The tension breaks as we have no choice but to wait. We pee, we oil our chains and I laugh at what the odds are that the lead rider off the front would get caught on one side as we are on the other.

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A few minutes and the train is gone. We head into Juliette, get our pics and get out of town. The sun is now up and it’s getting warm. I’m eating and drinking and pedaling and it’s going well.

Soon we hit the first water stop at a church, water is off so we press on. Someone calls or texts or maybe just thinks about letting the organizer know about the lack of water. We are 5 now, oh well.

One rigid mountain bike, one dropbar mountain bike, three cross bikes. Nervous chatter about the horse trail from us three cross bikes. Stoicism from the mountain bikes. They came to win and they’ll go 1 and 2 for the day. It’s obvious we’re not in the same league. I’m wearing shorts and t-shirt for god’s sake.

Fast descent into the trail, slow for a couple horses and then full speed over roots and ruts. It’s not bad, like a mild version of the Sope upper loop. I watch everyone else bobble here and there as I clean everything and feel good. My silly monstercross rides have prepared me. Survive Sope on 38mm tires and you’ll be ok most anywhere else.

We stay together for the first half. Flying at the speed of light along low visibility rutted but dry trail. More horses then pedal to the metal. Hop over trees, jump down a steep rooted drop, creek crossing, water rank with the smell of livestock.

My upper body is taking a beating but we are moving so fast and smooth I can ignore it. I’m not drinking and barely eating and I know I’m sinking but staying on is better than trying to navigate and pick lines alone. Shortly the mountain bikes drop us as we two cross bikes drop the other one. Flouro yellow camelbak is not seen again. I ride with Monty for the rest of the horse trail. There’s sand and more horses and a slippery rock crossing and a river crossing that was supposed to be raging but with a week of no rain is barely a puddle.

I’ve enjoyed enough of the horse trail much sooner than we actually exit onto more gravel. We climb and climb and climb. I see stars and am seriously dehydrated. It ends up taking me almost 4 hours to recover from this point. Mountain bike 2 finds us on the climb, says he got lost – more to explain himself to himself than be social to us and then he and Monty ride away. I wave bye and pedal squares to the church.

I get there a few minutes after them and a hose is hooked up, we teamwork water and then they ride off. I say it was nice riding with you I’m not strong enough and good luck. The next 20 miles take 20 years. I pedal and I whinge and I wonder why I do this to myself. My arms are dead, my heart is dead and my brain is a raisin. The sun is so high and hot and every descent has crusher run at the bottom and every climb is twice as long and I hate everything I wish I had stayed home. I ate new gels and my stomach is acidic and my head hurts.

After an eternity where I peek at my mileage, rage at how much longer it is to the camp, then decide to wait an hour before looking again, wait the “hour” look and rage again as I’ve only gone five miles in what felt like hours and hours.

I hit the camp and the euphoria curtain comes down. Monty is shirtless and sitting down, he’s done. No more today. I’m in third place. Typical aid station motivation – “They just left you can catch up” I laugh so hard my face hurts. I’m not catching anyone, seeing Monty quit has given me the fortitude to continue on enough to finish. I also have to keep my word to James and give him a ride. If I cut the ride short now I’ll have a wonderful time sitting around for 6-7 hours feeling like a failure. So eat some gummies, have a coke, oil my chain and then back out.

Guy in blue on an mountain bike comes up, doesn’t say much after getting his pic and takes off. He’s riding strong but I catch up. Typical of the day he doesn’t want to talk or draft or rotate. That’s fine it’s a long ride and people are nervous. Eventually he just rides off. Maybe he doesn’t like my face.

Now I’m alone again. Dusty roads, little wind, sun so high and so hot. I’m drinking and eating and it’s ok. I’m lonely like always after 7 hours so I put in my headphone and listen to Chris Delia make jokes and laugh about bullshit. I pedal and eat and look at the sky and the county. It’s nice.

Sometimes I stop and walk up a hill. I stop to pee, bright florescent yellow but what can you do. I’m too far behind on hydration to do anything other than suffer and catch up slowly. Too much water too fast is worse than the alternative. My lips are chapped from the dust and the salt and the pollen and the sun. I stop and put on some chapstick. Is there any greater luxury than having a framebag full of all the things I could need? I love you Revelate Tangle Medium Black.

So I keep going. Wander around the last church looking for water until I see the pump house, my addled mind takes a few moments to connect no water flow + light switch + electrical pump = duh. Flip the switch and ice cold water. It’s so wonderful. I feel much better for a bit. Rusty from GravelCyclist passes me and then we ride together just long enough to exchange pleasantries. I say he won some race we both did, he says ya then I say usually I ride with JOM or K-Dogg and he laughs and says ya and then I say good luck and bye and he rides off looking strong.

I get passed by another rider somewhere in there as well. Soon enough I recognize the roads, I’ve been here for Red Clay Ramble four times. Now I’m close to home and the sun is low in the sky. I’m not pedaling strong, but stronger than I was. Last turn and then I roll to the end. Imagining the different finishes I’ve had at the Ramble. Sometimes solo, sometimes sprinting. This is different, I’m not sure if it’s better but fuck it’s harder for sure.

Get my pic with the time on my GPS and then Craig D and Gike a guy named Mike I met at an alleycat appear. Craig D cut out feeling like shit and I guess Gike did too. We laugh and complain and feel good about being done.

I slowly roll the few hundred yards to camp and talk a bit with K-Dogg from GravelCyclist. He quit too, course was too hard after horse camp which was no fun so they came back. I totally relate. Probably if I hadn’t had to keep my word to James it would have been easier to quit.

I’m so happy to be done I bask in the endorphins and do everything slowly.

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10 minutes to put my bike in the van. 10 minutes to change. Just sit for a few minutes. Look around for some more. After an hour or so I leave to go get a Big Mac. Get something for James as well. Oddly enough the McDonald’s has a functional shake machine and I am in heaven. Pickle at the gas station and I am restored. Drive back to the camp in the setting sun, it’s nice.

I watch James’ progress on Instagram and he’s riding strong. Stand by the sign waiting for riders as the sun sets, look at the stars, sit on the ground. It doesn’t matter time is free when you don’t have to pedal anymore. Before too long James is back at the van. Happy to be done. He wastes no time, bike in the back, Chicken sandwhich in his mouth we’re back on the road to Atlanta in no time. Talk about the ride and all sorts of stuff on the way back. Nice to have company.

I drop James, make it home and try to get ready for the BeltGrind.

BeltGrind

Sleep is a battle but it comes fast once I commit. I wake up, eat a bit, get my bike set up a bit and then have a nap. Wake up again and slowly realize I never registered for the race. Check my email, check the website, check my blog, check my email again oh shit whoops I forgot to register. Send of a desperate message to the organizer Wyatt, then a text to James to see if he knows anyone dropping out I can buy a ticket from then I whirl into my van and drive down.

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The parking lot is packed. Tents, giant off-road redbull thing blasting music, a million cyclists, costumes and all sorts of fun stuff. I spot Wyatt instantly and I guess he saw my message and gets me set up to register right away. I am intensely thankful and think fuck I really need to volunteer or do something other than just race for once.

So I pay and then go sit in my van for bit as I’m an hour early for my usual time. Have a coffee and enjoy the breeze. Walk a bit and drink a ton of water. Nervous about my food, water intake and energy. Yesterday was hard but I rode a very low intensity for such a large portion I think I’ll be ok today. Thinking Top 5 should be doable. The announcement for the announcement starts and I change to my shorts and t-shirt, put on my hat and helmet and ride up. Everyone is standing around in helmets so it’s fine but kinda silly. Helmet becomes a hat when not riding a bike I think.

I talk to Kelly and Craig D and Angel and Opie and Jacob Cronan who were 1st and 3rd last year. There’s a lot of people. A lot of people.

The announcements happen, birth year determines direction, even for me so I pull same as last year. Racers line up here so we do. Nervous banter, nervous laughter.

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Hey don’t ride so fast you know there’s two laps right. Haha I laugh; I’m going to kill myself and see what happens.

We jostle and joke and fidget and then there’s the drumroll and maybe the siren or was that yesterday and then it’s sprinting down the beltline and tunnel vision. I’m set for the hole shot, lose it to Fuji singlespeed who I learn later is named Kenny then get it back right away. I fly into the first dirt section hard, this is my max I’ve got nothing left but the first few miles can make or break the race. I lean, move forward back side-to-side as I wind through around and over the ruts and broken ground connected by flat smooth sections. I’m killing myself and it works perfectly. I come out on the westside beltline with just one rider. Jeff Hopkins, former national champion track racer Jeff Hopkins who’s also an outstanding gravel rider. Well hell this’ll be fun.

So we blast down the beltline, slow for a family here, smile and wave at a kid there it goes pretty well and reasonably pro-social. Hole shot again into the tunnel level and then we wind around. Coming into the apartments I lose the third hole shot to a kid on a BMX bike but he clears the tech section so it’s fine. Now Jeff and I blast along the railroad ballast. He’s crushing me on his cross bike fuck this MTB is great but he’s so fast.

Mud section is next, I think he pedals the whole thing, I bobble once but manage to get my pics taken upright and pedaling so that’s nice. Soon first checkpoint is here. I drop my can, get a punch and we’re off.

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Jeff doesn’t have a route so it’s follow me and it’s off down the sidewalk at full speed. Can’t cross Northside against the light so up the sidewalk and then over. I yell preparation instructions to Jeff as we get the green and cross Maritta and then down the path through Georgia Tech up to Atlantaic Station over 17th street get the green for Spring but have to bobble on Peachtree then up to Ansley Park then down the hill and second checkpoint.

Playful assault and battery by dinosaurs as we fuck around jumping from leaves to leaves and crawling through hay. Get my stamp some whiskey and it’s blast down the smooth gravel to the eastside beltline. Shit there’s the leaders coming the other direction. Are we halfway? Fuck I think they’re moving fast and there’s four or five in a group. Jeff and I hit the eastside and fly down the sidepath. Few pedestrians slow here and there cross the bridge and keep going down the side trail. It’s anti-social rude riding but that’s ok it’s just for today.

Soon we hit third checkpoint and do the pony ride and get my punch. Jeff crushes me in the sand but soon we’re riding well on the gravel. It’s bumpy and large washboard but we are moving. He picks excellent lines and sees things I don’t usually see. I learn a lot he’s smart rider. Next checkpoint is just a punch. Say hi to Sarah Humphreys awkward just like last year and then ginger ale shot blok and off we go. I’m eating and drinking well and we just fly over the dirt and rocks and sand and bridges and pass the couple hundred riders coming the other way.

Soon we’re back at the start. No one here, few seconds to be confused then Jeff says ok that was fun and I was only doing one lap. I laugh outside cry inside and then the whiskey hits and I’m off. I fly up the dirt. If you ride your bike hard enough you can time each pedal stroke to the terrain and just float over everything. I am right at the edge of death as I see the chase group. 2-3 spread apart a few hundred feet. Shit I think I’m only a few minutes out. Later I learn I was 10 from my chasers and 5 from the leader going the other direction. Stomp the pedals and just fly heart singing.

So I go, stamp 2 at checkpoint 4, stamp 2 at checkpoint 3 pedal pedal pedal drink eat drink show my teeth and keep going.

Back on the beltline and more sidetrail. Lots of riders coming the other way, lots with their heads down but I flow around, someone calls my name here and then later on as well. I think it’s Jacob from the Chattanooga trip and then Eddie from the SundaytoMonday rides. Shit I don’t know the tunnel vision and race high are so intense.

Hit the green light at Monroe again twice lucky unbelievable and back on the gravel. More head down dipshits but I make it to checkpoint 2 again, get my stamp stamp lady is handsy in a weird fun way and then I’m off. Slow walk up the hill and then try to conserve on the pavement. See Austin the leader for counter-clockwise and feel the pressure. Through Ansley again, hit the green at Peachtree then Spring goddamn luck just coming all over today. I know my choose your own adventure route is the best. So I dial back just a bit here and rest, pedaling hard but eat drink drink go. Slow walk up the Georgia Tech path then over Marietta down Northside and back to checkpoint 1. Tomato is as flirty as possible in the five seconds we interact which throws me for a loop but gives me a nice awkward booster out of there.

Fly by casuals at the mud section, get myself covered in mud again. Walk the rocks, run the rocks and then back onto the ballast. I see a big group ahead and downshift to pass before the tunnel level. Works great I get the hole shot ahead and then it’s pedal pedal pedal and I’m on the westside beltline again. I have my last bit of liquid and I’m right on the ragged edge of blowing up. This has been so hard but so fast and so intense I haven’t been able to pay much attention other than surviving. I’ve suffered so much and I’m so close.

I pedal as hard as I can into the wind down the pavement, soon I’m at the short dirt section, corner corner pedal jump weight back for dips and then fly out on the beltline. There’s the finish sprint sprint sprint holy shit I won. I stop show my belt and then sit down on the grass.

It feels like seconds before the 2nd place rider Austin comes in. Turns out it was 11 minutes that disappeared. I sit without moving for almost twenty minutes but it feels like only a couple. Third place comes in and we laugh and compare stories and notes and laugh and fuck it feels good to be done. Other riders trickle in. Opie comes up he dropped his chain right at the first offroad section and did one loop and was done. Other guys dropped after other shit happened. Jacob comes in somewhere top 10. Kenny somewhere too.

As more people finish and they talk to their friends I sit by myself for the first time. Jesus Christ 11 minutes to second place that’s crazy. Could have dialed it back just a bit I guess. I feel ridiculous. I’ll never be fit like this again, 200k of gravel the day before and then this today. Good thing Shey Linder didn’t show.

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Then it’s say hi to other people I know and getting congratulations and I look for Kelly and Craig D but they’ve went on already. I wonder around in a daze and wait for prizes. Try to get food but I’m not really hungry. Then it’s prizes and laughing and that’s it. Go home and sit around in a daze until I finally pass out at 1am only to wake right back up the beating of my heart in my ears at 5am. Winning a race like this is intense in ways other events just aren’t. Definition of over-stimulation. Same thing happened 7 years ago when I won the Peachtree Bash. It’s almost too much. I’ll spend the rest of the day in a daze, wide-eyed and happy, snoozing here and there. Exhausted but mind still ready to ride at a million miles an hour.

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