Gravel and learning to love a bike

https://www.strava.com/activities/1164797390

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Ray’s Gap

Rays Gap

https://www.strava.com/activities/1106344044

Massive storms all across the north georgia tri-state area blew through late morning, pouring rain crashing lightning and high winds were forecast. I was touch and go for making this ride but after much deliberation I committed to the traffic, potential rain riding and other bumps that might have otherwise ruined my weekend plans.

The ride itself was amazing, new roads at new times are always so invigorating. The storms made for lower temperatures and heavy overcast kept the sun hidden much of the time even if the humidity was very high. Friday is an especially interesting time to ride, there is an excitement in the air as work ceases and people prepare for their short respite from the grind of sustaining their life.

There were several loose dogs, one especially committed to the chase on Towe Chapel road that worried me on the return leg. Thankfully when I did retrace my path the hour was late and the hound had retired from his duties for the evening.

This area of Georgia, maybe only on lazy summer Fridays, seems very relaxed. There was a bit of traffic but it was courteous and accommodating. As I strode north at a fast pace in a high gear, the daylight slowly diminishing I was as relaxed as I’ve ever been.

Dalton has all the potential to be a post-industrial wasteland – home to more than a hundred carpet manufacturers and associated sibling shipping and storage facilities – but still beset by the occasional empty, dilapidated buildings and homes. However an incomparable concentration of one type of industry has prevented the slow-collapse I’ve seen in so many other areas. There is neglect and turnover but it is indicative of nothing more than normal urban industrial life-cycle. Businesses come and go but there is still growth in both production and population.

Young families sit outside eating at a corner pizza place, a small crowd gathers for an outdoor concert, downtown is relaxed and active in that southern slow-motion way that can be so comforting.

Shortly I reach my climb for the day, a winding road up to Ray’s Gap. The climb is typical of this area, glimpses of the surrounding country side can barely be had through the thick trees and the summit is little more than a cul-de-sac of very expensive homes with only a small window of visibility to the west. The climb is a leg-breaker with the final section being 13-16% – my legs give up twice and I walk for a time before remounting and finishing astride my bike.  I have a chuckle before descending and starting the ride home – the gentleman walking his dogs on the lower slope had told me there was a panoramic view from the top – but he also told me he hadn’t ridden it in a long time – time for him to ride it and see how the trees have hidden the view now.

As the sun sets and darkness falls on unfamiliar country roads the sense of solitude and isolation is overwhelming. Country houses are not brightly lit like the more urban and suburban landscapes familiar to me. Dogs bark and unknown creatures rustle from the darkness as I ride by. Long sections of road where there is nothing but trees and weeds encroaching right up to the road edge. It’s dark and lonely and I miss the people I love. But I ride on, strong emotions are the flavor of life and this ride is packed with them.

So I ride in the dark and pedal and eat and think. My legs feel weary and I am restless, I do not trust the convenience store I see coming into Resaca. Leaving my bike outside in the poorly lit storefront bordered by impenetrable darkness on either side does not seem like a good idea. I crave the frigid burn of a soda, I stop at a vending machine that intially accepts my dollar bill and then after consideration (during which I press the button for Dr. Pepper) the machine rejects the note and refuses to engage anymore. “Too late for me”, it seems to say, “I’m closed.”

So I pedal on, my lights bright and my heart singing. Shortly I see another vending machine I had passed earlier. I stop, once again paranoid in the dark unfamiliar country and slide a dollar into the machine. I press the button for Dr. Pepper and am rewarded with a cold can, I open it and drink it as quickly as I can. The cold carbonated sweetness burns my throat and nose and fills me with joy.

Fortified once more I pedal like mad through the dark back to my car. This last leg is almost an hour and a half but it feels like no time at all. Shortly I am in the parking lot of the Sosebee Cyling park, removing my damp clothes and fighting the veil of sleepiness that accompanies the end of a long ride late at night in an unfamiliar place.

 

It’s supposed to be hard

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That’s how you know it’s good.

Always lurking in the wings self doubt has risen up on this foggy morning and is hitting my with everything it has as I pedal along in the thick tepid air. Visibility is low and a sense of suffocating doubt is created. I struggle to embrace the next 7 hours.

“It’s going to be hard”
“What happens if you get lost”
“What if you get stuck”
“Are you really enjoying yourself”
“Isn’t this all just a waste of time”

A herd of cattle watches as I pass, unimpressed by my efforts. As I move through the country side passing farms, barking dogs and ominous grey skies my mood improves. By the time I cross into Tennessee I feel next to normal. The miles are passing and I am enjoying myself. The forests are green and lush from the heavy rain of the past month, sun still hiding in the clouds and the air is cool. My GPS beeps happily as it guides me along my course.

A soft rear tire signals a flat so I pull onto a side road and set about changing it. The process goes smoothly and is comforting, further reinforcing my good mood. I note the road sign “Sloan Gap” and decide to meander off course to see where it leads. This road winds through the chain just north of Sand Mountain and ends at a Oconee river outfitters. Noting the restrooms I stop to wash my hands and get my bearings before heading back to my route.

Once again I am heading North to Chilhowee. The mountain is enormous and visible from several miles away. I note parts are shrouded in angry livid grey-blue and wonder if I’ll hit some interesting weather. But where I am now is sunny and calm, the day is warming as I pedal towards the climb.

Chilhowee is a monster and destroys my legs. The climb is gravel, wash-boarded and very steep. I slide and struggle up the mountain and have to stop repeatedly. Walking is a chore and my face and lungs are afire.

Soon enough the climb is over, never feeling as bad as I expected but simultaneously the hardest thing ever. The road along the top of Chilhowee is paved and smooth. I ride for a bit before hitting more gravel and decide to turn around early as I have little water and a second climb that I expect to be as hard as the first. I will have to return to redeem myself.

The mountain contains wonderful views and I take copious pictures. The descent is almost as taxing as the climb, the wash-boarding bucks the bike too and fro and I struggle to maintain control.

My hands, shoulders and neck are sore and exhausted by the time I hit the paved section. The ride back is marked by thunderstorms, sunshine and heat, blown legs from the climb and a feeling of euphoria. I struggle mightily to get back to my car but I have conquered the earlier slings and arrows of self-doubt and succeeded in my ride. Contented I pack and return home, feeling good and motivated for future rides.

First adventure ride of 2017

Rocky Ln

My god the feeling of freedom is intoxicating, it’s enough to make a man sick.

I had a lot of worries the night before this ride. I haven’t ridden this far, alone, since the last week of July in 2016. That ride was hard and left me broken and confused.

Mapping the route and planning the ride I felt frayed around the edges. Lots of thoughts dropped into my mind as I scanned country roads and pieced together the segments to get the distance and climbing I was looking for.

It takes a high level of trust in yourself and your equipment to invest the time, money and energy into something like this. Especially when it’s still new for that year and routine hasn’t been developed. I think a lot of my anxiety was of the general unknown. I’ve seen and experienced hardships on these sorts of rides and the ghosts of the past were coming back to guide my path. The kind of worry that feels bad but doesn’t stop me from doing what I need to do. Preparedness is the weapon here and I wield that blade with practiced skill developed in the summer fires of years passed.

So I packed more food, more water, tools and spare parts. Enough to get me home with any normal failure. Enough to eat and drink that I could make it between towns with hours to spare. My shoes are walkable, even if I can no longer ride I can walk. The animal that moves can survive.

I was still worrying on the drive to my starting point in Rome, Georgia.

Should I drink this canned Starbucks coffee drink? Is this too much caffeine too early? Is this going to make me crash later? But if I don’t drink it will I be ok?

I drive through the sleeping downtown and park in the dark lot next to Barron Stadium and the Rome-Floyd Tennis Center. Quickly change and get my bike set-up. Anxious to be away from my car and the potentially suspicious eyes of the prowling Rome police force.


From the first pedal stroke my worries depart and I am free. My legs feel strong and supple, the night air is still and I head north at a fast pace. Passing projects, the  signs for pay day loans and liquor stores. Rome is a post industrial city and much of the residential blocks feature small, tired houses. In the soft yellow-tinted sodium lighting shadows are long and everything seems old and outdated. Berry College passes by bright and new, a hint of fog rolling off the Oostanaula river.

The modern consumer economy has moved north of Rome, as I leave Berry College behind I see the modern mall and retail parcels. The same across the entire southeast from Oklahoma to North Carolina – McDonald’s, Chik-Fil-A, Belk, Party City and so forth. Squat ugly buildings with gaudy colors  flow by as the air takes a heavy greasy flavor. Fast food row is firing breakfast and the shiny silver hood vents belch heavy blue smoke lazily into the morning air.

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My route takes me off the main highway and quickly I am onto narrow suburban streets. Small houses and big lawns flow by, yards dark with the occasional rattling of a dog’s chain or sleepy bark motivating me to keep the speed up.

Suddenly I am back onto 27 and the road is now a divided highway, 55mph with a narrow shoulder filled with rumble strips. I am moving fast and traffic is light so I keep going worried I have missed a turn miles ago and will be stuck riding back on the more heavily traffic southbound lanes. A few miles and I see my turn, relieved I get off the highway and am back into the narrow, formerly wagon-track, roadway. Here there is nothing but forest with the occasional clear cut field. The trees butt right against the road and in places form a tight canopy the keeps out the purple morning light.


Some minor climbing but mostly flat, sparely populated roads carry me through Silver Hill and the southeastern-most portion of the Johns Mountain Wildlife Preserve. I am back onto numbered roads with Georgia 100 and quickly make it to Summerville. A serendipitous bathroom break and I head through town, stopping for some pictures and a water at a church. Summerville is flat and doesn’t feature much to look at.

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Another moderate climb and I’m heading north again. My heart breaks into a million pieces as I see a tiny, shaking creature in the middle of the opposite lane. I stop and see it is a tiny white kitten. Both eyes crusted shut and looking scared and sick. I pick it up, it’s body so tiny and warm and move it off the road into the grass. It lets out a feeble high-pitched mew as it gingerly takes a step in the grass. I can’t do anything to help and feel awful. Quickly I speed away, not looking back and pounding the pedals to get some distance from this.img_1947

Still north I am speeding along. It feels good to be back on 700c wheels and tires. They are significantly faster than 650b on smooth roads and I shocked when I see that I have covered the first 50 miles in a little more than 2 and a half hours. The main climb today takes me over a ridge, I can see this jutting from the earth into the sky for miles following to the west. It seems intimidating and much higher than expected.

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Eventually my routing has taken me to a dead-end private road so I do a little mapping and find the correct route. This is the big climb of the day and I clench my teeth, suck in a deep breath and attack.

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The climb is like every climb ever. Impossibly hard at the time, heart pounding skin ablaze bargaining to make it stop but once it’s over it seemed so short and fast. I enjoy the climb and feel strong at the top. Typical of Georgia, there is nothing to see on the climb but forest, I catch glimpses to the south of Summerville and the surroundings but no photo opportunities exist as the trees crowd the road and do not allow any clear views.

Next comes an unexpected gravel section. 7.8 miles to my turn, I deflate slightly before steeling my resolve and attacking the gravel section too. My bike handles it well, the narrower 35mm tires bounce and buck a little more than I prefer but they are fast and I make great time.

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Eventually I reach the paved section and although parts are broken and unmaintained it is nice to be on a relatively smooth roadway. I’m on top of the ridge now and see a small lake filled with Kayakers, lots of corn and smooth winding roads.

 

 

I head south along the ridge, 157 lasts for miles with only the occasional car. The road is flat and occasionally a dog or two will speed after me, eager to marshal me along out of their jurisdiction.

The big descent comes as I hit 48, I scream down the winding mountain road, thankful I did not choose to climb the other side as the shoulder is narrow and the traffic seems higher than expected. I stop for water and a selfie in Menlo, a one stop sign town with a family dollar.img_1959

Fortified with a good supply of water I keep south and pass through more country residential areas. Bigger houses with bigger lawns, construction here is newer and things seem more upbeat. Lyerly goes by in a blur, not much to see here. Somewhere in here I noticed my rear tire is bouncy and find out I have had a slow leak. I pull over and change out the tube, the puncture appears to be a small abrasion from a piece of sand. Oh well, I am back on the road shortly, the change going smoothly. Later I stop and do a quick bit of navigation to cut my time on 100 down as I expect traffic to be heavier than earlier in the morning. I wind through parallel side roads and feel good that I am close to finishing. img_1942

My navigation adds a few miles but I don’t notice at the time. I ride for a bit on the Simms Mountain trail, it’s rocky and dirty but very fun, more testing for my tires I suppose.

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Before long I am on the outskirts of West Rome. My route takes me on the busy highway 20 so I do some more navigation and take a nice relaxing side road back to my car. I am happy to see it has not been towed and it is still the only car in the lot. Rome is sleepy on most Saturdays it seems.