This is the most perfect race I’ve ever done.
I got dropped early but quickly joined a chasing trio. We rotated well and kept the pace high, at the first aid station we all stopped to pee and refill water. About 6-7 riders came in just after us and eventually we all got together and kept the same high pace. Lots of rotation and regrouping – southeast riders can be very polite and hardworking.
As we moved through the dusty countryside the pace pushed higher and higher and riders dropped as exhaustion and mental fatigue set in.
Riding in a fast paceline on unknown gravel roads creates a hyper focus – it’s a rush and completely fills my mind. There is no time to focus on anything other than the road 15-20 meters ahead. I eat, I pedal and I rotate through with strong pulls.
Eventually we hit pavement. The rush recedes and suddenly we’re all just pedaling along – confusion sets in and there is some crowding and back and forth rotations as everyone tries to square their different bikes and tires and strengths. Eventually we all calm down and the rotations begin again.
Thinking back now, 2 weeks removed from the event, this reminds me of having an injury break in the middle of a wrestling match. High school wrestling is an absurd sport and this is no more obvious than when the pause button is hit and I’m just standing there in a tiny lycra singlet while the other guy gets his bleeding nose stopped with tiny cylinders of cotton.
For the previous 3 minutes we’ve been locked in combat. Arms, legs, heads and bodies attacking, defending with hearts pounding away. Suddenly a spot of blood appears on the mat and multiple whistles are blown. The hands of the ref, shockingly strong, pull us apart and my bleeding opponent kneels in place as his injury is attended to. I stand there and can only really hear my heart beating. Everything takes a crystal focus. I feel like I can see every single face in the stands at once. My dad yelling encouragement in the stands as my coach paces back and forth showing support with a diminutive thumbs up and some clapping. My mind is running so fast and I’m only along for the ride, the break only takes a minute or two but it feels like an eternity. Wrestling cleared my mind and now I’m noticing everything that had been turned off. I’m cold and tired and hungry and angry and ready to get back to wrestling. I’ve worn down my opponent and he doesn’t deserve any rest now so close to his edge. Shortly the ref guides us back to the center and we resume, everything gets shut off again and I feel at home.
Anyway, the pavement section is fast and a little boring. We blast along rolling hills and I look around and note the other bikes. I see a 650b Open Up with slick tread WTB Horizon tires, another a Felt that is some sort of monstercross rig with 60mm G-One tires. Mostly the other riders are on cross bikes with mildly aggressive 38mm-44mm tires, like my bike but theirs are either carbon of aluminum. That’s ok, I like my wiggly steel Soma – it’s skinny tubes look nice and it rides so well.
We reel in a few more riders and the group is eating and happy and moving along. Shortly we hit gravel and the knives come back out. The strength differences become apparent after each rider takes a few pulls. The weaker riders are slowly discarded as the pace picks up incrementally. I dig in my dwindling reserves and try my hardest to maintain the pace when I hit the front and there’s an uphill. It’s uncouth to drive the pace from the front on the flats or downhills – just a waste of energy and I’ll get caught anyway.
But when the road turns up, that’s where I can attack. Keep it quiet and non-obvious. A little bit faster here, keep the cadence normal but pedal hard. Riders behind will unconsciously keep up and with each 20-30 second climb they get pushed closer and closer to the edge.
Miles tick by, the gravel goes from grey to white to red to orange back to red and we get closer to the finish. I keep one eye on my GPS and watch the miles go by, the other is on the remaining group members. There are five of use now, they are all strong and the friendliness and comport have left. We’re riding the ragged edge of exhaustion. Mental and physical fatigue are intense and slowly grinding down our will to continue. We are close to the finish, less than 2 kilometers now. Intermingled with the short course riders I surge over the remaining hills. In the drops climbing out of the saddle but crouched low. The gravel rumbles under my tires. Our group is still together but spread out, attacks come and go – no one has enough energy to pull more than a few bike lengths ahead. I am metering out my efforts as well as I can, I have hardly anything left by the time we hit the wooden bridge that signals the last few hundred meters.
The group is still together, a ragged sail of five riders crouched over their machines breathing fire amid the dusty heat of the day. We are seconds from finishing, ending the pain and falling into the grass exhausted. The group is fluid, posturing and threatening attacks when something explodes in my head. I grip the drops as if to crush them and stomp the pedals, attack so none can follow, blasting ahead I leave the group behind. Bouncing and skittering over the broken pavement I am alone at the top of the hill. I drop my head and coast through the finish line. People are hanging out, mingling with smiles and cold beers. Music drifts through the air chasing laughter and the smell of a well run grill. The instant change of atmosphere is surreal and underlines the absurdity of the experience.
Fast. Every year this race has a bigger field and every year I slide further down the results. Oh well. But anyway, it was amazing, very fast and great weather. This race was a great illustration of how anything can happen in a gravel race. After the crash-induced field split I ended up in the 20 strong chase group and after sitting in for a few minutes to recover I attacked and went off the front solo for a little more than 30 minutes. This is a stupid move to make an hour into a 3 hour race but it was fun and felt great. I attacked and attacked once I got caught and still had enough juice to sit in for another 20 minutes until I got dropped on one of the few large hills on the course. What’s funny is that shortly after I got dropped the majority of this chase group ended up taking a wrong turn and coming in 40+ minutes down from my time.
I bounced around a bit but spent most of the last third of the race riding by myself, bike humming along and every pedal stroke feeling really good.
How was the course?
Nice and dry with some dust. Excellent hardpack with just a few rough and loose sections. Some fast descents and although the speeds are always very high this is more a mild rolling course than a flat course.
What did you ride?
My gravel racer. 46/36 and 12-34 with 40mm Kenda Happy Medium tires. This bike is a pleasure to ride, it’s flexy on the really hard stuff but feels stiff and strong on most of the regular gravel and pavement. It’s cliche but the bike just seems to eat up gravel, every time you turn the pedals it’s like you’re getting a few watts back and it just makes the riding a joy.
What’d you eat?
Regular breakfast, I really missed the Starbucks double shots and sourdough pretzels combination. It really pepped me up and made my morning. During the race I only ate two clif bars and maybe 3.5 bottles of water.
I ate a ton of pretzels the night before the race so all the extra salt seems to have given me a little reserve as usually at this temp I would have needed another 1-2 bottles.
How were the weeks leading up to the race?
I’m always so fit in August. I’ve been doing my long climbing rides on Saturday all Summer and they really seemed to have helped my fitness. I spent the majority of the race by myself and turned in a faster time than in 2015 when I drafted a really strong rider the whole race. The three rides I did the week of the race were all MTB and the last one was a monster cross ride so I think I was pretty fit before but these three rides really honed my form and fit.
Where’d you start?
Like in the middle in front of all the people who looked slow and leisurely and right behind the fast people who were late. I think it mattered a bunch for this race as there was a huge crash that split the field and caused some serious injury that I just managed to avoid by sticking to the back of the pack.
How’d you do?
19/31 for category and 40/118 overall. So pretty ok I guess. But really this race has gotten so much faster I’m just happy to have beaten my 2015/2016 times.
Oof. Cohutta is always so hard. This course destroyed me. Legs were done, cramps, foot pain and just crushed. My upper body was also beat up. I fell off a cliff on a huge rock slab but even without that the descents down Big Frog are so fast and rough it’s like being in a blender. My chain snapped in the first singletrack section and I lost 7-8 minutes fixing it, probably 3-4 getting back up the cliff. So in short, it was hot and hard and expensive. I’m really glad I went.
How was the course?
Ridiculous. You ever seen doubletrack that is 10-15 feet wide, flat and literally side-to-side roots? For several hundred yards? Some of the singletrack was amazing. Obviously there’s a lot of climbing a lot of descending and a lot of traffic. I got stuck behind two racers on the singletrack again but it didn’t matter really I guess. Still think with a little more smart racing I could have taken 15-20 minutes off my time. Following someone else on singletrack is always harder than just riding alone.
It was hot and the course is set-up so that you do the bulk of the climbing on the way back when it’s the hottest and hardest. I went out too hard on the gravel and paid later with blown legs. I think next year I’m just going to leave my big ring at home. Seriously it just kills your legs later. Better to sit in on the downhill. This course is also heavily favored for flat-bars. I lost a lot of time riding drop bars as the descents are technical and you need a lot of leverage to move laterally on the road at speed to avoid roots, rocks and ruts. Next year I’m just riding a mountain bike.
What did you ride?
Same bike but it really let me down with the broken chain and I think also the derailleur hanger is bent as I had chain skipping issues as well as shifting issues pretty much all day. It was also creaking up a storm on the singletrack, not sure if it was the saddle, seatpost clamp or BB but it was annoying and kinda embarrassing.
39/26 with 11-34 9 speed. It worked great. Never ran out of gears but really worked the 26/34. There weren’t any large/loose sections so I was worried for nothing.
Continental Race King 2.2 in the rear and Michelin Wild Race’r 2.25 in the front. I actually really liked the Wild Race’r on the single track. The instant grip worked well. I was had a lot of negative things to say earlier but I think the tire is a good MTB tire.
What’d you eat and what’d you drink?
Same breakfast as always. During the race I drank as much water as I could stomach, a bunch of Heed from the aid stations as well as probably 20 ounces of coke, a handful of pretzel bites and four cliff bars. I need to take some mustard packets as I had severe cramps during the last two hours. I was never hungry but if there were less aid stations or they were more spread out I would have been in trouble as I had to stop and get water at each one. I only had 46 ounces of water on my bike. I’m not sure if I’d be faster carrying an additional 3-4 pounds of water but I bet I would be. I peed once at 7:50am and then not again until 6:00pm – it was really hot.
How was the week leading up to the race?’
Lots of rest and walking/hiking. My legs felt great on Saturday. I hiked the hills everyday but Friday where I just walked the flat trails down by the Chattahoochee. I felt a lot better than at Shake ‘n’ Brake.
Where’d you start?
Like 3/4 of the way back. It didn’t matter but it would have been nice to plan better and hit the singletrack alone or behind some male racers.
How’d you do?
Suffered some setbacks but managed to finish. I’m not sure 6+ hour races are for me. I hated everything after about hour 4 but was happy to finish and am really happy now and feel like I should do another one.
3 miles or so paved climb right at the start.
16 miles of single track on the way out
38.5 miles of gravel roads
10 miles of single track on the way back
2-3 miles of pavement to the finish
BF is approximately 15 miles of trail at the beginning and end with a 30 mile hilly gravel grinder in the middle. I did it 2 years ago when the weather was perfect. Might try again this year.