We’re sitting fireside in Helen, Georgia, with six days of killer riding in the legs and the promise of a tough race this Saturday. I don’t get out much, but I do hope I find myself in this exact position a few more times before I kick the bucket.
The 3T / Q+M team has made the pilgrimage to Helen for years, and it’s been a treat to tag along this spring. Encouraged by Sean and Al, as well as the other guys joining for the weekend, it’s been something that’s gotten me motivated to be in good enough shape that I’d enjoy the long rides and monster climbs.
Helen, GA is a tourist town, as the local coffee girl explained the crazy weekend rushes of families up from Atlanta every weekend, it made me rather thankful that Traverse City is four hours away from a major metropolitan center. We’ve got a pretty darn good thing going at home, and there do here, too. By Monday morning, the locals have their town back, and cyclists have quiet roads and the friendliest motorists I’ve ever encountered.
We had a great start to the week on Saturday, with 90 miles and over 9,000 feet of climbing. I haven’t done any real climbs since the adventure to Asheville in 2015, where I had to be rescued from the top of Mt. Mitchell on the second day to due to a storm. At least in Helen, I waiting until the fifth day to call for an evac in similar conditions.
Sunday’s ride was the toughest for me, and it usually is when I do a big block of riding. Making it especially so was Hog Pen Gap, a long and challenging climb that we took in a morning mist and at a firm pace. We followed that up with a trip up Brasstown Bald, a climb that averages 11% and hits 25% for two sections near the top. The ride ended with a jaunt up the north face of Unicoi Gap, which is in the running for my favorite climb of all-time with its opposite number that climbs up from out of town.
Tuesday’s ride saw the best weather, but the worst luck. Wes called it a day early, which was the only good thing about Al’s disaster flat, which required a rescue pick-up. It was a bummer for Al, especially with bad weather forecasted for Wednesday, but the extra rest saw him up and flying around for the weekend.
Wednesday was my day for misadventure. I got up early and left solo during a break in the weather, planning on going on 30 minutes and coming back, nice and easy. That 30 minutes put me on Hog Pen, and with the worst of the rain holding off, I went for the top. It was still pretty clear, albeit with a thick mist, when I slowly went down the back side of the gap, planning on heading back to Helen by climbing Jack’s Gap and then Unicoi. The weather had different plans. A massive black cloud chased me to the turn onto Craig’s Gap, which might be my favorite little road in Georgia. By the time I hit the lower slopes of Jack’s, the innocuous mist and drizzle had turned into something a bit more steady. I called Wes, and though he was en route, it was another 40 minutes until I saw the Chrysler Town and Country meet me conveniently at the top of Jack’s and the base of Brasstown Bald.
I was relieved for the rescue and the 24 miles I got in we’re plenty with a shorter, sharper day to follow. On Thursday, we all went with Wes to fulfill his goal of climbing Brasstown Bald. We went nice and steady up Unicoi, with Wes timing his headstart perfectly for us to all roll over the top nearly together. We went easy to Brasstown, but regardless of intention, it’s every man for himself on the steepest climb I’ve done yet. Halfway up, visibility was reduced to a few dozen feet; Al’s blinking light disappeared into the clouds as we hit the Wall, a section of 25% road that defies use or function. At the top, you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of your wheel; when I circled back to finish the climb with Wes, I could have easily ridden into him. As we neared the gate at the top, Wes was in a world of hurt, but he rolled into the park. He deserved a bit of the view, but we got off the top of the mountain as quickly as we could; the wind and rain on the top were 10 degrees colder than at the base. 4,000 feet can be a bit chilly.
On the way back, we actually had some clear skies and relatively dry roads, and we used the ascent of Unicoi to test out the legs a bit. Sean and Al rode it tough from the base, and I kept the base going for a few miles in the middle before giving it a dig near the top. I’m definitely a bit tired, but I love those long climbs, and being able to hang with Sean and Al on them is a real treat.
The rest of the guys roll in this evening, and we’ll likely do some course recon ahead of Southern Cross this Saturday. The course cut an important section of single track, and the focus on gravel and climbing is really a perfect recipe for the guys we’re bringing to the race, especially Sean and Danny.
We’re going to make the most of the great weather down here and keep track of the things and the stuff on Instagram.