Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Deep South Weekend Trip

Perhaps the old lady who was the hotel desk clerk in Dalton, Georgia said it best: 

*in strong southern accent* "This is the coldest it's been in a long long time, my dog is just gettin' eaten alive by fleas!"

Good thing we aren't dogs. So, yeah, it wasn't exactly 80 and sunny every day down south, but still much better than Pittsburgh and it was awesome to do some different riding.

Will and I drove to the deep south last weekend in search of dry trails and warmer weather. To be honest, even though it wasn't exactly toasty warm, it was certainly warmer than sub-zero temperatures that Pittsburgh was experiencing. Plus, there were plenty of dry trails.

We left Pittsburgh Thursday evening and busted out about 6 hours of driving before getting a crappy motel around 1am somewhere in southern Virginia. The next morning, we drove another 2 hours to eastern Tennessee and set out to do a 6+ hour gravel ride.

I found a route online, so we parked at the Walmart in town, got dressed in my car (while it was snowing outside), and set off. The first climb was pretty big, probably 1,500 feet, and we hit it pretty hard. At the top of the climb, the views of the snowy Smokey Mountains were fantastic.

In the past year I've seen my fair share of mountains - the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, Grand Tetons, Blue Ridge Mountains, etc. - but the Smokey Mountains covered in snow were certainly some of the most scenic. The coolest part was the extremely distinct snow line. There was quite literally a line on the mountain where every tree above it was completely covered with snow, and every tree below it was largely snow free.

We did another big gravel climb, and at the top of the climb, we just barely crossed into North Carolina. Enough to say we ride in North Carolina, anyways. 

The final climb of the day was the most scenic. It was a pretty rough jeep road, which was made worse by the fact that I had a gravel bike while Will was on a mountain bike (long story, but my mountain bike has 32x19 singlespeed gearing, which would be impossible to keep on roads with).

By the top, the road had snaked its way to the top of a ridge with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains.

It really didn't look like what I'd imagine Tennessee mountains to look like. To me, it seemed more like what I would imagine the Pacific Northwest or mountains in Vermont, New Hampshire, etc, would look like.

After the summit of the climb, we started descending a rough doubletrack section. There was a bombed out car near the top that had obviously been abandoned up there, perhaps because someone got too ambitious with their sedan on rough roads. The rest of the descent was pretty rocky and washboardy (is that a word?).

At the bottom, I commented to Will how it felt liked I was ripping the downhill because I was on a gravel bike. He said it felt like he was going super slow, and he still beat my down the hill. 

He said the theme song for my bumpy descent on a gravel bike should have been some hard metal song, whereas his theme song would have been a soft, slow song to represent how "smooth" (that's debatable, his word not mine) he was on the downhill.

After the ride, we got dinner at some Mexican place adjacent to (but I stress, not in, not in) a gas station. Someone messaged Will and told him about a trail system in Alabama about 2 hours from where we planned to ride in Georgia. It looked like a cool trail system, so we decided to drive to Alabama instead of Georgia that night.

When we got to Alabama, we found a car wash to hose off the dirty bikes.

The next morning, we got some breakfast at Waffle House (better food but a more frightening environment than IHOP, in my opinion) then headed to the trail system, which was called "Coldwater Mountain."

We parked at the trailhead about 30 minutes before sunrise, got ready, and then started riding right around sunrise. The trails were awesome, sort of like Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania, but rockier. The downhills were super flowy, but they also had some rocks and little drops mixed in to keep you on your toes. We did a full lap of the system (about 30 miles), then headed back to the car to get more food and water.

The second lap was where we did a workout, so it was a lot more painful. And in case you're wondering, a workout is basically Will riding a tempo or threshold or whatever (an actual workout his coach gives him) and me on the struggle bus trying to keep up. Emphasis on "try", he always drops me.

My favorite trail in the whole system was called "Gazza". It was a downhill trail that started off with super gnarly, chunky, huge rocks, and then progressed to a flow trail. I cleaned most of the rocks on my first try, but I was confident on my second try I would get them all.

I was wrong. Instead, I went over-the-bars into a massive rock pile. It made my knee and wrist parts hurt. But I was fine. 

There's something about ripping down a fast trail with perfect berms and little jumps that makes you forget about any kind of discomfort from a wreck. The feeling of flying down a trail, especially when I'm riding right behind someone like Will, is just so awesome to me. I literally have a huge smile on my face the entire time; it's quite euphoric.

That day, we ended up with 8 hours of ride time, about 78 miles, and over 8,000 feet of climbing. And it was 100% singletrack. There was seriously not a single stretch of pavement or gravel of any kind.

The next objective was searching out an Olive Garden for dinner. See, some people don't like Olive Garden's that much (I'm looking at you Dahn, if you actually read this), but to me - and thankfully Will also, it's the OG of all OG's (see what I did there?).

The Olive Garden hunt was successful, after which we drove to Dalton, Georgia, to get another hotel.

When I was checking into the hotel in Dalton, that's where the aforementioned conversation with the clerk went about it being so cold and her dogs getting eaten alive by fleas. Doesn't really make sense to me. But like I said, I'm not a dog.

The next morning (Sunday) we drove to a trailhead on the Pinhoti trail just southwest of Dalton.

The first climb out of the parking lot was a brute. About 600 vertical feet and quite steep. I was suffering immensely with my 32x19 gearing, as Will comfortably spun up with his 50 tooth Eagle cassette. To be fair, I wish I had gears to, and the only reason I didn't put gears on was because it was a last minute decision to ride MTB's and I didn't have time.

Anyways, the first climb was pretty hard, but the descent afterwards was really cool. Unfortunately, since it was an out-and-back route for that part of it, I knew I'd have to climb up that descent at the end. Ouch.

The next climb we did was the result of some poor route planning on my part. We rode up a hiking trail, and then had to hike our bikes maybe 100 vertical feet up rock stairs carved into a cliff. Hmmm. Then, there was another 300 foot brutal climb to the actual top of the mountain.

After that, we did some more singletrack until we met up with the Snake Time Trial race route (a race that's held down there in January and February). We rode a lot of the route, which was nice, backcountry singletrack, then headed back.

On the way back, we did a cool downhill section where we got some videos, and then we made the smart choice of taking the horse/bike alternative section of the Pinhoti trail, which was much more rideable.

Earlier in the ride, I had a stupid slow speed crash where I broke my bottle cage and lost my bottle. Being that we were now 4+ hours into the ride and I only had 1 bottle, I was pretty thirsty. So thirsty, in fact, that I filled my bottle directly from a mountain spring with no filter and chugged a lot of water. It's been over 24 hours now and I'm still feeling fine, so hopefully it wasn't tainted.

Toward the end of the ride, we did the descent back to the car. It was the climb we did at the start, and it was amazing to ride down. It was super fast with some loose rocks and was the epitome of an epic backcountry trail. Then, for good measure, we continued past the car and did another 600 foot singletrack climb to a lookout. Since it was getting later in the day and it had been a hard ride, we decided to just rip back down to the cars and call it a day. That descent was maybe even more fun than the one we did before. Awesome sections of rocks, fast switchbacks, and some great views. I always go back and forth on what my favorite kind of trails are, but ripping backcountry descents are definitely near the top!

We loaded up the car again in the parking lot and got on the road a little before 3pm. It was a 10 hour drive back to Will's house, so it was going to be a late night. The sunset was pretty sweet while we were in Tennessee, and we were both pretty pumped from doing so much epic riding, so the drive went fast for a while.

Once we got toward West Virginia, maybe around 8pm, it started to snow pretty heavily. Before long it was like a blizzard, and the road was covered in snow. The next few hours were some slow miles of driving, but we eventually made it to Will's house just before 2am. I got a couple hours of sleep and then left to drive up to school at 5:30am, which was a brutal drive. But it was totally worth it.

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