Friday, August 22, 2014

TNGA: The lead up to the roll out....

So in major bike packing events, there is racing, and there is riding.  From what I have learned after TNGA, racing comes only after you not only know the course layout, but also from being fit enough to go the entire way with enough power and drive to accomplish it all.  You also have to risk certain items in order to go lighter and faster.  I could not afford to leave much of what I had loaded behind based mostly on my fear of the unknown.  This was not a big deal since I was treating the TNGA as what it was meant to be: a bike adventure.  Racing is a natural progression, but not the level I chose to enter this event under.  So, in most bike packing events, I have learned there is the option to ITT (individual time trial) the event, which means go out and ride it on your own at your convenience when you want to, simply submitting your time to the organizers for acknowledgement.  There is also the option to do a mass start, which is sometimes called a "grand depart".  I chose the mass start due to the fact that I wanted to ride with others and it also gave me a bit of comfort knowing other rides were out there whom I could possibly depend on if need be.  For this to occur, I had to head up to Georgia before the time of the race.

   Around the beginning of August, I had already locked down my gear to a certain degree and my bike hardware was mostly handled, so all that was really left was my name on the official start list.  I was getting closer every day as the people who had signed up early on were canceling for one reason or another.  I knew I was already going to ride it, but my name on the official start list meant visual awareness of my being on the actual ride.  A few days later, there it was my name had made the list and it was announced on FaceBook.  The reality set in...I was about to pedal across Northern Georgia on a 60+lb mountain bike!  I then had one more logistic issue to resolve.  How was I going to get back to my truck after the ride?  I consulted with Mark again and he suggested doing what he did last year after TNGA: Leave my truck in Greenville at his house, ride with his drop off person to the start, do the ride, recover after the ride at a nearby campground, then pedal 70 miles to Atlanta along a rail trail, then catch a train back to Greenville.  This sounded great for a few days until it wasn't...I just knew I wouldn't have the gas left in my physical and mental tank to do 70 more miles after the ride.  This solution also did not resolve the fact that if I decided to quit for some unknown reason, I would be nowhere near Atlanta or a train.  So, I read deeper into the TNGA website notes and they continually mentioned a place called Mulberry Gap.  At this point in time, I knew very little about this place except it was mentioned often last time I raced Fools Gold a few years back.  I assumed it was simply a little KOA style encampment in the mountains....I was wrong.  After finding out Mulberry Gap offered a full plan for before, during and after TNGA, I was sold.  Mark mentioned that this system was a bit expensive, but he agreed they had a good overall system.  I went through most of the charges and it would have cost nearly the same as the train solution after I had purchased a bike box and overly expensive train ticket.  I called up Mulberry and asked if it was too late to sign up for lodging and a ride to the start at which they assured me I was fine and we handled everything quickly via email and a few simple forms.  I was signed up for a yurt, breafast, and a ride to the start line as well as standby support during the ride and then a ride from the finish!  The concern in my mind was lifted!  No one else was going to have to come up and miss a full week of work just because I was about to do this crazy ride!  The next few weeks went by so fast due to many other events going on and before I know it I was in my truck driving up to Mulberry Gap.

The ride up to Mulberry was actually very easy going and smooth.  Having been up this way so many years in a row for Snake Creek Gap Time Trials, I was ok with the time spent driving along.  As I approached Mulberry Gap, the first thing I realized was that this is a cool, established cozy looking place.  I drove up the steep winding roadway to the "barn" and noticed a ton of cars and commotion around some guys jeep which was being manually moved for towing.  It was later learned that his electrical had failed and was being repaired while he raced.   I noticed Bill Bailey was already here and loading onto the first shuttle to the yurt.  I parked my truck, walked up to the main office to register with Mulberry and loaded my bike on the truck which was taking all of our bikes to the Yurt ahead of us.  I then retreated to the barn to await the next shuttle and to find shelter from the midday heat as well as find someplace that was level and not steep.  Yes, I was already concerned that things around here were a little too steep for my own good.  The Barn is a cool meeting place in the lodge area where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served with love, as well as conversation is had and board games are still played and doggies roam freely and cool looking bikes are strewn about.  There is a public beer fridge and couches to sprawl out on and books to read.  After a little time, a familiar face strolled in,Derek Tribble.  I met this guy briefly during TOSRV ( Tour of Southern Rural Vistas )  as well.  So many strong riders in Florida!  He was sitting with a group of riders from Florida which I had not yet met, but would get to know during the ride.  Celso Rodrigues, Colin Campbell were a few I was introduced to who were here to do the ride.  They also seemed to have the same "rookie stare" as I later found it to be called.  We stood out like sore thumbs.  We all exchanged a ton of idle chatter referring to the weather often.  Celso mentioned that it wouldn't be raining until 4-5 days from now so we shouldn't have any problems.  I asked where it would be raining and I think he misunderstood me, but I was serious, where?  Where in Georgia?  At what time?  Current proximity would be a major factor as to how the weather would be.  We never ironed out exactly how the weather pattern would fluctuate, because out shuttle had arrived and we hurriedly shuffled out to load up.  I carried my bag onboard and was a bit worried since I had skipped lunch and was told this would be a 3 hour drive.  I hoped along the way we would stop to refuel.  After some chatter on the van along the way, we got to know each other a little better and some veteran questions started flying, "what's the hardest climb?", "where should I get water", "are there a lot of bears"...lots and lots of questions flying all around me while I was selectively taking in just answers to questions which I needed answers to.  I was very relieved to know the answers to many of these questions due to the enormous amount of research I had done leading up to this event.  Before long, we stopped at a gas station, so I jump out and purchase 2 chicken sandwiches for the road and a bag of chips.  I think a few people around me were looking at me rather oddly, but I also noticed a few TNGA veterans also feeding their faces.  I knew what I was doing, I was pre-loading.  I was eating everything in sight knowing I may not be eating much at all tomorrow.  Little did I know that within an hour we stopped in a town near the yurts for dinner.  It was a bit early for dinner to me, but this was it, so I ordered a big burger and fries and chased it down with a local brew.  It was hard to push it down and I found myself fully stuffed.   So there we sat around the table and I calmly asked for a show of hands as to who was a veteran of the TNGA.  I was surprised to notice that many guys who I did not assume to be veterans were.  A funny thing about being labeled a veteran: it did not mean you were a TNGA only meant you had attempted it previously.  So, many veterans amongst me, very few finishers.  Scary.  We loaded back into the van and headed off to the yurt.

Upon arrival, I am blown away by how cool the yurts are!  I feel like a little kid at camp!  I am running in and around the yurt to check out the design and how neat it is.  I pick the same yurt as Derek, Celso and Colin as I want to discuss the course more with them later tonite.  We are encouraged to handle any last minute issues with our bikes now, so people are scrambling to fiddle with their steeds.  I know better than to mess with my bike right now and leave it alone.  I gather my water bottles, pre fill them, put them on my bike, and go back to the yurt.  I wait for my turn in the shower and before you know it, we are all settling in for the night since we have to be up at 4am for a 4:30 breakfast.  I get to know Celso and Colin better and we all swap notes on what gear we have selected for the ride.  Colin, I discover, is very vocal and great at communicating for the group.  He is regretting not having some of the gear others of us have chosen for the ride, but I think he will be fine with the gear he is bringing.  Meanwhile, I had been going back and forth as to whether or not I should bring my hammock along, but know that it is a 1.5lb extra load which will also take up valuable space in the tail bag.  I finally decide to leave the hammock behind.  I then deliberate on whether or not I should bring my sleeping bag.  It is a super light bag less than a pound, but it is an item which also takes up a little space.  I talk myself into just using my emergency bivy with my thermals.  I feel really nervous as I am making major last minute changes and I told myself NOT to do this.  I overheard a few mention that they did not think they would make the start list and had not really trained beforehand.  We take a little more time geeking out on offline mapping software and I know that I will not get lost thanks to the fantastic navigation system in my eTrex 20, as well as having a few different maps and cue sheets along for the ride.  No one else was bringing a map, or an elevation chart, or cue sheets...  I was in shock.  I can understand it if you are a rookie, but there were 2 veterans in our yurt and both vets had no map, and no logistical tools whatsoever except for their GPS.  Most had rechargeable GPS.  I asked them where they planned to recharge?  Most casually said they would handle those issues when they reached Mulberry Gap.  After reading Karlos Rodriguez' outline of his ride thru TNGA, Mulberry Gap would be quite a ways away.  Morning came quickly and I stumbled out of the yurt into the commons area.  I slipped into my riding kit knowing I would be wearing these clothes for a really long time.  Afterwards, I found myself in the mess hall staring at a half awake Kate stumbling around putting food items out and a zombie tired Andrew cooking a few dozen eggs at a time.  Breakfast was actually quite tasty and I went back for seconds and then out to handle last minute issues and pack up my night gear.  I took one last look at my hammock and sleeping bag which I was leaving behind and I was a bit scared.  I was scared because something uncertain was about to happen and I had no control over it all.  Once again, we were all in the van and headed another hour and a half further down the road towards the South Carolina state line.  Once went arrived, our focus shifted to unloading our bikes and getting everything bolted or tied on and getting mentally ready for the go call.   Mark and Mike arrive in their ride and set forth getting ready as well.  At this point in the ride, I was numb and disconnected from the group.  I sat there listening blankly to the riders meeting words by Derek Koslowski and all of a sudden, go was mentioned as we softly rolled out.  Next thing you know some of the racers sprint off the start and start racing like a XC race and the rest of the riders stretch out and start rolling forward...the morning air wakes me from my deadlike state and I realize the ride is happening right now.  I was doing it, I was pedaling across North Georgia!

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