Saturday, August 23, 2014

TNGA: The Push to Helen...

So there I was ....pedaling onward up the side of Highway 28, with a million thoughts racing through my mind.  My thoughts kept racing back to the last minute choices I had made leaving vital gear behind, worried that it would present itself as a poor choice later in my adventure.  I kept trying to compartmentalize and develop a scheme to keep myself focused on the task at hand: get to Helen.  Earlier in July, during my desktop preparation phase, I spent a solid day analyzing the route via GPS, maps, others blogs, Karlos' strategy guide and cue sheets.  This was all in an effort to summarize my goals into smaller goals/milestones.  My first major effort was to get to Helen and I gave that a timeframe of 12-15 hours.  I guess looking back, that truly was a very optimistic timeframe based on my rookie status.  I put everything in my milestone checklist on a timeframe of an average of 5mph average based on estimated miles to reach each checkpoint.  This did not factor in elevation delays nor mechanicals.  As I pedaled along those first road miles, a dozen names and faces were swimming through my head.  Asa, Colin, Celso, Derek, Chris, Drew, Curtis, so many strong riders, so many cool bikes and bike packing setups.  I wanted about a week to go over each of their bikes and geek out on the setups.   Surprisingly, I met a few riders who had completed the Tour Divide recently.  This in the bike packing world is kind of the Holy Grail of major accomplishments.  It goes from Canada to Mexico down the middle of the United States.  So much respect for the persistence to ride so far...I was riding with giants!  One thing I noticed was a lot of riders running Wolftooth GC 40 and 42 tooth gear upgrades.  This had me a bit concerned as I was already feeling the burn on my 1x9 setup with my lowest gear being a 36t.  What is ironic was that the 12/36t cassette was a last minute addition thanks to Greg Jones at Ride Bikes who handled it very priority for me as I had given up on finding a lower range cassette to climb the mountains and planned on running the 11/34t cassette currently installed.  My only real testing on this gearing choice had been made on our local bridge, the Ravenel, so in reality I was going in blind.  It is amazing that even though I was feeling the burn, those 2 extra teeth really made a huge difference in tackling monster climbs.  So, my mind went back to my average speed and my pace and I made a quick observation that I was going way too fast for my anticipated output.  I had discussed this with several of my close friends and TNGA veteran finishers, Mark and Mike who both stressed for me to ride my own ride and not go off the start too hard and simply allow those who wanted to race to go ahead.  This turned into my mantra, ride my own ride.  This is a ride not a race, I mumbled repeatedly.  I truly abandoned all hope as we made that first turn off the pavement onto the gravel roads leading to Dillard.  My heart sank as reality set in and I realized this was going to be really, really hard based on my gearing choice and overall weight of my bike.  I played a good poker face, because a few around me mentioned how relaxed I seemed, as I jokingly replied I just haven't woken up yet...ask me again in 3-4 days I said.  Inside, I was terrified of the unknown, running through a hundred worst case scenarios over and over, and more awake than I had ever been in my life.  Those first few miles climbing were the hardest miles I did the entire route, mostly because they forced me to handle my emotions and focus on forward movement.  I finally convinced myself that everything was going to be fine and that I had everything I needed on my bike.  As I settled into a relaxed pace, I noticed that all of this time I was going up, up, and more up!  It seemed never-ending and this was only the first 10 miles!  OMG, it was steeper than practically anything I had attacked in Pisgah on the heaviest setup I had ever rolled.  As the miles rolled on, I started to come back on riders who had passed me!  This was either a very bad sign or a sign that my strategy was accurate.  As I passed an unknown rider who was having early problems from the climbing, I realized my legs had opened up and felt fantastic.  I was riding in the saddle and expending energy very efficiently, only standing up to climb in the punchier sections of the gravel.  Another few miles in and I roll up on a few of my fellow yurt mates who had already started hike a biking which I knew at this point in an endeavor like this was not a good sign...Rode a while with Bill Bailey who was pedaling, but looking like he had throttled back after an earlier hard effort.  Colin also came up and matched my cadence so we shared a few early miles together talking about trying to stick together.  I initially thought this would be good, but seeing how I was losing more energy early on by throttling back to match the lower geared group pace, I finally cracked and started pedaling away on my own knowing they would find me, catch me and overtake me.  Another reason I broke away and started riding more on my own was the fact that I don't really talk much when I ride and there was a ton of nervous chatter going on around me and while I enjoy listening, my feedback was implied on several occasions, so I buggered off.  I was also running in panic mode since I felt undergunned in the gearing department.   Onwards I trudged slowly but surely, in my lowest gear riders everywhere ahead started to become apparent.  I felt like I was going way too hard, but I kept to my calculations and was right on target.  6.5mph avg.  Everything felt right, so I continued onwards.  After a few more hours, I realized this was going to take everything I had learned from riding single speed for so many years in the mountains.  Pace, leverage and moderate, yet consistent effort...Then just when I had developed a strategy for dealing with the never-ending climbs, they started pitching even steeper.  I could not believe looking up some of these damn steep.  I fell into an attack-rest-attack routine and shared the gravel with a solo female single speeder, who I later found out was named Eleanor.  She also kept attacking and surging forward, only to stop, unclip, rest and repeat.  After awhile I would jokingly pedal by and mumble "tag".  It was a fun game for a while because she would not give up the fight and kept me moving forward.  She seemed to want to win this game as I could hear her grunting up behind me and overtake me with everything she had.  I kept wondering how long she was going to be able to hold up that kind of effort.  She was running a really tallish geared single speed and she seemed tiny compared to some of the burly single speed crowd I associated with.  After some time, more single speeders came into view.  One was a guy who had previously completed TD and Mike Pierce!  Yes, I was in shock.  I was barely 4 hours into this ride and I had caught up with a few of the stronger riders out here!  It seems like Mike was having a really tough time maintaining his efforts and soon, I surpassed the whole lot of them.  It was not like we were on flat roads yet either, I was currently climbing 20-25% grades on gravel feeling every turn of the cranks.  Then just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it did...35%+ grades...ridiculous!  I have never seen such steep gravel roads in my life.  They went up for what seemed like miles with micro relief groins scattered here and there.  There is just no way to accurately describe just how hard this section was.  Finally, this all led to Darnell Creek Horse Trail which was my first major descent of this big bad adventure across Georgia.  I cherished the relief the downhill gave my legs.  I did not care how messy the trail was nor how tricky the lines were, I was using every bit of this as relief from the constant upward pressure my legs had just been put through for the last 4 hours.  It felt good to actually still be pedaling this far into the game!  Then just like that, I popped out into a clearing which was to be Dillard.
 This was my first stop for water since I knew the post office at the corner of the intersection would be my most convenient break.  Eleanor and a few others buzzed past me shortly after I consumed some water basking in the tiny celebration of reaching Dillard in my intended time window.  They never stopped to reload and kept on pedaling as hard as they could.  That is the last I would see of them as they completed the ride a full day ahead of me.  The unnamed TD finisher rider came up to reload on water and mentioned being entirely dehydrated and had stopped sweating hours ago.  I, on the other hand, was drenched in sweat as I was carefully sticking to my electrolytes plan.  2 bottles of electrolyte water at all times loaded as well as chasing it with clear water.  I was eating every 45 minutes and chasing it down with sugars.  I was sticking to the plan.  Upon leaving the post office, I also downed my last small can of V-8 which left my legs feeling very good afterwards.  I started to pedal onwards feeling very good about the last effort I had made and visions of making it to Helen earlier than I anticipated started entertaining my thoughts.  I went onwards wondering when Mike was going to catch back up, but he never did.  The road rolled up and down until Patterson Gap Road when another climb was attacked and I then blazed through up and to Tallulah River/Charlie's Creek.  At this point in the ride, I was feeling great, my legs were probably numb, but they were still producing output and motoring me along, so I kept cruising and most importantly keeping my head up enjoying the sights as I was now passing through some fantastic national parks and enjoying the beauty around me.  Feeding off the positive energy of the river flowing and the people swimming, fishing and enjoying nature kept me motivated and pedaling along at a constant pace.  At around 3:30pm, I stop for a quick lunch near the river enjoying the moment.  This brief pause reinvigorates me to continue at a more upbeat pace.  Finding the creek crossing to Charlie's creek road was tricky, but I finally get back on track and continue on my way.  I finally run low on water and use this opportunity to be around super clean running water to take a break and practice using my water filtration system.  I prop myself up on a rock in an off the route creek soaking my sore feet in the water and filter out 3 water bottles worth of water.  I then chug down a bottles worth of water and top off everything else.  As I was post treating my water and loading up, another rider caught up, Curtis, who was also about to do the same thing as I had done, water loading.  I tell him that the water tastes great and that I would definitely see him again soon.
 I roll onwards up the jeep trail road grunting and huffing as the road was a total workout.  This is my first time feeling truly exhausted, but the voice in my head whispers do not stop.  I trudge onwards mile after mile and find myself on a main road.  The tires on my bike are power suckers on the road, so I gauge my output as I spin along.  Curtis catches up and matches my pace.  He is looking for someone to pas the miles with and I am ok with this.  He tries to make smalltalk, but I am useless in this department especially now that I am trickling energy to the pedals only.  He carries on since he is much smoother on the road and I lose sight of him until I see him hanging out at a side road support station!?  Top of Georgia Hostel has setup a table with free PB&J sandwiches and Cokes and Water.  I swerved across the street and quickly scarfed down an entire sandwich as it sounded fantastic at that very moment.  As I downed my Coke, I chatted up Curtis who was laid out and looking a bit worse for wear.  We talk for a while, thank the wonderful lady who was manning the support station and we proceed on our journey together for as long as that would last.  Turns out, whenever we hit single track I was able to easily fly along and then as soon as we hit pavement, I would wait up for Curtis as he would then be the faster of the two.  Knowing each of our strengths helped us gauge how to best ride together.  We rode like that for the next 15-20 miles until the single track really started to build up and then I had my first mechanical of the ride.  It seems my constant stand up style torquing on the cranks was making my rear wheel slip in the dropouts.  I stopped about a dozen times to readjust the quick release lever which was now insanely tight and was hoping this would not be a show stopper.  I could tell Curtis was not enjoying all of the stops I was making, so I urged him to go on and that I would catch up.  He went and I never saw him after that.  I stopped for what seemed like 20 minutes analyzing the issue and realized the wheel was midway up the dropouts and not being shored up by the monkey nuts.  This meant anytime there was incredible pressure causing the wheel to slip, the drive side would inch forward leaving the opposite side tire rubbing the chain stays.  It was so annoying, but I finally resolved the problem and motored onwards down the final decent to the base of Tray Gap Climb.  I had no idea what this climb had in store except that my elevation chart pegged it as 10 miles of long and arduous climbing.  I heard others mention climbing Tray Gap.  So there it was, close to 9:30pm and I was just settling in to climb Tray Gap.  I was excited, but I also knew I was way behind schedule.  I knew it was because of all the slow moving riding I had been doing all day, but I was not going to get upset.  I settled in for the climb. Up the gravel I went.  Up more gravel.  Up Corbitt Creek Rd I went into a super steep ridiculously punchy initial climb which hurt so bad, but I had no choice since early on I had determined pedaling this beast was way easier than pushing it.  I soft pedaled my way up and over this climb with a super short recovery descent. which led to yet another uphill burner.  At this point I was pretty much done with climbing and wanted to just unclip and find a nice spot to rest.  I knew that if I stopped at this point, I would have to bivy for the night.  This went on for another few hours and was really just a long slow dull burning climb for what seemed like forever.  At some point near the top of this ridiculous climb, I ran dangerously low on water and had to go bushwhacking through the woods for water since I could faintly hear a creek trickling.   It is close to midnight and I am up on some mountain tired, hungry and thirsty in the woods searching for water.  Totally awesome.  I load up on water, and feel the bonks coming on so I decide to take a break and eat something real.  I look around and find a can of sardines in my tail bag.  12 hours ago, this was not the most appealing thing to eat, but right now I was drooling over it.  I crack open the tin and discover a pulpy mess of what was once sardines.  Turns out the sardines have been shook up from the downhill descents to the point of being pure fish pulp.  So there I was on the side of the gravel road eating sardine pulp with my fingers,  chasing it down with fresh mountain creek water and for dessert, honey stinger chews, yum!  I was living the life!  As sarcastic as that sounded, the real food and the quick break brought me back from the edge of bonksville not a moment too soon as I had crested Tray Gap and was about to descend on Hickory Nut Trail...but not before I get a little lost.  I am so excited to be nearing the descent into Helen that I pedal like mad to get into the groove.  I then find myself at a dead end at a camp circle and the fire pit is still warm and there are beer bottles all around it.  I am stumped, where the hell is the start to Hickory Nut?  12:30am and I want to get off this mountain!  I backtrack almost to the point where I stopped to eat.  Nothing.  I intensify my helmet beam and I get off the bike and start slowly walking through the campsite area looking for a sign.  I back track once again and see a sliver of what resembles a trail clearing 20 years ago.  My GPS seems to line up with it.  I creep into it and I find what I am looking for...Hickory Nut Trailhead.  It is a rutted out trail that does not see very much use.  1:15am  and I am finally descending this stupid trail.  I was pissed to have lost so much time looking for this sliver in the dark.  I set out rolling quickly only to be throttled by the hordes of randomly placed square mini-stonehenge style rocks everywhere!  I do not know why they were strewn all over the trail and I didn't care at this point.  My only objective was to get down off this damn mountain.  So tired, body spent and the only thing holding me together was my desire to make it to Helen.  I carefully pick my way down the trail slowing down over and over due to the rocks and sudden turns as well as the dark dropoff to my immediate left.  It took every bit of concentration to stay on target and not screw up.  I kept telling myself ride smart, you've got time.  No whammies!  I turn up the juice and do what I do best and that is descend on my mountain bike.  After about a million miles to the bottom, I pop out on a road headed towards Woodys Bike shop....My hands hurt so bad and I cannot believe I made it down that entire descent without a scratch.  I arrive at Woodys only to discover they are closed and no longer cooking, or anything...just my luck.  I continue onwards to Helen at 2:00am and find an empty town on the tail end of last call.  All the people are either drunk in bed or stumbling on their way home. No vacancy signs are everywhere.  I grow more weary and almost decide to turn around and continue onwards to  Vogel, but first I roll into the Days Inn to find a front desk clerk who is clearly super high and cannot comprehend that I would like a room for the night.  He looks at me and moans that he is just not sure, just not sure, just not sure, eyes bloodshot....and buries his face in room records trying to figure out what to do.  Its like a scene out of a surreal movie.  There are other people in the lobby and they all just look at him like he is crazy.  There is a biracial couple that was just married and was denied a room at another hotel who were super upset and the Limo is running into the entrance.  I spy a huddle house which I am going to feed my face in before I head off to Vogel.  One lady is there waiting on her husband who called ahead to have her to pick him up as he is quitting after Helen.  She asks me to explain how to read the Trackleaders dots.  I ask her for his name and show her how to track his dot on her iPad.  He has not even started Tray Gap according to his dot and it was a recent update, so I tell her its going to be early morning before he rolls into town.  She tells me I must be wrong since he told her it wouldn't be that much longer.  I decide not to argue and simply shrug my shoulders.  She looks up my dot and notices it last reported me down the road about 10 minutes ago.  She then proceeds to accuse me of "cheating" since my dot does not follow the same perfect path her husband's dot had taken and uses this argument to justify the fact that I am here and he is not.  I almost lose my shit at this point and simply walk up to my bike leaning in the corner of the Days Inn checkin entrance only to disturb a couple across from it in the dark having full on sex outdoors in the shadows.  The girl leans over and pulls up her shorts and casually walks away while the guy slinks off into the dark.  The front desk clerk notices that I am clearly upset and about to leave when he runs out and offers me a nasty room in the corner where one of his employees was living up until a few hours ago when he was fired.  It wreaks of cigarettes so bad, I feel like I burned my nose.  I decline, thank him for the strange offer and pedal onwards to the huddle house.  At the huddle house, I am greeted by 5-6 drunk bike lovers.  These old guys have never seen a fully loaded bike with fat gnarly knobby tires before so they are oooohhing and awwwwing... I ask them if they are going to be ok with me leaving my bike out here with them and they mention how they will take gooood care of it.  I sigh, walk into the Huddle house and find that the head cook never showed up for work and they are working on one short order cook for the night.  Once again, patience....I sit down at the counter and BEG for a large orange juice and a large coke.  The waitress happily obliges and I down them both within minutes which catches her off guard.  I order another orange juice and she says really?  I say absolutely.  After rehydrating, I order a super breakfast combination platter realizing this could take a long long time.  So, I pull out my phone, turn off airplane mode and sift through the dozens of FaceBook messages and texts.  I finally sort it out and starting catching up on other riders status and locations via track leaders.  I find Derek's dot is clearly in Helen!  So I go back on FaceBook and over to Derek's page where his status reads he has checked into a room close to the Huddle house and mentions having room for another if needed.  I quickly mention to the waitress that I would like my order to go.  She packs it all up and by 3:00am, I am on my way to a room for a few hours.  I find the room, beat on the door to no answer. Wrong room?  Wrong hotel?  There is a guy in the grass in front of the hotel walking his dog who tells me that he doesn't think there is anyone in the room I am knocking on.  He offers to let me stay in his room though!  WHAT kind of place is this??!  I beat harder on Derek's door and he finally answers it. I push my way in as he is disoriented talking about how today was the hardest effort he has ever done on his bike.  I close the door and handle all my business, shower food, clean my kit and hang it to dry.  I sit there in my bed listening to Derek talk about he is not going any further than Helen and I disagree with him and tell him to get some rest and reconsider a late start tomorrow.  He falls off into sleep and I finish my huddle house meal.  I quickly brush my teeth, dry off and fall asleep finally at 3:45am.  Alarm set for 7am.  I fall asleep....Longest day of my life ever.  I blink my eyes and tomorrow comes....quickly.

GPS Stats:

The Dillard Push

The Push to Helen

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!

Monday, August 18, 2014

TNGA: Preparing for the best of times, the worst of times and everything in-between...

  The TNGA (Trans North GeorgiA) is a 350 mile mountain bike route through the mountains of North Georgia on trails, forest roads and paved roads featuring challenging terrain, beautiful scenery and over 56000 feet of climbing.  The Trans North Georgia Mountain Bike Adventure is a self-supported ride along the length of the route. Riders are welcome to ride the route as an ITT(individual time trial) or as part of the annual event.  The 2014 event starts at 8AM on August 23rd and registration is limited to 75 participants. There is NO registration fee. The field starts at the South Carolina Border on Highway 28, east of Clayton Georgia, heads west and has nearly 9 days to follow the route to the Alabama border on Highway 20, west of Rome, Georgia...

  That being said, TNGA is a tough ride across Georgia on a mountain bike.  One which I was talked into signing up for at the suggestion of a friend of mine, Mark Sackett, who told me this was a ride I would never forget.  He was right, I will never ever forget TNGA.  Bikepacking in itself is something that is a natural progression of my love for cycling as well as my interest in camping and minimal approaches to all of the aforementioned.  It involves a lot of time thinking about and reevaluating your chosen equipment based on where you are going to ride and how far and how long you are going to be gone.  Earlier in the year, I had planned on riding in the Huaracan 300  and I had missed out on it due to NAHBS.  I didn't realize at the time how important that ride would have been to preparing for TNGA.  Long distance bike races/rides are no joke and if I had known just how much a ride like the Huaracan would have prepared me for TNGA, I would have definitely gone out of my way to ride it.  Since I registered to late for TNGA, I was not on the "grand depart" list, so I wasn't worried about the "commitment" factor yet, but I did mention I was going to ITT it and I wanted to stick to that notion.  So in my mind, TNGA was a go...

     So that being said, my race preparation for the TNGA was based primarily on how I had tackled Dirty Kanza.  Dirty Kanza was a gravel race out in the middle of Kansas I had completed at the end of May.  While Dirty Kanza was a very tough gravel race, it was not nearly the kind of race to prepare me for the insane amount of climbing I did in Georgia.  Kanza was a supported race with SAG stops every 50 miles.  TNGA was fully self supported across 350 miles.  That will make up another blog post..this is about preparation.  So in my mind, all I was spinning was which bike to use?  How to setup my bike?  What gear to bring?  How much food?  How to handle water?  What the hell am I thinking?  Why am I not putting in 200 mile rides every day right now??  Needless to say, June and July were a nerve-wracking blur.

    So I spent most of the few months remaining stocking up on bike packing gear of all sorts and sizes.  Another ride I wished I had paid more attention on was the TOSRV ride earlier in the year across a small section of Georgia.  Since I was ultra noob on the bike packing scene, I had initial trouble comprehending the bike setups of some of the riders of this short 160 mile out and bike ride.  Many brains were picked and many opinions were asked which led to this giant spinning whirlwind of choices I still had yet to make.  I finally stopped asking questions and focused on the main objective first.  Water.  How was I going to handle my water filtration?  How was I going to carry my water?  I finalized on a 2L frame bag pouch as well as 2-4 water bottles on the frame.    My first option for water filtration was my personal hiking MSR pump.  It was what I considered lightweight at the time and functional.  
Combined with iodine tablets, it was my immediate solution.  After confirmation with Bill Bailey, a fellow TNGA rider and a water quality specialist, I left that as my choice, until it wasn't.  So there I was water issues handled, kind of in shape, and still not sure which bike choice I would ride.  I finally hashed it out with Mark Sackett and he cleared the issue to 2 simple options: Race TNGA or Ride TNGA?  This was truly the question of the moment.  So after careful evaluation of the extremity of the event, I realized I would not even be close to ready to race this event, so I based that as my decision to load up the workhorse with my gear.  The workhorse in my stable is my Surly Krampus since it can hold a ton of weight in a stable manner, is a fantastic handling mountain bike and can still pedal lightly due to the 3'' tires.  The downside is that hike a bikes were going to be a chore due to the steel frame weight and the oversize tires.  My choice was made and my next step was to outfit the bike with the appropriate tires to handle the ride.  From rider feedback research, I concluded 27tpi Knards should be ordered.  I also installed new brake pads, new narrower handlebars, Ergon comfort grips with long handles, longer 120mm stem for extra room, last but not least, I built a new wheel set based on ZTR Flow Rims with an SP Dynamo power hub for power options.  All in all, I was basically building up a dual sport adventure motorcycle sans the motor.  Other items I picked up later were an eRevo Dynamo light system which worked really well with the SP hub as well as a SineWave USB charge port/ line conditioner.  
After wiring it all up, I realized I did not like the fact that having a device hooked up to charge was draining on the lights, so I found a site online called kLite and quickly started a detailed conversation with the founder and engineer of the company, Kerry Staite, who asked me for a few pictures of the bike, intended usage and anticipated electrical configuration outcome.  I told him all I know and he responded back with ok mate, got it, now let me do the thinking and you just focus on the pedaling...I laughed so hard and truly allowed him to do the rest as I set out to get some major base miles in while I also thought of bike packing scenarios.  

  Mid July came quick and I started to panic that not everything was yet in order and a mock dress rehearsal was somewhat imminent.  Revelate bags were in and loaded on the bike.  Handlebar harness started to seem like overkill so I was already planning on nixing it.  Then I worried about what would go in the frame bag as I wanted primary items up front and secondary support items in the tail bag.  Secondary support items varied.  I also changed my MSR for a Sawyer Squeeze which I had recently learned about for ultralite water filtration.  My sleeping system consisted of: a Hennessey Hammock, Ultralite Thermarest, and a SeaToSummit SP1 Sleeping bag.  I also had a mess of survival items as well as a backup bivy to assist if the temp dropped considerably.  The next challenge was to load it all up and work on balancing the load.  This would help determine if I had truly overpacked.  I also wondered heavily if I had packed enough to eat.  I also wondered if I would want to eat what I brought....Preparation was quickly usurping training time....

Items that made the final cut:

  • First Aid Kit
  • SOL Emergency Bivy
  • Mini Emergency Survival Kit
    • Hand wire Saw
    • Waterproof matches
    • lighter
    • mini led flashlight
    • Leatherman
  • USB lipstick battery
  • Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter
  • Aqua Mira post water treatment
  • 25' paracord
  • buckknife
  • emergency rehydration salts kits (2)
  • NiteCore SRT3 hi power LED flashlight
  • DEET spray tube
  • toilet paper
  • Desitin
  • extra AA & AAA batteries as well as LED Flashlight batteries
  • Garmin eTrex 20
  • Marmot ultralite rainjacket
  • Polyester Thermal long sleeve shirt and pant
  • eRevo Dynamo Light & Rear RedEye Light
  • SineWave USB conditioner
  • 1L collapsible bag for water
  • SPOT Gen 2 Personal tracker
  • Thermarest ultralite inflatable ridgerest
  • Mini Whistle/Compass
  • printed cue sheets, maps, additional trail info
  • waterproof headphones
  • Zip Ties
  • Mini Custom toolkit:
    • mini pedros super multitool
    • chain lube (2)
    • Emergency Boot Kits (4)
    • self vulcanizing tire patch tool
    • self adhesive patch kit
    • extra chain links
    • extra shoe cleat
    • extra brake pads
    • tire lever
  • Nuuns Tablets for Water
  • Water Bottle filled with gatorade/cytomax drink mix. (served to mix into my other water bottles)
Initial Food Items:

  • KIND bars (5-6 random)
  • dozen or so GUs  mostly the Coffee ones 
  • Mario Olives
  • 2 V-8s
  • 2 Sardine Tins
  • Caffeinated Chewing Gum (Military strength)
Items Still on the Fence:
  • Hennessey Hammock
  • SeaToSummit SP I Sleeping Bag
As you can tell, there is a lot of stuff involved in bike packing.  Especially if it is long distance, unsupported riding.  Most of the upper tier racers, were bringing only the bare minimum, but only because they are badasses and know for a fact that they can finish the course in under a few days.  I was not so certain of my potential since I had never ventured this far without some kind of support system, so I prepared for about a weeks worth of time in the field.  Tune in next time when I finally get all of this junk up to Georgia and test it...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Palmetto Francis Swamp ride, a 3 hour tour plus a few bonus miles....oh and a Bandit Cross Race!

So I had TNGA (Trans North Georgia) weighing heavily on my mind and I was knee deep in finalizing my race/bikepacking rig.  I was nervous, anxious and had no idea what was too much in regards to a 350+ mile bike packing race.  Basically I was packing everything except for the kitchen sink on my 29+ Surly Krampus.  I knew the bike could manage the load well and was surprisingly well balanced for the girth it carried before loaded.  I had made many gearing choices, saddle choices, stem length choices, handlebar choices, you get the picture...  So here comes August roaring in like a lion and I am going through a "dress rehearsal" by making a set date to go out midday and ride my bike in some of the nastier trail I could think of for a few miles.  I chose leaving from the house, connecting some gravel to the Palmetto Trail and riding it to Lake Moultrie upon which I would decide to knock out 60 more miles to truly verify the load weight choices.  I set out out Wednesday evening as it just would not stop raining and since you really cannot pick your weather when biking, I set out when I saw a break in the rain pattern.  As I sped along through the connecting gravel, I made note of a few things which would have to change in regards to how my lights were setup as well as the amount of weight on my handlebars.  Being near sea level, it is always difficult to visualize how a loaded bike will feel when climbing countless feet of elevation.  As I connected and entered the Palmetto Trail, the countless roots and murky conditions really forced me to get out of the saddle and focus on my technique on a fully loaded bike.  It was pretty damn tricky.  The weight would definitely take its toll on my arms and torso as falling out of balance required forced techniques to get back on track.  I rode on like this through the quagmire for several miles sweating like mad in the intense humidity.  It felt close to 102 degrees in the evening closing.  Dark came very soon and my first discovery was that my awesome Revo/Dynamo setup really suck for 2-3 mph crawling through dense forest.  I stopped, and remembered my awesome new flashlight(gear will be detailed and discussed in a future post)  which had been recommended to me by Mark Sackett and Jefe Branham Velcro'd to my helmet and set on midrange, the night lit up and onward I rolled. Another mental note was made to make sure I verified length of time each battery would last in my flashlight as it would definitely play an important part in my night riding.  The Palmetto seemed to roll on forward as it was thick, mucky and just plain poorly maintained.  All previous bridges nearing Lake Moultrie were in terrible shape and I had to double check my step upon rolling each and every one since my bike weighed around 65lbs.   As I pedaled and slogged my way through, I had a flashback to riding a top heavy dual sport motorcycle through muck like this and having the same issues.  Balance is very critical in situations like this as dumping your bike means you are going have to expend some major energy to right it again.  Anyways, after a small eternity, I popped out of the Francis Marion and crossed Hwy 52 and rolled into the Santee Canal Reserve park area which was now closed due to lack of federal funding.  Here is where I planned on pulling out my night sleeping gear and determine what worked and what did not.  I setup my Ultra Lite Hennessy Hammock.  It was so humid that the inside and out was soaked.  I tried to slide in my thermarest to simulate the lack of a quilt.  Nope, not gonna work.  I left my ultralite sleeping bag in my rear bag as it was just too nasty wet and hot out here to even test it.  I also had reservations about bringing it along, so that was that.  I hung out for a bit thinking through it all and determined the hammock might also be left behind as it was too much effort as well as a a pound and a quarter of weight to carry along.  So many decisions yet to make and I was still unsure about my fitness approaching this major event.  I finally checked the time and realized it was close to 11pm and suddenly I realized I had spent way more time in the woods getting to my first checkpoint than I intended.  This would not have been a problem any other night as I was prepared to ride all night if needed, but I had also confirmed with Stephen "Asheville" Janes that we were to ride early tomorrow morning on a few gravel roads and possibly parts of the Palmetto Trail.  I really wanted to meet up with him as I always miss hanging out with him when he comes into town, so I made a decision to skip pedaling around Lake Moultrie for the additional 60 miles and simply connect onto 402 and pedal home...but then I thought a little more about that decision and realized I was still 3-4 hours out.  This would have me getting home close to 3am at the earliest.  I quickly pulled out my phone and called Wifey for a possible extraction.  Unfortunately for her, she answered the phone and within the next hour, she was carting my soaking wet muddy butt back home.  I quickly jumped in the shower, set my gear out for tomorrow and made the decision to just ride the Krampus again tomorrow since it is the bike I am supposed to be focusing on.  I pulled off the front handlebar bag and loaded it up with water and grabbed a few hours of sleep.
Very glad I took a few photos of my rig in this state as a few people immediately messaged me on Facebook to point out some things which really needed to change or be focused on.  My good friend Rick Ashton, gave me a call to "talk me through" my thought process on what I was going to do going into TNGA.  He gave me some great tips and I really appreciated his time giving me reassurance that I would be fine based on my current preparation procedures.  Another great source of knowledge and inspiration was Karlos Rodriguez, The Naked Indian and master epic trail rider...many more blog entries will discuss the help he gave me...

Next day, I meet up with Stephen Janes at the SeeWee Outpost and travel to Ion Swamp Trailhead to rollout from a nice neutral spot to get to dry land since most of the Palmetto is under water due to even more rain that night.  Stephen tells me of his adventures fighting off hordes of mosquitoes at the local campground and due to the amount of recent humidity, I would say hordes is an understatement.  Along the way, I assure Stephen that our route shouldn't take more than 3 hours.  He replies with something along the lines of bummer, I was hoping for something a bit more epic.  I take note and modify the route to make it a bit more "epic".  We roll out towards McClellanville and take a more scenic route which stops at a general store.  We load up on liquids, and eat an ice cream sandwich and some food and continue onwards through historic McClellanville.  We start out on the opposite side of the water inlet which is also new to me and we wander around a little and finally come upon an opening which is directly across from the public boat launch and offers a really nice view.  Finally, we move along and head towards South Santee which means connecting via a very long sandy stretch of road.  I worry that Stephen might not have enough tire to float through the sand, but he powers it out never missing a beat.  While I am floating on the sand, the bike's weight, and the heat from the sand are starting to wear me down a bit.  We stop near Hwy 17 before crossing over to the Santee and I down an entire bottle of liquid.  I am drinking way more than usual and this is not a good sign as we still need to roll back.  We cross the highway and start venturing to an area that I roll through often when doing training rides, but it is really hot and super humid now.  The bike feels sluggish and I start to slump in the saddle.  This is my tell tale sign of fatigue and Stephen picks up on it and offers to stop and recover in the upcoming shade.  I do not turn down the offer and after some food and more water, we roll onwards again.  I feel fantastic for about 10 minutes then my systems start complaining again.
Stephen looks worried and thinks I am nearing total heat exhaustion and offers to call his wife for an extraction.  I know it is merely external fatigue and that my head is still clear and I just have to adjust my riding style to compensate for the added weight of the loaded bike, so I ask him to simply be patient with me until I find my stride.  Up and down my systems go and Stephen is checking on me every so often as one is supposed and it is reassuring to know that I am with someone capable of handling unforeseen issues.  I start laying out the logistics required to get us back to our vehicle and we realize we are almost back so out nervousness levels go way down.  I had been focusing on the intended loop to keep things interesting that I had never really given much thought to the amount of mileage we had run...61 miles and about 6 hours out in some brutal heat and humidity!  We were only supposed to do 35-40, but we both got carried away exploring all over.  Good times were had and the trip receives "epic" status.

Next up was a Bandit Cross race that night which was put on by the Blue Collar Bandits.  Obviously I was physically skunked so racing was no longer an option but I still wanted to go and support the local scene.  Fortunately, a close friend of mine, James Cooper, was enroute to race this event.  A few hours later, I was hanging out drinking super tasty craft brews (thanks to Holy City Brewing for donating so many delicious yummys!) and James Cooper was getting ready to throw down.  Bandit Cross racing is a totally
underground race format which is only spread through word of mouth and there is no sanctioning and no trophies, mainly just bragging rights, beer and fun.  This is definitely a type of racing I love to do since mostly everyone who is in it lives, eats and breaths bikes.  Alas, I was so tired, all I could do was make noise, drink beer and do a few hand ups.  The course was made even more fun by the fact that it was set to snake through an old concrete skatepark.  Everyone worked their way through this section very carefully as there were lots of places to lose a bit of skin.  I saw so many radical lines I could have taken to shave some corners, but I wasn't able to pedal or even push my bike along that far...I don't recall who won, but I swear I had just as much fun spectating as I usually do when racing these types of events. James had an awesome time as well as this marked his first underground cross event ever!

One of the busiest days ever involving bikes came to a close and with that I stopped riding my bike for the rest of the week until TNGA as I was nearing meltdown mode...but that didn't mean the bike packing decisions did not be continued...oh an thanks for the Dales Pale Ale Asheville Janes!!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Snowshoe Downhill and the Chumbalumba madness...

The week before TNGA, I decided to take a "bike cation".  Actually, I had scheduled this in with Spencer Thomasson some time ago and had kind of forgotten about it, but my calendar reminded me and then I had some reservations about going "downhilling" the week before a major life event such as TNGA.  Spencer called me up and could tell I was nervous...more so because I had never been downhilling and did not know what to expect.  He assured me that I would love it and that everything I do is under my control and decision.  He told me that if we went and I was still nervous, he would ride the kiddie slopes all day with me..but he knew that would not be the case.  I did not know what to expect aside from the fact that I would be going down a mountain really fast with a lot of trees and rocks around me.  Funny thing is that I do this regularly when I go up to Pisgah, ironically I usually do this mostly naked since a jersey and bib bike shorts are so sheer you are practically riding naked.  So up to Snowshow we went Rob, Spencer and I.  
They were headed up to train for the Chumbalumba, which is a competition that would be held the next weekend which consisted of 30,000 feet of vertical ascending down select trails.  It is the equivalent of going down Mount Everest...I was there simply to explore the downhill scene.  As we arrived, the weather was not looking formidable and we all were worried that the downhill would be unrideable.  We got to the pro shop and the reality set in that I was about to ride down the mountain fast.  I rented out a Specialized Demo downhill bike because it had the most travel available to suck up "mistakes" I would make.  The amount of body armor that I put on worried me as I thought it was going to be heavy and hot, but later in the day I never noticed it on me.  As we left the pro shop, the butterflies in my stomach were at an all time high just like before a big race.  Spencer immediately takes me right over to the intermediate trails and he gestures to simply follow his line.  I ask him if we should reconsider and go over to the kiddie slopes first.  He replies with, "dude, trust me".  I say ok, let's do this and off we go with me following Spencer and Rob. Normal woods descent with lots of solid packed berms, flowy smooth, small jump, log, berm turn,  fast ripping straight, big jump, big jump, yikes!  The big stuff came up quick, but it was not intimidating, instead it connected pretty smoothly based on the previous line.  I felt a surge of adrenaline and gripped the bars tight as I floated over the big jumps, both tires totally leaving the ground for a few solid seconds landing smooth as butter on the backside with very little effort.  I was
loving this!  Then just when I thought I was finished with the big stuff, into dense woods we go again and a rock garden pops up.  The downhill bike sucked up every bit of roughness with room to spare.  I was amazed at how well the dynamics of a downhill bike were.  My grip starts to loosen on the bars, and my riding style changes to a more relaxed one as my tensions about scary big drops and insane sharp rock ledges fade away.  Downhill parks made more sense.  They can't make them too intense or they won't have lots of traffic...but they do make them flow well and that's what sold me.  I loved the fact that everything flowed and connected and kept you enjoying the ride.  Afterwards, we hung out in the village at Snowshoe and enjoyed great food, and listened to all the buzz being generated in regards to the Chumbalumba.  
That night, I was buzzing with adrenaline at having ridden downhill all day and lived to tell about it!  Day 2 was an early rise to get on the trails as soon as possible.  We started out with the other side of the park which was a mix of kiddie slopes and intermediate to difficult.  The kiddie slopes really were just a long flowing piece of neutral single track mostly intended to get one used to the bike's handling.  My upper arms were sore from clenching so many times yesterday, so this neutral start helped loosen things up.  Afterwards, we rode the lift up to the difficult stuff and rolled some semi-serious drops into rock gardens.  The drops were mostly mental as the bike soaked up all the pain from landing 3-4 feet down.  I did get loose a few times and hit a tree or two, but mostly it was just a small clip of the handlebars or a deeds stop, nothing where I was flung.  The nice thing about riding in flats was the ability to simply eject from the bike whenever things got too tricky.  My bike saw lots and lots of eject time with me simply walking away, picking up the bike and trying again.  We rode wooden 15 foot walls which were a blast!  It started raining and the downhill clay turned to slop.  It was seriously nasty out and the aggressive knobbies were tearing up the course, so next lift up, we went back into town to wash off our bikes, handle some minor pro shop maintenance on Spencer's rig and lunch.  Then we went back over to the other side where it wasn't
raining and finally caught up with the Florida crew, Farmer and Phil...They had been riding already and warmed up so we dropped right in and did a group descent.  Farmer surprised me with his incredible style and comfort level on the biggest of jumps only to find out later he is a seasoned downhill park veteran.  His advice on the descents really helped and encouraged me to push myself harder and trust my existing abilities to go bigger.  I took a few giant drops thanks to some suggestions by Spencer on how to attack them and more adrenaline pumped into my system!  Phil had taken a nasty crash earlier the previous day which had left him spooked and riding very conservatively.  Rob rode better each and every day we spent there, even adjusting his style to allow more standup time over the gnarlier stuff.   That day we rode all the big jump lines at least 20 times jumping higher and further every time.  They were so smooth and left us with perma-grins for the rest of the day.  We rode the park until it closed and then rolled back to the apartment to recover, cleanup and set out for that nights dinner.  The last day at the park saw me extremely sore in my entire upper body area.  My hands and arms screamed in pain after a few descents, but only because something felt different about my bike.  I was trying to pinpoint it but we were scrambling to get some runs in before we had to leave so I just kept riding the bike in a more conservative manner in adjustment to the stiffer feedback.  I also found my shifter appeared to be stuck and I was rolling most of the last few downhills in my highest gear.  Stuff wasn't making sense, but I had no time for any of it as we were rolling downhill time after time after time.  My body was absolutely wrecked
upon our last descent on some of the most difficult terrain, but I handled it like a pro and was very impressed with my newfound abilities to ride downhill smooth and fast.  As we headed away from the lift back to the pro shop, I noticed my front end was low.  I looked for a flat tire, but it was actually a blown front fork seal!  That explains the weird bike stance and the harsher than normal hits on the downhill.  I proceeded to check over the bike and find my rear derailleur cable had been ripped off and I had NO shifting abilities.  Ha!  That explains that.  I basically rode that bike till it broke.  Lucky for me it was a rental as I entered the pro shop and reported the issues I noticed to which they replied, "no problem, just set it over there and we will fix it up".    As we rolled home I was dreaming of a return trip soon with my own equipment to be more adjusted sooner.  It was truly a great weekend and really helped get my mind off the incredible pressures of racing TNGA the next week.  Another successful moment with great friends on badass bikes!  Snowshoe rocks!!