Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race: some sweet swamp riding

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alright folks, time for the latest in ant1's pitiful attempts at racing. since i last regaled you with my..., my..., what's the opposite of exploits? i've managed to come in dead last in two gravel grind races. the first was savage cross outside of asheville north carolina (gps of my ride here). things were going okay until i missed a turn, went downhill for a mile or two before realizing it, started climbing back up when i started cramping up real good, and after a couple of lay-down-on-the-side-of-the-road-and-try-not-to-cry episodes (made even more fun by the hundreds of chigger bites i got all over my arms and legs in the process) i finally made it to the finish to earn my dfl prize (a pickle, in case you were wondering).

lessons learned: train and keep an eye out for course markers.

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now for the (slightly) less painful part of the post, the hellhole. i heard about this race on a website called facebook. a gravel stage race, on flat terrain? i'm so in. i've done multiple days of riding in a row many times, but never race days. this seemed like an awesome event. and it wasn't too far from home. mr. rogers was in, we'd go down there and bring the families, enjoy a weekend outside of charleston, sc. let's get it on.

the race was two 60ish mile stages, with an optional prologue on friday night. i'd never done a time trial. perfect excuse to break out the skinsuit. we show up to the KOA campground late thursday night, pitch our tents, enjoy a few beverages and go to bed with thoughts of flat gravel goodness dancing through our heads.

wake up friday, get some breakfast, tune up the bikes, sit around, get some lunch, have a couple beverages, and head north into the francis marion forest. this place is very different from the mountains i'm used to. it feels as remote, it's heavily wooded, but it's flat as all get out. easy, i'm thinking. differently hard, is what it turned out to be.


the prologue was a great experience for me. i do most of my riding on my own. and even when i race, i'm usually riding solo, as everyone else is far in front of me. but i'm always measuring my effort, or trying hard to make it to the finish. this was a go as hard as i can it will all be over very soon type of effort. 6 miles, flat, a few turns, fairly smooth dirt road. the atmosphere was great. some were serious about the whole thing. some where serious but having fun. and some were just having fun. one guy showed up with a time trial helmet. one guy had outkast and wu tang blaring from his bike speakers. a fun little crowd. they let us off at 30 second intervals. i passed a couple people, got passed by a couple others. i didn't come in last, but far from first, got a taste of the terrain, a little warm up for the legs (i hadn't been on a bike in a few weeks, so that was much needed), made sure the bike was working ok. head back to camp, dinner, beer, sleep. (gps here)


wake up early saturday morning, make some eggs, coffee, croissants, and drive back into the swamp. there was a good crowd for a first time stage race in the middle of nowhere. like at the prologue, a good mix of riders. some were there for the full stage race experience, others just for the saturday's race, and some for a shortened version of the stage. we even had a dude on a unicycle. having no expectation of keeping up with the fast guys and girls even for a little bit, i line up at the back and settle in to a good little group of people. i felt pretty good and took more than my fair share of pulls for the first 15 miles or so, until we caught up with a couple of riders from tennessee (based on their matching kits) who had stopped to fix a flat. one of them got to the front on a short paved road section and took us into the next dirt part going at a good clip. i sat third wheel enjoying the draft and feeling great about the pace. now might be a good time to mention the warning we were given before the start of the stage. be careful about pacelining on these dirt roads. they're full of potholes and you don't want to hit them at speed. you can guess what happened next. the two riders in front of me veer right, i see a pothole, i veer left and hit another pothole at full speed. i fly over the bars and crash hard on my right side. bike goes flying. a poor guy runs into it and crashes too. i'm a little shaken. i get my shit back together and check on the other guy. he's ok. i apologize. it's my first time causing someone else to crash and it doesn't feel good. that's racing, he says. i'm glad he's not badly hurt. i gather my water bottles. the bike's ok, the handlebars just rotated a bit. i fix that. my victim and i get back in the saddle and keep going. the adrenaline makes things bearable. i get back up to speed, catch up to a group that had passed me while down. i feel ok. we make it to the aid station, i drink a coke, fill my bottles, and keep going. things go downhill from there. adrenaline vanishes and pain sets in. my right hand is bleeding, my arm's all scratched up, my elbow's covered in blood, my shoulder took the brunt of the crash, my hip is bruised, as is my thigh, my knee's bleeding too, and my left calf is sore as hell. i can't keep the pace of the people i'm with, and i'm on my own in the middle of the swamp.


only thirty flat miles to go. flat seems easy on paper, but the thing is, you can't ever stop pedaling. there's no downhills to recover on. you have to keep the legs moving. especially on dirt. as soon as you stop pushing it, your momentum just disappears into thin air. the upside was i got to enjoy the scenery a bit more. this isn't your postcard-type beauty, but it has a definite charm. hellhole is a good name for it (the race is named after one of the roads we raced, little hellhole). don't get it confused with shithole, there is nothing shitty about it, but it's not anybody's idea of paradise (unless you live to hunt gators and copperheads). it's a great place to ride through, but i'm not sure i'd want to camp there. the forest is named after Francis Marion, the swamp fox, who during the american revolution gave the british hell from the safety of the swamp (mel gibson's character in the movie the patriot is partly based on him). it's not a place most people, british soldiers included, would want to hang out in too long. but from the safety of a state maintained dirt road, it's gorgeous in its own way. i didn't see any alligators, my only regret of the weekend. so anyway, eventually i made it to the finish. drove back to the campsite, showered, and headed into charleston for an evening of good food, beautiful surroundings, and great company. (gps here, lap marker is the crash)


stage 2. thankfully i'm a good sleeper. the wounds didn't bother me too much. i was sore in the morning but a couple aleves and the excitement of another day of riding through the swamp made it all better. i lined up with reduced expectations. i figured i could make it through but wouldn't push it too hard. the atmosphere was as joyous as the first day at the start, albeit with a smaller peloton. the leaders of the three different categories earned some sweet leaders' jerseys. those were the people i was sure to not see once the race got underway. a couple miles in, the course took us on a hiking trail.


the little group i had settled into, hoping to be able to keep up with for the day, broke apart at that point. singletrack riding is something i have no problem with, given my mountain biking background. i got ahead of my group but figured they would catch back up to me shortly after we returned to the dirt roads. a singlespeeder named Chris, who we had hung out with a bit at the campsite passed me on the trail. i could see him in the distance when we got back to the roads, but never managed to catch up to him. 10 miles in, i was on my own. not exactly encouraging. but something i'm used to. i pushed on. 20 miles in or so i pass a guy stopped on the side of the road. assuming he had flatted, i asked him if he needed anything. got a spare frame, he asked. bummer man. snapped in half.


next guy i saw was fixing a flat. lucky, i guess. i made it to the aid station feeling pretty good. had a coke, chatted with the volunteers. and thank god for volunteers. i love doing races (i can't call what i do racing, i just ride races), and if it weren't for volunteers, there'd be no races for me to try and finish. so here's to the nice folks who are willing to spend their day sitting at an aid station or driving a sweep vehicle at 10 miles an hour for hours on end on a beautiful day when they could be out riding themselves or doing a thousand things other than making my day. i head off from the aid station, 40 miles to go. i'm feeling pretty good, but i was feeling pretty good at that point yesterday, and things didn't end so great, so i take it easy. at some point, i'm going down a grassier road when all the sudden i notice a big black thing in my way. snake. bunny hop, or snake hop. i jumped a snake. that makes up for my lack of gator sightings. good times. 45 miles in, on a long straight stretch of road, i see another rider way up ahead. don't catch him, i think to myself. you're not racing, you just need to make it to the end. it's tough though, to resist the urge. but resist i do, pretty well. some time later, i catch up to him. he doesn't seem to be feeling that great. we chat it up a bit, he gets on my wheel, and i do my best to keep it steady and point out the potholes. a little while later, we catch up to another rider. he's not doing any better. i offer him my wheel but he passes. the two of them drop back and i go on alone. only 15 miles to go. i'm still feeling good. don't get cocky. the last 10 miles yesterday were hell. enjoy the ride, check out the surroundings, at this point it's no longer swampy. mostly pines. way more open. a good amount of sky is visible. the weather is golden. it's been golden all weekend. chilly in the morning, warming up to mid 70's by the afternoon. couldn't ask for better, there is no better riding weather. i power on. 10 miles to go. 5 miles to go. go over a bridge, four or five vultures hanging out. they're not here for me this time. see you suckers. make the left turn onto lotti (lotti, we like to party), the road that i know takes me back to the start. get back into now-familiar territory, final turn, cowbells ringing, finish line, no cramps, good day, awesome weekend. i'm sad it's all over. (stage two gps)


all said and done, i still finished last. not overall though, which is a welcomed improvement. what else can i say about this race? it's not easily comparable to what i'm used to. the multiple stage format adds a level of interest that i've never had in any other race. the setting is also unlike anything i was used to. the organization was top-notch. the mount pleasant cycling team did a hell of a job setting this thing up. one does not enter an unfamiliar swamp without a little trepidation, but the course was marked so well a blind man could make it through. for someone like myself who is just looking for a good weekend of riding, this race was perfect. the stages weren't too long or difficult (as long as one keeps the rubber side down). for someone with more of a competitive attitude (and ability), i'm sure it was even more fun. the location, while remote-feeling, is close to a great city to spend a weekend in with family. if they did a whole series of these, i would come down three to four times a year to race there.

thanks to the organizers for letting me use their pictures (1,2,5,8) to spice up this post and give the readers a better sense of what riding through that beautiful hellhole is like. visit their fb page for more. and also thanks to race photographer Brian Fancher for letting me use some of his high qualitiy pics (3,4,6,7,9). many more of his at his fb page.

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