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a little DFLing in appalachia: gravel grinding greatness

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not that i would have kept away, but a little warning of what was to come would have been nice. i guess it all started last year when i had what might just be my worst day on a bike in years. mr. rogers and i drove up to murphy, nc to take part in a ride/informal race put on by a man name Hillbilly called the cherohala crossing. i spent a wonderful afternoon enjoying a couple of beers in the broom wagon, while rolling slowly through the forest after my legs gave out some 30 miles in. This year, Hillbilly organized a three race series around that part of the country, and what a beautiful part of the country it is (it's also where i've been doing most of my hiking/camping the last couple of years).

my buddy JD came by early saturday afternoon, i loaded my gear and bike in his truck, and north we went to experience a little mountain riding. neither of us had been riding much in the last several month, but that did not deter us. JD's a bit of a badass, like ironman-level badass. last time we rode together, we braved one of the worst storms of the year on our way from atlanta to chattanooga. we figured that our past fitness would be good enough to get us through the day. we get to the outskirts of murphy and pick up Farmer G who suggest we get some food before we head into the middle of nowhere. stop by a mexican restaurant and commence drinking. it's about 4pm at that point. "small or large XX?" asks the waiter. tomorrow will be a long day, let's go with the large. 32oz later, we are off. well, not just yet, let's stop and pick up some beers for the evening. this is where things started to go wrong. JD and i came up with the brilliant plan of buying a bunch of beers for everyone. the thinking was, if we get everyone else drunk, we'd have some company at the back of the race. a theoretical stroke of genius.

Hillbilly did things right (and props to Sharon for all she did to make the whole thing go flawlessly). he rented out a kids summer camp for us to stay at the night before. a bunch of big rooms with a dozen bunks, bathrooms, and showers in each. he cooked everyone steaks. we got to meet and spend some time hanging out with our fellow gravel grinder enthusiasts. it was a great evening. too good of an evening really. JD's and my plan backfired. we drank wwwaaaayyy too much. way too much. morning came way too early and my head was pounding. this was going to be a rough day. get down to the cafeteria, eat some breakfast, drink some coffee, and line up for 65 miles of pain.

it had rained on and off saturday night. it rained a little more sunday morning, but by the time the race started, the sun was out, the temps in the mid-60s, and my spirits were high considering my physical state. a couple miles of neutral roll-out and off we went. i wouldn't see mr. rogers for another six and a half hours. JD and i took it nice and easy at the back. the first 15 miles were a little rough. steep-ass dirt climbs hit the legs hard. we powered on. at some point we started following a beautiful river on a smooth and rolling road. we got into a little groove for a while as we admired the wide but shallow river half shrouded in a gorgeous mist, complete with fly fishermen enjoying a relaxing day on the river. at the end of that road was the first rest stop.

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that might be the last smile on JD's face for a while. up a little climb:

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across the river on a small foot bridge:

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and we start going up the day's two biggest climbs. some people were still having fun:

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(the lady on the right, whose name i neglected to get, would end up being the only reason i managed to finish) JD was starting to feel way rough at that point, his quads kept threatening to cramp, but he soldiered on. the road was steep.

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Craig (if i'm not mistaken) had the legs to outsprint us at the sight of a camera:

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at that point the forecasted scattered thunderstorms were moving in. distant thunder could be heard and the air was moist as could be.

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we made it over the first big climb, and as we were nearing its bottom, JD got a flat. he's running tubeless tires, so we add a little air and hope the stan's will seal it up. ride on for a little bit, but no seal is made. throw a tube in the tire, and we hit the second big climb. JD is hating life at this point. i try to cheer him up. "at least it's not raining." he struggles to the top of the climb, we head down and finally hit some pavement. the rain starts. the road starts heading up a little and his quads lock up on him. he tells me to go on without him. i hate to leave a man behind, but there's nothing i can do at this point. i push on trying to salvage my day. i make it to the second rest stop. it's pouring at that point. lightning and thunder. Hillbilly's there and lets us know we can either go on for 25-30 miles of more pain, or take the easier and much shorter way back to camp. some folks opt for the later, i remind myself of my cycling mantra: i can always quit later. on i go.

i'm not feeling that bad after a little food at the rest stop, but my bike is in a world of pain. my bottom bracket has had enough of this shit. every pedal stroke lets out an ominous crunching sound. a couple steep but relatively short paved climbs sap what little strength i have left. my body feels like my bike. crunch crunch crunch, pain pain pain. i catch up to the afore-mentioned lady who had passed us during JD's flat incident. at least i'm not alone in this. some more dirt climbs that feel twice as bad as the two big climbs between the two rest stops, then back to pavement for a bit. at that point i see Eddie, the sweeper truck driver i'd spent the afternoon with the year before, heading my way. he stops and asks me how i'm doing. i'm barely doing. he had just driven JD back to the finish and was looking for the last rider left. i tell him there's one girl behind me and that i'd probably be seeing him again soon. i hit another mean paved climb, at the end of which it's back to dirt. at that transition, i stop. i have nothing left. i'm 50 miles in and can't see how i can possibly finish. then i hear the sound of a diesel coming up. it's Eddie following my last partner in suffering. i could quit at this point, but that wouldn't get me to the finish any faster, since i'd be keeping Eddie company while following the day's last trooper. so i go on and catch up to my fellow rider. we're slowly making our way up and down the last dirt road of the day. we have a little chat, which does wonders for my spirits and takes my mind off the pain in my legs and the emptiness of my tank. i try to keep up but can't every time the road heads up. luckily there's a few downhill sections where i make up time. we finally get to the intersection with the benton-mckaye hiking trail, which i'd seen the day before on a little spin we took. i know there's only a couple easy miles left to the finish. i'm gonna make it after all. down the hill, we hit pavement, a little more conversation and we get to the finish. i proudly take last, something i'd jokingly mentioned the day before, grab a beer, hit the showers, and enjoy a nice warm meal prepared for us in the cafeteria. here's JD in the blue jacket and fellow grinders happy to be done with the day's riding.

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i couldn't have asked for a better weekend: good people, a beautiful setting, pre-race partying, and just short of six and a half hours of suffering. mr. rogers ended up getting second, only because he took a wrong turn and added a couple miles to his day. shit happens. JD experienced a painful initiation in gravel grinding. we'll all be back in july for round two of the series. maybe you'll join us?

here's my gps of the ride. all pictures courtesy of Hillbilly, used with permission.

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