It’s 3 am Sunday morning, and as I look around me there are some hard worn travelers strewn about on couches and camp cots in various positions of repose scattered all about the rough hewn wooden floors of the Barn at Mulberry Gap. Joe Polk and Eddie O‘Dea went to bed about an hour ago after standing watch for several hours. Chris Joice and Drew McIntosh just put their heads down after a hot shower, as Kate Gates of Mulberry Gap sneaks in a nap between loads of laundry. Chris and Drew wanted grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches and we obliged. They chased them down with Sierra Nevada tall boys and some chocolate milk before they passed out. I got a little 2 hour nap in before my turn watching the tracker, I’ll probably get another hour nap in before the shifts of driving to the Alabama border to pick up the finishers begins.
And so this is the scene when the Trans North Georgia kicks into full swing at Mulberry Gap. Grown men and women zombie walking around in bath robes before they lay their heads down to get as much sleep as they can while their laundry is done. Bacon and eggs are cooking. Chocolate milk and coffee is consumed by the gallons. Riders washing and repairing their bikes, fiddling with gear, and aimlessly staring at their phones before pushing out into the Cohuttas through all hours of the night and day towards the finish. As one of the main points of neutral support on the TNGA, Mulberry Gap is a the perfect grandstand to witness all that is the spectacle of the “race.”
Each August for the past 6 years about 75 ambitious souls set off into the North Georgia mountains from the South Carolina line at the Chattooga River on a 350 mile gut wrenching journey that is so physically and mentally demanding that no one who has completed it will ever look at riding a bike the same way again. It is the East Coast Bikepacking Classic and it delivers 56,000 feet of tortuous climbs on what seems to be every prominence that rises from the remote backcountry that is North Georgia. The staff at Mulberry Gap experience the rigors of the race as well, spending days of shuttling riders from the start and finish, cooking and doing loads of laundry, and 24/7 “dot watching,” standing at the ready to extract a rider at any point along the crest of the Blue Ridge if their journey ends due to misfortune or fatigue. At the end of the week that is the usual duration of the event, the staff at the Gap will drive over 4500 miles and support most of the 75 riders who make their way across the Cohuttas to the Alabama Border.
The 2015 version of the TNGA started with a pretty incredible weather outlook for August in Georgia. Highs in the upper 80’s with a 60% chance of showers just once in the weekend meant that it would be optimal weather for some fast times along the route. Weather is of course a factor on the TNGA. The 100-degree heat of last year’s race laid waste to the field, over half dropped on or before they hit the Cohuttas, 200 miles in. In 2011, the entire field was pulled by race director Dave Muse as the remnants of a hurricane pushed through the high country, bringing torrential rain and wind that could have endangered lives. Only Eddie O’Dea finished, amazingly beating his previous record form the inaugural run, (almost) outrunning the storm. At the start of this year’s race the conditions felt fall like as they made their way to the Highway 28 Bridge on the Chattooga. Despite some burly thunderstorms that blazed through Saturday evening and Sunday morning, the temperatures and weather for the race were ideal.
And with the ideal conditions there was a solid finishing rate and some great results. Chad Hungerford took the win this year on his third attempt to complete the route with a time of 2 days, one hour and forty minutes. Sam Harvey or “Semi Precious” from Portland, Oregon, came in from the West Coast to bag second on his rookie run at a blazing 2 days, 2 hours, 23 minutes, an amazing effort for his first time on the route. James Dunaway follows last year’s sub-three day performance with a third place finish of 2 days, 3 hours, 51 minutes, besting his PR by over six hours. Wayne Gowens, who has finished the TNGA four times, finished fourth, besting all three previous starts with a time of 2 days, 3 hours, 52 minutes. Southeastern favorite Jason Murrell and 2015 ‘s single speed winner came in fifth overall with a time of 2 days, 7 hours and 27minutes putting in a huge effort and his second route completion as expected. The 2015 TNGA’s leading lady and only female finisher was Brenda Herrington, with a time of 3 days, 10 hours and 55 minutes, solid work for sure.
In all, sixteen riders gave sub three-day performances, a record number for the course; seven of them were rookies, making this one of the fastest years to date. Other remarkable finishes include the perennial TNGA Iron Man John Hightower, who completed his fifth run of the course, setting the record for total completions, with his fourth sub-3 day finish. And of course there was Scott Sidener, the TNGA’s first “Yo-Yo man,” who bested his 2014 fat bike, single speed finish to Alabama by 16 hours and then turned around to complete the “Yo-Yo” in less than 8 days.
None of these great finishes would have been possible without the awesome support of the establishments on the route. The Top of Georgia Hostel was open at Dick’s Creek Gap for the second year in a row, providing resupply in the first 100 miles. As always, Woody’s Bike Shop provided an “oasis” in Helen, with hot food and mechanical support at the century mark, just before the monster climb up to Hogpen Gap. The Jack’s River Store, a critical resupply point before the Cohuttas, changed hands this year, and the new owner Donna opened at 4 am on Sunday morning to accommodate riders. She became a full time dot watcher as the race progressed, opening as needed for the racers as they passed through. Mulberry Gap and Bear Creek Bikes were open as always providing round the clock support on the western half of the route. No event happens without a dedicated race director, and Derek once again put on a seamless TNGA and deserves huge props.
Congrats to all who toed the line for the sixth running of the TNGA in 2016. The new year is around the bend, so if you are going to line up for 2017, better start training now!
If you'd like to see more images from the TNGA, click here.
Bikepacking.com also wrote up a killer article which you can read here.