Pedaling into the light out of a South Tennessee evergreen tunnel muted to a darker green by the morning’s mist my legs felt good, so good that I started to get a few little goosebumps and chills as I realized where I was, and the journey I had begun.
The Cohutta 100 gets a little press, its gets a lot grassroots press especially. Folks pass on their experiences, blog about the way it shook out, and share their opinions. “Ill never go down their again,” a flatlander friend said after his experience at the 2013 edition. Another described it as an “earn your turns” kind of race, borrowing a skiing term for the 100 mile day in. With only a couple of blips at the Shenandoah Mountain 100 over the past few years I don’t have that much off-road century experience. The winter decision to begin a whole season of 100 mile races on singlespeed was not one I took lightly. Except that it kind of was. That’s kind of how I do things, spend a lot of time thinking and finally say “what the hell,” and do it.
Nonetheless rolling into a completely dark Ocoee Whitewater Center parking lot without any visible signage less than 10 minutes before mandatory check-in the decision was coming home to roost in big ways. Drive reroutes, traffic, and my stomach demanding a proper burrito for pre-race dinner shot my partner’s and my otherwise very punctual routine all to pieces. But this is mountain bike racing; no roadies here, so the stoke level remained high but with more than a little nerve to it.
We sprinted over to a barely lit registration tent, got our numbers, and started quizzing a pretty exhausted volunteer crew about our ride tomorrow. “Whats the surface like?” “Hows the start?” “Whats this ‘potatoe-patch’ business?” That one got a moment of quiet as the volunteers each collected their opinions of the climb for careful delivery. I mean; last to roll in how pro could we be? They probably thought we would be the first to tap out and wait for the broom wagon with preparation like that! Nevertheless a description riddled with words like “long, mean, hateful, awful, miserable,” and of course: “I don’t think id want to drive up it in my car.” Super…
Camp called so we headed back to the car and got our selves in gear for tomorrow race. Bottles filled, alarms set, jersey pockets filled with the requisite calories to burn a few hours seeking glory in the hills and dales of Tennessee. Early to bed early to shred, so how about late to the truck testing our luck? Racing to do in the AM kids!
Awake early as usual I popped out of the back of the truck and got to getting our gear ready. My Fiance Emily would also be out there pushing herself to the limits. I love knowing we are both out there at the same time, riding the same course, pushing and traveling our own journey. More on that later. I got myself some breakfast, a bottle of cold instant coffee to get things moving along, and double checked all our gear. The pace of preparation gets frantic the closer we get to go time. Fortunately we were parked near the start line so we could keep a pulse on things. I gave Emily a kiss as we exchanged “good luck, have fun, be safe!” I rode off to find my spot to a final “Get ’em buddy!” Thats kind of our thing. Lined up somewhere middleish off to the side I could see the singlespeed contenders, Gerry Pflug ready for a 5th consecutive ride to victory at Cohutta, lined up right up front. Its awesome that a singlespeeder can genuinely command a front row seat at a hundred mile race and nobody questions it. Dan Rapp looking lean and mean not far off him. A few other names and jersey I recognized rolling around as well. My fellow Virginian Jeremiah Bishop had rolled down last minute for the race and I was glad to see a familiar wheel to chase.
And chase we did! Unsure about the course profile or even the start I made an effort to get up front early. A long straight uphill road loomed before us. But I didn’t care, I just had to not loose the geared wheels and try and make my way to the front before we hit the singletrack. Pace-lining on a singlespeed is tough, 300+ watts at 130 rpm can be a bear, especially this early in the race. The road gave way to a narrow strip of sun rising over the Tennessee hills to the south west and I knew the day would be special. Every time I saw the sun over the next 8 hours I remember feeling something special. Ill always remember that sun, maybe because the horror stories of recent years had me dreading rain. Maybe because it warmed me on that cold morning. Into the singletrack and the bike I had just built four days earlier had felt good on the road now it felt GREAT!! Pivot hooked me up with an LES SS to ride this season and Blue Ridge Cyclery in Charlottesville VA dialed in the build. And MAN was it dialed. I ran a rigid fork which dampened the bikes enthusiasm for shredding just a little but that machine was made to roll. All fear, all worries, all cares in the whole world were eliminated as I found Gerry’s wheel and we ate up that smooth morning trail. #Ohbaby
Gerry paced us perfectly through the traffic as we ate up that singletrack. The downside was only a few miles in I had exhausted all the knowledge gleaned from the interwebs of the course. Slick rock, bridge, and bumps…thats all I knew about. Into the unknown. However quickly we found some good guides in Jeremiah Bishop and Rob Spreng. Both had done this race a couple of times and were not racing Gerry or I so I knew they d be willing to share some beta. Also by judging heir efforts I could tell what was coming. We formed a great little group snaking our way through the forest towards the warm sun of the fire road. Like a cold-blooded singtrack reptile looking forward to miles and warmth we sought the first aid station. Gerry is as seasoned a racer as they come and didn’t hesitate to come around Jeremiah and Rob one a steep pitch. I followed a little to my surprise. Not to seem pretentious boys but I gotta chase that! We stayed 1-2 for a few miles until we popped out at the first aid station. Some confusion causing us to stop and pause allowed a few riders to bridge up but the more the merrier.
Down the first ribbon of sweet gravel. I thought to myself: “if the whole thing is like this today is gonna be awesome!” Funny, when I came back up this stretch 70 miles later I dont remember thinking it was all so sweet. Down through the valleys below we rolled, rolling what was actually a fairly easy pace. Easy enough for several other riders to ride up on our tails and join our club. Into the evergreen stands we rolled on the Tennessee fire roads, Georgia and plenty of vertical to look forward to. Past a couple of hunters with their freshly dead bird we exchanged smiles and funny looks but silently agreed this was going to be a good day. Our grupetto thinned as we hit the pitches of the first real climb of the day. The climbs were steady all day but would give us little teases of break. About each break we got somebody would no longer be there. Like a game of musical chairs the music stopped for one rider each pitch. Into the next aid station we grabbed our drop bags, popped something that caught our eyes and rolled on. I stuffed a few bananas into my pockets and filled my bottles.
One of the great things about the cycling scene, particularly at the front or any long distance race, is that sense that we are all in this together. We could beat each other to bleeding puddles but we’ve all still got to get to the finish line. And to a certain point its better to do a lot of the work together. Our group of 6 or 7 accomplished riders rolled along nicely, even agreeing to a “nature break” at the next steppe. I remarked to Rob Spreng it was funny we had carried all the extra weight up the mountain, fine time to loose a little!! We laughed and moved on. Up a few more then sweet gravity DOWN in a big way!! Those endless fire roads seemed to go on forever, letting all the mystery of what would lay ahead stay concealed. The pitches of ups and downs never really confirmed or denied we wouldn’t have to climb again. We had hit a couple nice drops only to find it was right back up! When we got to the meat of the matter around 45 miles in we recognized we would be getting into the Pinhoti trail soon and then the work would begin. Across mile 50 we exchanged jokes about how we had just done our “Whiskey 50, now one more.” Our Whiskey would be sweet southern ‘shine as we whooped along at a pretty unbelievable pace through the Pinhoti. Jeremiah smooth and fast in the lead with Rob on his wheel followed by Gerry and I and one other geared racer who had survived with barely a word the whole time. When you get several great bike handlers in one place things get rowdy. We could have been racing, we could have just been shredding on a mid-day vacation! It didnt matter. Once again the sun shined through the trees as the hot dry singletrack allowed us to really cut loose.
The bottom dropped out and we hit the pavement. Things mellowed quickly as we realized things were about to get hard, and serious. The question all day had been when Jeremiah would make his move. Everybody wants to win of course but somebody like Jeremiah in a pace line adds a reactionary element. We would wait for him to make a move because we HAD to wait for him(!) and see how we all responded. He did it without drama. Smoothly pedaling up the road at the bottom of Potato Patch. Gerry and I had exchanged a few punches earlier but abated fairly quickly; no sense in riding a bike with one gear by myself on fire roads for 60 miles, but now things got a little awkward. Sort of like a middle school dance neither of us wanted to let the slow dance end…then it did.
I knew there was an aid station ahead though so I put in a few hard pedal strokes to build a little extra time in front of the bowl of M&Ms that waited there. I wanted to get there with a few extra minutes to make sure I got all the fuel I would need when Gerry decided to murder me with his legs. I saw the tent ahead and then seeing Rob reach out and get his hand slapped with a wristband I realized that was not the aid station I was looking for, that was the checkpoint where we would prove we made it this far. But why stop a good thing? Rolling through the checkpoint and onward the couple of more miles to the aid station. There I didn’t actually take long at all. Having put in time on the competition I made change on some bottles and kicked out of there.
Jeremiah, Rob, Mystery Man, and me. Everything else was behind me and was immaterial until we started back down. As we climbed back up the sun was beating down now. Sweat dripping off of me that same sun that warmed my heart and legs earlier was now against me, forcing me to work , pushing me. I caught the third placed rider and noted that was pretty cool. Singlespeed meant business! Around a couple dark corners of the mountain I got a clear view of the Georgia sky up ahead. I rounded a right corner and felt that sun move again from my face to my back. As soon as I did I saw the “Tattoos in Blue” Rob Spreng climbing strongly just out of sight. Theres my rabbit. If I can get up to Rob Ill have some gears to work with on the way down. Up to Rob, next to rob, past rob…keep going. This race was blown apart, the concentrated fun for the first 60 miles was great but now it was down to business and business was booming! The sun at my back I rolled on and up.
The Potato Patch climb is mean, it is hard, it is long, an it doesn’t let you make peace with it. Living in the mountains of western VA I know long climbs, long climbs with names like “Thousand Foot,” “Elevator Shaft,” and “Buck’s Rut.”But that ‘Patch didn’t let up. It would level off, tease you with a short drop, then pitch you into hypoxia. I had to go hypoxic on those climbs, there were hero behind me. Men with a very serious goal of catching me and beating me to the finish line. Every single corner demanded another match from my ever shrinking book. Seeing riders coming the other way looking strong I knew we had actually made good time despite our fun for the first 60 miles. Around a bend I recognized i realized I had made it, the top, and the scene opened up one last time to reveal the shining sun looking out of the foothills. Winking at it and speaking my peace I asked my to legs surge and make for the downhill.
And down we went. Dropping like a hammer each corner presented a new challenge; a different line, a new obstacle to move smoothly past without incident. At this time I saw a familiar kit, and a face hung low lift up. It was Emily. She howled and told me Jeremiah wasn’t that far beyond me. I smiled, said words of encouragement I don’t remember, and hammered on to the inspiring music of hollers and screams from the woman I love. Doesn’t get much better than that! If my tank was low that topped it of! “We could do this” I entertained for a second. Then quieting myself down, cooling the goosebumps of a great race underway and pushed the Pivot to find its limits as I sped down. I heard repeated gaps between 5 and 8 minutes to Jeremiah. Could I catch him? No… not really, but I may not need to. If I had succeeded in making that much time on the climb I may not need to!
Gravity abated and the descent angled towards flatter and flatter. I loosened the legs and brought the singlespeed up to speed then crouched and made myself like a bullet to suck every bit of speed out of those watts. Second to last aid station and I was allowing myself to celebrate a little. Less than 20 miles now. Keep moving, keep moving fast. And then it went pear shaped. bad. real bad. I missed a left turn back onto fireroad from the open road out of aid 7. I went right, up a fire road and to an intersection that wasn’t marked.Suddenly It all came back, this was not in the bag. I had work to do and I better make up my mind quick. I scoured the gravel around me for tire tracks and seeing none I decided to head back down. I passed an ATV driver who confirmed I had gone wrong. He asked if I wanted him to show me. Sure? I guess so. But my toothsome friend didn’t grasp the urgency and I dropped him. Down like a rocket I went, spotted the markings and fought back into shape. Chasing the images of Gerry and Rob and who knows how many other in my head I pushed every last bit through the rear wheel.
Aid 8 came, had the sun set on my day of glory? No, still in 2nd overall. And “Holy smokes!” On a singlespeed. I pitched it into the singletrack and rallied. I didn’t have much left. I wont pretend I did. But Emily knew I could do it. I knew I could do it. I had folks who believed in me and I was not going to let them down. Endurance events like this are a fine line to ride. You have to push, but cant push beyond your limit. I did. I pushed the limit of my handling skills, the limits of my cramping muscles, and the limit of the trail. It gave way in several places but the Pivot LES stayed strong, planted and composed.
The trail finally gave way to fire road, which gave way to the river. Open road, the sunlight behind me again pushing me to finish strong. the endless road coming to an end beneath me. Keeping an eye behind me I gave myself a moment. Once the finish line was crossed I would have other concerns so right now I let go. Let go of everything I had inside emotionally and mentally. This job was done. Nothing could keep me from this one anymore. No win is easy, every 100 mile day is a challenge, but the purposeful moments alone in the woods that had brought me to this finish line brought such emotion as my battle ended.
I crossed the line, raising my arms skyward celebrating and relishing the moment. I had won the first NUE singlespeed race of the season for me and come in second overall. That was big.