Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TNGA 2011

The Trans North Georgia (TNGA) is a 350 mile mountain-bikeable route through the North Georgia mountains. The Trans North Georgia Mountain Bike Adventure is an organized, self-supported ride along the route. We held it last year for the first time, and now we've held it again this year. Hopefully it'll become an annual event.

The group-start was scheduled for September 3rd, but things started getting interesting a few days prior to that. Last year, Brad Kee and Matt Lee finished together only a few hours behind the leader. This year, both wanted to ride but Brad had a wedding or something to go to on the 4th so he came down last Thursday and rode the route as an independent time trial. Matt joined him but got sick and had to abandon early. Brad kept going though, finished, and beat their previous time by several hours, setting a new record for riding the route self-supported and setting the bar for the fast riders of this year's event.

Last year, outside support was allowed along certain sections of the route but this year's rules were more in line with more established events out west like the Colorado Trail Race and Tour Divide. Basically, riders are allowed to draw neutral support from individuals or establishments along the route, but must otherwise ride self-supported. Last year, Eddie O'Dea finished first but received outside support. This year, despite riding self-supported, he hoped to beat his time and with any luck, finish within 48 hours.

The field consisted of riders from all over the eastern US. Georgia's border states were well represented, but there was also a big group down from Pennsylvania and several up from Florida. I knew a few of the riders from last year but there were a lot of rookies too. It was a good mix.

Friday night, my daughters Isabel and Sophie and I headed up to Mulberry Gap. Being centrally located and just off-route, Mulberry is a great place for me to base out of. Most of the out-of-town riders stay there too. They have great amenities and for guests, they provide a shuttle to the start and pick-up from the finish, assuming you finish, or from wherever you end up if you don't.

I showed up around dinner time and met most of the riders. The TNGA wasn't the only thing going on that weekend though. A group of riders was up from Florida for the weekend. There were a bunch of Atlanta area locals too and even a guy from England. The kids and I mingled for a while but we had an early wake-up call and headed off to bed before midnight.

The alarm went off at 3AM. The girls and I stumbled up the stairs to the barn. Diane and Ginni already had breakfast going.

 Early Breakfast

Eggs, waffles, peaches, sweet bread... All delicious.

Last year we'd gotten up at 3:30 and everyone was pressed for time. An unexpected bathroom-break stop put us over budget and we had to push the start to 8:20. This year there wasn't time to dally but everybody dressed and ate comfortably and we rolled out at about 4:15.

Transportation to the border was provided, in style, by Rick Moon of the Pinhoti Trail Association and his luxurious stretch-limo.

 Rick's Limo

Transportation was also provided, though slightly less stylishly, by Matt Smith of Northwest Georgia SORBA and his Boys and Girls Club van.

 Matt's Boys and Girls Club Van

People credit me with organizing this event but in truth, the real work is done by guys like Rick, Matt, the Mulberry Gap staff, Joe Polk of MTBCast and Matt Lee and Scott Morris of Trackleaders. Their efforts make this event possible and they are all due more thanks than I can give.

We arrived at the South Carolina border at 7AM. Most of the riders that didn't get shuttled over arrived a few minutes later.

I went around making sure everybody's trackers were set up. All participants were required to carry a SPOT Tracker. The trackers broadcast their locations to the Trackleaders web site where a blue or pink dot is displayed for each rider on a map. Spectators can track progress. Organizers can plan pick-ups. There are many advantages. Intuitively, you might think that you turn on the tracker and it broadcasts your location, but it's not quite that simple. It must be put in tracking mode. If it's been moved over 500 miles since the last time it was turned on, there's a reset procedure that you have to go through. Every 24 hours it needs to be reset. You have to use certain batteries. So many things.

The start was scheduled for 8AM. At 7:45 we had a short riders' meeting. Everything was on schedule. Everyone was ready to go.

 The Start

Or at least, almost everyone. Conspicuously absent was one Eddie O'Dea. At ten minutes to eight and he was nowhere to be seen. I'd have held the start for any of last years top finishers, but I really didn't want to have to.

Tick, tock...

With 8 minutes to spare, he drove up, stepped out of the car, fully dressed, grabbed his bike and stepped into the crowd. Classic.

On your marks!

Get set!


This event is not a race. It's a long ride. It's definitely an adventure, but it's most certainly not a race. Sure, there are individuals looking to beat a course record or challenge each other, but the vast majority of the riders are in it to challenge themselves while experiencing the terrain and scenery of the North Georgia mountains. As such, the thundering herd of humanity, bolting off the line, throwing elbows and fighting for the holeshot that generally follows the word "Go!" when shouted in close proximity to an assemblage of elite mountain bikers like we had there at the border, was absent entirely. Instead, the riders, almost lazily, clipped in, eased out onto the pavement and moseyed on down the road like it was any other Saturday group ride.

A few of us hung around after the start. Eddie's wife Namrita, a pro mountain biker herself, was still there. TNGA pioneers and adventure racers Norma Rainwater and Johnny Garner had showed up to see the riders off. They're planning on riding the route west to east in a few weeks. Nobody has done that yet, and I can't wait to hear how it goes. We all had new stories and we jabbered on and on. There are biting gnats at the South Carolina border though and me and Nam needed to get back to Mulberry Gap so before too long we went our separate ways.

The girls and I grabbed some second breakfast at Waffle House. They slept in the car on the way back. I stopped and slept for 30 minutes in a parking lot in Blue Ridge, but we made good time and got back around noon. I sacked out for an hour or two. The girls were a lot more chipper than I expected from a couple of sleep-deprived 9 and 11 year olds and ran around, playing with dogs and exploring the place.

Sophie build several little constructions out of sticks, pine cones and other odds and ends lying around.

 Sophie's Construction 2

Weekend riders were coming and going all day. I hung out with several friends that just happened to be up there. I also got to know the English guy I'd mentioned earlier.


Great guy. His name is Rob. He's from Worchestershire, home of Lea and Perrins. They're very proud of their sauce. He actually knows a girl who's last name is Perrins. Contract work brings him to the US from time to time. Otherwise he teaches snowboarding in Switzerland. He was a courier for years and mostly rides a fixie on the road but figured he'd give mountain biking a go this weekend. Apparently his road and snowboarding skills crossed over pretty well because he rode comfortably all over Bear Creek and the Pinhoti Trails and even took a run down Windy Gap. Impressive, sir.

The TNGA riders climbed up through Warwoman, hiked through the Ramey Fields, bombed down Darnell Creek, struggled over Patterson Gap, and hopefully enjoyed some easy miles along the Tallulah River.

There was a family riding together: the Palermos; Ian, Jeremy and Ryanne. They later told me that they stopped and played in the Tallulah for a while.

Actually, I later heard several interesting stories about that day and the next. Most were of unusual hospitality. Either Chad Parker or Scott McConnell, I forget which, waved to a guy who was a-settin' down on his front porch. They got to talking for a minute and the guy offered to let him fill up on water, then led him around back so he could fill up with delicious deep-well water rather than water from the inferior municipal supply. One of those guys was also talking to somebody at a store about the ride when another guy overheard them and offered them free lodging for the night in an old house on his property: "Just go up this road and you'll see a guy on the porch. His nickname is Sheetrock. Tell him so-and-so sent you. The rooms are nice and you'll be comfortable, but I'll warn you, it's haunted, so at night you'll hear children playing. Don't worry though, they're harmless..." They passed on that offer but later Cricket Butler managed to score free lodging for the whole group she was riding with in an old room over top of a convenience store that was once a lodge or something. Again, she'd been talking the proprietor about the ride and just got offered the room. There were other stories too but I forget.

As much as I run around in these woods, it seems like I've met everyone in North Georgia, but I've never had anything like that happen to me. When Norma, Johnny and I rode the route last year, we got a lot of strange looks and odd questions but when we explained what we were up to, everyone was excited and very encouraging. I guess this past weekend, that excitement and encouragement translated into hospitality. I love hearing stories like that.

The riders made their way south to Wildcat Creek, up and over Addis Gap, up the endless climb of Corbin Creek road and eventually to the first bit of actual trail: the infamous Hickory Nut. More than one rider told me that they looked hard to either side before eventually trusting their GPS to lead them ahead.

At Mulberry, we watched the little dots file across the state. A few riders were getting off the front. A few lagged off the back. Groups were probably forming in the middle but everyone was too close to one another to tell who was in what group.

Most of the trackers were working. We got updates every 15 to 30 minutes from most but some lagged by hours. Out west they work great but any obstruction affects their ability to get a signal out and there are a lot more trees in Georgia than say, Colorado. Some units were still showing riders back their home towns. Those units needed to be reset and would probably start tracking right on Sunday.

Late in the day the attrition began. Jason Diurba and the Palermo's pulled out. Ian hadn't been eating enough and the others dropped with him. Carey Lowery had "multiple body mechanicals." Jason Martine was from Florida and the endless climbing was taking its toll. It's always disappointing to hear when someone drops. These are strong, hard, very experienced riders and often people expect them to persevere no matter what. But with that level of experience comes intimate familiarity with their limits. If they abandon, it was necessary.

At Mulberry, dinner was served: perfectly cooked pork loin, potatoes and corn bread. So good.

It was possible that one or more of the leaders would come through that night so Diane and Ginny left food out for them.

 Food Left Out For Riders

Sophie crashed out at about 9:30. Isabel and I stayed up with the rest of the MGap crew for a while. It's funny, the girls and I have done so many hikes and bike rides and other little adventures together that when Isabel's around adults of similar persuasion, she can relate and she even has pertinent stories to tell. Man, she's growing up.

It was possible that Eddie might come in that night so I stayed up until about 1 and got up to check the Trackleaders site every hour or two until morning. He finally arrived just before breakfast, looking tired but still strong.

 Eddie Taking a Break

Ginni gave him a gigantic plate of eggs which he ate in less than a minute, and he was gone as quickly as he'd arrived.

Another family had arrived to stay at Mulberry Gap the night before and my kids played with their kids all day. They were also greatly entertained by feeding the chickens.

Most of the riders were heading over from Helen; over Hogpen, over Wolfpen, over Duncan Ridge, through Cooper Creek and ultimately along the Old Dial Road to Shallowford. Some pressed on. Others shacked up in that lodging Cricket scored that I mentioned earlier.

Jason Murrell pulled out sometime that day with all kinds of stomach trouble.

All but one of the trackers was working. David Tremblay's hadn't moved yet but we knew he was riding with Cricket.

We did have a brief scare with Curtis Burge. The Trackleaders map suddenly showed him 80 miles south of the route in Jasper. It could be a GPS glitch or he might have dropped his tracker and somebody picked it up and took it home, but it could be that he was at the Piedmont Medical Center. I called them to be sure, he wasn't there, and a few minutes later his dot was back on route. GPS glitch? Must have been.

The next three leaders looked like they would arrive that evening. The rest of the field was hours behind them.

The girls and I had some time to kill so we set off on our own little adventure. Topo maps of the area show a pair of falls on Moreland Branch and a trail leading up the mountain to the east of the creek. I'd never seen the trail it in real life and I've wondered for years if it existed at all. If it did, could you get to the falls from it? We would find out.

We found the trail, an old gate, an old bridge and two former routes of FS68. To call it a trail is a bit of a stretch. It's an old roadbed that somebody probably walks up to once a year, says "Interesting" and then turns around.

 Moreland Branch

It wasn't too overgrown at first, but one thing I've learned from dozens of backcountry adventures with the girls is that there is a specific density of brush, beyond which the trail is no longer fun for kids. We hit that density at about half a mile in. The trail continued and I might go back one day to see where it goes, but the kids would have hated going another step and we quit while we were ahead.

We got some light rain that afternoon. I went walking around in the woods and you couldn't even tell it had rained. It barely even cut the dust on the road.

Wayne Gowens skipped Mulberry altogether and just pushed on for Dalton.

Justin Pokrivka arrived just after dinner.

 Justin Arrives

He looked strong and he was impressively lucid. After about 4 hours of riding, my brain disables all non-essential functions. People kept asking him questions about distance and time that required actual math and somehow he was able to answer them.

Shey Linder arrived a little while later and appeared to have already hit the showers before walking up to the barn.

 Shey Arrives

Shey was craving pickles and Lo! there were pickles.

They both stayed the night. Justin threw up a hammock. Shey crashed out on the couch in the rec room.

The rest of the riders were either stopped or half a day back. Eddie was on the Pinhoti out past Dalton. Namrita and I wanted meet him at the border so again, I was up all night, checking the map every hour or two.

We got an intense burst of rain around 1AM, then nothing for a few hours, then steady, moderate rain for the rest of the night. The girls and I had been sharing a tent all weekend. I do have a totally waterproof, weather proven Big Agnes Seedhouse, but it's a single, so instead we were shacked up in my 1998 Wal Mart "Timber Top" which I think we scotch-guarded back in '98, but I'm certain hasn't been touched up since. It kept the direct rain off but drips formed on the inside and the walls sagged in. The girls were small and out-of-the-way but I'm bigger and occasionally my feet touched the sides, my hair touched the sides, my hip would brush up against the side and my pants would absorb a bunch of water before I realized. The drips ran down and made a small pool all the way around the outside. It might be time for a new tent, or at least a new bottle of scotch-guard.

I'd been concerned about the weather since before the event. The previous Thursday, Tropical Depression 13 had suddenly materialized in the Gulf. It would hit land somewhere along the coast by Saturday morning but nobody knew where. By Friday afternoon it was Tropical Storm Lee and it looked like it would hit Louisiana, stall out for a day or two, then move northeast. By Saturday morning, it had done just that. On Sunday it was moving northeast and we'd gotten some light rain from a weak feeder band. Since then, a huge gap had opened up and it looked like it might pass us to the north or fizzle out entirely. The rain that night hadn't been too bad and I figured that might be the last gasp.

At that point I wasn't too worried about the trails either. Most of the route to the east of Mulberry is either paved or gravel road and the roads around Mulberry Gap were solid. It's been so dry for so long too, the ground wasn't anywhere near saturated. On top of that, the Pinhoti is a modern trail and drains very well. So far, the rain had just served to cut down the dust. South Fork and Bear Creek are legacy trails but a lot of work was done over the past year to improve drainage on them and about half of Bear Creek is a road, it's just closed to vehicles most of the year. Stanley Gap drains well but it's steep. All but 7 riders were past that point already though. If that was the last gasp of the storm, the trails would dry out as the sun came up. By the time the riders got to Dalton, it might not even be wet in the woods.

At 4AM we got up and drove to the border to wait for Eddie. The rain had stopped at Mulberry but started again up again and got harder as we headed west. At the border though it was barely a drizzle.

There's no cell service at the border so we couldn't check the map. We just had to wait. 8AM came and went. He'd missed his goal of 48 hours, but he couldn't e too far behind. We'd been staring at the same spot on the horizon for so long that when it finally started to change, we thought our eyes were playing tricks on us. They weren't though, and gradually the speck materialized into a guy on a bike.

 Eddie at Finish

2 days, 0 hours and 34 minutes.

But what a toll. He was shredded from head to toe. His hands and feet were pruned and scuffed. His thumb was torn from shifting. We grabbed some food at Starbucks in Rome and he was doing the "monster walk." Ie. approximating the walk of a zombie as the result of chafing and muscle fatigue.

Out west, the weather had gotten bad overnight. We'd only seen the edge of it at Mulberry Gap. The last section of Pinhoti trail is on an old railbed and it had flooded entirely. We hadn't seen the last gasp the night before. The storm had rallied back and extended itself all the way up into New England. Forecasts disagreed but some called for steady rain for the next three days. There were tornadoes in Woodstock, flooding in Douglasville. All that was heading in our direction.

I had a tough decision to make. My instincts said: "Call the ride." Whenever you cancel a ride though, it sends the message that you don't trust the riders' skills or their ability to make decisions. That might actually be the case in a cross country race or even some of the 50 or 100 mile routes. You get all kinds of people signed up for those. But this was a very experienced crew. Some of the riders have ridden from Canada to Mexico, several times, braving all kinds of weather. They know what they're doing, they accepted the risk and more importantly, they knew what they were doing when the accepted the risk, if that makes sense.

I wasn't so sure about the trails though. On the one hand... The remaining trails, by and large, are well built. There were only 13 riders out there, alone or in small groups, spread out by hours and it was probably safe to assume that they were the only mountain bikers in the forest. Their combined impact would be relatively low and we hadn't gotten that deep soak that turns trails into cookie dough yet. But, on the other hand... The soak was coming. The cookie dough was coming. Probably within a few hours. Riding on that tears up the trails, tears up equipment, tears up the riders' bodies and could ultimately tear up the opportunity of having the event again.

I could not in good conscience send them back out into it. I called the event.

As it turned out, Justin and Shey were still at Mulberry, debating about whether to leave or wait out the storm. Clay Faine just showed up on his own shortly after I got there. Ruth Cunningham's group was due any minute so we put up a sign at the entrance to Pinhoti 3 directing them in. I left messages for the rest of the riders and we drove out to pick them up.

I rode with Richie Daigle in his Element and Andrew Gates followed us in his pickup. We missed Cricket's group. A guy who appeared to be living out of his truck confirmed that they'd turned on to South Fork minutes before we'd gotten there. We picked up Scott McConnell and Chad Parker though. One of the spectators living near Blue Ridge read on Facebook that we'd called the event and picked up Ray Porter. We looped back and collected Cricket's group on the final climb up to Potatopatch.

Most of the riders were fully willing to abandon and pleased to have an excuse. Others had planned on bailing at Mulberry. A few though would have totally gone on. I told them that as far as I was concerned, those few were welcome to keep going but the event itself was officially over and if they were looking to set a personal record or something, the weather would make it pretty meaningless. In the end, everyone agreed to come with us.

We had one rider left, west of Mulberry Gap: Wayne Gowens. I'd left him a message when he was in Dalton but he didn't get it. We assumed he'd abandoned but the next thing we knew, he was out on the Snake Creek Gap Pinhoti, alone, in cold, driving rain, but still making impressive progress. It would take hours for us to retrieve him but Matt Smith, who had earlier shuttled riders to the start, lives out that way and offered to go after him. Unfortunately like a wily fugitive on the run, Wayne eluded capture entirely. Six different times Matt got to an intersection, only to have missed him by minutes. When Matt missed him at Mack White Gap I told him to give it up. Wayne was apparently strong enough and determined enough to finish, or call for a pick-up if he wasn't and he was within 20 miles of the finish. Given all he'd been through, and given that he was the only rider still out there, it didn't seem right not to let him go for it.

At the High Point trail head, Wayne pulled out into the road and faced what had to be a 40 mile per hour headwind. He'd been pushing hard just to stay warm and he didn't have anything left. The ordinarily flat, easy run out to the finish was physically impossible to ride. He called for a pick-up and Andrew went and got him.

The girls had school the next day and we'd already headed home. It rained all day but the southern end of the storm blew out that night. I wondered if I'd made the right call or not. Maybe the riders could have just gotten to Mulberry and waited it out. The next day though, every metro Atlanta area trail in the Atlanta was closed. They might still be closed. Ok, so that validated the decision a little. Still, I'm going to be second-guessing it for a while.

The results... I debated with myself about how to rank everyone too. In the end, I figured I'd give the top 4 places to the first 4 riders. They were far enough ahead of the rest to deserve that. The rest get a tie for 5th. Anything could have happened to them over the next couple of days. Eddie gets a time, everybody else just gets a rank. Not that any of it matters that much anyway. There's nothing "official" about the results. There are no prizes or series points or anything. The value of a ride as assigned by a rider and his or her peers is far more important than the numbers below. They are just a formality.

Formality or not, here are the results:

1 - Eddie O'Dea - 2:00:34
2 - Wayne Gowens
3 - Justin Pokrivka
4 - Shey Linder
5 - Clay Faine, Ruth Cunningham, Matt Fusco, Geoff Fusco, Curtis Burge, Cricket Butler, Mark Sackett, David Tremblay, Stephen Huddle, Scott McConnell, Chad Parker, Ray Porter

Massive thanks to Rick Moon of the Pinhoti Trail Association, Matt Smith of NWGA Sorba, the Mulberry Gap Crew - Diane and Ginni, Andrew Gates, Jason Kepley, Kate Kepley and Richie Daigle, Scott Morris and Matt Lee of Trackleaders, Joe Polk of MTBCast, the riders, the families of the riders and everybody else in the world that's had a hand in this thing. With the weather this year, I don't know if I can declare it a success, but that doesn't matter any more than the results. It was definitely an adventure.


  1. Awesome write-up. You made all the right decisions. We will all LIVE to ride/race the TNGA next year.

  2. Great write up...Scott M said on FB he was offered the haunted room.


  3. I think you made the right call...I'm intrigued by this ride and would like to do it at some point. Good write up.

  4. I think Wayne's abandonment so close to the finish confirms you made the right call. If such a strong rider could not manage the easiest part of the whole route, then how could anyone else hope to continue?

    Sure, someone could have waited out the storm and finished the route on Thursday or Friday, but its hardly a race at that point.

  5. Thanks for putting this together, Dave! I had the time of my life!

    I was going to keep going and hopefully set the single speed course record but given the conditions that record wouldn't have held long or meant much so I happily quit at Mulberry Gap.

    Thanks again, I'll be back next year!

  6. thanks dave!
    i ditto what clay said for the womens time, but it wouldn't have held long either with all the water:-) ruth.