Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jake - Winding Stair - Noontootla

On Friday afternoon the gears were turning. I wasn't going to let another weekend slide by, especially when the weather was supposed to be so nice. I called my buddy Tim to see if he was down for a ride on Sunday. Yes, Sunday. I was planning ahead. He was down. My brother was too. The crew was coming together. I had an idea for a route too. It was a little ambitious but you gotta bet big to win big, right?

We met at 6:45 AM at the Atlanta Bread Company lot in Cumming. By then my brother already had an hour of windshield time behind him. When we get together, it's usually a bit of a hike for one of us so we usually try to get something worthwhile done. I hoped that the route I had in mind would count as "worthwhile".

John had brought a buddy of his named Howie that I'd never met before but who he alleged to be a strong rider. We didn't need all three vehicles so Tim put my bike on his rack and I got a chance to ride in his bad-ass Bronco, which I suddenly realized I'd never actually ridden in before. When we were fiddling with my bike I noticed something strange about his: gears. I've always known Tim to be a devout singlespeed rider. He has supposedly ridden gears out west a few times but I'd never seen it. He broke a frame a little while back though and since then he's been trying desperately to get as much as a return phone call or email about it so in the mean time he's been relegated to the back-up bike which, apparently, has gears.

We arrived at the Bull Mountain Lot at about 7:45 by way of an unusual route that I'd never taken before. A friend of Tim's turned him on to it and I might have to get the road bike out that way next time I get the urge to ride up to Bull and back.

It was freezing, at least by mild-winter-in-Georgia standards. The day before it had been in the 60's all day and I was looking forward to more of the same. At that moment, it was 27. Hey, it'll warm up, right? Yeah.

We headed up the trail at the back of the lot which despite the freezing temperatures was somehow muddy with actual mud. The first 50 feet were the worst, but anywhere that it was slightly flat there was standing water, hoof prints and tire tracks. We passed a couple of riders getting dressed at the lot on 83 and talked to them for a minute. Apparently we weren't the only ones up there looking to get an early start. In fact, the internet had been abuzz all day on Saturday. There were at least 3 other rides planned.

The 83 Bypass was slightly improved over that first trail. The Bull/Jake Connector was even better. Jake Mountain was clean and pretty. We ran into a guy named Chris somewhere in there. He was new to the area and he joined our crew. A few minutes later I'm pretty sure he wished he hadn't.

 Jones Creek

Tim had asked me about the route on the way up and when I told him he immediately realized we'd be crossing Jones Creek. I told him not to mention it to anyone else. There are no rocks or bridges. If you want to get across, you can't do it without getting wet.

I pulled off my shoes, socks and knee warmers and waded across. Soon enough the rest of the guys did the same. If anyone had gotten very cold, the wall of a climb up off of the creek warmed them right back up.

We took Jake north and the trail conditions were, at least to me, very obviously different up north of the creek where we hadn't done any finishing work yet. It wasn't bad, but there was occasionally mud and standing water. We passed on Black Branch and just kept heading north, paralleling 28-1. The trail up there doesn't get nearly as much traffic and though it hasn't had any finishing work done at all, was pretty nice, all-in-all.

We left the singletrack across the street from No-Tell and continued our push north on FS28-1. Just south of Camp Wahsega it appeared that a tree had fallen across the road and that somebody had cut it up and drug it out. A few scraps remained, but I was careful to dodge them. Tim was not so lucky. I'm not sure whether he was at an odd angle with the guy ahead of him and he couldn't see the limbs or what, but it sounded like he had ridden directly through the boughs of a fallen branch. I looked back and he was still up and rolling though, so I didn't think much of it, but a minute later neither he nor Chris were behind us anymore and we spun back to see what had happened.

What had happened:

 Total Destruction

That is absolute, total destruction right there. Apparently a stick had gotten into the derailleur and torn it off. Then the derailleur got into the spokes and after breaking a few, the rest of the drive-side went like dominos. I imagine one of them went through the rimstrip on the inside too because his tire was flat. I've never seen such complete devastation. What I'd thought was the breaking of boughs had in fact been the breaking of spokes.

No amount of duct-tape or zip-ties could get him rolling again. Chris had heard us talking about the route, had already decided that it was at going to be at least twice as far as he wanted to ride, had already discussed how to get back from where we were prior to The Destruction, and volunteered to ride back, grab his car and pick Tim up. I hope Tim got his contact info because he seemed like a really great guy and I hope I get to ride with him again. Thanks so much Chris.

It sucked to lose Tim and Chris but we pushed on anyway. I'd been up that way not a month earlier, Cooper Gap road had been freshly regravelled and I was worried that it was going to be a wrestling match all the way up. Nothing could have been further from the truth though. Apparently the gravel settles right in because aside from some extraneous bits to either side of the road, it didn't look any different than it always looks. I guess I shouldn't say that it didn't look ANY different. The washboards were gone, which was great. So, it was the opposite of what I'd expected - better and easier. Woohoo!

The frere went a little hard when it got steep and I eventually reeled him in for the KOM points at Cooper Gap. Howie was hanging right in there too. He's a strong roadie but he hasn't done a super ton of mountain biking yet, especially in the mountains-proper, so a lot of what we were doing was new to him but you wouldn't have known that from just watching him ride.

We hung a left at Cooper Gap, rolled past the quarry which wasn't as spectacularly frozen as it is sometimes...

 Frozen Quarry

...and continued west to Hightower Gap. We passed a truckload of hikers, presumably shuttling to some starting point on the AT, and a jeep or two but we didn't see anybody on bikes or on foot.

At Hightower we headed north toward the fish hatchery. It had been colder up on the ridge, but on the north side it was even colder still. I hadn't really planned for sub-freezing temps. I was basically wearing my summer kit plus a summer base layer, plus knee and arm warmers and shoe covers. I'm usually warm in that down to about 40. Below that though, I usually wear a fleece-lined bib, fleece-lined jersey and a windbreaker, which is good down into the teens. I'd brought my Dri-Ducks and had actually worn the jacket for the first 5 miles or so and I thought about getting it back out but I realized that I was actually ok. My upper legs and upper arms were a little cold but I was otherwise pretty good. The base layer did a great deal more than I expected to block the wind, which is funny because I wear it in the summer as a jersey for the exact opposite reason. It was odd. We bombed down into the Rock Creek valley, past old Edmondson Pond, turned Edmondson Wetland, now completely dry. Someone had even removed the sign. We passed the lake, passed the Church...

 Pleasant Grove Church

...and paused at the recently refurbished bridge on FS333.

By then I was pleasantly surprised with with how warm I'd managed to stay except for my left foot. It wasn't numb but it was unsatisfyingly tingly. No amount of piggie-wiggling did anything useful. John recommended I loosen my shoe. I thought I'd made sure it was loose enough back when we crossed Jones Creek but I fiddled with it anyway. Turns out that was the problem. One click made all the difference in the world. Within minutes both feet felt great.

We saw a pair of tire tracks on 333. John recognized one of them as Small-Block 8's but I have no idea who rides those. We hadn't seen them yet that day, but we might not have. The gate was closed on 333 and the rest of the roads were open to traffic. They might have been there from the day before even.

333 was fun. The sloppy section where it becomes a county road was only sloppy for about 30 feet, but it was so sloppy that I carried instead of even trying to ride through it.

Howie was on a singlespeed so we had to keep the tempo down a bit on the flats but even so, the rollers on Doublehead gap flew by.

 All Smiles

We rolled by Big and Little John Dick Mountains...

 Big John Dick

...and plenty of beautiful rural scenery.

At FS58 we headed back north, up Noontootla. There was some inaccurate signage at the bottom.

 Inaccurate Signage

Or at least, I'm pretty sure it's inaccurate. As I understand it, the Georgia DNR gave up the Blue Ridge WMA. It's just part of the National Forest now and no longer a WMA at all. Nobody has taken any of the signs down though and that one looked really new. So, maybe I'm wrong about that somehow. Maybe it is still a WMA.

Noontootla is popular for a variety of reasons. We saw hoof prints and several vehicles passed us. Many of the campsites were occupied and we waved to the campers.

As we rode by Noontootla Falls I mentioned to John that it's funny that with the dozens of times I've ridden by, I've never actually seen the falls except for what you can see from the road. He was surprised and said something like: "Go ahead and run up there, I'll wait."

So I did, though "running up there" probably doesn't accurately describe the strenuous and technical climb that turned out to be involved in getting up to the cascade. I managed it though, in bike shoes, no less, and it was difficult to find a spot to get a good look, but the reward was worth the effort.

 Noontootla Falls 1  Noontootla Falls 2

The water was roaring. There's a big slab of rock to the right that I guess was a former route of the falls at some time. The current face has all kinds of squiggly little channels running down it. I ended up crossing over at the base and going back down on the north side. I thought it might be easier. It turned out to be infinitely rockier. I'm not sure I'd call it easier.

When I got back down my brother was gone. I figured it had gotten cold standing there waiting for me and I could see that there were now more than two sets of tire tracks heading north so I followed.

The climb up Noontootla is usually longer than I think it's going to be, but for whatever reason I felt good that day. Before I knew it I was crossing the AT. A bunch of guys in camo jumped in a Civil Air Patrol van as I passed and later they passed me heading uphill. I passed the sign for Hickory Flatts sooner than I expected. I felt great. I'd been eating Zingers all day. Perhaps they are the perfect cycling fuel.

Right in there somewhere I heard a sound like a helicopter, but not like a Huey and not like the Blackhawks I usually hear around there. For a second I thought of the Lifeflight chopper I'd seen the last time I went hiking up there but no, it didn't sound like one of those either. Where was it?

It never went away, and way up near the top I finally got a good look. It wasn't a helicopter at all. It was one of those crazy planes with the huge props and variable pitch wings. It had been circling the area for a while and continued to circle for the next half hour or so. I even saw a second one in formation later, or maybe two separate ones. A long time ago I'd read that the CAP do search and rescue training up there, especially when it's cold - Operation Deep Freeze or something. Maybe that's what they were up to.

When I got to Winding Stair Gap, my brother and Howie were waiting for me. John was lying on his back with his legs up in the air, crossed, and leaning up against a tree. We took a break for a few minutes. I ate a Crunch bar. It was much warmer up there than it had been on the north side of the ridge. Noticeably warmer. In fact, the entire rest of the ride felt comfortable though I'm not sure it ever got up above 40.

We bombed down Winding Stair, which appeared to have been at least regraded, if not also regravelled recently. At Turner Creek we hung a left and rode it until it teed back into Winding Stair. My original, ambitious plan had been to then head down 77A, take Lance Creek Road up to the top of Bull and descend Bull proper back to the car. John and Howie were satisfied to call it a day though, and honestly, it would have been a long climb up Lance Creek. I think I could have done it, but it would have taken a while. Ok, no more climbing. We headed back.

 The End

Long live long rides. I'm not sure how long it was. It seemed like around 50 miles. It was definitely a nice change from the standard 100% gravel road Winding Stair/Noontootla loop that I usually do. Not that I don't like that loop, but it was great to start and end on singletrack.

Howie gets the hardman award for doing it on a singlespeed, but more so for being inconspicuous. On a ride like that, there's usually somebody off the back all day. Admittedly sometimes that's me, but more often it's the guy you haven't ridden with before. Not this time. Nice job Howie! I hope I get to ride with you again soon, and maybe that Chris dude too, and Tim, of course, if you get that wheel fixed, or if Vassago ever calls you back.

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