Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Raccoon Mountain

When I was at Mulberry Gap a while back, Mark B. mentioned that he'd be getting a birthday ride together the next weekend at Raccoon Mountain. Was I in? Heck yeah, I was in! I couldn't even remember when I'd last ridden at Raccoon Mountain. Even now, I'd have to look back through this blog to figure it out.

We'd planned to ride Saturday, but rain was in the forecast, so Mark pushed it to Sunday. On cue, it rained all afternoon on Saturday, but it wasn't super hard, if I remember correctly, and it didn't seem like it would be a mess on Sunday.

Sunday morning, I woke up pretty early, and hit the Waffle House on the way out of town for some eggs, toast, and of course, waffles.

Waffle House Breakfast

It had honestly been a while since I'd even driven very far for a ride, much less out of state, and I found myself enjoying that, just in and of itself. It was early too, and I hadn't recently gotten up early for a ride either. The whole thing was both novel and nostalgic at the same time.

As I headed into Tennessee, there was fog ahead.

Fog Ahead

Statistically, the most dangerous weather phenomenon.

I couldn't remember exactly how to get to the East Overlook, so I'd just googled "Raccoon Mountain" and it sent me to the Racoon Mountain Campground and Stables (or something like that), which are actually on the west side, and not actually on the mountain itself. I'd definitely never approached the mountain from the west before, but it looked like there was some way to do that, so I followed some road up around the north side.

It was even foggier there.

Fog on Raccoon Mountain

But, soon enough, the fog turned weirdly blue, and then I rose right out of it. Whenever the road made it possible to look over the side, I could see the tops of clouds down below me.


At some point I passed a big turbine or something, and then later this giant valve.

Raccoon Mountain Valve

I honestly don't remember if that was below the fog, or above it, but I took the photo after that fog photo, so I guess above it?

Raccoon Mountain is strange. It's basically a big battery. When power is plentiful, they pump water up to a giant reservior on top of the mountain. When power is scarce, they drain that water backwards through the pumps, which also serve as turbines/generators and produce power. I think it's seasonal, but I don't really remember. There's one like it in Georgia too, near Rome. Rock Mountain or something. It's smaller though, I think.

At the East Overlook, I got a really good view of the fog.

Foggy East Overlook

You can usually see Chattanooga really well from there.

Mark, Aaron, Chris, Daryl, and Marc all showed up shortly after I did. I'd actually passed Aaron and Chris on the drive up and not known it was them.

I expected it to be cold, but it kind-of wasn't. Not terrible at least.

Instead of a typical cycling bib, I've been trying out chamoisless, full-length tights, for several months now, even back when it was still warm. They've been working out pretty well, with the exception that I've managed to rip a hole in the crotch of every pair.

The first pair were a pair of super old running tights, like literally 10 years old, or more. So, I figured it was just their time. But it was suspicious, because I'd managed to rip a hole in my PBR bib in the same spot. The bib was also worn out though, so I figured it was coincidental, but not unexpected. Then I ordered some cheapies on Amazon, and promptly tore through them, in the same spot, in 1 ride. Well, they only cost $8, so... But, the last straw was ripping a hole in the exact same spot on my old REI back-up bib. Yeah, it was old, but I hardly ever wore it. I eventually discovered that the way my seat post grabs the rails creates a little notch that fabric can catch on. It's not a big problem on the road, but get off road, where you're gerching all around on the seat, and it apparently gets caught often enough to tear up whatever you throw at it. Only on the right side, for some reason though. No problems on the left.

To manage this, I cut a chunk out of an old road tube, then split that, wrapped it around the front clamp, tied it together, and stuck the knot up between the seat and the seat rails. In theory, it should make it impossible to get the fabric of my shorts caught between the rail and the clamp, and also just create a softer surface to grind the fabric against. I did this while I was in Texas, but I only got in a few easy rides on it there.

Also, right before I left for Texas, I'd ordered a pair of Pearl Izumi chamoisless, non-thermal Attack Tights from REI. Same fabric as the shorts/bibs, but no chamois, and they were full length. I'd been looking for exactly that for a while, and finally found some. None of the Atlanta stores had a pair, but there was a pair, in my size (large as it turns out) in the Plano store, so I ran up there and picked them up while I was in town. They worked pretty well in the 80's. I wasn't sure how well they'd work out in the high 30's, but I was about to find out.

So, I was rocking the afore-described tights, my new Mulberry Gap jersey, my Craft base layer under that, my new Pinhoti Hand-Ups, some Wal Mart socks, and my old-and-busted Garneau shoes. Oh yeah, the socks. It turns out Wal-Mart sells some cheap-ass "AND1" socks that are slightly tight when you first buy them (on me at least), but conform after several washings, and are at least as comfortable, marginally more durable, and block wind as well as any cycling socks I've ever worn. I don't know about weight, but I'll probably never weigh them.

It was in the high 30's at the time, but I felt really comfortable. Of course we weren't moving yet, but I was optimistic. Everybody else was bundling up, but they looked overdressed to me.

We'll see.

Eventually, everbody was ready to go, so we took off, out of the lot, to the north. I had no idea where we were going, but it all looked kind-of familiar.

Before long, we rode up on some fenced area and everybody sat around debating whether to keep going, or ride the expert trails on the other side of the fence.

Daryl, Marc, Aaron, and Mark

Ahh, yes, the infamous Chunky section. Last time I'd been there, there was no fence, and the time before, John had broken his frame. I was happy enough to keep going, but three of us were on enduro rigs, or at least trail bikes... non-UL-XC bikes like mine and Mark's... I forget what Marc was riding ...and as such, it was wrong to pass up the gnar, so we headed off into it.

Almost immediately we came upon the first drop, and everybody milled around on top, trying to decide whether to risk it or not.


I suffered from no such indecision. There was no way I was dropping off that. It wasn't the height. There's a drop that tall at Blankets. It was the angle of the slope you had to land on, the chunky rocks in the landing zone, and the speed you'd gain in the air. If I look at an obstacle and it srikes me like: "oh yeah, I'm confident I can do that" then I might. Otherwise no. Hard no. This was a hard no, and I felt no shame about it.

Right about then, a crew of 3 other guys showed up, and one of them rode off the drop, seemingly confident. He went off, right as I was mid-sentence about how John had broken his frame on a similar drop. His suspension bottomed out, and his bike made the most wretched cracking noise. The timing was perfect and I was able to finish my sentance with: "...sounded about like that." And, boy did it. The guy rode it out though. No crashing. John hadn't crashed either though. His buddies weren't having any of it, and our guys decided against it too.

Wise choice.

In my absence, two new trails had been constructed - Live Wire and High Voltage. We ended up dropping down off of the mountain on Live Wire, and it was full shred, top to bottom. Rocks, roots, rollers, bridges, little drops... And it was still damp from the fog that had only just burned off. Slip management was the name of the game. I imagine that trail would be amazing when it was dry, and even more amazing if you knew it pretty well.

At the bottom, we paused to regroup...

Mark, Aaron, and Daryl

...and Aaron suggested we take a right and drop down to the river. "It's right there."

And so it was. And, with the fog lifted, we got a nice view of it.

Mark at the River Aaron at the River Marc and Chris at the River

I remember a turkey vulture flying around, and trying to decide whether it was a turkey vulture or not. It looked too big, and its head looked too dark. But, it was just a trick of the light, I guess, as I eventually decided that's what it was.

We backtracked a bit on Live Wire, and picked up High Voltage heading west around the north end of the mountain. It was a gentle climb, at first. Mark kept assuring me that it would get super tough soon. I imagined that climb in the middle of P6, or maybe P3 switchbacks or something. Then, it would get steeper for a little bit, and I'd wonder if that's what he meant, or if it was going to get even more difficult. Turns out, the latter. Eventually, you climb right up the side of the mountain. There were a series of really technical switchbacks up there that rival the ones on P3, and there's one with pavers laid into it that is easily as steep and long as the steep chunk of P6. So, I should have imagined both, I guess. Right after that super steep chunk, Aaron and Marc passed me, and dropped me so hard that it was upsetting. John and I used to joke about doing that. It's a good race tactic. Don't just pass someone, drop them so hard that it's upsetting. It usually works really well, but I remember trying to do it with Eddie Wimberly at Dauset once, and it turned into an epic battle that lasted several laps until I finally, barely edged him out, right at the end. ...But I digress!

Little, by little, it got easier to climb, and eventually we ended up at the top of the mountain again. We'd passed some folks going the other direction at the bottom, and then a few more going the other direction at the top. I wondered if Mark had chosen the sadistic direction on purpose, whether it was actually tough in either direction, whether it was just more fun to descend Live Wire, etc. I'll have to ride it the other way some day and find out.

At some point, we ended up on familiar trail. There was some ledge that you could drop off and end up between two boulders. Once again, it wasn't the height of the drop, it was the speed you'd pick up into chunky rocks and a blind curve. Aaron, Chris, and Daryl rode it though, and made it look pretty easy. I walked it, but still managed to almost crash just getting wide in the curve at the bottom, below the sketchy rocks. No idea.

There was a fairly tall downed tree that I managed to hop a minute or so later though, and some tricky rock slabs that I had no trouble with, so I felt somewhat redeemed soon after.

When we got back to the overlook, you could see Chattanooga.

Clear East Overlook

Yes! That's how I remember it.

Awesome that I got to see it both ways.

So that was the first round. Round 2 would consist of more familiar trails, though I was fairly certain I wouldn't remember them well enough to certify them as familiar.

This time we actually rode the Chunky section. Nobody rode off of that drop, but there were lots of rocky slabs with really technical lines onto, between, and off of them, and a few small drops, but nothing I didn't feel confident riding.

At some point, there's a little spur that leads down to an overlook. Mark and Marc The Guys at the Overlook Tennessee River

We all took a group picture, but Mark has it, and I prefer Night Watchman style group shots, myself. Even, if everyone's back is turned.

I remember that we rode some stuff, looped back on the Small Intestine Trail, which looks all small-intestine on the map, but in real life doesn't feel all that twisty, then rode some of what we'd already ridden, skipped looping back again, and kind of generally rode all around the top of the mountain. We eventually made it back to that drop with the sketchy run between the boulders. There was a way to just ride down it at one end, that Mark showed me. I managed that, and I also managed to not almost crash at the bottom.

I was definitely starting to flag. We ended up at some multi-way intersection eventually. Chris and Aaron took one way back, while me, Mark, Marc, and Daryl took what I guess was a longer way. Maybe that was before the drop. IDK, all I know is that it went on forever, I cratered like a mile out from the car, and felt like I'd really gotten my money's worth when I got back to the lot.



Mark joked about having been faster than Aaron, and Aaron joked like: "Breaking News. Elderly gentleman on UL XC rig edges out younger, more attractive rider on enduro bike..." and it just kept going. Later that evening, they were texting the group with more of it. Apparently Aaron has the KOM for Mountaintown from Buddy Cove Gap to Gates Chapel Road, and he lords this over Mark, though Mark has more local KOMs of his own. Heh... Boys.

Nobody wanted to eat together, because COVID, so we split up and headed home. I vaguely remembered getting some good ribs on the way out of town once, and figured out that it had been at Sugar's Ribs. They still existed, and were open, so I hit them up for some brisket and cornbread, only to find that it was evil jalapeno cornbread. I'll have to keep that in mind.

And that was it. The drive back was uneventful, and I slept really well that night.

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