This was, by far, the hardest, most challenging, most fun, most rewarding, most scary, most intimidating, most demanding, most mentally exhausting, most exciting thing I have ever done on the bike. Actually, keep all those thoughts and add...the hardest thing I have ever done in my life! I am still talking about the challenging climbs and still having dreams about the fast descends.
I took a day to relax my mind and body after 6-gap, before writing this blog, however, I have a feeling my mind might wander as I recap the event.
After checking out of the hotel in Norcross, GA on Sat morning, Karel and I hoped that the pouring rain would stop when we arrived in Dahlonega an hour later. I checked the radar and the rain was supposed to stop for a few hours but with the epic rain falls in GA lately, there was no stopping of rain when we arrived to the expo. Our plan was to ride the first gap of the event in order to get our legs ready for the climbs and to get me ready for the descends. I am not sure how we did it, but we managed to get in 20 miles and Neel's Gap, before it started raining again. The roads were super wet but the air was cool. Karel was way ahead of me on our test ride up Neel's gap and he joined me for the last mile or so after he climbed it.
Despite the positive sunny, 65-degree, forecast for Sunday, I had a million of excuses for not doing 6-gap (104 miles) and a few excuses for wimping out of the 3-gap (58 miles). If you want to know those excuses, you can just ask Karel since he heard me freaking out up and down Neel's gap of how NOT ready I was for this event.
When we got back to the car, I was glad that Karel convinced me to ride in order to get out those fears of the bike on mountains and to loosen up the legs for our long journey on Sunday.
After our 5:15 am breakfast on Sunday morning, and a few quick checks of the weather, Karel and I headed to the event start at Lumpkin High School. Karel recognized a lot of people from Jacksonville, from his cycling races and from our old area in Clearwater which was nice for both of us to see familiar faces in this large group ride of 2500 people.
The 6gap started at 7:30am and Karel and I, and a few other people, had the honor to be called to the line in front of the 1000-1300 other cyclists doing the 6 gap. A HUGE, gigantic THANKS to Hammer Nutrition for giving Karel and I comp entries to this event. We were so proud to represent Hammer. More than just representing Hammer, Hammer provided over $10,000 worth of products (Heed and gels at every aid station) for the event. Hammer is top of the line when it comes to sports nutrition products and Karel and I absolutely love their line of products.
The announcer made it clear that the 6-gap ride is NOT A RACE. Ok, for over 1000 of us, we would be happy to get to the finish line in one piece. However, it was clear that for about 100 guys (Karel included), they would be racing.
It was a little scary at the beginning of the ride because you have 1000+ bikes, all going in the same direction, up and down hills, heading 18 miles to Neel's gap. I knew the pack wouldn't separate until then so I just stayed calm and focused.
Around mile 10, I was near the front of the pack. I could see Karel's group (of around 30 people) in the distance. We were descending fast down a hill and all of a sudden a hear "CRASH, SLOWING, WATCH OUT". I have never been in a situation where I had to stop on an impulse so I quickly squeezed on my brakes going down hill (that's a no no) and I felt my back wheel sliding back and forth behind me. In addition to the super wet roads, I was going really fast and didn't know what to do. There was a pile of people on the ground, I was heading towards them and was scared. After finally slowing down, I biked into the bushes and the grass (better to fall there than on the concrete) and prepared myself to fall there. To my big surprise, I didn't fall. I slid right through the grass and rubbed the bushes, dodged a few bikes and kept on rolling. How in the heck did I miss that??? Maybe I do have good bike handling skills after all. The 3 guys who crashed were ok, I think, so I kept on moving. I decided to stop a bit ahead of the crash to pull out all of the twigs and leaves from my pedals, cassette and chain and I did a detailed inspection of my tires. I was covered in dirt from the wet grass but I was ready to get going. I hadn't even gotten to the first gap and already, this was an eventful ride.
When I approached Neel's gap, I was feeling good. The confidence of riding the gap with Karel on Sat was a great ego booster. I was riding with a group of guys and with my love of climbing (more like, love for rollers) I was feeling good about this climb. About half way up Neel's gap, I was still hanging on the wheels of the group of guys who I started the climb with, and it was nice to keep a steady pace up the climb. I had a few nice comments from guys around me when we were climbing but the best comment was when I had to tell a group of guys that there was a woman right behind them. Let's just say that these guys had no idea I was able to hang on their wheel and they were enjoying comparing TrainingPeaks to Sex. Yeah, not sure about that conversation but they all had a great laugh that I was listening to the whole convo. I probably pushed a bit too hard on this climb but I couldn't help it when I was really enjoying myself and feeling great with the guys. The descend was a bit scary for me because the roads were wet but overall, it was totally doable. My biggest problem with descends is not knowing what is coming next. With u-turn, switchbacks and winding roads, you really have to be on top of your game to ride fast on the downhills. I am still working on my descends but I have a long way to go before I can keep my hands off the brakes for more than 15 sec. Let's just say there was lots of feathering my brakes on every descend.
Stats of Neel's gap:
1350 feet of climbing
Sections 8% grade
Jack's gap and Unicoi went by fast. Still at the early part of the ride, with sights on Hogpen to come. I had only planned on stopping once or twice to re-fill my bottles so I made my way over the two gaps and my mileage was clicking away. I found a few sections of this part of the course more challenging than Neel's gap but overall, it was manageable. I remembered a lot of the gaps from our 2007 trip to GA, but at that time, we only did a few gaps per day. Never all 6 at once.
Here's the stats of Jack's gap and Unicoi:
1/2 mile section: 9% to 12%
Oh yes, here comes the talked about Hogpen. When we were in GA, we did Hogpen from the other side. The other side is a bit steeper with sections of 18% grade but then again, we had fairly fresh legs and we weren't doing 6 gaps in one day.
There were two King of the Mountain (KOM) gaps which included Hogpen and Wolf pen. There were sensors on the ground to record our transponders (chips) when we started the climb and finished the climb, on each gap. I was very surprised when I saw the sensors in the middle of the climb because it felt like we had been climbing for a while before the climb on Hogpen actually started. Great, here I am thinking that I am already making my way up the climb and I hadn't even started the real 10K climb.
This gap was brutal. I had my chain in the smallest gear and still, I was going 5-6 miles per hour. I was swerving back and forth on the road to try to get some momentum up the 15% grade parts of the climb and welcomed any dip in the road to try to rest my legs. The climb just kept going and going and I was having a tough time moving. I just kept telling myself to keep pedaling and to not stop. I remember in 2007 when we climbed Brasstown which has a 20 and 24% section. I actually fell going up hill when I did that ride because my legs just stopped moving and I just fell to the ground into the grass. This time, there was no Brasstown but with only 60 miles completed and 44 miles to go, I convinced myself to stop at the half way aid station. I did the worst thing possible at the aid station, without even realizing it until I told Karel. I filled up my bottles!! Silly me. As I was giving myself a few minutes to try to convince myself that I can climb 3 more miles, averaging around 5-7 mph, I was putting 2 x 24 ounce bottles of fluid on my bike. Well, I think even without the extra weight I would suffer up that climb. It was like everyone was moving in slow motion up the climb.
When I saw 1000K to go I was pedaling a bit faster than before. Probably 6 mph at that point. It sure did feel fast though as I could hear people cheering and finally, I made it to the top of the climb. Really, I don't know how tour riders and Karel do cycling races on these tough climbs. Karel once did a race in Dahlonega where they had to do Wolfpen 3 times, in addition to Neel's gap and Woody's gap two times. I was thinking about Karel the whole time during my climb and I tried to think about him giving me good advice as I made my way down the Hogpen descend. The first few minutes of the Hogpen were a bit scary for me and I found myself going a bit too fast and I was not comfortable at that speed. In all honesty, I really don't think I went faster than 30 mph on the descends but with switchbacks and a few blind turns (oh-and cars and motorcycles on the raod) I was really nervous and scared and was tapping my brakes before each turn. I wanted to make it down safe but I think with a few times of practicing on descends in Dahlonega, I can really improve my 6-gap time (and confidence) on this course.
Stats on Hogpen:
9.6 miles (KOM was 10K)
7% avg grade
Sections: 12% to 15%
My time: 49 minutes 10K (averaging around 8 mph, including my stop at half way)
After Hogpen, I was getting close to Wolfpen, which was the second KOM part of the course. Overall, the three BIG climbs included Neel's gap, Hogpen and Wolfpen. I was so happy that I was able to get over the two big climbs but I still had 1 to go. I was so tired, my rt. quad was killing me and my body and mind were exhausted. I stopped at the aid station right before the turn onto Wolfpen and took out my phone. I was going to call Karel to pick me up. No more, I am done. When I went to call him...no cell service. Ughhh.
Well, it was good that I had no service because Wolfpen ended up being my FAVORITE climb. I loved it all. It was a small road, shaded and I loved the switchbacks. It was a short climb, but nonetheless, steep. When I made it to the top, I nearly had tears in my eyes. I made it over the big climbs and had 1 last gap to go. I was passing a lot of people on Wolfpen but then again, I was being passed as well.
Stats on Wolfpen:
My time: 25 minutes 5K (averaging around 8mph)
Woody's gap was the last gap of the ride. It was smooth going up and smooth going down. The descend was enjoyable and I found that my confidence was the highest on this down hill. I hit around 40mph but I am sure I wasn't averaging that speed.
Stats on Woody's gap:
4-6% grade sections
I was looking forward to the end of the ride but that last 19 miles were long. Up and down, still with rollers and climbs to the finish. The last part of the course was beautiful and overall, the course was marked well and was really well organized and safe. In years past I heard that the last part of the course was all downhill but this year, not so much. I was alone for most of the course and near the end, I was enjoying the horse farms as I made my way up the last few climbs. I called Karel with 9 miles to go and he told me to just enjoy myself and that the hard part was overwith. Of course, he was showered and enjoying his pasta when I called and our convo was short as I was ready to get to the finish line.
Finally, I made it!!
I had tears in my eyes just thinking about all my excuses which turned into fears on the day before the race. There I was, crossing the finish line and Karel greeting me with a huge hug. He was so proud of me and I was proud of myself. This was absolutely the hardest thing of my life.
Total time on the course: 6 hours and 56 minutes
Distance: 104 miles
Average speed: 15 mph
Fastest speed: 40 mph
Time up Hogpen (10K): 49 minutes
Time up Wolfpen (5K): 25 minutes
Finish: 213 overall out of 999 finishers, 6th out of 68 women.
Total time on the course: 5 hours and 29 minutes
Average speed: 19 mph
Fastest speed: 51 mph
Time up Hogpen: 33 minutes
Time up Wolfpen: 20 minutes
Finish: 9th overall
(Karel...you are amazing!)
All of my stats were from Mountainmapper.com (In case the stats are 100% correct).
Congrats to everyone who finished and/or attempted the gaps. Hope to see everyone (and new faces) next year!!
I found this great video on Youtube.
It starts getting good around 3 minutes and 50 seconds. About then, the real suffering starts.