I’ve always grimaced at the name Thigpen. My entire life was ridiculed with names of “pigpen” and having to be associated with that damned Charlie Brown character
that rolled in dirt and smelled bad. Til this day, I deal with having to tell people over the telephone “no no…Thigpen with a T – H – I…” Why I couldn’t get a last name like Smith or Jones is beyond me.
I remember one day bitching about my last name and a middle school teacher said “you know, people will remember you with a last name like that.” So I guess that’s true, people do remember me and it’s easy to say “you know, Thipgen like Pigpen but with a T and an H.”
So here I was, covered in dirt, smelly and a Thigpen climbing Hogpen Gap on the TNGA… 10.81 miles with a total ascent of 2,125.98 feet with a maximum elevation of 3,625.33 ft. Ouch.
The climb really wasn’t that bad since I’ve trained, it was the damned riders on crotch rockets taking the hills at lightening speed zooming up and down without much regard to lil’ ol me just inches away from them going 80mph. I did take a few breaks due to the extremely heavy continental breakfast I had. I honestly thought Hogpen would never ebb and I’d just be damned to climb forever.
A few roadies past me and looked at me funny, I yelled to them “Is this Hogpen!?” But I guess they were too into their climb to respond…that or they were too snooty (I always view roadies as being pretty hoidy toidy).
After a few years I made it to the top of Hogpen. There were some roadies up there and I had a pleasant conversation with them – they were amazed to see me climbing on a mountain bike with fat tires and hairy legs for the TNGA. But hey, that’s how Scott rolls, yo.
They said the descent was not as epic as I’d hoped. It was short and I’d be climbing soon. They also said a gas station would be inside before I climbed Wolfpen gap, the next epic climb.
I did do the descent, it was screaming fast and definitely shorter than the climb.
After Hogpen the route turned onto another fire road with another series of rolling climbs. Damn you David Muse. Damn you all the way to Hell.
By now my competition mode had been completely turned on. I was bit and determined to catch the pack ahead of me and kept a tempo to try to make some time. As the fire roads turned to residential areas I saw quaint little homes with people out grilling, cooking or just hanging out in a swing (that seemed to be the thing in rural Georgia). One home had a dog that came flying out after me, they called for it back and apologized. I told them “no problem” and asked them if they’d seen a group of cyclists riding the TNGA recently.
“Oh about about 2…2.5 hours ago I guess. You late boy!” I thanked them and picked up the pace. The hunt was on.
I weaved around a few more fire roads and then did a screaming fast descent on the paved road again. I noted a state park then the turn where I was to enter Wolfpen Gap, a shorter but steeper climb than Hogpen. I took a break at a pond area and sort of collected my thoughts. I threw in my “tnga hill climbing” playlist on my iphone and started to make the ascent. Once again I dealt with the barrage of people on crotch rockets flying up and down the hill while I spun up it.
Wolfpen proved to be a beast. While I was indeed able to spin up it and not stop, I was in pain and panting all the way to the top. I kept checking my GPS (which now was somewhat working due to a user error) to see when the crest of the hill was and when I was going to enjoy so oh-so-sweet downhill on the TNGA in my future. I rounded a corner, more up. I rounded another corner, even more up. I rounded one more corner and saw the Wolfpen sign telling me how much elevation I’d climbed, 2.5 miles and over 3,000 feet. Ouch, again.
When I crested Wolfpen, I did a very tired first pump in the air and a small audible “whoop whoop” to celebrate…that is until I saw what was on the GPS… yeah,take a right and up for more climbing, on a fire road.
From Wolfpen I entered a long windy fireroad going up. I still had my legs so I decided to just barrel into the climb. I was still tracking the bikers ahead of me and could see their tire tracks in the dirt. On one climb I decided to stand and climb and that’s when I realized my right foot was a little squirrely.
My right foot kept getting wobblier and wobblier. I didn’t want to stop but I figured it was for the best since my SPD clip was probably the culprit. I dismounted and looked at the bottom of my shoe…my clip on the bottom was indeed wobbly so I whipped out my Topeak Ratchet Light kit and doctored on it tightening it up. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t stay tight but I had been having mass amounts of trouble with this for a number of training rides.
I tightened up my cleat and said a bunch of prayers and blessings over it hoping the TNGA gods would smile favorably to hold tight (foreshadowing: it didn’t work). I continued to climb over a series of rolling fire roads on the TNGA until I finally saw a massive descent. This was a fun and long downhill which seem to go on for about 45 minutes if not longer. It was enjoyable and the screaming downhill turned into a nice packed dirt road flat that seemed to dump out into a campground.
The campground area was nice and I saw a decent sized creek to fill up my water with. When I slowed to a halt I had so much dirt in my clips that I could not get out of the bike. So I sat there for 1-2 seconds doing a trackstand and then fell over sideways. I laid there for a moment, too exhausted to unclip and then when I tried it proved to be very difficult without momentum and weight. Of course there were campers watching…and not helping.
finally got unclipped and acted as if nothing had happened. I unzipped my Revelate frame bag and got my platypus bladder out. Since I was using a Sawyer water purifier (how’s that for product endorsement?) I had no problem getting water out of a creek. I went over to the rushing waters and stuck my platypus bladder in it . I pulled it up and noticed I’d caught a minnow. I thouht to myself “well, I guess I’ll have my Omega 3′s today!”
As I was making my way back to my bike a man was standing there next to it checking it out. I’m sure I look like a spectacle with all the gear on my bike and of course the southern way of greeting by stating the obvious came next from his mouth:
“You riding a bike?”
Not sure why us southerners feel the need to do that, I do it too. In fact a comedian has made an entire career off that one thing us southerners seem not be able to shirk. I smiled at him and said “of course,” explained to him about the TNGA and that I was riding from South Carolina to Alabama in what was consider a ride, but I was trying to keep race-pace. I asked him if he’d seen any other bikers and he said said “oh about 2 hours ago…” I thought to myself , “2 hours? Hey I may be gaining on the pack!”
I asked if there were any convenience stores around and he said one 30-45 minutes down the road and it might be open if I’m lucky seemingly it was nearing 5pm and they closed early on Sundays. Dying for a Coca-Cola, I hopped on my bike and burned some precious energy barreling down the well beaten down fire road.
Gravity was on my side as I was able to gain speed down the fire road. I noticed the area had become more populated with campers, day hikers and a guy sitting off to himself sitting in a stool. I paused for a moment to look at him, it was like an art piece in the making and I was sad I didn’t have time to take a picture. The man was bald with long silver hair hanging to his neck, he had a green micro-bus with the pop up top which I suppose he was going to be camping for the evening. He was dressed up, sitting at his stool with a violin and a music stand reading music.
The ongoing joke from all my friends before leaving for the TNGA was “if you hear banjos, pedal faster!” Well I didn’t hear banjos, but I certainly listening to the hums and melodies coming from the violin from a silver haired man in the woods. The TNGA is the Trans North Georgia Adventure ride and this was indeed something you find on an adventure. All the climbing, the sweat, the frustration of my electronics not working led up to a five second pause of me listening to a man play his violin in the woods by himself.
I felt like I was in a Tim Burton movie.
I continued hammering it to make up some time and make it to the magical convenience store that supposedly existed somewhere down the road. I kept checking the time and it was four-ish something so I kept my cadence up. The fire road turned to paved and then then there it was, a convenience store with deer antlers, harley davidson hawg cycles and…and FOOD!
I rushed in, dirty and sweaty saying “don’t close!” The man behind the counter with a silver ponytail and fu-man-chu said “no worries bro, you got 30 minutes.” I went to the cold section and grabbed three Coca Colas, a Yoohoo chocolate milk drink, a Starbucks Doubleshot in a can and a water (got to keep healthy!). Then I set that on the counter and started to get food. I looked over my options and thought I’d just let my insides guide me to what I wanted.
For some reason my body was screaming for Vienna Sausage. I don’t really even think it’s meat, well meat from this earth anyway. I’m sure the stuff is 100% pure nastiness but oh god, that’s what my body was craving this leg of the TNGA. I grabbed 3-4 cans of extra spicy bbq sauced Vienna sausage and went to pay. I gathered all my delicious snacks outside and commenced to feast. I looked over to my left under the umbrella and noticed they did BBQ sammiches inside as well. I walked back in and said “Hey do you have any BBQ sammiches left?” And he said “nope a cyclist before you got the last one.” I asked “how long ago” and he said “about an hour and a half ago.” He said the cyclist was in blue and black which was…
Yes, Type-B Scott got the last BBQ sammich which I made it my life’s mission to hunt him down and give him a piece of my mind.
I woofed down the sausages, cokes and yoo-hoo milk. I went back in and bought tons of energy bars for the next leg of the TNGA. Oh and I bought 2 of those 6-Hour Energy drinks. I went back out to see if I had any service to touch base with my wife. I did! As my phone connected to the towers a text message came through from my buddy Pete asking how things were going. I told him I was tired but trudging on. His response was “you got this TNGA ride, man!”
It’s little things like this that keep me going on. In fact there was a training ride I was doing a few weeks before the TNGA. 12 hours of grueling hill repeats and towards the last two or three hill repeats I had a friend of mine, Nick, road past me and gave me the proverbial hand slap as I continued on. That made the last portion of the training so great. Small encouragements, big results.
I talked to Kate on the phone and it was very spotty and broken up. So I basically was able to squeeze out “I love you, I’m okay, I’m still looking for batteries!” I then called Mulberry Gap and talked to Diane to see how far away I was. Diane said she was just going to pass me off to the TNGA coordinator, David Muse and let me talk to him. I told him I was having Spot and GPS trouble and wanted to know how far I was away from Mulberry Gap. He said “no way you’re making it tonight, you might make it by morning tomorrow if you power through.”
I guess it sounded like I wanted to throw the towel in. It wasn’t that, I wanted some damned batteries so my family and wife could have the opportunity to track me and not have to worry where I was.
“So it’s like Chess, right?”
A few weeks before the TNGA I met my coach at our secret strategizing meeting clubhouse…or, well, Johnny Rays BBQ in Pelham, Alabama (I swear the food there is packed with formulas helping you strategize better).
“Scott I don’t want you to think of the TNGA in days, I want you to think of it in hours. Consider the night as your friend and a time to gain some ground.”
This really resonated with me letting me know that I could play the TNGA like a Chess board. I’m not good at Chess, in fact I really am bad at it but I like the mechanics of strategy. I had indeed been looking at the TNGA in hours and how much ground I could gain in a set amount of time. Just because dusk was starting to settle in didn’t mean I was going to camp for the eve and sleep.
When I was a student and I had an art project, I would spend almost all evening long obsessing over it. Time and sleep didn’t matter anymore and I’d find myself hearing birds chirping and the sun beaming into the windows. I decided to focus on the TNGA like this and started to break down the segments of the ride until Mulberry Gap that was apparently very far away.
With my GPS not really working like I wanted, I pulled out my queue sheets. It seemed as if I had a very long ride on paved roads then something called “Stanley Gap.” Seems harmless enough. I started my next leg of my journey.
The ride was very pleasant on paved roads as I followed a river, went through a paddling community (not like frat boy paddling initiation but kayaks and canoes). I ran across a cafe I seemed to have just missed for being open and continued down more flat paved roads. My body was on autopilot and I spent a few hours of my legs spinning.
Dusk was settling in but I still had plenty hours of daylight left on the TNGA. The road started up a hill and the queue sheet said I’d be veering right in any minute. I saw a sign that said “Johnson’s Wedding Reception” and an arrow pointing to where I needed to turn. I sat and thought about crashing it for a moment to get more Coca Cola. I thought about making the case that I was lost, hungry and just needed a bit of food. I mean, after all, there’s always WAY too much food at wedding receptions, right? Who would refuse a cyclist covered in dirt and sweat?
My daydream was quickly squished as the road turned up and got pretty steep. I started to spin up the hill trying to save on as much energy as I could. The queue sheets said to be taking a left onto single track however I couldn’t find it. Dusk was starting to hit twilight and I knew I wanted to get in, on and off the singletrack before nightfall.
I couldn’t find it.
I rode a little further down the road and saw a close gate that said “private property.” That appeared to be it, I guess, so I took it thus realizing I was not where I was supposed to be so I pushed back up into a tiny little parking lot. It was getting darker and I kept looking around for anything familiar. Finally I saw a kiosk and I pedaled
over to it where it said “Welcome to Stanley Gap.
You will die” The trail apparently had a lot of climbing in it and there were warnings to “always ride in groups” and be aware of wildlife which had a picture of a deer, a big cat, a vampire, a werewolf and of course… a bear.
While most people think bears are cute and cuddly, I do not. I’m terrified of them. One swipe from their massive paws and you’re minus a body part. They are extremely moody and have super sized sniffers thus wanting to eat your food. They also have an appetite for Type-A TNGA riders named Scott, so I hear.
This of course planted a few seeds in my head that a bear was lurking around every corner now.
I entered into the single track. It was fair enough to ride on and since I cut my teeth on Oak Mountain’s trails, it was relatively a no brainer to take. There were climbs, descents, flats and everything I was used to. I thought to myself “eh, nothing to worry about.” Night was starting to settle in but I could still make out most of the trail without my lights of which I was trying to save for the evening’s push.
I started to descend down on the trail and heard the roar of a car in the distance. I knew I was getting close back to paved road! Sweet baby Jesus, I was going to make it out of this single track and be back on the road by nightfall! Everything was going well and I would see Mulberry Gap by 3am if not earlier…that was my goal anyway.
I took a few more pedal strokes and dumped out on the highway. I gave myself a pat on the back and checked the queue sheet which said:
“Continue across the road, to the parking lot and back onto Stanley Gap.
Ha-ha, fooled you.”
I kind of sat there and grimaced for a moment, more of Stanley Gap single track. It was night and I had to resort to my lights to find the next spot. I road up to the the Stanley Gap trailhead and saw multiple trails splitting off to different sections, so I took the one I thought was right.
I knew I’d taken the right one because it went up substantially and that’s how David Muse rolls… up. Even the downhills go up.
I climbed and climbed up Stanley Gap. On my GPS it showed I’d be passing a road sometime soon which I hoped to run across a convenience store but no such luck, the cross road didn’t exist which made me think I was going the wrong way or was on the wrong trail.
The trail turned into more up then got more technical and then became off-camber resulting in that if my bike tipped the wrong way, I’d be tumbling down the side of a mountain.
Let’s just say there was a fair amount of hike-a-bike.
Stanley Gap on the TNGA went on forever with me riding a few feet, then walking over rocks and other things I was having trouble seeing with my light (it was a small light with a narrow field of vision). I kept doubting myself thinking I was not on the right track, lost or had a lot longer time than I’d anticipated.
I felt defeated at times and wanted to just give up and quit however I live and die by a quote by Calvin Coolidge which is:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
I continued to press on and slowly but surely my directions and gps seemed to align with what the queue sheet was was saying. Finally after a moment or so the trail begin to descend and then finally dumped out into a flat dirt road. Success!
The flat dirt road was not only a beacon of accomplishment, but it was a long descending road which means I could pick up some serious speed. It was wide and very packed down. I started to pedal and enjoyed the wind blowing on my face and I gliding along for what seemed to be an eternity. I reached down to take a sip of my water and I realized my bladder was empty. I stopped for a moment and considered my options. That was an easy solution when I heard the roaring creek next to me. I spent a few minutes purifying water and getting all my bottles topped off.
The TNGA route continued to be pleasant as the fire road turned into a paved road which turned into some beautiful farmland that seemed to stretch on for miles (wait, it didn’t “seemed to,” it did.)
The paved roads through the farmland was pleasant as I got to see the stars with no ambient light to muck it up. The moon was out partially and was beautiful. I’d been dying for a coke and even found an old gas station that had a coke machine outside of which I tanked up on three cokes again and I took my first 6-Hour energy drink too.
I started back on the road and hit a flat that turned up. When I did I saw a set of orange eyes that were reflected from my light. I gritted my teeth and started pedaling towards it, I could tell it was a canine of sorts. ”coyote” I thought to myself and thought it would be no bother so I gave it the southern dog-get-out-of-the-way snap which was “GIT!” It didn’t move and then several other orange eyes appeared. ”Shit!” I thought. I was going to get mauled by a gang of coyotes. All the orange eyes walked onto the road as I pedaled towards them.
I figured when I got closer I was just hammer it and outrun them, which was stupid because I was tired and canines can run fast in short bursts. As I got closer I noticed the one that had been out in the road was more wolf like than the others. Then I saw the other eyes and they were all domesticated dogs, the leader was a husky and a small one at that. I rode past them and they looked at me never barking, I even gave the “haaaay good doggies” and no tails wagged or anything, just stares.
The dogs were obviously smoking marijuana.
As I continued pedaling and got my heart rate back down I checked the queue sheets and realized that Potato Patch road was on the horizon.
I have a love-hate relationship with Potato Patch. This was the road I bonked on the Cohutta 100 and eventually ripped me a new one because of it’s amazingly hard climbs. But I also loved it because that meant Mulberry Gap was close.
The queue sheets said I needed to take a little offshoot from one fire road to the next. The offshoot was not mechanically created so it was bumpy and rough…during the daytime this would be a blast. I carefully started taking the descent down the trail when all of the sudden a cub ran out in front of my bike. My first reaction was “all cute look at that ball of fat fuzz!”
That pleasant thought quickly ended when I heard mama’s warning “MOOF!” and then a growl.
I suppose all of us have something we fear. My mom and wife completely freak at the site of a snake where I’d pick up a poisonous cobra. Me? As stated…Bears.
I hammered it out of that area and went barreling through the bumpy trail just praying to see Potato Patch Road which was at least a fire road and a bit more open space. With it being 2 or 3am in
the morning I was not the clearest of thinkers and I irrationally turned all black bears in my mind into ravenous grizzlies. My heart rate was up and I was working on not panicking.
Finally I hit a fire road and I thought I was home free to Mulberry Gap. Ha, probably should have checked those queue sheets.
The bear encounter caused me to get off on taking in nutrition and while I was okay right now, this would affect me about an hour or two down the road.
I’m not sure where the phrase “Does a bear shit in the woods” came from, but it’s true. They do, all over the place. The next several hours had me going up and down fire roads dodging mass amounts of shit everywhere. I’d see movement out of the corner of my eyes and by this time, devoid of sleep, I was pretty much a basket case.
I made it a goal to get to Bear Creek and gather my thoughts. Bear Creek, Pinhotti 1 and 2 I have done many, many times and love all three of those trails. They are some of the best trails known to man albeit the climbs can be hard but it’s very rewarding.
After much riding and it now squarely in the dead of night, I made my way into the three trails I knew well. As I was going through one of the Pinhottis (not sure at this point as things were fuzzy) I realized my light was starting to dim. ”No worries…” I thought “I’ll hook it up to my battery pack charger.” No luck, it was dead. I had one spare backup charger, it was dead too.
I’d been tracking some riders and knew I couldn’t be far behind them per I could see their wet tire tracks when they’d gone through a creek. My light dimmed then went out. I let out a very loud “Hey! Anyone out there!”
I heard a rustle in the woods and could smell an animal which I automatically thought was a ravenous grizzly. ”HEY! HEY! YO, ANYONE THERE!?” I continued to yell and try not to panic as I was pretty much sitting there in the dark. I grabbed my tiny night light, it was blinking “dead” as well. So I did what any grown man would do in the woods, sleep deprived and freaked out – sing Nickelback songs.
I had an emergency whistle and would blow on it for a few minutes then sing some bad tunes, anything that came to mind. Sadly, Nickelback was the only thing I could come up with and I sang all their greatest hit [sic] over and over trying not to panic. Then I thought to myself, I wonder if I had anything in my seat bag.
favorite bags ever, I love it (and for you local folks, Cahaba Cycles can order it for you). For a smallish bag, you can pack tons of stuff in it yet it’s still light enough to go do a casual ride with and not really weigh you down. I unzipped it and pilfered through my stuff and much to my surprise, I found a set of batteries! I popped them in my charger, hooked the charger up to my light and continued to sing badly as I slowly walked through the Pinhottis using the moonlight to make my way through the parts of the trails I knew.
After an hour or so I knew my light had charged, I connected it to my helmet and hopped on my bike. I slide one cleat into the pedal and heard the clip. I then hoisted myself up and tried to clip into the other side. My foot slid right off the pedal and I fell over onto the trail. I tried again and realize one of my clips had fallen off my shoe. It’s the same one earlier in the day that was giving me grief.
“Ain’t that a bitch…” I thought to myself. So I found myself walking out of trails and when I could ride, I would have to balance on one side of the bike while making sure my other foot didn’t slip off the pedal making me bite it again.
I worked my way out of the Pinhottis and saw the break of dawn. It was comforting however I was completely out of gas internally. I’d been so off on my nutrition that I was bonking pretty bad and all I could think of was getting to Mulberry Gap, drinking water and eating a plate of eggs. I’d push for 5-10 minutes, stop and drink what little water I had left. I ate some nutrition however it was too late to regain any energy. At most, all I could do is get to Mulberry Gap, refuel and rest there to make it through the rest of the TNGA.
By 8:00am or so I saw the Mulberry Gap sign and started to push up the hill to the barn for food. This seemed like the longest and hardest climb since my body was completely diminished nutritionally. I walked in and Ginny saw me saying “Hey you made it!” I was so frazzled I don’t remember anything and later on Ginny said all I was muttering about was bear shit and that I needed water. I remember eating eggs and I remember talking to fellow TNGA rider, Ryan for a bit. I ate the large plate of eggs and then two waffles then tried to keep my head up for a few minutes as I figured out what to do for sleep. Everyone kept saying something to me about “I can’t believe you made it. Are you okay? Are you quitting? Are you done?” I checked my phone and saw all these messages saying “don’t quit!”
I was like “what the Hell!? I’m not quitting!” I inquired about what was up and apparently there was some confusion of when I talked to Dave Muse about the TNGA route and it must have sounded like I was wanting to throw in the towel. Oh well, ill communication. Quitting was the last thing on my mind.
I thought it best to crawl in the back of my suv and just sleep on my sleeping bag. It wasn’t ideal but I knew if I took a cabin or laid on a cot I’d be asleep for several hours and all I wanted was about three hours to refuel and keep going.
27 hours ago I’d left Helen and powered it into Mulberry Gap. I crammed up in the back of my suv on my sleeping bag and knocked out.
Side note: Almost all gear for the TNGA I have mentioned so far can be purchased and ordered at Cahaba Cycles. Whether you are local or not, they can get it out to you.