We continue our 3-part series of posts sharing Salsa product engineer Sean Mailen’s experience racing the Trans North Georgia bikepacking ultra.
We got moving and stopped at the Cooper Creek store for water around midnight. We found a tap outside, but it said not potable. Thankfully I had talked with local fast guy Shey Linder who was first a couple of years ago, and he had shared that the tap here had been fine before. We both filled up and headed out. We kept rolling on valley gravel roads and paved sections, making very good time. The temps were nice and cool, and the roads felt fast. We went back into the forests around rock creek for the millionth creek crossing. The bats were flying around like crazy, and one must have been on the sauce because he ran straight into my helmet! We hit trail and climbed for a bit and then as we turned a corner could see a red blinky. David Hall was at the top and had just fixed a flat. We talked a bit, and he told us about his two bear encounters. We then rolled as the three amigos, and would be together for a while.
We rolled along peaceful roads until finally reaching Iron Bridge. I wanted to see the bridge and Toccoa River in the light, but it wasn’t meant to be, instead we rolled through a quiet town at 1 a.m. We reached the Aska trails and began riding the singletrack to Stanley Gap. We stopped at the top of a singletrack climb. I pulled out the Mello Yello I’d been hauling. Hart looked at me with a wry smile “Holy crap, that looks good.” I think David laughed a little. We talked a little but mostly communicated through grunts, yawns, or tired blank looks. I don’t think any of us felt like we had to ride in a group, but at 1 a.m. we were happy to be with some other crazy people. Hart mentioned that getting over Stanley Gap and into Cherry Log for sleep would be nice. David said that’s what he was hoping for as well. I had read some previous stories of people sleeping inside some type of barn or something there, so that sounded good to me. The Mello Yello had somehow revived me, and I was ready to go again.
We started up Stanley Gap and mostly hiked it. It’s a tough hiking trail, really tough at 2 am. We missed a turn but eventually made it back to the trail we were supposed to be on. Hart took off on the downhill trail, I did ok, and I think David was feeling tired and eating somewhere behind me. David finally caught me on the really rocky stuff, my wrists finally feeling it. I could see their lights so knew they weren’t that far ahead. Finally, the trail ended, and we flew down into Cherry Log. Once in Cherry Log we looked for water at the post office but found nothing. We went over to the voter building shed and setup. David found a nice table to sleep on and Hart setup his hammock. I found water behind the building
and came back to setup my hammock as well. Hart mentioned he set the alarm for an 1:15 of sleep. Good grief, an hour and 15 minutes!!! I was thinking three or four - shoot. Well, I guess I’m getting up in an 1:15. If not, I’m sure David will and then I’ll be chasing. I liked being a part of the front group since the pressure was off chasing somebody. Plus, I knew these types of races could be decided by who is willing to go without sleep. I got in my hammock and was glad I brought it. My Eno hammock with Helios Suspension was quick to setup and felt amazing to be in. No extra pads and bags needed, plus I was comfy and off the ground. If I wasn’t going to sleep much, I wanted it to be good.
After what felt like 10 minutes, I could hear rustling and a phone alarm going off. I took my time getting up, forced a rice cake from Woody’s down, and told myself it was the perfect breakfast. At some point, Chad had showed up and was sleeping on plywood in the corner. David Chen had come through as well and kept going. So now we were chasing, but I
knew he would have to sleep, so we would probably switch with him at some point.
David and Hart got water, and we got rolling. I put on my long sleeve woolie and was glad I had grabbed it. I wore it over my jersey since at 4 a.m. it was around 60 or below. I don’t know how Hart and David did it with nothing else on but short sleeve jerseys. Somewhere around mile 178, we hit the Coldwell Country store. The giant Coke machine was like a beacon in the night calling us. It would have been great if they were open, and the owner was excited about the racers coming through, but not excited enough to have roller dogs going at 4:30 am. We each pounded a Coke or two. I heard David talking to somebody and realized David Chen was sleeping under the car port! Sadly, for him, the neighborhood dogs wouldn’t shut up. I just imagined if you could drive backward on the route at this time you would discover zombies every 10 miles asleep on picnic tables and plywood sheets.
We headed out and began the climb towards the Pinhoti Trail. Once we really started hitting the singletrack, I was worried about how much time David and Hart could put into me. I wasn’t losing that much time on them, but on long sections, if they wanted separation, I think they could get it. I could still make up a lot of time going across to Dalton and near the finish, but I didn’t want to get too far back. We climbed a gravel road and at the top the sleep monster fully attacked. The ground looked so good. I laid down, Hart and David pulled up. “Anybody up for a 30-minute nap?” I asked eyes already closed and head resting on my bike. David said something about it not being a bad idea and that it can kind of trick you if you wake up with the sun rising. I set my alarm, and we slept there in the middle of the gravel turn around. After what seemed like five minutes we got moving again. Hart was leading and riding strong. The FS road dove and then climbed steeply. We hit some horse trail that started fun but then just kept kicking up. Hart was going strong on the climbs, and all of us were dreaming of Mulberry Gap. He had that “I’m pissed off riding and want to eat and get to Mulberry Gap now” kind of look and style going. I couldn’t hang with him, and David didn’t seem to need to come around.
On a longer gravel climb, it began to really set it that I was going to ride all day again and that I was tired. It began to piss me off. The climbing, how tired I was, how I was not getting any closer to Mulberry Gap. I knew I was mentally showing some cracks. Time to eat. Time to drink. Time to take inventory of the good things I had. I told myself my whole family was waking up and checking my Spot Tracker and seeing how far I had gone that night and were so proud of me. Our little baby Eden was proud of me, and I needed to keep going so I could see her. I walked the hill and stretched my back. “Keep going Sean; you’re fine,” I told myself. I was hitting a low; it would pass. Get to Mulberry, get some food, then think about Dalton. Only worry about what’s in front of you. The sun lit up the sky and the mountains. It was gorgeous out, be thankful. I got pedaling again and felt better.
I was on singletrack, and good singletrack at that. I descended to Bear Creek and got water. I kept pedaling and missed the hard right-hander. As I came back, I heard somebody yell down to me, “Come on up, brother.” It was Koz. He was out riding again meeting us, seeing how things were going. I said something jokingly about having to go all the way up there. I remounted and pedaled up passing a photographer. He let me pass him and asked how things were going. I mentioned the low but I was coming around and looking forward to Mulberry Gap. He only had positive things to say and said we were doing great. I told him a summary of last night and knew he had already seen Hart. I’ve learned to speak positive to feel positive. Humans are happiest when we are praising. I said something about thanks for doing this, and it was great to be riding these trails. Something about my past, I can’t remember everything - I was slightly delusional. It was just great riding with him, he brought a slice of normalcy back to me. He turned back, and I knew it was time to get to Mulberry.
I finally hit the road to Mulberry and was worried I was going to miss it until David came up behind me and said I was on the right track. Seeing Mulberry Gap MTB getaway was a sight for sore eyes. I got there and saw Hart’s stuff along the wall. I started taking care of business – throw away trash, check the bike, take off the super stinky jersey, get water, order food, etc. I plugged in my phone since my setup was having a hard time charging my giant iPhone. Ordering was hilarious and surreal. I just kept naming things on the menu, and they kept writing it all down without a blink of the eye. “Coffee, coke, well two cokes, Gatorade, full breakfast with bacon, cheesy grits, oh, and a Mello Yello, two mini loaves of banana bread, oh, also some of those bars.” I caught up with Hart and his dad. He was tired but really happy to get food. I think he even got a milkshake. Somebody mentioned that my Spot wasn’t working well. I tried to text family again and see if I could figure out the deal with my Spot Tracker. It had worked perfectly weeks before, but now it was going on and off. Annoying. I packed the bike but wasn’t excited to leave. I had thought so much about Mulberry Gap that I hadn’t thought about what came after it. I told myself to focus on the details and get moving, and the rest would sort itself out. Hart had already gone, and David was gearing up. I left figuring David Hall would soon catch me on the singletrack. I would never see him again; sadly, a failed pedal would have him dropping only 30 minutes later.
From Mulberry Gap to the bottom of the Appalachians is good singletrack. Even the climbing wasn’t horrible. I’m sure having lots of food in me helped. I eventually came out on gravel road and kept it moving until sure enough my Garmin showed me off track. Then I saw Hart heading back my way; he had made the same mistake. The old Jeep road that we were supposed to be on paralleled this road, so it was hard to tell. We made it back and kept moving on the overgrown trail. It rolled nicely until becoming a singletrack descent. I was sticking with him but them my chain broke. Thankfully it was an easy fix, and I just stuck with my mantra of “keep moving.” I didn’t have to do everything fast, but I just needed to keep moving. Before I knew it was on an old Federal road and had left the Appalachians behind.
I arrived at the Rammhurst gas station seeing Hart’s bike up against the side. It was hot, midday in the south, and now we had about 20 miles of pavement. Gross. I decided to drink another Coke or two plus a Gatorade. I hadn’t cramped yet and didn’t want to. I made sure I had a full bladder as well. I was also slightly excited to start this section because I knew the miles would roll and I could probably do a lot of Snake Creek Gap on the other side of Dalton in the daylight. David Chen pulled up and mentioned his stomach wasn’t doing great. Hart and I rolled together but he said he was feeling tired, or food wasn’t sitting well, I can’t remember. Anyway, I wanted to stay together, but I also wanted to test the speed of the Cutthroat on some road. Could I make time on these guys near the end? I figured they would get some miles on me between Dalton and Coosa, but then I could make them up hopefully, but I needed to see what felt good at what speed on the Cutty. I told him I was just going to try and get aero and hold a good pace. He said he would ride with me if he could. I settled in and felt good. I just kept up my pace and soon didn’t see Hart, but I also knew a grocery store stop in Dalton would likely bring us back together. I pedaled to some of my favorite jams and got into Dalton. It was nice knowing that my family was only 45 minutes away, but also that I was going to keep going. I pulled into the Kroger excited for food, real fresh food! I grabbed some fruit snacks, bananas, bars, baked goods, peaches, a Caesar wrap, and some chocolate. I had a goal to always be eating. I’ve paid for it in some longer gravel races by getting behind on my nutrition. I knew that I was burning plenty of calories and that no matter what, I couldn’t keep up. Hart arrived and told me David Chen had ridden straight through! What?! How can you not stop in Dalton for supplies/food/milkshakes/candy/everything?! I couldn’t believe it. I guess we were chasing him now. Hart said he flew too; wow he must be feeling good. Either he was going to crush it, or he was going to blow up. Only time would tell, and I knew my appetite was roaring, so I was going to feed it and hit the “Snake” on a full stomach.
I waited outside and saw some folks who were following the race. Cool that people knew that we weren’t just homeless people with fancy bikes. I ate my food, and waited on Hart. I liked riding with him, he was an honest standup guy from what I knew, plus he’d been here before. I liked the idea of trying to stay with him on the Snake and then seeing if I could get him to stay with me on the climbs. This would push both of us and motivate us. He got his food, and I fell asleep for about five minutes waiting. It was a nice nap. We climbed up to Dug Gap, and he told me how steep the climb gets in sections. We saw the documentary crew again, and the drone got a close-up shot of me. It was like having a giant fan blowing on me! I figured I should tip him for the kindness. We hit the trail, and the Snake started.
I had heard the horror stories, and thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be. It was an overgrown, skinny trail with lots of rocks though. I could definitely imagine the
Confederate troops setting up their breastworks to try and stop Grant’s march to Atlanta. Koz soon joined me, and it was nice to see him again. He was there with perfect timing as I totally did an endo over the bars. His GoPro captured it perfectly. We laughed about it and I told him this was the area I knew I would pay the most for drop bars. I hiked for a bit longer and apologized to him for making him walk. He was happy to do so and eventually turned around to find other riders. I rode by myself for a while and again wondered if I would see Hart again. If I were him and felt good, this is when I would have seen how much time I could put into me, plus catch David Chen. It began to become twilight dark, and this area had seen much less use than other forests. It was almost eerie at the bottom of the mountain before climbing back up to more ridgeline. I began to wonder what I was doing riding my bike for this long. Thankfully, I was gifted with an amazing sunset - one of the few pictures I was able to take. I plugged in my Garmin for more power and turned on the K-lite to keep moving. All of a sudden, the entire trail looked like a horror movie! My light was completely strobing. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. What’s going on? I stopped, checked cords, checked connections, everything looked normal. I looked at the box I had 3D printed for the K-lite electronics so I could mount it to the stem. It hit me; I bet the electronics inside were moving around too much and the connections were coming loose. I could touch the box and make the light come on and off - yep that’s definitely what it was. Shoot, that’s bikepacking for you. Well, I thought, I have this Fenix flashlight that can go up to 700 lumens so if it works I’ll be fine. Thankfully, I could still charge my electronics. Ok, so far so good. I kept moving.
I finally reached the HWY 136 Pinhoti parking lot. The Snake is done! Hart was there eating, so I must have stayed within reasonable distance. Any sight of David Chen? No. I asked if he was doing ok. He said he was but was going to need to sleep soon. I kind of wanted to go harder for a while, but I also knew that was a good idea. We had a whole night ahead of us and were at mile 270, still 90 miles to go. After 30 hours of riding, 90 miles was going to take a lot of time. We kept going, taking the next ridgeline and descending the other side. Thankfully we were rewarded with pretty fun rolling trail. We crossed Pocket Road and decided we would take a trail nap soon. I still hadn’t eaten my chicken Caesar wrap with lime ranch dressing and 20 oz. Coke, so now was the perfect time. We decided to nap in the middle of the trail where it was sandy and covered in pine needles. My Caesar wrap was amazing. The Coke also hit the spot. I set my alarm, and we awoke 30 minutes later. I finished the Coke and we got back to work.
We conclude 51 Hours Racing The TNGA on Friday…
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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen
I was born and raised in the hills of Tennessee. I decided in high school I wanted to design the best bikes and parts possible; I’ve been following my dream ever since. I love about every possible mode of cycling, mountain biking is the most fun, but if I’m on two wheels I’m happy.