51 Hours Racing The TNGA - Part One

We begin a 3-part story from Salsa product engineer Sean Mailen’s experience racing the Trans North Georgia bikepacking ultra earlier this summer.​

Click here to read Sean’s pre-race post…

This year the Trans North Georgia “adventure” started on August 19th at 8 a.m. on the Russell Bridge between Georgia and South Carolina. It was a beautiful morning, with the sunrise spreading golden light across the bridge and the other 75-ish riders. Derek Kozlowski (Koz) and Jeff Williams (Honcho) gave us a pre-race meeting. “Make sure your tracker is on, don’t be stupid,” and a prayer before we kicked off. Three days before, my family and I had arrived in my hometown of Chattanooga to 90’s and 100% humidity. I questioned my sanity in entering this event, and if I still could handle the hot blanket of moisture. Thankfully, when my dad and I had driven over on Friday afternoon to Clayton, GA, the temps and humidity had both dropped. It was shaping up to be almost perfect weather for the race with the chance of rain below 20%.

After the meeting, I said thanks to Dad and pedaled over to the front of the bridge. Staging for a 359-mile bikepacking race doesn’t matter compared to an NCC crit, but I wanted a good photo of my Cutthroat on the bridge. She looked ready to go, and my nerves were in a good spot. A boxer once said, “It’s ok to have butterflies as long as you can get them in formation.” I was feeling good and finally excited to start. All the preparation and packing had gone well, and I was confident in the gear I was bringing. The night before, my Dad and I discovered the Fenix flashlight I planned to bring had a bad switch. Thankfully, I had brought my backup. This would save my bacon later in the race. We also discussed the weather, and I decided to add a long sleeve woolie which I was thankful for at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning.

I got my photos and stood next to other riders as we anticipated the start and what was about to happen. I looked around at the other smiling faces and tried to get a good photo or two. Would I make it to the finish? Top five? How would the others around me fare? Doing events like this before, I knew how even the most meticulous preparation still
couldn’t prepare you for what can happen out there. The most random, unthinkable things can break. Nutrition can go south. Weather can play havoc. One small error, a bent derailleur, bearing failure, hole in a water bladder, ripped tire, or broken wheel can lead to you limping home. I knew my fitness was good from a solid race season and that my experience guided me to good gear decisions, but now it was me versus the course. What did it have in store?

Bobby Wintle pulled up and gave me a big hello. He’s a bike shop owner in Oklahoma and puts on the Land Run 100. He’s an incredible guy and always positive, plus he was also on a drop bar Cutthroat, so I felt a kinship with him. Most folks were on flat bar hardtails, so Bobby and I were the weirdos. I didn’t know many people doing the race except Bobby and Ethan Frey, a Salsa Brand Ambassador and coworker. I knew a lot of strong Georgia riders were signed up this year, but I wasn’t sure who was who. It’d be interesting seeing who would make up the front group and who I would end up riding with. My race plan was to ride smart, pace myself, and try to stay around top five. If that
worked, then I might be able to take advantage of the Cutthroat on rolling gravel and paved roads in the last 50 miles. I knew if my fitness was good I could get in a decent aero position on the Cutthroat/Cowchipper combo and make up a good amount of time. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, though.

Koz finally got us started, and the pedals began to turn in an effort for us all to arrive at the Georgia-Alabama border that seemed forever away. It felt good to get moving as it always does the first mile of any race. The pace was good, not too fast, and the group was talkative. At the first real climb, things began to stretch out and within about 15 miles, the front group already established itself or so it seemed. Later, I would learn I was riding with David Hall, Chad Hungerford, David Chen, and Ethan Frey. Ethan was the only guy I already knew but don’t get to ride with that much since he’s out on the East Coast. I knew he was a very strong rider and very fast on a mountain bike. He was on a Spearfish. Since we get some of the hardest singletrack at mile 260, I knew that his bet on dual suspension might pay off very well. He could put some time on us quick. I thought the group was fully established, but then I heard the whiz of tread on gravel come up fast on my right. A determined rider made his way past me and up towards David Hall. He kept going, and before I knew it, he was on the front and moving. This guy means business I thought! Eventually, I would learn that this was Hart Robinson, a rider I would spend a great deal of time with on this journey.

The “group” kept rolling up and over climbs. You could tell everyone was riding their own pace, but the combo of climbs and descents kept us together for a while. I’d gain time on the climbs but lose time on the descents. Everybody knew that we had 340 miles to go, so there wasn’t any need to crush it. I could tell David Hall, and David Chen were climbing especially well. Chad Hungerford climbed with sheer determination and mentioned this was his fourth attempt, hoping for a second finish. Everyone had setups that looked like they brought in good experience. David Chen’s looked to be the lightest. I was not envious of David Hall’s backpack or Chad’s hip pack, but to each their own. I was the weirdo on drop bars. I didn’t necessarily want to ride with a group the whole time, but I knew those with experience would know where some of these hidden trails and turn offs were. I knew the TNGA could be tricky in spots. I had a GPS, but it’s hard to tell you are off route until about two-tenths of a mile off course so any turns not missed would be helpful, at least for a while.

Chad warned us of a quick left coming up that is easy to miss. As we hiked-a-bike of babyhead gravel, Chad warned us that we would “suffer.” An ominous warning for sure, but true. Hopefully, the highs would be better than the lows. The trail then got confusing going through overgrown pastures and rough forest road. I got gapped but knew I could
make up time on the climbs. Koz and the documentary crew greeted us at the junction with another forest service road. It’s cool to see the promoters out on course. They love sharing their event, and you can tell they truly want everyone to finish and do something they didn’t think they could.

The road eventually turned onto seldom-used singletrack. I knew I was going to get passed in this section, paying for my drop bar setup, but it was still a blast to ride. Ethan and then David Chen flew by on the rocky, wet section. We did one of the first creek crossings of countless more. I paused for a moment trying to take in the beauty of the area. Mount Laurel made a tunnel of the trail, and the creek was flowing with clear, cold water. This, in the end, was why I came. This area is beautiful and probably too often overlooked. I felt like I was home for a bit, back in the Appalachians where I had learned to appreciate the mountains and adventure. I was excited to push myself and see what I could do, but in the end just happy to be here. I got moving knowing that if I lingered any longer, I would never leave.

The trail finally popped out into a parking area and then to a quaint mountain road. This little valley was beautiful as were the small old farm homes. You got the feeling that these
folks still did a weekly trip to town for goods. Once again, I was having to motivate myself to get moving. “Get Going!!!” I told myself. This section of gravel and pavement rolled, and I knew the Cutty was moving. I didn’t need to kill it, just stay within the range of top five as long as I could. We hit the valley around Dillard, and I got in my very comfortable aero position and pedaled away. I could tell I could make up good time on those with flat bars, so knew I needed to take advantage of these sections. I saw Chad again as we climbed out of Dillard. I knew Hart and David Hall wouldn’t be too far ahead, but I didn’t need to worry about catching them. Plenty of miles to go. I turned on the music and settled into what I hoped would be a good climbing pace for TNGA. I wanted to ride at mid-tempo, nice and strong, but not too hard.

I missed a turn on a paved road andEthan and David Chen ended up passing me as I realized my mistake. Once back on course, I looked for water since I was getting low at mile 44 already. Shey Linder had mentioned an old, concrete shack that had water. I found it, nowater, lots of trash – nasty. Just another minute down the road and I found David Chen filling up bottles at the campground – yes! Perfect. David was mixing Infinite in multiple bottles. I had considered bottles but just being able to fill up one 2L bladder and go was so enjoyable. I told him I would see him later and kept pedaling. Riding along the Tallulah River was amazing. Actually, a lot of the climbs in the first 100 miles are gorgeous. Creeks were full of clear water tumbling over rocks. Plenty of people were out swimming in the holes and waterfalls, others fishing. Plus, most of the climbs on the TNGA are shaded; trees are everywhere down here. It might be hot and humid down here, but the shade plus cool creek water made the climbing fun! I wanted so badly to get off and sit in the creek awhile, but I knew I had other business today, and I could come back later.

At mile 54, we came out on highway 76. It was hot, and I was going through water, so I knew I would stop and pay the Top of Georgia Hostel a visit. I originally didn’t want to stop here, but seeing the cold soft drinks beckoned me in. Ethan pulled up and we both slammed off-brand fruit-flavored sodas. THEY TASTED SO GOOD. I also bought a Coke and a Mello Yello. This wouldn’t be the first time I bought multiple soft drinks and stuck one in my frame bag for later. The caffeine and sugar revived me. I filled my bladder and asked Ethan if he was ready. He wanted to hammer a Gatorade and told me to go ahead. I knew another singletrack downhill was coming and figured he would catch me. I set off to catch Jon Livengood if I could since he passed us while we were draining liquid sugar into our bodies.

The next climb was up Wildcat Creek, and the entire climb was amazing. My gearing (32 x 10-42T) was exactly what I needed. I passed David Hall at some point, and then he passed me after the AT junction. Hart was nowhere to be seen, and I thought I may never see him again. He was doing a solid pace on the climbs and putting time into me on the descents. A lot can happen though, and I was really enjoying the ride. I turned off Unicoi Turnpike and began the climb up Tray Mountain having no idea what I was in store for. Corbin Creek seemed to climb forever. Once again, I was running low on water, so I had caught Chad but told him I was pulling over for water the next time I see it. I found a creek pouring over rocks and filled up. I treated it with drops so I knew I would need to wait 30 minutes, but it ended up being the best water I had; it was so good! I reached the top of Tray Mountain and began the descent. It’s a torn-up Jeep road that is all rock. You just kind of end up screaming down it hoping for the best. A rear derailleur could be ripped off at any time. You could slide out at any time. A Jeep could come up the road at any time. I made it to Hickory Nut and was glad to get back on singletrack. I would regret this thought. Hickory Nut is a forgotten trail with lots of overgrowth and cinderblock sized rocks thrown in. This was the only point where I seriously questioned using the Cutthroat with suspension fork. I felt bad for Bobby who would eventually hit this section on a Cutty with no suspension. At the bottom of the descent, you arrive in Helen and to a much-needed rest stop at Woody’s Bikes.

Woody and crew were amazing! The TNGA is a great event because of the people. Koz, Honcho, Woody’s bike shop, Top of Georgia Hostel, Tommie’s Ranch, and the folks at Mulberry Gap are all fantastic. They love the event, and they love the racers who come to take on the challenge. They are incredibly kind and go out of their way to help you out
when you arrive. These oases of sorts are much needed since along the course, most gas stations and country stores aren’t open except at banker hours. Woody’s had
free drinks, free bacon pancakes, and anything you needed for your bike. I needed a little oil on the chain, but that was about it. Ethan arrived and needed a whole new tire - he cut his charging down Hickory Nut. I arrived just in time to see Hart, David Hall, and Chad head out. After 100 miles, I knew I still had plenty of time to catch them but didn’t want to give them too much time. My goal was not to rush but always keep moving. This usually meant eating and doing things on the bike, but I needed to make sure I was good to go for a long night of riding since it was around 6 p.m. already. I forced more food than I wanted in my system and kept drinking tea, Cokes, and coffee. It was good to catch up with Jon a bit, and also talk with David Chen a little. I tried using my phone to let my family know things were good but it was having issues. Every time I would try to use it I wouldn’t have service, or it was so humid the touchscreen would freak out. I think I got one text out and started heading up Hogpen Gap.

I settled in and made it over, did the fastest decent of the trip, and then made it to the base of Wolfpen Gap. As I went up Wolfpen, I turned my K-lite on and continued listening to a Mike & Mike Podcast. I arrived at the gap and took a right onto gravel. Within about aminute, a light was coming back in my direction. I couldn’t believe it; it was the guy who was leading, Hart R. “I think we are going to wrong way,” he said. I checked but was confident we were on the correct road. “This is right; you were going the right way,” I said. He acknowledged and turned around. “How you doing?” I asked. “I’m ok, I’ve been better,” he said (or something similar). We got moving and didn’t say anything else to each for a while. Not too much to talk about really, we were both doing the TNGA, we were both getting tired, David Hall was somewhere in front of us, and the long descent was good.

After what seemed like an hour we arrived on a rolling gravel road. It was 11 p.m. on Saturday, and you could tell the miles and climbing were wearing on us. By that point we had done about 130 miles and around 16k of climbing. I told him I had to stop to eat since it was hard to see my food and needed to plug in my Garmin to the dyno to charge. He seemed happy to stop and stretch his back. We finally did our introductions and talked about how we were feeling. It was easy, to be honest since these events are tough, and
there was nothing to hide. We were both tired. We discussed strategy and what we had planned for sleep. I said minimal as did he, and we wanted to go until completely exhausted. I knew at some point I would figure I had enough and pull the hammock out for three or four hours. This being his second time, he mentioned something about Stanley Gap and getting to a certain point. I figured we could ride together for as long as possible, at least confirming navigation, and eventually split ways when somebody got tired. I figured he was having a low but once he got some food or sleep in him he would be flying again and I would see if I could keep his pace.

Stay tuned for Part Two on Wednesday…

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Cutthroat Mountain Biking Salsa Crew Sean Mailen Ultra Racing

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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen

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.


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