Vista 300 2019

Hey y'all, my name is Brad and I'm a mountain biker living in Atlanta, Georgia. I recently participated in an endurance bikepacking event called the Vista 300. The route that starts and ends in Reliance, TN and generally stays within the confines of the Cherokee National Forest, making stops through Tellico Plains, McCaysville, Ducktown and Benton, TN. Because it stays in national forest land, the route stays pretty remote. Often, there were long stretches of gravel roads that would leave me and my bike alone undisturbed by lifted trucks and mud tires. But I wasn’t always so lucky, I’ll circle back to that later. The route was put together by Kim Murrell, the founder of Chilhowee Outdoors, who jointly organizes the Mountain 420, which occurs simultaneously with the Vista. She also runs the Dirty 130 in September and the Death March Revival in December. If you’re interested in this route but fear the length may be too much, I would highly recommend either of the other routes as S240 weekender alternatives. These other routes run along some of the same roads in the area but doesn’t feature the singletrack. Any riding you do in this part of the country will definitely be steep but you will be well rewarded with incredible overlook views, picturesque riverside roads and fascinating geological features. When I was discussing the route with others who have done it before me, they always mentioned how beautiful it was. They were without a doubt correct. So I just want to take a second to thank Kim for her tireless efforts to put together a route that highlights so many of the best places Cherokee National Forest has to offer and for organizing the grand depart.

Leading up to the race (we’ll call it a race in this instance), I knew I wanted to keep my pack list to a minimum. Others may refer to it as a ride or a tour, and they are probably better off doing so. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the landscape when you’re suffering at the top of a climb or if you’re pushing sleeplessly through the night to get to the next checkpoint. However, the beauty of bikepacking routes like this is that every person rides their own ride. But for this event, I decided I wanted to try to put up as fast of a time as I could. As a budding bikepacking enthusiast, I had read several reports of riders pushing through the night with little to no sleep, carrying the absolute least amount of supplies, and thought to myself, “how???” I figured there’s really no better way to understand than to try for myself. After some discussions with my brother about what an ultralight sleep system looks like and after scrutinizing countless setups on, I felt prepared to throw myself fully into the deep end. My mantra, “pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal…” It was with reluctance that I had to add, “... sleep, repeat.” I chose to pack the ground cover from my 2-person backpacking tent, folded in half. On top of that, I laid my inflatable mattress and covered myself with an emergency blanket. If the weather was going to be poor, I was prepared with the rain fly and straps from my eno hammock. I also packed my rain jacket, an extra pair of shorts and a long sleeve thermal to sleep in. I brought to the start with me another wind breaker jacket and a pair of thermal leggings, but ended up ditching these after assessing the forecast the night before the race. I was thankful to not have to carry these since I was most likely only going to be using them for a few hours at a time. These were definitely luxury items for me, not a necessity. The sleep system worked pretty well and I never had use the rain fly, but after some consideration, I think there are ways to further simplify. Rather than unrolling a ground cover and blowing up a mattress, a Thermarest Z-lite unfolds immediately and is probably more durable on most surfaces. True, it is much, much bigger than the alternative, but it’s much, much simpler too. When you shift your focus from tour to race, you start to understand that time is of the essence. If you’re going to spend time not moving, aka sleeping, then you need to be using that time as efficiently as possible. Granted, it's not much time saved, but every second matters. And the simplicity of it goes a long way too. When you're scraping the bottom of the barrel for the last bit of energy and then you decide to sleep, dealing with a complicated sleep system can be a huge drain on your emotion. I also brought with me a wool cap, a baclava, four pairs of wool socks and four pairs of gloves. You may think it sounds backwards to ditch clothes at the start only to bring with me so many extra pairs of gloves and socks. But riding in the South’s summer humidity will soak your gloves and socks and the creek crossings will get your shoes wet. Switching to freshies mid race is quite a pleasurable experience, more than you might imagine. I’ve seen several riders end up with a DNF due to something seemingly insignificant like raw hands and feet.

This leads me to another gear choice that made a world of difference on this event, the Ergon grips. I highly recommend these to anyone who does any kind of distance events, if you haven't made the switch already. Not only do they provide multiple hand positions, but they offer a wide, flat contact patch to reduce impact on your wrist. The underside is also flat and works sort of like a paddle, which reduces hand fatigue from gripping the bars, especially while pedaling out of the saddle. The most important gear choice I made for this event was actually my gear ratio, I chose to run it singlespeed rather than geared. I consider it to be the most efficient even though most would consider it to be idiotic. In these events, you never make up time on the descents. I admit, time can be lost running ss on the flats, but this is hill country. Hell, the sister route is even titled, “The Mountain.” If I can spend less time climbing and if I can use the flats as recovery, I will be the most efficient over the course of the route. Granted, you have to able to turn over the pedals. It a biking event, not a hiking event. It's a given that I will definitely be bombing down the descents. I picked 30x21, which was about as low as I could go with the cogs and chainrings that I had laying around. I didn’t particularly want to spend any additional cash on a race with no entry fee, and no cash prize. So I also chose to run my 27.5+ plus steel hardtail with 29er wheels, an Ikon 2.35 on the rear and an Aggressor 2.5 on the front because “run what ya brung.” It wasn’t exactly ideal but that front tire actually rolls pretty well even though it’s heavy and has lots of knobs. It gave me additional traction in the singletrack when most of my packed weight was over the front end. So that combination of gears and tires resulted in about 41.75 gear inches. For you non singlespeeders, gear inches are calculated based on the ratio of your chainring to your cog, multiplied by the circumference of your rear tire. It's represented by the distance you will travel by one revolution of the crank. If we do some quick calcs, we can figure out that over the course of the 316 miles route, I would’ve had to turn over the pedals at least 479,564 times. Someone check my math. Pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal…..

Full packlist:

  • Front Roll:
    • Rainfly for hammock (no hammock) and straps
    • Ground cover
    • Inflatable mattress
    • Emergency blanket
    • Off-bike clothes
      • jogging shorts
      • gym/active underwear
      • thermal long sleeve
      • wool cycling cap
      • baklava 
    • Extra socks
    • Extra gloves
  • Left Crusher:
    • Filled up with bars and snacks
    • Pocket knife
  • Right Crusher:
    • Filled up with bars and snacks
    • Nuun tubes
    • Sawyer mini water filter and iodine purification tabs
  • Top Tube Bag:
    • Some snacks
    • Phone (main phone and old phone for music)
  • Frame Bag:
    • Hand pump
    • Sealant
    • Extra headlight
    • Electronics dry bag
      • 11,000 mA power bank
      • Wall outlet plug
      • USB-C and micro-USB cables
      • AA batteries
    • Trowel and toilet paper
    • Chain lube & rag
    • Cuesheets for backup navigation
    • Hiplok bike lock
    • Rain jacket
    • Zip ties
    • Toiletries
      • Wet wipes, Aleve, Benedryl, chapstick, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, bug spray
      • Contacts and solution, glasses case, toothbrush and toothpaste
      • Dr. Bronners soap and rag, butt butter, Tums, band-aids
  • Seat Bag/Roll
    • Repair tools
      • Inner tube (another one strapped to the frame)
      • (2) CO2 and applicator tool
      • Tire levers
      • Tire plugs
      • Valve cores
      • Master links
      • Multitool
      • Spare brake pads
  • On the Bike
    • Two bottles mounted to fork 
    • Bottle on downtube
    • Headlight on bars
    • Garmin Etrex
    • Tail light
    • Bell
  • On me
    • Jersey
    • Bibs with baggies over top
    • Helmet with headlight mount
    • Wrist watch
    • Gloves
    • Shoes and socks
I’ve got my bike all ready and did a commute shakedown on the Thursday leading up to the race. The drive up to Tennessee after work on Friday afternoon was gorgeous, mostly following GA Hwy 411 through farm country. I arrived at Flip Flop burgers in Reliance, TN, which is right on the Hiwassee River and it also where the ride starts and ends. When I walk into the restaurant, it’s easy to tell who is local to the town and who is a bunch of masochistic, dirt loving nerds. I think I’ve found my crew. I order a burger, hotdog and fries, except it’s no regular hotdog. This is the “Homewrecker” all loaded up with literally every topping you can imagine. You don’t eat it with your hands, you eat it off a plate with a knife there’s that many toppings. I thought about that hotdog frequently over the course of the next few days. I already knew that when I finished, I was going to devour two of those bad boys before I even took my kit off. Hell, maybe even three, who knows. So we’re all sitting around, eating burgers and hotdogs and drink beer around the campfire out back by the river, swapping stories of past events, sizing each other up a little, gawking at each others’ rigs and discuss our plans for the coming days. The sun sets behind the hills in spectacular fashion before the moon comes out to join the stars. We say our goodnights and slide into our sleeping bags. 

Morning comes quickly after a full night’s rest. The sunrise over the hills paints the sky in a peaceful gradient. Already Tennessee has shown its glory twice, with a sunset and sunrise, as a glimpse of what’s to come. Bike and equipment is all ready to go, just gotta kit up and attend a quick safety meeting. There wouldn’t be enough time for a nature break but this was probably for the best since I would need every calorie in me. At 6:55am, a few minutes past the target departure, Kim sends us off in a casual roll out from the parking lot. Some are still fidgeting with this and that, others are excited to start climbing and take off quickly. We head west along the Hiwassee on the road that follows a railroad track. The morning fog nestles in the valleys and the cows graze on their grass breakfast. I was instantly struck with the beauty in those hills. From Mile 1, I knew this was going to be a great ride. I’m spinning out with my gear ratio, eager to get up towards the front of the group but more than content to watch the scenery roll past. We make our first creek crossing around Mile 2, which wasn’t nearly as treacherous as it was hyped up to be. In years past, I’ve heard it’s more turgid than it was then. We continue towards Gee Campground where the trail around the perimeter is more often a low-lying muck pond than it is a trail. I begin to wonder how awful the mosquitos must be in the hot, summer afternoon sun. The intersecting social trails are confusing and to be honest, I’m not confident anyone took the exact route that Kim intended. But this is of no consequence because we dump out on the road very shortly before heading up the Coffee Branch horse trail. And when I say horse trail, I’m talking backcountry, heavily trodden, wet, muddy, loose horse trail. Oh, and did I mention it’s steep? Oh, and did I mention the sun waits until this moment to start radiating heat beams? My glasses are completely fogged over, I’m drenched in sweat, only 10 miles in at 8 in the morning, and I’m completely regretting my decision to run singlespeed. I was already second guessing myself as I watched Dave Chen hammer past and Stewart Miller beast up this climb on a much harder gear ratio than me. Was I even cut out for ss bikepacking? Do I need to walk this instead? Yes, I need to hike for a little because there’s no sense in blowing up so soon. Remember kids, Party Pace Wins the Race. Everyone rides their own ride. 

I don’t hike for long though as the grade backs off a touch and I hop back on the saddle. There’s a small clearing in the trees at a rock overlook. We pretend that we want to take pictures, when what we really want is some time to recover from that push. Austin Schreiner gets meta when he captures Eric Henderson taking a picture of me taking a picture of the landscape below. The three of us stay relatively close together coming into Tellico Plains, with the two of them riding together on geared bikes while I leap-frog them on the ss. It’s mainly gravel through that section with notable climbs being Ivy Trail and Fingerboard Road but nothing as difficult as the horse trail. I regain some confidence in myself after finding a rhythm (when I got the blues). I completely missed the piped spring that was marked on the route guide at Mile 29 so I rationed the 3 liters I started with until Tellico Plains rather than taking time to stop and filter. We crossed at least 3 or 4 water crossing where I opted to walk rather than get my entire drivetrain soaked. Even though my drivetrain is much simpler than everyone else’s and can probably handle mud and water better, I generally choose to try to stay clean rather than show off. Getting wet feet is to be expected anyways, it’s something you just gotta deal with. At some point during this section, I realized I had made huge mistake. I left my wallet in my car back at Flip Flops. I mention this to Eric and Austin before we make it to Tellico and they’re both kind enough to spare some cash. I had packed as much food as I was able to cram in my bags, but it wasn’t going to be enough for the duration of the trip. I could’ve taken a detour off the route back to the car after I ate everything I had, but thankfully these two top notch gentlemen were the epitome of sportsmanship. So huge thanks to those guys for helping me out. 

We roll into Tellico Plains and the pavement leading into town starts to get hot. We find Joe Urbanowicz and Andy Roberts at the Citgo on the turnpike already. They’d been there for about half an hour and they leave maybe ten or fifteen minutes after we arrived. The store had plenty of your typical gas station junk food and drinks but I was hoping for something a little more substantial. The options were slimmer than what was suggested on the route guide so I settled for two huge fried chicken fingers, a gatorade and a Coke. I start feeling antsy so scarf down the food, refill my bottles and take off down the turnpike while Eric starts messing with his seat and Austin finishes his snacks. However, it wouldn’t be long until they both pass me on their geared bikes while I spin out on the flat paved section following along the Tellico River. The river is absolutely gorgeous, the sun is getting high in the sky and I’m watching all these motorcycles pass, engines roaring, taunting me with the roars of their motors. I find the rock formations especially fascinating. Any fan of geology would love to think about the forces in motion that were moving those rocks and the time it took for the water to cut through, starting from a trickle and eventually becoming a roaring river. I also contemplate the efforts taken to pave a road in this type of terrain. Massive cliffs overhang the road in sharp protrusions. On the other side of the river, it’s hard to grasp the scale of the rock formations from a distance as they jut out over the river. The vegetation surprises me in its ability to find places to root. If a tiny sapling can find root in a crevice and grow to become a full adult tree, towering a hundred feet above the rushing current below, I can pedal my bike for a few miles, right? The turnpike turns left, away from the river but our route stays right on aptly named River Rd. It stays along the riverbank and I’m thankful because I get to continue taking in the river’s beauty. Eventually, our route takes a left and we start climbing. I pass under the turnpike where the motorcycle mufflers rumble up above. I snap a picture for Caroline with my jersey unzipped, flapping in the breeze. I come across Eric messing with his seat again and pass Austin in his granny gear. Singlespeed for the win. My strategy playing out quite nicely. The route stays on forest service roads for a while, nothing really notable until the Citico Creek trail. This trail was fun, some backcountry moto trail that was more like an unimproved forest service road than a real singletrack trail. You’ll get trails like this all over Appalachia. There’s old logging or mining roads that have been abandoned and are no longer used for their intent. But the bench cut still remains however clutter with new overgrown brush. It’s perfect groundwork for the motos to come through. They only need to come through once and they leave a tire track for mountain bikes to follow in reverse. So I bomb down this trail and it dumps out at Jake’s Best Campground, where the “piped spring” according to the guide is more of a creekbed. I fill up anyways, filtering from the trickle. I get a mile or so down the road and I come across the actual piped spring with the cold mountain water shooting out of the pipe at full capacity. I’ll have to note that for next time. 

I’m about 80 miles in when I hit the start of the 9 or 10 mile climb up to Farr Gap.  It wasn’t particularly steep that I recall, just long and hot. There were a lot of bridged water crossing that were very pretty. After Farr Gap, I bombed down the back side of the climb to Doublecamp Campground, a descent nearly equal in length but much, much shorter in time. Looking at the time and judging how I was feeling, I started to realize that I may make it to Indian Boundary before the store closed. I climbed a little more before the route flattened out on Indian Boundary Rd. Instead of coming in directly to the campground store at the top end of the lake, the route takes you towards the middle of the lake and you have to ride the trail all the way around the edge of the lake. The closing time was quickly approaching and I felt like I was so close to the store but also so far. It was also the time of day where the sun is low in the sky and giving off that golden warmth. Everything was gorgeous, I can’t help myself but stop for a split second to snap a couple pictures. I keep following the trail and finally make it to the store, with time to spare, at 6:45pm and 100 miles in. I rush into the store and grab a Coke and a Gatorade before they close. Joe’s already there of course, been there for half an hour with his dad. The store owners were super supportive and stoked to see some of us roll through so soon, before they headed home for the night. I look around for Andy but he’s not there and Joe hasn’t seen him either. Joe decides he’s ready to push on so I ask him who is in front of him. To my surprise, he says he’s the leader! Of course, I’m not surprised that it’s him, Joe is an incredible rider with ability and determination beyond his age (he’s only 16!). I’ve done training rides with him in the past where he’s been the one dragging me along, in a similar fashion to today. But I’m not surprised it’s him, I’m surprised because I had lost track of the front pack early on. The grand depart groups both the Vista and the Mountain riders together at the start. I lost the pack as I spun out along the Hiwassee and then the Mountain route splits around mile 50 or 60, where they do an extra 10 miles. This whole time I’ve just been cruising, doing my thing, riding my own ride. But now, if he says he’s the leader, then that means I’m second! AND I made it to Indian Boundary before they closed! I’m well ahead of my goals and expectations, which has given me a new drive. When I was planning the race, I figured Indian Boundary might be a good spot for my first rest, end of Day 1. But now I have many miles to go before I reach the point I want to stop. 

I’m changing out of my wet socks that I’ve been soaking in since the creek crossing before Tellico Plains and changing out my gloves when Andy rolls up. He tells us his gps took him the wrong way down at Jake’s Best and that he lost a lot of time and energy trying to make up time. Austin rolls up not long after him. We’re all hanging out with our rigs propped up against the deck while all of the campers are rolling through on their beach cruisers, confused as to why we would want to do something so ridiculous and difficult as ride 300+ miles on a gorgeous day like today. We can’t really explain it. We don’t really know either. So I’ve got fresh socks and gloves, sitting pretty in second place, and I roll out. I squeeze through the fence on top of the dam that formed the lake, and continue around the lake trail. I miss where trail hits the road since I’m distracted by taking in the views of the sun setting on the lake. Maybe the race is the actual distraction. I complete almost the entire lake loop before I realize I’m off course. I hate extra miles because they’re essentially negative miles. I’m doing extra work, going the wrong direction, eating up lots of time. Oh well, at least it was gorgeous and not a strenuous climb or something like that. Back on track, I head towards the Cherohala Skyway. It’s another 10 mile climb, paved this time. There’s surprisingly few people on it for the time of day, but it was nice so I won’t complain. This green muscle car passes by on a particularly picturesque windy bit. It looked like a postcard or a photograph out of a book. I get up to the first overlook where the sun is an orange ball of fire suspended right above the horizon and there it is again, a guy and a girl leaning on the hood of the car watching the sunset. What is this, am I on a movie set? How could it get more beautiful? I snap some pictures while conversing with a group of motorcyclists. They can’t believe that A) I’ve ridden over a hundred miles already and B) I’ve got 200 more to go. Sometimes I wonder if the answer to the questions from those campers from earlier lies in this moment right here. We do it for the glory. We do it to watch the jaws drop, we do it to make people gawk at our numbers when we post to Strava. We do it to catch the orange sun setting over the Tennessee horizon, casting a gradient like I’ve never seen anywhere else. Sure, you can see the same image on a poster or magazine somewhere, but to be there in the moment, there is no comparison. 

Finally, I make it to the top of the Cherohala Skyway and start descending down the other side. I start nodding off going 30 miles an hour down a gravel road in the dark. I’ve got extra weight on the bike and most of it is front loaded so I’m just hauling down this road and having those moments where you immediately go into dream state, straddling the line between subconscious and unconscious. That’s when I realized maybe it’s time to take a break. So I make it down to the bottom at the North River campground, which is essentially just a series of pull off camping spots right off the dirt road. There were a lot of people camping there so I decided to keep rolling for a little. I was feeling better once I had started pedaling again, getting some blood flowing on the flat-ish section. I was looking for an empty site but didn’t find a good one so I just decided to nap leaning up against the tree. Plus, it was only about 11pm or so and I felt like it was too early to full stop for the night, pulling out all the sleep gear and all that. I was really just suffering from a lack of focus, something that a quick refresher would easily remedy. So I set my alarm for 30min, closed my eyes and drifted off. This didn’t last long though because several cars kept passing, the campground was surprisingly very busy especially for the time of night. And then a light moving through the woods at a pace slower than the rest of the cars comes around the corner and I realize it’s a bike headlight. Who could it be? I figured it probably was either Andy or Austin. As the light rolls by, I see that it’s Andy, powering through the darkness, looking strong like a locomotive in the night. Oh well, still in third. Anyways, gonna finish this nap and get moving in fifteen more minutes. The alarm goes off, I’m feeling good, or at least significantly better than before. I eat a snack, drink some water, get on the bike, keep rolling. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wouldn see either Andy or Austin for the remainder of the race. Come to find out, both of them would end up dropping out at around this time. Austin unfortunately never left Indian Boundary, and I’m not exactly where Andy split off. I think he decided to sleep before riding back to the start. However unfortunate it was that he had to bail, I would like to point out how awesome it is that he had that easy out option, a really great feature of this route. The way the route seemingly meanders through the national forest, it never puts you too too far away from your car back at Flip Flops in Reliance. Granted, it won’t necessarily be easy riding necessarily, but significantly reduced without the need of  outside aid, assuming you and your bike are in working order. That seemingly meander is actually very purposeful and well thought by the race organizer. Kudos to her again for doing such a great job on event. 

Anyways, so I keep riding and I get to the climb leading up to the bonus climb that Kim suggested in the week before the race. You earn the KOM badge for being the first person to do it. Joe said he was going so I didn’t even think about doing it. Especially since i had just had to push up the road to get to the start of the bonus climb. It was super steep and I’m not even sure you can do it on a singlespeed. I hope someone proves me wrong though. I think Joe said he road almost all of it or all of it, I can’t remember. It would’ve been dope to go up there on another trip maybe, possibly on with gears so I can actually ride it. The view of the full moon would’ve been super cool to see. My strategy was to let the leader do it and hope that I can take advantage of the “lost time.” So I top out where the bonus climb starts and then bomb down the other side. I make it to the Coker Creek Welcome Center at about midnight or so, and of course, there’s Joe, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready go eat some miles for a midnight snack and trying to get me to ride with him. Alright Joe, pull me along, let’s rock ‘n’ roll. I was thinking about sleeping but sleeping is dumb. You can sleep when you’re dead. I fill up my bottles quickly, eat a little snack, chat with Stewart, who’s also there trying to sleep. He was crushing The Mountain on the ss like a badass, smashing this hardcore 36x22 gear ratio like a boss. So me and Lil Joe roll out, he’s hauling down a couple of these roads with all of the gears that’s got hanging off his bike. I wasn’t really hanging with that pace on my little ss even though I wanted to. But we get to the Benton McKaye trailhead and immediately the single track is a push straight up. We’re off the bike, we’re pushing, we’re pushing, more pushing (for about 45sec or so) and pushing sucks so I decide I’ll just stop whenever the push stops. We finally reach the first part of trail that dips back down and I’m like aight Joe, peace, stay safe, I gotta sleep now, maybe I’ll catch you later, maybe not, who knows. Probably not cause I don’t know how long I’ll sleep, however long I feel I need to I guess. So he’s off, it’s 3:30am and I set up camp right there on the side of the trail. No rain fly, just the ground cover and pad, using the fly rolled up as a tiny pillow. Some may say sleeping like a bum, but I prefer the term “cowboy camping.” I slept great, a little cold but not bad. 

The suns starts to rise and wow. I’m feeling refreshed and energized by the gentle awakening by the light of the sun. So I eat, drink, dig a little hole, did all the things you typically need to do in the morning. I’m about to get on the bike and Stewart comes up, pushing up the trail. We talk for a little about riding with one gear or something like that probably, who knows. He hops on the bike and takes off and I finally finish getting ready 2 shreddy. By that time, it was at the most perfect time of day. The BMT was so incredible the way that it was lit up with the golden rays of sun beams through the trees. I roll through a mountain laurel slick and flowers are in full bloom, with others littered all over the trail, still nearly as bright and white. The trail is fun, nothing really too crazy, but still definitely a backwoods style trail. I had heard that there were sections of the BMT that you could ride, but I wasn’t exactly sure which sections those were. So this was my first experience and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to top it. It was by far the highlight of the entire event, even more than the finish. Being able to be out there in that exact moment was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Having the route provided to me, having the ability to ride it, having all of the necessary tools, being able to ride to that exact point in location and time, made the entire thing worth it to me. Even if I had to drop after that point for some reason, that moment of ripping down this fast, flowy back country trail at 6 in the morning as you’re greeted by the sun around every bend and being as completely absorbed in the moment as possible is truly a gift. Every time I ride a bike there’s always a moment where all else falls away and I feel infinite. The momentum of the rolling wheels, the spinning, the repetition, the demand of focus on the trail, creates this kind of rush, this hyper awareness of being fully in the moment. But of course, these moments always have to come to an end and then you have to start climbing. In this case, climbing up to Buck Bald. The climb wasn’t too bad though, decently gradual. Made it to the top and saw several tents and a group cooking bacon that I really wanted to ask them for. But there were miles to cover so I turned back around, headed back down. crossed over the Hiwassee again, hopped on 68 for a quick minute and started up the other side of Kimsey Mountain Hwy, which I would end up riding later on towards the back end of the route. I tried to get water at Vic's but they were closed and didn't have a working spigot anywhere in the building. I had been saving water for a while, feeling a little dehydrated so it was a bummer that Vic's wasn't worth the time I spent messing around and then didn't even get water. So a little down the road I came across a church with one of the big spigots with the handle next to a covered picnic table. So I swung through there real quick because church was in session and I didn't want anyone to come out and tell me not to. I was in and out in less than two minutes probably. 

I started this road section for a while and I felt super slow on the single speed. Eventually, I made it into McCaysville after making some wrong turns on the north side of the state line, in the city of Copperown, the conjoined TN twin (maybe TN cousin, who knows in these parts...). I stopped and got a burger at The Copper Grill, right across the street. It has a patio area that is sorta closed off from the street but still outside, perfect spot to stow the bike while ordering inside. Drank like 3 Mellow Yellows because they didn't have Coke. Womp. And then it was the road section to get to Tanasi. It was pretty busy but the highway sections weren't actually as bad as I thought they were going to be. The cars were driving pretty fast but there was so much shoulder room on the side of the road that I never really felt unsafe. Went through Ducktown and headed towards the Brush Creek trailhead. These tails were very nice to ride after so much hot pavement. They’re pretty brushy, a lot of shade from the sun although it was still very warm. It’s not a demanding trail, easy to spin on the ss at a good cruising seed without overdoing it. It was around midday when I reached these trails so most of the other bikers were already done riding at that point, getting in and out early to beat the heat. However, I did see one other rider, also on singlespeed, which was cool. Made it to the Boyd Gap overlook and kept moving on to the Boyd Gap trail. Glad we hit it in that direction, pretty steep section, loose rocks, lots of fun to rip. The trail spit me out on the access road, took a left almost all the way down to the raft put-in where there’s a pit toilet at the Old Copper Road trailhead. This flat section along the river is techy because of all of the roots and some rocks and boulders in the trail. Again, I barely saw anybody out on the trail, I guess because the water was low, the dam was closed and it was already so hot. Eventually, I got to the big iconic bridge with the USFS badge commemorating when they had the ‘96 Olympics there at the Ocoee Whitewater center. Since I wasn’t on trackleaders, I figured I’d give some of my Instagram followers an update. At this point, I was 200 miles in at the 32 hour mark, making pretty decent time. So from there I started on the Tanasi trail system, beginning with Bear Paw from the bridge. Took a wrong turn at the loop because of poor navigation and ended up beasting the climb to the top of the loop for no reason. Had to turn around and bomb back down as fast as possible to recover lost time. That was pretty frustrating since it was no fault of anyone else except my own to go the wrong direction on the trail, which was fairly demanding especially in the heat. But no reason to beat myself up for too long, just try to make better turns for the rest of the race. So then it was Chestnut trail, which is another prime example of logging road abandoned, then overgrown, then resurrected after being turned into trail, a classic building block for Appalachian trail systems. So then comes the good stuff, Thunder Rock. This trail rips, so much fun, much more demanding fully loaded. Again, thankfully didn’t encounter anyone so I was able to smash the whole trail at my own pace. It dumps you out onto the gravel road, where you’re supposed to turn left/up and start climbing. I decided that I wanted to take a break at this point since I had been riding for about 10hrs since waking up on the Benton McKaye trail. So I went down to the Thunder Rock campground to use the wash house. The campground was almost empty except for the host and some day use bikers parked in the lot. I hopped in the shower with all my clothes on to wash off some of the mud from my clothes and body. Then, I put on fresh socks and gloves, ate some food, refilled my water and was ready to try to push another 30, 40 miles or so to Benton. 

Started up the gravel road and passed a couple other mountain bikers making their way up to West Fork trailhead. Took West Fork over to the top part of the Chestnut loop where the route hops on Big Frog. Some gravel road for a while until I came to Sylco Trail. It was marked in typical fashion of the bootleg moto trails, a barely discernible entrance between some thick brush with some vague markings on several of the trees in the vicinity. This is how you know you’re about to hit the real good stuff. This was a backcountry trail through and through, complete with creek-trail and unavoidable poison ivy. I was riding along, noticing the three leaf clusters with red tint at the stem convergence, a little here on the left, some more on the right, then more left, even more right, now on both sides at once, brushing both legs, both arms, trying not get it on my face. And then I look up and there’s water rushing down the trail bed, er, creek bed? This real raw stuff is what it’s all about, true wilderness biking. The trail surface is also really rough with loose rocks, big roots, sharp edged boulders, everything you could ever ask for. It was mostly downhill with only a couple steeps I had to push up. It finally dumped out on the road and I was regretting taking that shower earlier because I felt so disgusting at this point from riding through so much thick brush. I had to take some more time to wipe myself down with wet wipes. I still felt sticky and gross but it was better than itching for the next several days. So then I keep moving, riding down below the bottom side of Lake Ocoee. There was one punch in the gut during that section, a real steep road before you get to the YMCA camp called Cookson Creek. According to Strava, it’s a 29% grade over a quarter mile. But it was paved so I didn’t have to walk it thankfully. So then I came across the Ocoee Dam Deli and tried to use their spigot out in the yard but it was turned off at the connection to the building unfortunately. Didn’t feel like going into an establishment like that by myself since it seemed like more of a sit down place. I learned later that it was much less formal and I should’ve just gone in. Oh well, guess I’ll just push on to Benton. Another section of pavement where I felt slow and ready to be on to the next portion. I make into Benton around 8 and try to stop in at the BP/Subway combo. Turns out the Subway is no more, just the gas station. So I head down the road, past the pizza place that’s also closed since it’s Sunday in rural TN, and take the only choice left to take, Sonic. Womp. Another burger place after my burger this morning. I get a chicken sandwich instead, which wasn’t good. The server wouldn’t fill up my bottles with water from inside. Womp. I asked for a refill on my Dr. Pepper (not Coke since they carry Poison Pepsi) and she wouldn’t do that either. Womp. Random guy asks me what place I’m in. Turns out it’s the gas station owner from up the street who talked with Joe earlier in the day when he rode through. It was a good question though because I honestly had no clue. I knew Joe was definitely in front of me but I hadn’t seen Andy or Austin at all and they may have passed me while I was stopped in McCaysville or Thunder Rock. So we talked a little, some more of the typical exchange, “You’re riding HOW far??” and “Where do you sleep??” I may have been a little short since the Sonic/Benton experience was really bumming me out on top of rolling slow through all this pavement. 

I head off, it’s just now dark and there’s a lot more pavement until Chilhowee trail system. I feel a little energized from the meal so I’m hamster spinning as fast as I can through the farmland. I see Needle Eye outpost on the map, decide to skip past it and not waste anymore time in the flats. Apparently, at this point, Joe was already at Needle Eye, fast asleep and some other Mountain riders were there as well. I think if I had stopped there and seen them, I also probably would’ve stopped to sleep. But I had done the first 150 miles to my first stop on the Benton McKaye in one day so I had it in my head that I should be able to do the second half in just as long (ha!). I was hoping to be at the finish by sunrise of the third day or shortly after. So I kept moving, spinning extra quick to try to make up time even though I knew in the back of my head that you can’t make up time on a singlespeed on the flat sections. 

I approach Chilhowee trails and I see the sign on the side of the gravel road up to the park. It’s quite over the top with warnings of super steep grades, telling drivers that the road is limited to vehicles that aren’t towing something essentially. Eh, whatever, how bad could it be? It was rough. First, a guy coming down the road stops and rolls down his window to mumble something at me. Excuse me? “[mumble mumble] There’s a rabid bear up there.” What? Is this guy out of his mind? I say alright and keep moving. “Well, I tried to warn ya!” Ok, dude. Whatever. I listen very carefully and I think I can faintly hear banjo music in the distance. He moves on and then I actually start to worry a little bit. I check my phone, Kim is texting me trying to figure out where the hell my un-tracked ass is up in these TN hills. I tell her about the bear “sighting” and she goes to check it out. She offered me ride if I wanted to bail. Little did I know I was in the lead but there was no way I was going to bail. A rabid bear? Really? Do bears even get rabies? I think back to all of my other bear encounters, all of which have resulted in bare ass as they scamper away. Get it? Bear ass? Bare ass? Anyways, I’m not actually really worried about black bears. How did this dude get in my head so easily? Maybe I’m tired. Nah, gotta keep moving. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. I flag down the next truck, a guy with his wife, who is much more cohesive and reassuring about the bear situation. He said he actually had seen a bear trap up at the gazebo, but no bears. Alright time to keep moving. Aaaand the road turns straight up. Too steep for my ratio, had to push for a while, which got my heart rate way too high for too long without realizing it. Just like in a cx race, as soon as you’re off the bike running, your heart rate spikes hard and it’s easy to redzone for too long so you blow up. I finally make it to the trailhead and I really don’t want to hang around for too long, because bears. So I start hitting the singletrack and I’m smashing it. The trails were really good midpoint between backcountry and Sorba, comparable to maybe East Armuchee and Dry Creek in Dalton, GA out past Snake Creek Gap. I definitely want to make it back out to this trail system during the day because it looked like it would be beautiful and fun to ride. But at this point it was maybe 11pm, probably closer to midnight and I’m just bombing down these trails as if I was fresh, no regard to the energy I’m using up to ride that fast on such demanding trails. Whatever, I’m having an awesome time on these trails after so much boring pavement. Some riders who do these bikepacking events come from the road/gravel scene and show up on drop bar bikes ready to crush road miles. Others, such as myself, show up with tires with too many knobs and try to endure the roads between the singletrack. So here I was, riding the terrain I came here for, finally getting to hit some primo trail, who cares if it’s past midnight? Who cares that there’s bears following the scent of the beef sticks in my frame bag? Who cares that I’m completely alone in a wilderness area without a spot tracker? Not me, let’s rip! Shred till you’re dead! 

And then I died. My body said, “You're dead!” and I had to dig an emergency cathole. I was kinda stumbling around in a drunken stupor, trying to see straight and trying get my heart rate back down. I finished my business, kept going to the next creek crossing where there was a huge tree down and I my brain also said the same, “You're dead!” Trying to figure out how to cross was too difficult, the downed limbs didn’t not offer any easy path and neither did the big boulders in the stream. I sat down, defeated. I let my bike fall to the ground in the middle of the trail on the side of the creek. Both body and brain were shouting at me, angry at my legs for continuing to pedal. I sat leaning against the bank, set a timer for 10 minutes and shot off into outer space. As soon as my eyes were closed, I was in another world, completely unreal. The Nuun caffeine still coursing through my veins. Brrring, Brrring! Times up, gotta get up, get moving. I struggle across the downfall and water and finish out the singletrack. I had to push more than I wanted, almost every time the trail pitched up. I fixed my pace and quit smashing through rock sections. I finally make it to the trailhead at the other side of the park and find a picnic area with a water spigot. By this point i was feeling pretty rough, so rough that didn’t even really want to lay down and rest cause I was hurting. I was having a hard time deciding even where to lay down or what to lay down on. It wasn’t a hard decision to make, I could’ve layed down on any of the benches but I wasn’t particularly in the best state of mind. Eventually, I calm down enough to think straight and decide to set an alarm for an hour and a half. It was about 2 I think and I was thinking I was closer to the end than I actually was. I really wanted to finish it out around sunrise. I figured I could nap and punch out the rest no problem. So i’m sleeping and a drunk couple walks through the picnic area looking for a place to hookup or something, which yanks me out of my deep sleep since I’m cowboy camping at a campground and I think I might be about to encounter a park ranger or even a bear. But they move along and I continue to sleep. My alarm goes off and I realize there’s absolutely no way I can keep moving at this point. I’m laying there looking up at the full moon and the low, flat clouds pass between me and the moon at a rapid pace. The moonlight is soothing and the breeze feels good, too good to ignore by hopping on the bike to keep riding. So I lay there game planning with Mr. Moon, who could really care less. Not much of a teammate. I decide I’ll just sleep till I feel better, however long that takes. 

The sun starts to rise sooner than I hope but now it’s 6am, my normal time to wake up and my body clock makes me alert again. I chug a lot of water, fill up all my bottles, eat some food, and get my mind ready to tackle the last 40 miles. I take off and start heading the wrong way around the lake on accident. I did, however, get an amazing shot of the moon setting over the lake at dawn. At this point my pace is slow again, despite all that effort earlier to move quick. This is a lesson on bonking, kids. Don’t do it. Remember, party pace wins the race. So I’m heading towards Archville and just before I get to Hwy 30, I see a pack of 4 big, mean looking dogs. They’re barking and growling at me but I’m on flat ground and can’t get speed. I take a few kicks at their and keep them at bay as I approach the main road. But I was too busy fending off the dogs to look at the gps. I take the wrong turn, down the hill and loose the dogs, secretly hoping they get hit by cars as they chase me down the hill. I pull off and check the gps, which shows me off course. Damn. Alright, let’s do this. I grab my water bottle in hand, and charge up the hill, heading dead-on towards the leader of the pack, who is charging directly towards me. I don’t flinch though and he pulls up, retreats back to the pack and regroups. I keep charging up the hill as they start swarm me again. I throw some water in their face and they freak out, but only momentarily. I do this several times, until I’ve gone far enough past their owner’s house that they feel I’m no longer a threat. That was an adrenaline rush and a waste of energy that I did not need. Oh well, guess I’ll hit this 10 mile climb now. I start up Kimsey Mountain, which is the same opening climb that you hit on the Dirty 130. Except this time it’s a little later in the day than the 6 a.m. departure time so I don’t get the sunrise views. It’s a long climb but it’s not too bad. And then finally you get to the top at the Smith Overlook. A note for future reference, if you get through Buck Bald and decide you want to cut the route short, you can cross over the Hiwassee River and climb up the back side of Kimsey Mountain and cut over to this point in the route. So after reaching the top of Kimsey Mountain climb, I headed down the road to the start of the Smith Mtn Trail which is basically another backcountry trail, but in slightly better condition, less overgrowth and a designation for all trail users including hikers, horses, bikers AND motos. This trail was a lot of fun, especially since it was pretty much mostly downhill and pretty steep downhill too. There were several sketchy/fun spots that pitched straight down the mountain through some tight, techy rocks, downed logs and deep ruts. When I reached the bottom, I turned right on the road, continuing downhill to a piped spring, wonderful refreshing treat at the end of such a fun section of trail. When I was replenished, however, the climb back up the road to where the trailed dumped out was a very steep climb. 

It was some more road until I got the Hiwassee Suspension Bridge. When I started across, Joe’s dad was there with his camera, to capture the moment. At this point, I was still unaware that I was in the lead and Paul made the comment that Joe was a couple hours behind me. I didn’t catch it initially when he said it, but I started thinking back on it further down the road. I thought, wait, did he say Joe was two hours behind me? There’s no way. What he meant to say was Joe is two hours ahead of me. There’s no way I passed Joe, when would I have passed him? He must’ve been off trail I guess, who knows. And then I thought about Andy and Austin, had they passed Joe too? If someone was in front of me, Paul would’ve mentioned them as well, not just Joe. Ah who knows, I’ll just keep riding. I hit the Powerhouse climb, one final kick in the nuts climb at the very end. It diverts away from the low lying riverbank and straight up the side of the mountain. I passed Reliance Fly & Tackle and made my way back to Flip Flops. I rolled into the parking lot and there were a few people casually standing around talking. Kim came over, she said, “You won!” I was like, what? What happened to Joe? She explained how he and some others were staying at Needle Eye last night. I couldn’t believe it, I was so surprised to find out I was the first finisher. But I probably wasn’t as surprised as everyone else who was following along with trackleaders, assuming Joe was in the lead. It felt good to be done, a little behind the goal I set for myself mid race but way ahead of any preconceived idea I had before the race. I had been thinking about that Homewrecker hot dog from Flip Flop’s for many miles as I was reaching the end of the route, so I was super bummed to find out that they were closed on Mondays. I took a shower and changed clothes before sitting down to talk with Kim about how the race played out. I could tell that my satisfaction with the route was a big deal for Kim. She was super stoked that I especially enjoyed the singletrack sections and also that I finished ahead of the other geared riders (she’s also a singlespeeder). Soon I was finally starting to feel relieved, and the after burn of fatigue was starting to set in. I hopped in the car to head up the road, back up the route to the Reliance Fly & Tackle where they had a small deli. As I was heading there, I saw Joe come past, riding strong, racing to the finish. I ordered a burger the store as well as a bbq sandwich, chips, a honey bun, a Coke and a Busch tallboy. I knew full well that each and every one of those calories were well earned. 

I went back to Flip Flops to catch up with Joe while I ate. He seemed to be in great spirits and from what it sounded like, he smashed the Chilhowee singletrack and the back end of the route with much more energy than I had ridden it. Maybe if he had known that I was ahead, he would have stopped less or ridden faster and caught me in the last bit. I know that trackleaders not only provides a valuable service for riders in the wilderness but they also provide entertainment for those “spectating” back home, watching dots move across the screen. But I think you lose some of the spirit of the race when you’re checking other racers’ positions during the race. For one, the mystery is lost for sure. It wouldn’t have been a surprise when I finished, and who doesn’t love a good surprise? And the entire idea of these events is that you ride your own ride. I do, however, see the fun of being able to know where you competitors are and using that information to make certain strategic moves. This shows my age, but I often wonder what it was like to navigate in the times before gps, before cellphones, before we blindly followed a screen. Sure, it may have been much more difficult, but isn’t that where the fun comes into play? Something about the “great unknown” forces you to rely solely on yourself and your own ability, which aligns with the spirit of these events. Maybe I should ditch the gps and see where I end up! I guess all I’m really trying to say is that by checking in with trackleaders, you become a part of the race instead of your race. Here’s an idea, how about time trial-ing a bikepacking event? Send everyone off in hour intervals, where you start time is randomly selected. The dynamics would change completely!

So once again, huge shoutout to Kim Murrell, race director, who did a fabulous job with the route and the event. Another shoutout to my competitors that uphold the spirit of the event and always display the highest level of sportsmanship. I look forward to competing in this event again, hopefully next year! I hope this write-up has been as entertaining as it was informative. My goal was to whet your appetite for ultra endurance bike racing with this big juicy slice of Vista/Mountain watermelon on a hot summer day. So get your gear ready and start training! Happy trails, go drink a beer.