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Six Gap Century Three Gap Fifty Cylcing North Georgia 3 6Today, I had my ass handed to me in 11,230 different ways. For many cyclists, completing a 100 mile bike ride or century, in a single day represents a significant milestone- a true notch in their belt.  In January of 2010 I set the goal of completing my first century ride with Team In Training that June. With a lot of time in the saddle and encouragement from friends, family and teammates I completed that century ride- and about five others since. 

Six Gap Century Three Gap fifty 6 gap 3 gap 2011

Out of the Gate

Like many goals reached, their attainment reveals more possibilities- opening the doors to the potential for further accomplishment.   Century rides are no different; and while completing any century is a big win- I have since learned that there are Centuries…then there are Centuries.  Throughout Georgia, the Southeastern US and perhaps the entire East Coast no other Century holds the position of the Six Gap Century held in the mountains of North Georgia near the beautiful town of Dahlonega.  Riders who successfully complete Six Gap proudly wear the coveted jersey back on their local rides- to the envy of fellow riders.  In the cycling community, little else trumps the prestige of earning a Six Gap jersey.

Cycling Parent: Fear and Doubt
Liam Earns Polka Dot Jersey – North Georgia Mountains
A Day of Cycling in the Gaps: North Georgia Mountains

My Six Gap Century attempt was not preordained.  In reality, I was shamed into it.  As a test run I completed the Beautiful Back Roads Century in Cartersville, GA the previous week.  At 100 miles, the BBRC is a Century…but not a Century of the caliber of Six Gap-  it would allow me to gauge my fitness level in anticipation of the big ride in the Gaps the following week.  Even with riding an extra 16 miles due to a missed turn, being chased by dogs and experiencing a mechanical that left me riding the final 30 miles in a single gear I still finished- though admittedly not as strong as I would have liked.  Still, I had signed up and paid for Six Gap.  At the very least I could do the 3 gap fifty mile option, right?  I had done this ride and written about it on numerous occasions- I knew I could do 3 gap with little  trouble.

Bike Ride North Georgia Six Gap Centruy Three Gap Fifty 2011 Cyclist Bicycle

I hate you Brigette. Thanks for the encouragement 🙂

As 3000 riders departed the massive parking lot of Lumpkin County Highshool, some for the 35 mile Valley Ride, others for the 3 Gap Fifty and others for the 6 Gap Century I was still undecided as to my route option.  Did I have it in me to do the full ride?  Could I climb the dreaded Hogpen Gap?  On the medical side- could my patched up knee handle the strain of 11,300 feet of mountain climbs?   While discussing my quandary The previous night my friend and fellow rider Brigette,  simply looked at me and said “Rule #5”.   She may have added “bitch” in there too.   This statement refers to cycling humor website Velominati who keeps a set of rules for cyclists.  Our group has taken to slinging these rules around on group rides as both corrective action and as a source  humorous motivation, or just plain ridicule.    Rule #5 is “Harden the F up“;  and is the cycling equivalent of the Triple Dog Dare.   With this bit of healthy humiliation masked as encouragement coming from Brigette,  I was resigned to doing the full Six Gap. 

I am not going into a blow-by-blow of the ride in this article.  It was hard- perhaps the hardest thing I have ever done.  After 60 miles of riding, Hogpen gap did in fact “rip my legs off and beat my soul with the stumps” as fellow rider Graham likes to say.   I got off and walked twice.  I stopped at every rest stop.  The climbs at Neal’s, Jack’s and Unicoi gaps were fine and long- I cursed and swore as Hogpen and Wolfpen gaps inched slowly beneath my wheels and my legs turned into stone.  I screamed down the backside of each one and let the breeze cool my saddle sores, drying the sweat into a salty crust in my hair.  I wondered if the end would ever come- and 9.5 hours later it did.   My friends were waiting for me in the parking lot- asking what took me so long.   I have my six gap jersey and no one can ever take that ride away from me.. but I might let you touch it if you want. 

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youth polka dot jersey cycling north georgia six gap 6 three gap 3 atlanta bike cylcing bicycleSo after much pre-ride angst on my part as spelled out in my previous post  Cycling Parent: Fear and Self-Doubt, with additional angst provided by his Mom and Grandma, Liam and I headed up to north Georgia for his first ride at the Gaps this weekend.  We decided to arrive  early for an evening of camping on Friday, prior to the “big ride” on Saturday with an early 8 a.m. start time. 

Pre-Ride

We had our tent and gear all set up by late afternoon Friday when Liam suggested we ride our bikes to the town of Helen, located about 18 miles from our campground.  Helen is Georgia’s attempt at a Tyrolean Village and  as someone who lived in Bavaria for nearly three years, I can say that the Germans are not as into candy, knives, or anything air-brushed as much as shop owners in this tourist town would have us believe.   I was hesitant.  At 36 miles round trip, I did a quick calculation of our likely average speed, estimated time to both eat dinner and do a little site-seeing & people watching.  We should have just enough time to make it back before sunset- so off we went! 

Cycling North Georgia Helen, GA Bike Bicycle

Dinner in Helen, Georgia

It turned out to be a terrific ride and not only a chance for a nice warm-up before hitting the gaps the next day, but also to provide us with a chance to run through some last minute technical skills  and to shake out the bikes a bit. The route to Helen would provide us with many of the same types of roads (no shoulders) that we would be riding the next day.  Also, for most of our rides in Atlanta we are on residential side streets or bike paths.  The traffic on these roads, while lighter was also moving alot faster.  Liam and I practiced shouting “car back” or “car up” to warn about approaching traffic and move toward the side.  We also used the less aggressive descents to brush up on some braking and turning skills for the next day.  After a faux-German dinner we arrived back to the campsite for a fire and early bed time. 

The Front Three Gaps

Woody Gap North Georgia Cycling Six Gap 6 Three Gap 3 Youth Atlanta Bike Bicycle.

Liam Stroking Up Woody Gap

After a good breakfast of bagels, fruit and coffee (for Liam too) we met up with our group at Turner’s Corner, all of whom had woken up extra early to drive in from Atlanta.  We were blessed with a cold front which meant almost unheard of temperatures in the  sixties for the start of our first ascent up Neel’s Gap.  Liam and I settled into a nice rhythm and found our legs for the 7 miles of climbing ahead of us.   He pulled up a couple of times and I warned him to to put out too much too early because we had a lot of climbing ahead of us.  Neel’s would be the longest climb of the three  gaps we would be doing that day and as we rolled into the parking lot of the Mountain Crossing store atop Neels I looked back to check his expression- all smiles.  We re-grouped at the summit and did a bike-check (brakes).  I encouraged him to eat a Gu Gel for the upcoming climb up Wolfpen, explaining that the our breakfast had just been burned riding up this mountain. 

The winding decent down the backside of Neels was fast but safely paced.  My new friend Brigette hung back with us because she did not feel confident about her first big downhill either.  We made it safely to the turnoff onto Hwy 180 at Vogel State Park and immediately found ourselves beginning on Wolfpen Gap.  Wolfpen is not as long as Neels but is much steeper with several switch backs and pain inducing turn-ups at several points.  It is also deeply wooded making it difficult to visually guage how much longer  the suffering will last.  Liam dug into the climb and I could see that he was having a hard time with it, but then he relaxed, naturally focusing on breathing and turning the pedals.  I could also feel the burn and was glad for the shot of Gu Gel.  A short time later we emerged from the woods at the Summit of Wolfpen, re-grouped again and made our way down into the valley toward Suchess.  The Wolfpen descent was also taken at a moderate and comfortable pace.

Woody Gap North Georgia Cycling Six Gap 6 Three Gap 3 Youth Atlanta Bike Bicycle.We rolled into the crappy gas station rest stop at Suchess for a Gatorade refill.  There was a group of motorcyclists there and Liam was full of questions about the bikes- carefully pointing out that ours were pedal powered.  The turn out of crappy-gas-station-rest-stop onto hwy 60 threw us onto our final ascent of the day- the “short” climb up the backside of Woody Gap.   Liam was still pedaling strong, though I did see his line start to wobble a little bit at some of the switchbacks- a clear sign that he was getting fatigued.  Our group had already begun the descent before we had reached the summit, so we stopped for a brief photo op at the top before turning down ourselves. 

Now the dividends of the the previous 3 hours of pedalling and hell got to be cashed in with a nearly 8-mile long cascade down the gently winding roads of Woody Gap to the valley floor below.  At one turn near the top we were afforded a view of  patchwork  farms that looked like a green earthen quilt.  I accelerated next to Liam and pointed over too it which elicited a “Whoa!” from him.  I explained that we had pedaled up this entire distance and were going to ride back down there.   About 30 minutes later we arrived at Turner’s Corner General Store to meet up with the rest of our group for post-ride BBQ sandwiches and drinks.

I am obviously proud of Liam for this accomplishment.  Not many adults, much less 11 year old boys ever challenge themselves like he did today.  He rode 36 miles (72 total for the weekend) and climbed over 5000 vertical feet on his first ride at three gap.  This is something I did not even do until last season- and with great difficulty even then.  The completion of this climb is something that will continue to pay dividends for the rest of his life and will hopefully set a new bar for what he thinks he is capable of doing. 

In honor of the Tour De France currently underway, it was suggested that Liam should be awarded the “Polkapolka dot jersey mountain climbing Dot Jersey” for the ride he put in today.  The Polka Dots are awarded to the King of the Mountain for each stage- or the rider accumulating the most points (1st-6th) on each major climb of that stage.  Liam- you have earned your mountain goat jersey.  I am proud of you- on and off the bike.  Well done.

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As I write, it is the evening before Liam and I head up North Georgia to ride with the Sorrella Cycling Team for a loop around Three Gaps.  This will be Liam’s first ride in the mountains.  I wrote about my growing affinity for the challenging riding in the area between Dahlonega and Helen  after a solo ride along this route in  A Day of Cycling in North Georgia several weeks ago.  The basis for my nervousness is multi-faceted; but primarily centers around visions of Liam missing a turn on a winding descent and catapulting over a guardrail, him crossing the center line into oncoming traffic…the list of things that could possibly go wrong goes on ad-infinatum.  These are fears…they are things that are possible, but not  probable.  These fears are also compounded by the fact that I, by my own admission and at times to my own detriment,  am not always the best judge of what is “safe”.  This is called self-doubt.   So I struggle tonight with the basic curse of any responsible parent: fear and self-doubt. 

Lake Tahoe America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride AMBBR TNT Team In Training Atlanta Youth Cyling

Liam Riding up Emerald Bay, "America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride" 2010

Then on the other side of my invisible ledger, I also have to give weight to the fact that Liam is a very strong (but young) cyclist.  He often takes the lead on our weekend Kirkwood Sunday Rides when there is a question on the route.  His bike handling and situational awareness skills are solid and he is not prone to erratic or irresponsible maneuvers while riding…not always the case off the bike.  In fact, none of my fears or doubts have anything to do with whether or not Liam has the ability complete the ride- that is up to him, and to his credit he is eager and willing.  He has put in a lot of miles this year and he should be physically up to it.  I have to remember that he blew everyone on the Team-In-Training group away last year by riding up Emerald Bay for our 25 mile tune up ride for the 2010 Tahoe Century.  In fact, since the start of this year’s Tour De France, which he has missed watching only a few stages, I have seen a new willingness and ramp up in his riding- venturing out several times this week on his own. 

I wish that  this angst I am feeling could all be neatly tied up with a bow and make the decision definitive one way or the other- but that is almost never the case with anything worthwhile in life.  Things like love and passion and courage are never a sum-total of an equation; there is always a stepping off point where we must move through our fears and self doubt about what lays ahead and go with the information we’ve got.   My job as a father is to (safely) deliver a well-balanced, intelligent young man into the world in a few years.   I think that this challenge and riding in general is a move in that direction- so I am stepping off.   

A side note- this is all in MY head.  Liam is just pleased as punch to climb 6000 feet!

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six gap three gap 3 gap 6 gap north georgia cycling bicycling ride route map

Six Gap Route in North Georgia

Everywhere else in the world they are called passes– or at least where I am from.  Here in Geogia, the  low passage points over mountains are referred to as gaps.  In North Georgia there is an area situated between the mountain towns of Dahlonega and Helen referred to as Six Gaps- or simply The Gaps, that is comprised of 6 mountain passes that can be ridden on a single 104 mile bike ride of a lifetime, or three gaps for 58 miles.

The annual Six Gap Century & Three Gap Fifty ride is renowned as one of the most challenging rides in the United States with over 11,000 feet of elevation gain and grades of up to 15% on the infamous Hogpen Gap.  By comparison, the Tahoe Century ride I completed in 2010 was a paltry 6300 feet of elevation gain- or just more than half of the full Six Gap ride.

From 2003-2008 the area served as a challenging mountain stage of the now discontinued Tour De Georgia.  “Brasstown Bald is a very, very tough climb” said Lance Armstrong of the 2004 breakaway with Voigt to steal the win from stage leader Chris Horner.  Hors catégorie is a French term used to designate a climb that is “beyond categorization”, an incredibly tough climb. Most climbs in cycling are designated from Category 1 (hardest) to Category 4 (easiest), based on both steepness and length. A climb that is harder than Category 1 is designated as hors catégorie– such as Brasstown Bald with the steepest grade at 24 percent.

Today I rode the “front three” gaps- Neels, Wolfpen and Woody for a total of 62 Miles (the route map says 58).  I arrived at Lumpkin High School around 8 am and was wheels-down by 8:30 so as to try and beat the hottest part of the day in the afternoon.  I immediately appreciated the rolling hills along Black Mountain Road as a nice warm-up and lead-in to Neels- something I usually hit cold when starting the ride from Turner’s Corner General Store.  It was a gorgeous morning and I had the roads nearly to myself- even though it was the start of the July 4th weekend.  What little traffic there was consisted of other cyclist and motorcycles.

stone pile stonepile north georgia dalahnegaBlack Mountain Road becomes Yahoola Road just before the sharp turn and climb onto Route 19.  I stopped my to toss a stone on Trahlyta’s Grave at the foot of Stonepile gap before heading west to Turners Corner.  According to Cherokee legend, Trahlyta was a beautiful local woman who was kidnapped by an unrequited suitor.  In captivity her beauty and health declined and on her death she asked to be buried in her native hills.  Cherokee, and later whites, adopted the custom of tossing a stone on her grave as they passed in the hopes of receiving her beauty.  The Stone Pile now sits in the middle of the intersection of routes 19 & 60.  Read more about the legend [here].

turners corner general store cycling bicycle bicycling biking north georgia six gaps

Friendly People, Friendly Cows and a Great View!

I stopped in to Turner’s Store to replenish my fluids and  buy some preemptive Advil before hitting Neels.  This climb winds nearly 8 miles and rises to an elevation of 3097 feet to the top of Blood Mountain.  Any way you cut it, an 8 mile climb is just no fun at all- but my legs felt strong as I cranked my way along 129 in light traffic and made it to the top in just under an hour.  Situated at the the top of Neels is perhaps my favorite outdoor store in the world- Mountain Crossings.  It is not just any store- housed in a solid granite building that was build as lodging for the Conservation Corps workers during the depression. Mountain Crossings is a critical supply link for hikers on the Apalachian Trail.  Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the “AT” is a 2200 mile trail network attracting hikers from the world over.  At Mountain Crossings, the trail route actually goes through the breezeway between two buildings and represents the only covered portion on the entire trail!  The side patio offers a peaceful resting place for weary hikers and bikers while enjoying a panorama of the valley below.  It also gave me an opportunity to feel slightly superior to the “weighty” tourists who 0ooe’d and ahhh’ed at the view-   I had earned my view!

Wolfpen, Woody's, Hogpen, Neels, Unicoi,

Smile! No, really- Smile!

The screaming descent down the backside of Neel’s made the climb totally worthwhile- reaching speeds of 40+ miles per hour, a quick brake-check before heading down is a must.  From Neel’s, I turned left onto Highway 180 at Vogel State park- immediately heading into the climb at Wolfpen.  Featuring steeper, but shorter stretches between turns, the summit of Wolfpen tops out at 3369.  I was not feeling on top of my game at the summit- as the picture shows a forced grin bathed in sweat.   I downed both water bottles and a gel pack to replenish my energy before heading down the backside of Wolfpen into Suchess Valley for the route 60 tie-in.    In addition, my mysterious bottom bracket creaking returned on this climb- it is time to break out the sledgehammer of scientific investigation on this problem when I get home.  I need to develop new hypothoses.

The final gap ascent today was up the back side of Woodys which would deliver me back to the Stone Pile and about 15 miles from the car.  When riding with Team In Training I had made this ascent, but from the other direction- and I dreaded this last climb.  I could feel my fuel needle clicking on empty, it was getting hot and another 8 mile climb was not at the top of my list.  The cycling gods were with me though because I did not realize that with each climb up Neels and Wolfpen, did not correlate to an equal distance down.  The result was a 15-minute climb to the summit of Woody’s.  It was almost anti-climatic!  The descent was absolutely incredible though- nearly 10 miles of winding speed to the rock pile and I was on my way home!

The final miles back to the car were tough- I was now officially dehydrated and it was hot.  This ride kicked my ass- but it was wonderful and terrific and I cant wait to go again!  On the way home I stopped at Taco Bell on 400 and ate 8 soft tacos- yummy!  I have renewed respect for the Gaps- and am considering an entry into the main event this year for all six.  It is another 50 miles and double the elevation gain from today’s ride- but what if I did it?  What if I have what it takes to earn a coveted six gap jersey?  What if….

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