Wednesday, September 13, 2017

3rd annual Marji Gesick 100 blog post

Well folks, once again that wonderful time of year is here again! The Marji Gesick 100 is just 10 days away and i can hardly wait to hit the trails in Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming! Jenny and I will be making the trip up north of the bridge a week from today to get up there a bit early and "acclimatize" prior to the race (ride some sweet trails, have some beers and camp). If you've done the Marji then you know what you're in for already, but there are some changes this year. Just before Labor day weekend i had the chance to rip around up there for a few days checking out some of the changes and additions. I know Todd highlighted some of them in a social media post, but just to recap here's what i found:

Harlow Lake area - Riding from the start it's business as usual heading out on ski trails/two tracks towards the Harlow Lake unit. On this particular day i had the good fortune of riding the terrain after a big rain had come through making it that much more exciting. Top of the World was sporty to say the least, and normally it's not an issue to ride it but after slip sliding down the first mossy rock roll i bailed. With Angry Bear cut out this year you've got a bit more sandy road to ride which makes things easier, but the rocks and roots on Andy Gregg trail were super greasy when wet and difficult to keep it upright. Once you get through World Cup and back up the two track towards Forestville road you actually punch on past it on old ski trail which is a bit of a biatch but a welcome change. The additions of Ramblin' Man and Wildcat make the next miles way more fun, but i think Pine Knob will be a trail of reckoning for many folks. Once you arrive to Pine Knob it's time to dig into that well of patience and focus you've been saving up. If it rains or is wet, this section of the race is going to be very difficult.

North and South Trails - The North trails are some of the more beginner friendly ones out there so this will be a good time to sort yourself out, settle into the groove and rip some sweet dirt. The new Silver Lead trail is a hoot and much better than that frigg off sandy thing that we used last year. You'll punch it up the pavement after the trail and bomb down into the start of Lowes Trail. I didn't go ripping through there this time around, but rode it earlier in the summer and the construction will change things up a bit from last year. Once you get across 41 you can forget about taking easy street down the IOHT because someone decided to throw in two-track and ATV stuff all the way towards the black trail. Once you hit the core of the South Trails you're in for a good rip toward the main South Trailhead. Sometimes there's peoples here and foods and drinks and whatnot but no guarantees. Brace yourself for the next several miles because they're not easy. You punch it up to Gurly on the Blue Trail and rip down some buck nasty rocks which will catch some folks off guard. All i can say is stay high and tight to the right, if you start drifting left you're in for a ride. Once to the bottom you'll be riding some proper rocky singletrack around the mountain until you dump out onto Mt Marquette road. This is a steep gravel road that takes you up to Scary and so on and so forth. Scary isn't as bad as it seems, just steep. Once you bottom out at the Carp river be ready to climb one of the biggest continual ascents in the course. By this time you'll probably be feeling it and wondering why the hell you came here in the first place. Just ride your bike. There's a new section added in on the west side of 553 and i'm sure there's someone you can blame for it. Keep your wits about you as this climb requires some finesse to stay clean. It's business as usual from here until Jackson Park. In summary some of the biggest and baddest climbs are in this area so be prepared and pace yourself.

Negaunee and Ishpeming - Even though you may be at mile 65 or greater when you roll into Jackson Park you're definitely not half-way to the finish. The going is slow here on out and your patience and perseverance will be put to the test. Unless you're vying for a top spot i highly suggest properly fueling here, taking an extra minute or two to eat some solid food, put on some chamois cream, chug some extra fluids and find a buddy or two to ride with (especially if it's dark). Out of the gate you'll get into Humpty Dumpty. This is a new trail and i'm sure you've seen videos/photos. Once you get to the wall be smart about your decision to ride or walk. It's all of 10 feet or more to the bottom and it'd be a shame to end your ride here. Things have gotten changed up here and there for these two loops but the vibe stays the same; punch it up a knob, twist around and white knuckle to the bottom. You'll repeat this theme far more times than you thought possible. Even the fastest folks will be struggling to average 10 mph from Jackson Park to the finish. The good news is you only ride 25 or so miles before you're back at the park and your drop bag. Once again, eat some food, catch your breath and take a second to sort things out. If it's dark make sure you've got plenty of lights to last to the finish. Despite what the mileage says the last legs will take several hours. General theme is to keep your guard up, things get tight, twisty and weird out here.

Ok, so now you've got the rundown from a macro level on the course. The patented Todd hype machine has been going full gas since the day after the race last year and your head is a jumble of thoughts and fears. To throw you a bone here i'm going to tell you what i've done the past two years to get me through, what i've learned and hopefully a few tips that will come in use on race day.

Gear - First year i rode my hardtail steel bike, it worked but i definitely felt a bit thrashed at the end of the day. Second year i rode my Salsa Spearfish and was much happier to have done so. The great benefit to full suspension is that you can rip the descents a bit harder and not get so beat up. If all you've got is a hardtail then fear not, several hardy Marquette residents have completed Marji on full rigid singlespeeds and Tyler "Big Grin" Keuning has done it on a Surly Wednesday rigid steel fatbike singlespeed. So, you've got your bike and you're wondering what tires do i run? Burly tires. The UP folks know what's up and run some heavy duty rubber for good reason. Leave your Schwalbe Lightskin Racing Ralphs at home. Seriously, don't bring them. I've used the Schwalbes with Snakeskin casings but am pretty selective about my lines and stay light on the bike. This year i'm using Continental Mountain and X-king combo with Protection carcass in a 2.4 width (they run narrow closer to 2.25). Make sure you're tubeless sealant is fresh and not all boogered up like a weird stans creature inside. If you've got a dropper post then bring it, but it's not necessary. I've not used a dropper the past two years but will bring one this year as i'm used to having it and can "send it" harder with one. Now is the time to make sure your bike is dialed in and not Friday before the race. Don't even think about changing anything later next week!

Clothing - Bring lots of options with you, the weather can shift at any time by the big lake and you don't want to be caught out in a sleeveless tri-suit on Marquette mountain. We've been lucky the last two years with warm temps and no rain. It's going to cool down at night so if you plan to be out there a while put some layers in your drop bag at Jackson Park. I like to have lots of options so i layer up with things like arm/leg warmers, wind vest, thin under armor shirts, etc... if need be. Some extra socks and cycling caps never hurt if you're partial to using those.

Nutrition - You're going to want to err on the side of cautious when it comes to fluids depending on your goals. There will be times when there's no where to turn for extra water or food. Ten plus hours on the bike is a long time to be eating gels and drink mix. Sure it can be done, but it's nice to have options when you get to hour seven. I like a balance of gels, drink mix, solid foods and gas station type snacks. It's nice to have some salty treats to balance out the sweetness. Bananas, applesauce and rice cake bars will help keep your stomach from going completely sour if you're sensitive. If you plan on being out there a long time, i'd even recommend getting a sub sandwich, Border Grill burrito or pizza slices to stash at Jackson Park. Some good solid food can go a long ways mentally and physically. It's one thing to bonk riding your local 8 mile loop and a totally different thing to bonk riding AM/FM in Ishpeming at night. Don't be that person.

Maintenance - Through some skin care products in your drop bag and keep a chapstick and some chamois cream pouches in your Camelbak, they don't weigh much and can come in handy. It doesn't hurt to have some Ibuprofen, Caffeine, and salt pills handy just in case either. As far as your bike is concerned, carry a small bottle of chain lube along with your repair kit. Here's what i'll be carrying: tube, multi-tool, chain tool, quick link, tire plugs that look like small bacon strips, tire boot, valve core remover, Tire sealant and derailleur hanger. It all fits into a medium seat pouch and covers most things.

Your biggest foe on the course will be yourself. The hype machine is running in full swing to get you thinking and concerned about what you're getting into because this race is no small feat, but anything worth doing is never easy. Take the hype and use it positively to make sure you're ready to go physically, mentally and equipment wise. I've seen people ride 330 miles in Iowa on gravel in freezing rain that never race a bike the rest of the year. I've seen people with one arm ride the Leadville 100. I've seen crazy people ride Surly Wednesdays with one gear on the Marji Gesick 110. If you want it bad enough you can do it, and that's made easier without a time cutoff. Jenny made it nearly 80 miles the first year before pulling the plug in Jackson Park after the first loop. I was stoked for her to have made it that far on her Beargrease, but she wasn't happy without finishing. The next year she came back with more than enough lights and better prep and a resolve to finish. It took her 19 hours by the time she rolled across the finish in Ishpeming with Jim Draheim, and they were the last two to finish, but finish they did. The last section from Jackson Park to Negaunee took them 5 hours in the pitch dark. I had met them in Jackson Park to help her prep lights, check the bike out and cheer and when they left for that last section i had no doubt they'd finish. You're going to have to make a commitment to yourself to finish and not consider any alternative if you truly want to roll across that start line. Leave the negative thoughts and comments at home or at least don't mutter them aloud. you're going to need the support of others when you're down and when you see someone in a dark place do everything you can to lift their spirits. Look around yourself at the natural beauty of the area if you're pissed off about something, and if you're brain is going a hundred miles an hour just tell yourself "Just ride ya bike mon!".

Here's my challenge to everyone including myself, let's prove Todd and Danny wrong with the finishing rate. They've tried their best to thwart us from finishing, but lets push that rate through the roof. Let's get more buckles than they've made. Let's keep them up until Sunday morning when the sun is rising for the second time during the race. Let's hang out after we finish, go to Jackson Park or out on course and give riders that boost they need, and let's Thank Todd and Danny for an awesome challenge!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Trans Iowa V13 experience

Ok, so my Trans Iowa blog is a bit delayed behind some of the others, but nonetheless here it is! If you're not familiar with Trans Iowa or only have a vague idea of exactly what it is, i suggest heading over to Guitar Teds website and reading up a bit on it as it's a pretty interesting event put on by an interesting dude (Trans Iowa V13 website). I won't go into the gritty details of how Trans Iowa came to be, the history and whatnot but rather my point of view on the whole deal. I first stumbled across Trans Iowa on the internets many moons ago, and at the time the event had just been wrapped up for that year and it was tentative as to whether it would take place again, or at least so it seemed. A bookmark was created on my work computer under a vague tab labeled "bike stuff" and forgotten about as the summer of that year took over as well as favor towards my mountain bike. Flash forward to early spring of the next year and an email from one of my sponsors, Velocity USA, asking if i were interested in doing an event called Dirty Kanza as they had a free sponsor entry. Wasn't really sure what it was at the time other than a super long version of Barry Roubaix in Kansas. Went to Emporia that year (2015) and raced in some pretty rad conditions battling mud and rain. I'd say this is about the time i came to understand my capacity to enjoy the adversity in long, wet, muddy and rad events. Flash forward about a year after that experience, another Dirty Kanza and many gravel miles later to the winter of 2016/17. Surfing the interwebs at work i elected to dig through that "bike stuff" tab to see what other events i had either came across or heard of and saved for a later date when i came across that dusty Trans Iowa bookmark.

Weapon of choice

A cup of coffee or two and some mouse clicks later i decided it was time to fill out a postcard and follow the rookie procedure for trying to score a spot in Trans Iowa V13. There is a proper procedure in place for throwing your hat into the ring for Trans Iowa, and i would suggest if you want to do it (assuming it still exists) then you read them thoroughly and do it the right way. I dug a file folder made from card stock out of my desk, carefully measured the standard dimensions for a postcard onto it and as legibly as possible wrote down the required information, nothing more nothing less, and sent it via postal courier to Guitar Ted's attention. There's a lull in the time that you mail the postcard to the actual time that you find out if you've been selected (naturally) and true to his words on the post card lottery date names begin to show up in the roster. Clicking on that link that directs you to the participant list and scrolling down is something i'd compare to scoring an entry into one of those events that sells out in 2.5 milliseconds. Low and behold, there was my name hidden somewhere at random in the list of those chosen to undertake Trans Iowa V13. It was at that point that it truly sunk in that i was now obligated to ride my bike, regardless of conditions, approximately 330 miles on gravel roads in Iowa at the end of April 2017. No big deal right?

Bike preparations

Days turn to weeks turn to months during a mid-western winter. Fatbike racing demands my attention up until early March whence i can finally turn my efforts towards riding bikes on unpaved roads. Lots of things were going on this spring; preparing to "retire" from work, starting the Michigan Gravel Racing Series, and planning/preparing for our adventures to come over the next years time. During all of this in the back of my head i keep thinking "man, you better sort out what you're doing for Trans Iowa, seriously though...". I would say that my preparation for Trans Iowa may have been a bit unorthodox, but i suppose in the end it all worked out. I did spend some good time slaying grav grav in March, but at the start of our time off, Jenny and I headed south towards warmer climes and left the gravel bikes behind in favor or road and mountain biking in Appalachia. My original plan was to ride a Salsa Cutthroat that i built up for ultra-endurance events over the winter, complete with dynamo hub, K-lite bikepacking lights, USB charging, huge gearing range, and bomber components. Well, i only actually rode about 300 miles total on that bike up the the last week before the race and wasn't really dialed in to ride 330+ miles in Iowa. For once in my life, i used some of those thinks and thoughts from previous events and decided to stick with my tried and tested Salsa Warbird. This meant i'd have to run battery powered lights, carry USB chargers for my Garmin and phone and sort out a good setup to keep me comfy for 24+ hours on the bike.

A smattering of grub 

With mere days to spare i got the Warbeard all kitted out with aero bars i stole from my time trial rig, a smattering of Niterider lights, and battery packs duct taped and zip tied to random parts of my bike. It seemed my setup was all tuned in and then i looked at the weather forecast. Rain, rain, wind, rain, cold, and maybe some more wind for good measure. Hopeful thinking didn't do any good in this situation. Thrown for a bit of a loop i strapped a half-frame pack onto my bike to carry extra provisions and grabbed a bigger camlebak setup to toss more supplies into the night we were leaving town to make our voyage westward. Things were shaping up in an ominous way, don't get me wrong, i love adverse conditions, but the full stack up of the cold, rain and wind for 24+ hours was harshing my stoke level a fair amount. As we rolled into Grinnell, Iowa amidst the rolling hills, endless gray skies and tree bending wind the only thing left to do was shrug it off, and hatch a plan for survival. As competitive a person as i can be, with what was laid out before me i took a full on survival approach as opposed to assessing every gram i was carrying. I commandeered Jenny's small backpack from the car, stuff it with actual rain pants, jacket, two pairs of gloves, socks, and layers. My frame pack became engorged with calorie full morsels, repair items, hats, batteries, you name it. The last thing i wanted was to have to DNF because i didn't have what i needed, and i sure as hell wasn't going to skimp.

The pre-race Meat-up at the Grinnell Steakhouse was abuzz with talk of the conditions, strategies, gear selection and how to survive. There weren't many familiar faces there other than Salsa teammate Greg Gleason, whom i had never actually met in person, Ben Mullin and a few others. We sat down at a table with a group of riders including Walter Zitz whom i didn't know at the time i would literally ride the entire event with. As we finished our meals attentions were turned towards the actual meeting where knowledge would be dropped upon us on how things would go down the next day. Jenny and I both took note of critical times (4AM start), locations and race information then made our way back to the hotel for final preparations. Not much sleep was had that night between the 11 pm bed time and 2:30 am wake-up. Forcing the body to accept food in the middle of the night isn't the most fun thing one can do, but necessary. Rolling back into town in the pitch black night, blinking red lights of fellow riders could be seen all along the way, and re-assured me that we were all in this together. Standing around the start line, exchanging greetings, and making final adjustments the tension can be felt almost as palpable as the cool wind blowing through the streets. Jokes are made, a Subaru wagon is backed up and before we know it the sounds of SPD pedals engaging with shoes fill the small town and we're off. Small cycling lights are all we have to venture forth into the night. I'm thankful the rain has yet to start and riding in a pack is a possibility. Slowly and surely the group of riders dwindles as folks settle into their respective paces in alignment with their goals. I look around me, making salutations with riders whom i am not familiar. These are my people, these are the ones i will need to work with for the unforeseeable future, these are the ones i'll need to boost my spirit when it is failing.

Toeing the line

The first few hours pass rapidly and as the sun rises there are few of us remaining together in the front group after the first minimum maintenance hike. Despite the small grouping, i'm pleased with who i see surrounding me; Greg Gleason, Dan Hughes, Walter Zitz and Jackson Hinde. I figure myself most fortunate to be surrounded by riders of such pedigree and it helps to ease any anxiety i have over the journey ahead. The hours pedaling distill ones thoughts to the immediate and necessary only. Time to eat, have a snack. It's been 3 hours, should have a couple bottles down by now. Chain is grinding a bit, lube at the next opportunity. Navigation by cue sheet is aided with the daylight and lack of precipitation. My custom cue sheet holder with sliding ziplock bag is doing the trick. It's an exciting moment each time a cue sheet is discarded to the bottom of the pile. Event more exciting is passing through checkpoint one and being allowed to advance along the route. As the hills continue to roll i can't help but begin to feel the full weight of my pack and bike being pulled upon by gravity. My power meter has long since gone haywire so heart rate is what I've got to track effort. Dan Hughes is running a particularly svelte setup and it becomes a topic of conversation between myself and others. What's his plan for when the rain comes? What's he going to do when the night falls and all hope is lost (ok, exaggerating a wee bit there)? For the time being, his setup is paying off, Dan is spry up the hills and steady in the flats, pushing forward like a diesel engine in the freshly spread rock and dirt. I begin to feel the brunt of the pace as has Jackson, and we joke about our drifting backwards from the group to ease the struggle. Now, we have a sixth member in our group, the rain.

Resupply candid shot

As the rain comes crashing to the earth from the sky we all begin adjusting our barriers to keep us safe from its menace. The groups cohesion is tenuous at this point with a few of us dangling on the precipice. I've come to terms that the pace is too much for me, and if they go, they go. The rain increases in intensity and we begin to face the full wrath of a hefty cross wind. I know i can't wait much longer before i put on my rain pants or it'll be curtains for me. Jackson and I have an unspoken alliance at this point as we're riding in the back of the bus, and as i look ahead i notice Walter slow to a stop. The first flat tire in our group has reared it's ugly head in the midst of heavy rain. Walter tells us to keep rolling, but this is a great opportunity to don those rain pants and have a snack. The alliance has grown 3 strong. Rolling once again, our terrific trio pushes forth against the elements towards that storied checkpoint 2 at 190 some odd miles. Heads are down and miles are ground out with a steady efficiency. A point comes where Jackson must bid us adieu as our paces differ too greatly and we wish him the best on his journey. Pedaling onward Walter and i take note of increasing evidence of civilization and a perceived pep in our step has us pressing onward rapidly down a bike path and into the warm hearth of a Casey's General Store. Not long after our arrival and Jackson is with us once again. Gloves changed, hands dried, food consumed and chains lubed.

Respite from the rain

For the sake of monotony i'll just say that we continued our regularly schedule program until checkpoint 2. Walter and i together and Jackson not far behind. There is no prior knowledge as to when or where a "re-supply" stop will be so it's always a pleasant surprise to find respite from the rain. Arriving at checkpoint 2 we are excited to find a tavern whereupon we may find solace in pizza and beverages. Rolling up we're surprised to see Greg's steed in the bike rack and him inside. In my head at this point i considered it a feat to make it this far and felt unsure about my future. Greg was in good spirits, in his element gritting it out and pursuing Dan whom was somewhere in Iowa solo. Seeing Greg renewed my spirits to push on, and Walter and i elected to dry off the best we could and carry on. Jackson rolled in with some stomach issues but in good spirits. He calmly asked if we were planning to press on and we solemnly acknowledged this to be the case. Heading out the door of that warm and inviting place was no easy feat. The rain continued to fall as did the nighttime. Only 140 miles to go, over halfway, we can do this. I still had my doubts. Another town, another convenience store, another pair of latex gloves, more caffeine and another rendezvous with Jackson. I continued to be impressed and humbled by Jackson's fortitude as he pushed on behind us solo. Now we battled the headwind and would continue to do so to the not-so-bitter end. Taking turns pulling or drafting was fruitless with the sloppy roads. Everything became wet and filthy at the same time. With the increasing darkness came decreasing temperatures.

Somewhere in Iowa on a minimum maintenance road at 2 am with tiny snow flakes flitting about i came to know more about Walter. We talked to pass the time as we carried out rigs in ankle deep mud, musing about the situation but generally trying to advance ourselves along the course. As the night continued to smother my will i found myself wondering if what we were doing was safe. Perhaps i wanted a reason to quit, and perhaps it was because i could use a zipper. Whatever the reason i told Walter i needed to stop, eat and adjust clothing. On the lee side of a pole building i fumbled with everything, shoving food into my face and wanting to stop. As we rode on i even began plotting a way out of the misery, looking for signs of a town, somewhere, anywhere to find solace. None was to be had, and it was surely my darkest moment of the ride. I made my intentions clear to Walter who simply replied "well.... let's just keep going". And we did keep going, turn after turn, cue-sheet after cue-sheet. 100 miles to go, then 90 miles to go, now we were in double digits which are more comprehensible than triple digits at that point. Finally, it seemed we were destined for civilization of some sort, but every time it neared us we were steered wide and clear by the route laid forth. Is that someone coming up behind us? Looks like a bike light, hard to tell though? "Hey guys!" It was Jackson, incredible! "did you guys see that snow?". "yeah, we sure did". "Man it was cold last night, how are you guys doing?". "eh, we're doing alright, it's good to see you man". As the sun came up the way it always does we found ourselves at a 24 hour Walmart. The rain was letting up a bit and a consult with someone's weather app revealed that we might actually catch a break. The wind however had no interest in abating. Jackson called into the hotline on our behalf, reporting our intentions to finish and carry on. I think it took all the way to this moment to realize that we might actually finish this thing.

The last 60 miles were hell, pure and simple. I don't really know how Dan did it all night and the next day by himself and the same goes for Greg. I would guess it has something to do with the simple desire to not get caught and to catch the other. Doesn't really matter though, those guys did it, and it was damn impressive. As for us three, we stayed solidified as one, no man would be left behind and we would finish the damn thing together. Much time was spent travelling at speed of 5 miles per hour or less in relentless hills, wind and soft gravel. It didn't matter though, we weren't to be thwarted. Despite each 8 mile section taking roughly an hour we found ourselves at the finish line roughly around noon as far as i can recall. Walter had no brakes so we sent him up the middle and matched our speed to his. I was happy to finish, happy to have those two with me and happy to get my ass off the saddle. Coherence was minimal at this point, 32 hours of Iowa had happened to us and the mission was to get warm and sleep. Someone told us there was a guy out there on a single speed that had a chance of finishing. I would have liked to greet him at the finish but the van beckoned me to rest.

The Terrific Trio; Myself, Walter and Jackson

Team Salsa; Greg Gleason and myself

There are differing opinions on Trans Iowa. Some folks like to offer ideas for what to change, what Guitar Ted should or shouldn't do, and various other inputs. Mark, if you're reading this, don't change a thing you don't want to and know that i'm truly appreciative of the event and experience you've put so much hard work into. The volunteers and first rate, some really good folks that take their time they could spend elsewhere and chose to be involved in such a unique undertaking. I count myself fortunate to have been able to just finish the event and it has expanded my capacity for enduring adversity. My wife is a critical part of the success of this journey, from driving my broken body home to just simply loving and believing in me. Without good equipment and support from the likes of Salsa Cycles, Velocity USA, Train out Pain, Sound Probiotics, Betalain, Wolftooth Components, Grand Rapids Bicycle Company, and 45NRTH (wore my Japanthers!) such an undertaking would be much more difficult if not impossible for myself. To all the folks who toed the line but didn't finish, much respect to you for simply just being there and giving it what you had. It's an experience i won't soon forget.

Here's my Strava for the ride

 The only reason my feet didn't fall off

No water in that pack either

The clothing that got me through

 The clothing that got me through part 2

Destroyed Warbeard

Big thanks to Joe at the East Paris GRBC for resurrecting the Warbeard

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Radical Sabbatical travels south part 1

I've been a bit delayed in getting a blog post up after arriving home last weekend. Life seems to be busier now that we're not working than ever before, but in a good way. We arrived back in Grand Rapids late Saturday night and promptly conked out for a good nights slumber in our own bed. Our first two week plus adventure was a great success, and i think we'd both agree that it was even better than we could have imagined. A large part of this is due to the great friends, old and new, that spent times with us along the way. From simple gestures such as paying for a beer or Gelato to feeding us and housing us for multiple days, all i can say is thank you! Our hearts are full from both adventures, good company and kindness.

Big Woods Brewing

First stop off at Brown County saw us meeting up with a Grand Rapids crew to ride some of the excellent trails and gravel that Nashville, IN have to offer. We rolled into town late Thursday and the only joint that was open was the Pine Room Tavern. As we strolled through the doors we were pleasantly greeted with live Bluegrass music, laughter and Three Floyds beer on tap. We knew right then we were on the right track. Eric Chase and Jay Morrison rolled into town a few hours after us and graciously let us occupy the floor space in their hotel room. The next days were filled with great riding, warm weather, delicious food and some fine conversation. The Big Woods Brewing company has some excellent food and i'd highly recommend the chicken wings and loaded nachos (these were a crowd favorite with our crew). We were joined by Tyler Keuning and Talon Tramper part way through our stay. As the weekend wound down our compatriots traveled back northward and we meandered into Brown County State Park to camp for the evening. Brown County State Park is only a little over 5 hours from Grand Rapids and thus make it a perfect long weekend getaway to camp, bike, hike and enjoy some craft beers.

Hesitation Point

Chillin out relaxin

The climb up to Hesitation Point
I'm lovin' it
Gravel train

I'll admit it was a bit strange at first with everyone heading home to be traveling further south and not back to a desk. Somehow we managed to get over that though. During some internet sleuthing i came across the town of Hot Springs right by the border or Tennessee and North Carolina, and from my brief research it sounded like a cool spot to check out. We made our way through Kentucky, into Tennessee and turned off Interstate 40 onto Highway 25. The drive along the French Broad river on Highway 25 was fantastic with the river wandering through rapids on your right hand side and the Appalachian Mountains surrounding you. Our goal was to find a nice campsite for the evening at little to no cost if possible. Just past the junction of 107 and Hwy 25 is a gravel road called Weavers Bend and it takes you along the river and into the Cherokee National Forest. We elected to take a chance and piloted the Transit over hill and dale to a cool bridge over a waterfall and shortly thereafter a campsite that was stocked with cut wood! Of course, the first site is never quite good enough so we kept venturing along the gravel path and located several other such campsite within a stones throw of the river. As dusk settled we chose a nice clean site with fresh cut pine and made home for the evening. While we were exploring we located the Paint Mountain trail and some other off shoots that allowed mountain bikes. Naturally the next day we geared up and began pedal down the road to the trail head. The climb up to Paint Mountain is scenic but quite steep and climbs over 1,000 feet in just a few miles. We were met with sweeping vistas and the sight of a locomotive winding it's way on a trestle in the valley below. The bench cut trail was certainly not for the faint of heart, but safe nonetheless. If you find yourself heading towards Asheville this is a great spot to spend a day and a night exploring before hitting the city!
Last night camping at Brown County State Park
Weavers Bend - Cherokee National Forest
Campsite on the French Broad River
Paint Mountain Trail

Looking to get some more miles and exploring by bike in, i asked Jenny if she wouldn't mind driving to Hot Springs with the van while i took the long way up and over the mountains through some convoluted path and naturally she obliged. Just south of Paint Mountain were several other peaks of interest with gravel roads and some Appalachian Trail crossings. I came up with what i figured would be a good route and ventured off on the Spearfish to see what kind of trouble i could find. Following the river back along 25 i turned south on 107 and after several winding paved miles found myself at the foot of Round Mountain looking upward at a serpentine gravel climb. I plodded along, taking in the views and exchanging surprise with a Black Snake in the road. Many miles into the trip i located the Round Mountain National Forest campground but found it to be closed until Memorial Day as with many locations of interest so i pushed on up the climb. As i neared Max Patch i noticed that time was not on my side and elected to turn around just short to make it back to Hot Springs before dark. This is where my adventure began. Being myself i decided to take some random forest road that was heading generally downhill as opposed to the known route. According to my somewhat reliable Garmin map it interested the road i was looking for (Wolf Creek road). After descending for some time and watching the map i realized that said road was diverging from my goal route and after some assessment found an ATV trail that headed towards Wolf Creek road and crossed with the Appalachian Trail. Bombing down the ATV trail was awesome and i quickly found myself on a proper gravel road much to my relief. Once again i was on the route, making good time and enjoying the fruits of my ascent. Quickly this all came to an end when i hit a logged out clearing where the road disappeared. Let's take a look at the Garmin, hmm, looks like Wolf Creek road should be just on the other side of this creek, let's wade across. Wolf Creek road wasn't exactly what i would consider a road, but certainly a two wheeled vehicle could pass carefully. Down i went, further and further into the green abyss. Relief swept over me once again as i found an actual signed road and a forest service sign declaring that Wolf Creek Falls were just a half mile ahead. With more pep in my pedals i pushed to the scenic spot, ah yes, waterfalls and a real road. Again, the road promptly ended, but out of the corner of my eye i noticed a huge line of stacked boulders, a tell tale sign of blocking off a road to vehicles. Up goes the bike on my shoulders and gingerly i began hiking up an over the rocks, through no less than a dozen bulldozer trenches and finally find what seems to be "Wolf Creek Road" (maybe 40 years ago....). The path was been overgrown with Rhododendron to the point of narrowly passable on bike or foot, and naming it after a creek was apt indeed as i found myself wading across it many, many times. I couldn't help but wonder who would ever find me it i met my demise be it by bear, snake or bike crash. Not to worry, i'll just take it slow until i find another snake and take off like the hole-shot at Iceman. Somewhere deep within the bowels of Wolf Creek i located a forlorn campground now abandoned and left to the wild, that's neat. What was only an hour or more felt like days and finally, after one more waist deep wade i found myself at a proper trail head and road. Of course i wasn't scared, ha, why would i have been, i knew this was here all along....
Gravel road up to Round Mountain
Narrow winding gravel up high
Logging clear cut, middle of nowhere
Wolf Creek "road"
The road is in there somewhere....
Whew, wasn't even worried....

Arriving in Hot Springs was a relief to be sure, and i was glad to not have been too late past my expected arrival. Hot Springs, NC is an Appalachian Trail town which became quickly obvious with the vagabonds wandering town, and naturally we felt right at home. In need of a shower we forked out some dough to camp the the Hot Springs Campground and found the accommodations to be quite nice, however if you'd like to have a campfire i recommend taking out a loan for firewood. Freshly showered we ventured into town to the Spring creek Tavern and Inn. The food hit the spot, but was nothing to go on about. The beer was cold and we enjoyed listening to thru and section hikers reliving wild memories from the AT. If you're into hiking, fly fishing, biking or just enjoying a quaint mountain town i highly recommend a stop off in Hot Springs.
Well earned

With the weekend approaching, and the goal of meeting up with Allen Wheeler from Grand Rapids in Asheville we set forth further south into the mountains to find a new spot to camp closer to our destination. More Googling led us to find a little campground in the "town" of Meadow Fork aptly named the Meadow Fork Campground. To be sure it wasn't closed i dialed them up on my cellular device while still in Hot Springs and was greeted on the other end by a most distinct Vietnamese southern drawl of the proprietor Miss Ann and were assured that we could find respite at her establishment. The drive along 209 south out of Hot Springs is simply beautiful along a winding paved road and i couldn't help but think how wonderful it would be ripping down on a road bike. One quick turn off 209 onto 1175 found us rolling into Meadow Fork and pulling into the campground and small country store. Being the city folk we are we had approximately $3.89 between the two of us and were poorly prepared to pay with anything other than a plastic card. Thankfully there was an ATM "just over the hill" in the town of Trust. Several wrong turns later, a single scoop in a sugar cone and a hefty fee later we were back cash in hand. By Michigan standards it might as well be August, but down south folks were just getting ready for the tourist season so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The campground was small but pretty, and the bath house had all the water pressure and warmth we needed. Miss Ann even let us occupy the small outdoor pavilion where we spent our evening cooking on the Coleman, having a tasty beer and watching the stars. All was well until i decided to sharpen a cooking stick for roast sausages over the fire and promptly attempt to remove the end of my thumb with a dull multi-tool blade. Thankfully i packed zero medical supplies (added to the list for the next journey) so we made do with Taco Bell napkins and electrical tape.
The roads were just ok
Hiking up Max Patch
Gratuitous sponsor plug
Our setup at Meadow Fork Campground

While in Meadow Fork we managed to explore Max Patch which is a bald peak on the AT with amazing 360 degree views and partake in a leisurely paced road ride through the valley. While not a quick stop off the highway it's a cool spot to launch some fun hiking and riding expeditions from far away from the bustle of most tourists, After a short stay we ventured onward to Asheville to meet up with Allen for the weekend. We knew right away we would like Asheville as we passed numerous road cyclists on the back roads descending into the city, and of course from its notoriety as a town for folks who like to ride. Short on groceries we stopped off at an Ingles supermarket to imbibe Starbucks coffee and re-stock. I had briefly message with an old road racing friend Jay Dore before our trip down but hadn't made any firm plans so i sent him a note to let him know we were in town. Jay responded quickly letting us know that even though he was busy working we were welcome to say at his place and set us up with instructions and an address. Fully stocked we drove into Asheville proper passing many interesting spots along the way, and i was excited to see that Jay lives just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway which is a major thoroughfare for cyclists and motor-tourists. We made ourselves at home at Jay's house, hanging a hammock in the back yard, exploiting the Wifi, and commandeering the bike stand in the garage to do some much needed bike maintenance. It was good to see Jay when he arrived home from work as we hadn't crossed paths in a few years with me not racing road anymore and he relocating to Asheville for PA school. After some good conversation and catching up we kitted ourselves in full roadie mode to hit the Parkway for an evening ride. The BRP is an exceptional route for road cyclists to enjoy the high country in North Carolina on well maintained tarmac. The evening found the three of us back in town at the Mellow Mushroom enjoying good food and cold beverages. Allen was due to arrive early the next day, and with his arrival we had scheduled an ascent of Mt. Mitchell which is the highest point east of the Mississippi.
Taking over Jay's backyard
Rolling with BamBam on the BRP
Jenny getting it done

Allen arrive early that next morning after driving through the night from home to North Carolina. Being a night shift guy i suppose he's used to strange hours, but nonetheless i was impressed by his will to drive 11 hours then saddle up on a bike to ride 94 miles and 10,000 plus feet of elevation. Jenny elected to ride a shorter loop, joining us for the first portion of the ride up Elk Mountain then returning via the BRP. Jay equipped us with some good local route knowledge to take us through the Biltmore Forest to the base of Elk Mountain. The tight twisty ascent is certainly one way to warm the legs up for the endurance feat that is riding to the top of Mitchell. Turning off from Elk Mountain and onto the BRP is a pleasant change in grade from 7-9 percent down to 3-5 for the most part. We plodded our way up the mountains and into higher vistas at our own respective pace reconvening at times for a snack and to check in. We stopped off at the Visitors center 10 miles from the turn onto 128 which takes you to the top of Mt Mitchell. It was a good thing we stopped as we found out that the concessions atop the summit were not yet open and that they had just opened the day before. It would have been a sad day indeed to arrive at the top out of water with no way to re-hydrate! Not wanting to waste time we pushed forward to the summit and spent some time enjoying the clear skies and views. It's definitely not the easiest ride, but the rewards were tenfold. The descent from the top is blazing with speeds approaching 50 mph, but once you're on the BRP it's more relaxed with a few inclines to tackle before getting back to the city. Arriving back at Jay's house we were happy to see that his wife Kari had arrived and thus more conversation and good times were to be had. Our evening was spent having tacos and re-locating to Kari's Parent's house for room for the three of us visitors.
BRP selfie
Getting closer...
Great success!
Jenny recovering with Survivor and snacks

The next day all five of us met up around noon for an excellent 74 mile route through some small towns, up 215 to the BRP and back to home. Jay dragged us all along for the first portion of the ride, sharing local knowledge of the towns, routes and Strava segments. The big climb up 215 to the BRP from Lake Logan is no joke, and Jay prepped me with knowledge of the 8 plus mile climb and what to expect. With some halfway decent legs i gave it what i had to see where i stacked up against the likes of Brent Brookwalter and John Murphy. Naturally i'm not that fast but was pleased with what i was able to put down. Reconvening on the junction of 215 and the BRP we began our trip back towards home with a stop off at Devil's Courthouse and Mt Pisgah. Check my strava for this ride as it's an awesome route and i highly recommend it for anyone looking to do some road cycling in that area! Taking hospitality up a notch, Jay and Kari had us all over for margaritas by the fire in their backyard along with some great conversation and stories. Kari's parents had plenty of hospitality of their own to dole out, and kindly hosted us for Easter Sunday dinner with their friends. Jenny and I were continually in awe by the kindness that everyone showed us along the trip, but weren't all that surprised based on the kind of folks we know. The first week of the trip was one to write home about, but instead i'm writing about it on this blog.
Refueling pit stop
Devil's Courthouse
Evening fire and stories

Part two will follow shortly as i'm busy preparing for the Trans Iowa V13...