9:20 Total Time, Short of the Sub 9:00 Goal but a Personal Record Nonetheless
The last few years I have put the Six Gap Century ride in Dahlonega, GA on the top of my “to-do” list for cycling rides.
It is at the same time the most satisfying and most stressful ride to complete.
This year was my fourth trip to Dahlonega to attempt this ride. That’s right, “attempt.” Finishing is not a given on a challenging ride like this. The ride crosses several mountain passes (“gaps”) on it’s way through the north Georgia spur of the Appalachian Mountain range. The passes in order are: Stonepile Gap, Neel’s Gap, Jack’s Gap, Unicoi Gap, Hogpen Gap, Wolfpen Gap and Woody Gap. If you counted there you might have noticed there are actually seven gaps, although Stonepile is not considered as challenging as the other six.
I mentioned this was my fourth attempt. In 2011 I had just gotten back to cycling and was not realistically thinking of doing the entire ride anyway. There is a Three Gap option which fitted better in to my training level at that time.
In 2012 I was at my lowest weight in recent years (around 215) and completed the ride without mishap, although I considered my 9 hours and 28 minutes total time to be very slow. I spent over an hour in the rest stops (“SAGs”) recovering from the long, fairly steep climbs.
2013 I was doing OK when I had a spoke break at mile 70. I limped along for 7 miles but there was no way I would be able to manage one of those long descents, so I abandoned the ride and got picked up by a support vehicle.
This year I had done a little more training and had taken off a few pounds, so I felt nervous, but confident I could finish the ride, and aimed to do so in less than 9 hours. I also had a new road bike with disc brakes, which would take a lot of the stress out of the steep, curvy (technical) descents.
I was pleased to travel to and from the event with Carter Lane, another East Orlando cyclist. We got along very well and it reduced the stress quite a bit to have someone to share driving, lodging and meals with. Thank you Carter, it was very easy to travel with you.
The Course and Venue
The ride is put on by the Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce. It starts and ends in the parking lot of the county high school, just outside the village of Dahlonega, GA. It’s approximately 104 miles in length, and advertises 11,280 feet of vertical ascent over the mountains. The weather is usually brisk, in the 50s in the morning and up to high 70s mid afternoon. Most of the roads are in pretty good shape but there are no bike lanes on the course, so you are sharing the road with Georgia “country gentlemen” in F-150 pick up trucks with loud horns and bad attitudes. Gets a little scary at times.
Parking is a problem. The event is so well attended that the High School parking lot is not sufficient. Combine this with “reserved spaces for dignitaries”, such as the Lt. Governor, there is a lot of overflow. We were sent out in to the field behind the school which was a minor inconvenience.
This Year’s Weather
There was no rain forecast for the course until well after 5pm. Initial temperatures were low 60s. Start temperature was 61 degrees. Expected high was 73 degrees. My Garmin shows a high temperature was reached of 84 degrees at 1:45 pm, near Wolfpen Gap.
For insurance purposes this is called a “timed event” and not a race. Seems fair enough as there are no awards for finishing first, although there are two “King of the Mountain” (KOM) contests for the climbs, one on Hogpen and one on Wolfpen.
The horn went off at 7:30 and the 2200+ riders began filing through the narrow starting gate, to cross the sensors and trigger the transponder timing. I crossed the line at 7:37 am, well in the back. May not have been the best move, as I was blocked several times on early descents by slower riders riding three or four abreast on the road, even after having been told at the start to ride single file if possible. Oh well, nothing to be done about that.
After maneuvering through traffic we started to climb Stonepile Gap, which is relatively short by Georgia standards but a mile and a half climb at 7% is no picnic for a Florida Flatlander. I managed to maintain 6 to 7 mph going up it. The descent after was nice, in the mid 30 mph range.
I skipped the Turner’s Crossing rest stop and proceeded straight to Neel’s Gap. This is a fairly long climb, a total of 9 miles but the steady climb part is the last 4 miles, averaging just under 7%. It’s not the steepest climb but it does wear away resolve. I passed Turner’s at 8:45 am and didn’t pass the top of Neel’s until 9:45 am. Not sure why it took me that long, I have done that segment in 45 minutes before. I certainly didn’t feel like I was dogging it. Still, it gave me plenty of time to make the first cutoff time: Bottom of Neel’s descent by 10:30.
My legs were slightly rubbery as I climbed up the next one, Jack’s Gap. It starts out slowly and increases to 10% at the end. This is the first of the “hard” climbs. This is also the next cutoff time: Top of Jack’s by 11 am. I pulled in at 10:45. It was good to see Ched Wells pull in right after me on his mountain bike. He truly is a cycling star.
I took a break at Jack’s to eat some food and relieve my bladder. Back out on to the road I went, intending to make my next stop at the top of Hogpen. I climbed Unicoi, rode past the rest stop, since that climb felt a little better on my legs than Jack’s.
I turned on to the Hogpen climb. It is by far the worst climb of the ride. It is long, almost 7 miles, and steep, reaching 15% during a 2 mile mid section that is just really, really hard. I was unable to make it up the hill without walking, and I stopped at the mid-point rest stop to refill water bottles. Most experts say to skip that stop and finish the climb. I walked one more time and made it to the top around 1:30pm. I had been hoping to be there by 1. So I was behind on my goal, which was to finish the entire ride in under 9 hours.
However, the hard part was over. The most stressful part of the ride for me by far, was the Hogpen climb. I had been fretting over it for months. Now it was time to finish the ride. The descent was the best I’ve had yet, and I credit all to having disc brakes. They made the descent so much more controllable.
I was tired when I reached Wolfpen Gap but I plodded ahead and managed to climb the entire thing without stopping. I rode past the rest stop and continued on to Woody Gap.
I reached there around 4:05pm, which worried me. I definitely wanted to finish before 5 pm, which would still be a PR for me. I kept the stop fairly short and took off down the descent. The last 16.5 miles are mostly downhill, but there are some steep climb sections which would ruin my over the ground average speed.
I left the rest stop at 4:08 and made it to the high school right at 4:58. That’s 50 minutes for 16.5 miles. Almost 20 mph average, which I was happy with. And, to settle a dare from my friend and running coach Brock Brinkerhoff, I went out and ran a mile and a half after putting my bike away. It was painful but I did it.
It wasn’t a goal setting ride, but it was my fastest Six Gap yet. I have to count it a success.