One of the objectives of my short riding trip was to hit two states I haven't mountain biked in yet. I saved Kentucky for the last day of my four day trip. Monday was forecasted to be a picture perfect autumn day. I drove up to Laurel River Lake, the backstop of the Laurel River Dam. I parked at the dam with intentions of hitting two parts of the Sheltowee Trace trail, a 200+ mile long trail that starts in Tennessee and runs the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. The first section contoured the lake. The second section followed the Cumberland River. I figured both parts would be easy riding and I could tick off 40-50 miles in no time flat.
It was the coldest morning of the trip, about 39F starting out, so I finally had to break out the arm and knee warmers. They soon came off, however. There was nary a breeze nor cloud to be found. Temps soon hit 60F. Four miles of road took me to the entry point of the lake section of Sheltowee Trace. Some minor elevation change here and there, but the trail was mostly totally hammerable, wide benchcut singletrack. Heavy leaf cover had me nervous, but I rarely encountered any surprises. The trail was very well designed and drained, but there were a few nuisance blow-downs in one section. It seems long dead pines hit by beetles are still dropping. Laurel Lake is very clean. You can see bottom a long ways out from shore. I finished the 8 mile segment of singletrack in no time, swung past the car to drop shed layers, then ventured out on the longer, part two of the ride.
The drop into the Laurel River gorge was harrowing. The trail became hard to follow along rock cliffs and became extreme hike-a-bike. I eventually abandoned the bike to find the trail, to no avail. It was full-on hands and feet bouldering. Eventually I back-tracked and found a Sheltowee Trace trail marker. The trail continued deeper into the Whitman Branch gully. At the bottom, it was nothing but moss covered truck sized rocks. I learned chamois in your shorts work well not only for saddle rash, but they prevent butt burn when sliding down a rock slab with your 30 pound mountain bike too. I managed to bloody both legs up bush whacking through this section. When I finally crossed the actual stream, things didn't get any better. A huge blow-down made it darn near impossible to get through with my bike. It was shear cliff to high side and impossible steep bolders to the other. A fall down in here was not an option. Nobody would ever find me. I spent a good 45 minutes to cover one mile of distance. This was definitely not a mountain biking route.
I finally reached the Cumberland River at the boat launch. I figured I was good to go now, as the Sheltowee Trace trail was supposed to contour the river all the way to Cumberland Falls. Nope. A bit more hike-a-bike kicked things off. Then I drop down into another gully, not as steep as the Whitman Branch. At least it had a newly built bridge over the actual stream crossing. But it also had a sign warning of bridge out three miles ahead and crossing was extremely difficult. What the heck did I just do? If that was not difficult, what would extremely difficult entail? After Sunday's debacle, I became half a brain cell smarter and decided to cut my losses here and now. I climbed back out of the gorge via the paved boat launch access road and headed back to the car. I figured I had just enough time to ride at Big South Fork, not far out of my way back to Knoxville. For the morning, I logged 22 miles in 2.25hrs with 1850ft of climing. That would be the extent of my Kentucky riding this trip.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee
Yeah, that is a long name, and the only National River and Recreation Area declared by congress. This is another area of Tennessee where rivers have cut deep into the plateaus over eons to create great chasms in the Earth. This makes for great riding and viewing opportunities. I still hadn't reached great vistas by bike on this trip, and I hoped to score some good views by coming here.
I got to the rec area around 1:30pm, kind of late to begin a ride in remote country after the clocks went back an hour. Interestingly, the central/eastern time zone boudary runs right through the middle of this park. There was nobody here. Looks like they pretty much boarded things up for the season. Fine by me. I wasted no time in hitting the dirt.
There is a loop referenced in the trails guide book I picked up I wanted to try. It is open to bikers only on weekdays. Hikers have sole access to it on weekends. The loop links the Grand Gap Trail with a section of the John Muir Trail, an 18 mile singletrack loop along cliff ledges. A few miles to and from the loop on dirt road brought total mileage to about 25 miles.
The trails were eminently rideable and meticulously maintained. I stopped for pictures frequently on the Grand Gap segment. Many of the ledges were Moab-class with free-fall drops of hundreds of feet. The trail never came freaky close, but I suspect if you bobbled in a ridiculously bad way in a couple places, it would be your last bobble. The trail came close enough to nothingness that I was accutely aware of what I was doing. Signs warned trail users of impending death if you weren't carefull. Porcupine Rim in Moab had a couple true no-fall zones. The most exposed bits on Grand Gap and John Muir trails required dismounts to walk out on them. The GPS track shows how many fingers the trail went out on. There were many, many photo ops. I did not expore very many of the spur trails. The sun was getting too low in the sky and I had to get a rental bike back before the shop closed. The sun was positioned perfectly for most view points though, to my back.
The John Muir segment was totally hammerable. It begged to be hammered, and I had surprising spunk left in my legs. Time was short anyway. I rode much of the John Muir trail at threshold pace, frequently hitting speeds of over 20mph on skinny singletrack. The trail seemed to climb for two or three minutes followed by a minute or so of floating above saddle, coasting, not needing brakes, ripping around turns at 20mph. Very high fun factor. I could not have picked a better trail to end four days of riding on. I covered another 25 miles, all on dirt, in 2.2hrs with 1590ft of climbing. That brought the day's total to 47 miles, 4.4hrs moving time with 3440ft of vertical. A fairly flat ride, but the unique terrain and vistas certainly made up for it.
Thoughts on the 29er
So I got in about 16hrs of riding in four days on a Gary Fisher 29" bike. I picked up on a few more nuances between 26" and 29" bikes. I was certainly impressed with both the climbing and descending performance of the big wheeled bike. I think a slightly longer wheelbase may have something to do with that. Big wheels mean bigger contact patch. That is good when going over obstacles, not so good when something grabs your wheel. You see, deep mud or roots that catch your wheel has more leverage against you and forces you to put more muscle into the bar. I suspect a wider bar could offset some of this. The biggest negative I noticed, and this may just be an artifact of the Gary Fisher Genesis 2.0 geometry, is it is hard to get the front wheel aloft. It seems the rear wheel is much further back. I found it very hard to wheelie up onto something compared to my 26" hardtail. I did not notice this as much when I demo'd a Specialized 29er. Definitely have to do some spec research between the two bikes. Overall though, I think the 29er concept is a net win for the type of riding I like to do. I will probably kill myself first time out on my 26" bike when I stuff the front wheel into some the big wheels just roll right over.
Looks like this will be it for cycling trips for a while. Had some good trips this year, four in all. Early April was a family and friends trip to the islands packed with riding. At the end of April, Brett Rutledge and I went down to Asheville, NC with road bikes for some "spring training." In August I went to Durango, CO for a week of high altitude riding, which I justified as "training" for the Shenandoah Mountain 100. I finally wrapped up the season with four days in the southeast. Last year I hit Arkansas and Oklahoma in December. I have six states remaining on my list to hit. Maybe next fall I can hit Mississippi and Louisianna.
Laurel River Lake Dam
Contour singletrack along Laurel Lake
What if this thing decided to give way as I crossed under it?
30 minutes of bouldering through this stuff in bottom of Whitman Branch
Singletrack on Grand Gap loop
Ledges across gorge on Grand Gap loop. Trail followed precipices just like these.
One of many vantage points hanging out over the abyss. River is approximately 600ft below.
Another shot of Big South Fork Cumberland River looking southerly.
One of a dozen or more natural rock shelters the Grand Gap and John Muir trails pass under. Archeologists say humans inhabited these areas thousands of years ago.