Brett, Dave and I didn't follow the 6-gap route proper. We started on the northern end of the loop, skipped the out-and-back section into Dahlonega, but added the brutal climb to the summit of Brasstown Bald. The total climbing would be about the same, but mileage would be less. The Georgia 6-gap is fully paved. The terrain is steeply sculpted by millions of years of erosion. Thus most of the gap roads switchback with a vengeance.
We parked near Brasstown Bald. My sadistic plan was to do the biggest, steepest climb last. The planned route was 86 miles with over 10,000ft of climbing. It was all mountain roads on the way there from Brevard, NC. Brett and Dave both had issues with my driving, as in nausea. We didn't get to Brasstown until late morning. The forecast was perfect, highs in the 70's and no chance of rain.
Unicoi Gap was our first. Dropping down from Brasstown, as in the 6-gap Century course, there's not much of a climb to the summit. It was Brett's first day riding, having been on business during the week in Atlanta. Dave and I had ridden 4.5hrs the day before in Pisgah on mountain bikes. My legs felt like poo. All I could think about was how bad Brasstown Bald was going to suck at the end of the ride. I let Brett hammer the freshness out of his legs on this one.
Over the back side of Unicoi Gap is a huge descent. It is non-stop switchbacks, some steeply banked for some insane speed around such tight corners. There were quite a few cars here, so had to always be careful. We bombed down through an area where a tornado must have gone through. No trees were standing and all the power poles were new. There were no buildings in this area.
Next up was Hogpen Gap. I didn't memorize the profile of this ride. My GPS track was just that, a popcorn trail to follow. There was minimal traffic on Hogpen. The climb lingered on forever with false summits. Every time I thought that was it, the grade kicked up to 10+% again. When we gained the real summit, it was obvious. There was a nice view. The climb gained at least 2000ft net. The back side of this one was more open. I reached speeds of over 50mph. Pretty freaky on a road you've never been on.
Dave beginning descent on Hogpen Gap
Next up was Neel's Gap. We were taking the southern portion of the course in reverse to the organize ride direction. I guess I didn't know this at the time. Doesn't really matter, as the climbs and descents are fairly symmetrical. After gaining the Neel's summit, another long descent brought us to the only planned stopped on the ride, Turner's Corner General Store.
I bought quantities of food and drink in direct proportion to how much trouble I perceived I was in. I was half cracked already, and we hadn't even done half the climbing. I wolfed down a bag of chips, hoping the sodium would stave off cramping that was sure to come. Dave's stomach was ornery, so he was sucking down ginger ale. We soldiered on.
Just after cresting a roller, I heard a strange noise from Dave or his bike. When Brett and I finally came to a stop, we turned around to see Dave hanging over his handle bars. Was he puking? We hollered out, but he was too far away for has to hear. He was still hanging over his bar. Not good, as our car was 40 miles away at this point. So Brett and I turn around and rode back up to him. Turns out Dave busted a front wheel spoke in one of those fancy Mavic wheels that use relatively few aluminum spokes. His wheel was f'd. A special tool is needed to adjust those spokes. The wheel went so badly out of true that it would rub hard against the fork. Dave's ride was over. We were lucky there was even a country store out here. There would certainly not be a bike shop. We had nobody to call. The plan was Dave would walk back to the store and wait several hours for us to ride back to the car and then retrieve him. If he found a ride, he'd meet us back at the car.
Now it was just Brett and I pressing on. From the direction we were riding, Woody Gap would be a 1700ft monotonic climb. Didn't know this at the time. It was quite warm now, and this was south facing. I sweat profusely. Brett set a hard tempo pace up this one. It felt a lot like Bear Notch from Rt 302 in NH, except a lot longer. Over the top, there was minimal descent before going into several miles of rollers.
Opening from Woody Gap
A small climb took us to Wolfpen Gap. From here there would be only one more climb. At least that's what I was telling myself. The century route normally comes up Wolfpen. The descent was quite exhilarating. Big sweeping switchbacks and very little traffic. Once we bottomed out and had to start pedaling again, the cramp demons paid a visit. We still had 15 miles to go, most of it uphill. I had no idea how I was going to make it to the car. It was looking like Brett was going to have to rescue two people. I stopped to eat about everything I had on me and drank most of my water. I felt dehydrated.
Brett set a faster pace heading up Jack's Gap than what I wanted to hold. I was still intent on summitting Brasstown and had to play things out very carefully. Surprisingly, if I held a steady tempo pace, spasms would stay at bay. It was only when I let up I had trouble.
The century route does not go up Brasstown Bald. It simply goes over Jack's Gap and does not take the left to the summit. It was tempting to just go down to the car on the other side. But I really wanted that summit. I wasn't sure how far it was. After couple minutes, a sign said four miles. I almost caved right there. It was so steep and my legs were becoming increasingly spastic. Then we hit the 20% grade section. It just kept going. Brett started bitching, looped back down to me and threatened to give up. I offered the keys. He turned around and continued up. It got so steep, that in my tired state of 10hrs riding in two days, my bike was pretty much stopping between each pedal stroke. Brett said f' it and went down without saying another word. I dared not put a foot down, as I'd never get started again. The 20% lasted another few minutes and then relaxed just a little.
The summit parking area came into view. I believe I was at 4400ft. The summit is at 4800ft. As I crossed the parking area, an unkind sign said no bikes allowed. WTF! I went into the gift shop there and asked when bikes were banned from riding to the summit. The woman said bikes were never allowed to the summit, that you have to take park service shuttles the last 400ft of vertical to the summit. Why didn't somebody tell me this? There was no view from the parking area. So nobody got to summit Brasstown Bald. I have learned though that maybe after hours it is "ok" to ride to the summit. Brasstown was quite possibly the steepest thing I've descended. I've never ridden down Kingsley Hill Rd in MA or the steep side of Lincoln Gap in VT. My rims were scorching hot when I got back down to Jack's Gap. I finished the ride with 85 miles, 10,100 feet of climbing and 5:30 hours moving time.
Dave was not at the car when I got there. Brett and I packed and headed south to retrieve Dave. As we pulled into the store, he was standing out by the road. That was odd, like was he just standing there for three hours? Turns out his bike was fixed.
When he limped back to the store, he met Wendy, a randonneur. She knew a bike shop in Dahlonega that might be able to help Dave out. Seth, the country store owner had the bike shop on speed dial. Turns out most of Seth's business comes from cyclists and he takes care of his customers. Jon, the owner of Dahlonega Wheelworks could help Dave out on this Saturday afternoon. Wendy gave Dave a ride into town, probably 15-20 miles away. Jon hooked Dave up with a bargain deal new wheel and would repair his expensive Mavic wheel and ship it back to him. Dave was able to ride back to Turner's Corner General Store before Brett and I met him. He hadn't been waiting long at all, in fact. Southern hospitality saved the day. Saved the next day too, as we had a Mt Mitchell ride planned early Sunday morning, and without a wheel, Dave would have been SOL until at least noon when shops opened.
Georgia and Vermont Gaps Compared. The organized Georgia ride
climbs only to about 3000ft at Brasstown, but adds in rolling
climbs to and from Dahlonega that we did not do in our ride above.
So how do the Georgia and Vermont 6-gap rides compare? Pretty close actually. I think Vermont might have about 1000ft more climbing. Hogpen Gap is much bigger than any Vermont gap. Geogia does not have Lincoln Gap. Nobody has Lincoln Gap. Summerson's book claims Lincoln Gap is the steepest paved mile in the USA. Two of the Vermont gaps have lengthy gravel sections too. The Georgia route is fully paved. Brett likse the Georgia route better. There is less "dead" time between gaps. In Vermont, you have 15 & 20 mile flat sections, driving up the distance, but not the vertical. In Georgia, you are either going up or down. The descents tend to be more entertaining (aka risky, adrenaline inducing) too. In my research of the organized ride, serious injuries are not unhearned of. The Vermont ride definitely has less traffic. I value that more than stimulating climbs and descents. I'd like to do the Georgia ride again some time, maybe hitting Brasstown after they locked the upper gate for the evening...