Some how I managed to forget to link up the Great Divide Race Blog in yesterday's links. A few riders were in it on fixed gear bikes, but I believe they have all had to pull the plug for various reasons including one stolen bike. Bike thieves suck!
It appears only 2 of the original 8 starters are still racing. This is a monumental task to take on. Here's hoping the last two can stay the course.
The connection between the Tour and the Frederick Watershed //
Almost immediately I conceived the idea of completing the whole thing as an overnighter. I knew the terrain down there: it's beyond rocky and has plenty of climbing, factors that keep your progress to a pace that I figured would make a single day trip un-doable. Some places, that amount of off-road mileage is not problem and further south in this same mountain range the infamous SM100 race is run, but the situation on the north end is a bit different. But two days for this, that seemed like it should be no problem. I've done some of the trails that make up "The Ring", 20+ mile rides down there, and while they were tough, tacking on another 15 wouldn't be a problem (at least physically) if the rest of the loop was like that. Throw in some camping gear, etc. and it gets more challenging but I figured that would be part of the fun.
I told a few fellow riders about my plan and it seemed everyone who heard about it wanted to do it. I knew it would be tougher for some than others, maybe impossible. So I decided when the time came to do it people would team up with their own crew, do their own research, be responsible for their own navigation and their own success or failure. Otherwise a large group would just be to difficult to deal with on the trail and one injury or fatal mechanical would destroy everyone's chance of completing the task. The trail is usually fairly remote and even if you can make it to the road, you are literally in the middle of nowhere. Hospital? 7-11? Yeah right. Horse farms and forest are pretty much it.
I decided on summer as the time to make the attempt. Sometime around the solstice so the long days would yield the most day light hours and the temperatures would allow us to travel without tents and heavy sleeping bags in order to keep the weight light. I was hoping to get down for a couple of trips in the spring to ride the pieces I hadn't done yet and really get a handle on the task. After we moved I had plenty to do and lots of good riding locally so it just didn't happen. When I realized I had some extra time off this weekend for 4th of July and my wife had a night planned with the girls, I figured trip to the George Washington was a good way to get out and ride. I would get down and get in one of those recon trips I had planned for spring. And then I thought, what the hell, these are the long days of the year, prime time to just go for the whole fucking thing. I needed some foolish partners and got Ricky d and Jay to sign on. We had a team.
I had been doing the leg work off and on through the spring, researching info I could find online, picking Larry's brain (he's done almost all pieces of the trail at one time or another) and studying maps. Once I made the decision to go down, I started try to chip away at the gear I would need to take. The most important things for surviving anywhere are food/water, clothing and shelter.
At first I was looking at a seat post mounted rack to save weight and to carry an ultra-light sleeping pad and a sleeping bag liner (no bag, it was warm out). This would be my "shelter". The seat post rack did not seem up to the task so I mounted my Jandd Expedition rack - add 2 lbs. right there plus whatever is strapped on it. Heavy, but solid and trust-worthy. A small seat bag held my tools and a spare tube. I stuffed some light weight clothes in a stuff sack to go on the rack too. On my back was a day pack sized Deuter pack - highly recommended German engineered gear - that would hold 100 oz of water, dehydrated food, energy bars/food, and other sundry items, each chosen only if needed. The group split up a water purifier, micro first aid kit, and stove and fuel between us. Food and water were the heaviest items, but also probably the most needed.
Friday night was spent packing and sorting gear at Ricky d's house and doing a last minute wheel build on Jay's rear wheel. We were in bed by 2:30am and up at 4:30am. Ricky must be doing something right, because his wife got up and made us a killer breakfast to send us off. By the time we got down to Virginia, got situated and rolled up to the trailhead we were 2 hours behind schedule. It was already getting hot and humid but spirits were high and we were stoked to roll.
The initial climb looked steep but not outrageous on the topo map, approximately 3 miles to the top. Despite our carefully selected gear and food, a few extra pounds on the bike and more on your back make a big difference. Knowing this we had all dropped below our normal SS gearing, for me the first time I've ever done this since I started single speeding many years ago. This felt right once we started the climb, I knew we had a lot of miles in front of us and I felt like a pack mule, the lower gearing seemed just right. The climb started off fairly smooth but quickly revealed patches of massive rock gardens, many that were beyond what you would ride uphill with out a loaded bike. On the bike, off the bike quickly became the norm but all in all we seemed to make decent progress. Once on the ridge we figured the going would be easier.
We were wrong. It was more on the bike, off the bike. Riding was pure heaven when you could do it and more of it could have been ridden if we didn't have all of our gear. But there was plenty that like a rocky trials course. Some spots were overgrown from little use and the large rain we've had lately. The trail is extremely well marked but even so, there were spots were the trail is nothing but rocks for the tread and over grown vegetation. You began to wonder if you had gotten off course until you found another blazed tree. The views were great and when the leaves are off of the trees are sure to be beyond words. We hit sections of singletrack that were fast and extremely technical as you descended the spine of a ridge and you wonder if you could handle it with the back end of your bike heavy like you've never ridden it. Then, as you finish a descent you can see a big, nasty point sticky through the trees straight ahead, the next peak that must be dealt with. Overall progress was slow, minor rack problems for Jay that needed repair, Ricky developed blisters on his feet from the hiking in bike shoes, I flatted from having too much fun on the rocks.
By this time I had already calculated we would never make the halfway point today. And that was OK, going into it I had mentally put our chances of success at 50% since we only knew a fraction of the trail. But our progress was far slower overall than I could have ever anticipated. When we neared the first reliable water stop in the early afternoon I broke the bad news to the team: we had to pull the plug at the water stop. Our next water stop beyond this, Camp Roosevelt, had been my revised target for the night fairly early in the day. At this point, it was twice the distance we had already gone and at this pace there was no way we could even come close to making it before dark. We were not equipped to navigate this terrain at night, with tiny LED lights and not knowing the trail and there were no other bailouts until we got to the next stop. There were no reliable water sources until Camp Roosevelt which we needed for cooking and to load up for the next day and we were pouring water out of our pours with the heat and effort. It was a commitment we couldn't make. We were unfortunately done early into our attempt to complete "The Ring".
Consoled with the fact there was a cooler full of beer and fried chicken waiting at the car, we took the Veach Gap trail out to a gravel road and began to make our way back to the start. Once at camp we regrouped and discussed our plan of action. We eventually decided to head down to Camp Roosevelt in the morning and start back on the loop down there, having heard tales of good trails in that area going by the name of Duncan Hollow. We consulted the map and came up with a rough plan and a few options, had dinner and beers and slept tentless under the cool mountain sky.
The next morning we packed the car and drove down to Duncan Hollow, tracing the ridge line we rode the day before as we drove the valley and just inhaling the beauty of the surrounding mountains. We may not have made our original goal, but it's pretty hard to have a bad time when things look like this and you've got lots of trail to ride with a couple of good friends.
With the bikes unloaded, the racks removed and the packs a bit lighter we made better time. It was about a 2 hour climb up Duncan Hollow with a couple of minor mechanicals, not a horrible climb but no easy thing to bag either. Once to the top we started down some fun stuff but it quickly ended at a 4 way intersection as we had to consult the map. A left turn and soon we were tearing down what can best be described as a trail that looked like a chute someone had unloaded a dump truck load of bowling ball sized rocks in. Bouncing all around I was tripod-ing it quite a few places just to save my ass and keep from stopping because that surely would have meant walking. After a bit of this we tapped into some of the absolute sweetest bench cut single track. So narrow it barely fits a tire, cut into the slope so that one mistake sends you tumbling down into a ravine. Mostly buff, very few of the early rock gardens, it was very, very nice. We missed a hidden turn at the bottom and wound up descending on the wrong trail. Luckily a flat tire stopped our progress and we realized what we had done before finishing the full descent.
Once back on track we quickly came to Waterfall Mountain and one of the toughest hikes I've ever done. There was absolutely zero riding up this section. We knew it would be tough when we had looked at the topo, lots of tight contour lines and the trail was a straight line up the mountain until the very top were there was a series of tight switch backs that made you wonder why they decided to throw them in at the end. With a bike it was pure misery and by now it was close to midday and very hot. We all tried to imagine what it would have been like if things had gone as planned and at the end of day one, body worn down, we had our loaded bikes and had to push up this monster. Because, on our original plan, this would have been the finish to day number one. Impossible is the word I think that came to mind. After we reached the top we jumped on Crisman Hollow Rd and took it to Scothorn Gap trail. At the beginning of the Scothorn trail Jay discovered two large chunks of watermelon sitting on a log. After a quick inspection he chowed down and declared them a worthy score. We climbed Scothorn and went across the ridge to the Gap Creek trail, where we descended back to Crisman Hollow and right into the middle of a hill billy family with their full on 4th of July camp site. They couldn't believe we were riding bikes on the trails there, but they were friendly enough and their little girl offered us some cookies. From there we looped back to Camp Roosevelt and finished it up.
Going into it I had mentally given us a 50/50 chance of being able to do the loop. This was based on my riding down there on the Elizabeth Furnace stuff, Mine Gap, Maneka Peak, etc and doing 20+ mile rides. Tough stuff but some of the sections we encountered really were well beyond that. A few times I thought to my self: Larry is probably laughing his ass off knowing we are trying this unsupported! Even with food and gear caches it would be tough.
So, my original plan had been to go down a few times in the spring for some recon to ride all of the parts I had not done (which was most of it). Since this didn't happen I had the bright idea of just going for it this weekend. Obviously not the right call, but we all had fun and learned that The Ring is way tougher than I thought. Maybe we'll try it with caches next year ;) In the end we got in 40 some miles of riding in two days when we planned on 71. Oh well, I still had fun and I learned a few things along the way. No matter how much planning you do, there 's no subsitute for actually getting out and riding the terrain.