Sunday, October 15, 2017


AMLX 2017 - A Journey

So let me get something out of the way first. I stopped my journey on the route for a personal reason - nothing bad, just a reason that will remain private. It had nothing to do with a mechanical, or me wanting to just quit, weather, or anything like that. I stopped. We each have our reason for doing these kinds of events, and I walked away very satisfied with my journey. Am I kicking myself a day later? Will I a week from now? A month from now? Nope. No regrets. And I had fun - you all know it's a weird kinda fun doing these adventures, but I was on a bike in the Alleghenies and enjoyed every bit of it.

So I will tell the story. Since I had the privilege to help Koz with TNGA coordination this year, I set my sights on AMLX. It intrigued me because of the location, the time of year, and the ruggedness of those Virginia and West Virginia mountains. And mountains they are. I think sometimes our friends out west don't think much of our Appalachians, but that would be the ones that have not ridden the oldest mountains on the continent. A 2000' elevation gain in 5-7 miles is a tough drill, and here we do it over, and over, and over. Whether it is northern Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, or any other Appalachian state, tough pedaling abounds for the cross country bikepacker.

So on to AMLX. Chris Tompkins and others have solidified a couple of great events. The AML400 is now a Spring run, and the AMLX is a Fall run. The AML is a loop. The AMLX is a Billy Rice inspired 500-miler yo-yo from Blacksburg to the tip of the Maryland / West Virginia border, then back. And it is a beast. A bare knuckle brawler. And for my rookie run I admit I made some mistakes, which I will go into, and even though I did a ton of research, I underestimated what I was in for. Much like TNGA, this route appears much easier on paper and maps, than on the ground riding it. AMLX might not have that nasty 62 mile stretch of Pinhoti, but don't let that bother your ego. This is a challenge you need to do sometime. The event turnout has been small since it is just starting up, but I give you my word this is a tough but doable challenge for any TNGA vet.

So this year we started with a lucky seven souls from the War Memorial at Virginia Tech. Blacksburg is a fantastic college town with many options for dinner and hanging out the night before. Chris, Robert, Bill, and I met at Mellow Mushroom Thursday night and I ate a calzone as big as the plate. I ordered a 10" pizza to take back to my wife at the hotel, and got to eat half of it for breakfast Friday morning! Just like the college days, except sometimes back then we stretched pizza for 2-3 days.

Friday morning Kevin Greten and I cruised down the mile or two ride from the hotel to the Memorial. What a starting spot. The history of Virginia Tech surrounding you in the darkness, and the shapes of the ROTC military branches doing calisthenics and running through the shadows, and the lights, of campus. And to step in front of the well-lit Memorial with all of that lively activity surrounding you makes you itch to be going.

According to Chris, Greg Strauser had always been late to the start. True to form, Greg does not show and Chris says a prayer and let's us roll out at 6:10am. We soft pedal as a group of 6 out of Blacksburg down toward the New River gap through the first mountain. We all stay together until I blow a turn about 10 miles in and Bill follows me for a 100 yards before I correct. At some point I gapped Bill, and had lost touch with the others since I am slower anyway. So then I'm alone until about mile 20 or so until neon green Greg comes pedaling up behind me. We exchange pleasantries as he climbs on past, then I am alone. For... the... next... 24... hours!

So the first 87 miles are non-eventful, and gorgeous. After the first nice climb and descent of the day, there is about 20 miles of road that is flatter than any road in Florida. No joke. We all make good time, and everyone either grabbed and got gone at the Paint Bank General Store, or passed by. I grabbed one of those make-your-own shakes and threw some Infinit Mud in it. Wow! That was good.

Speaking of Infinit, I do very well with it. And I carried too much. My plan was to carry 3 days worth, then drop Day 3 at about mile 170. Of course my weight went down during Day 1, but it was too much weight. I had a combo Infinit/junk food plan - should have gone with 1 day's worth and then gone 100% gas station calories. Big lesson learned. I also carried way too much clothing/shelter weight. Even with the forecasted lows (which it never got down to) I had too much stuff. I could have been 6 pounds lighter in total from the start - that's a lot to haul around.

Anyway Paint Bank is about 55 miles in. The next resupply is at Callaghan, which is at mile 87. I got there rather easily after another relatively uneventful up and down. After Callaghan, you head up the ridge toward Lake Sherwood. The pedal to Lake Sherwood is paved and low grade so you are just cruising. I knew it would be a while to potable water again so I go past the singletrack turn and do about a 3/4 mile round trip to the bathroom/shower area of the park. I get there right at or after 9pm. Guess what time the bathrooms are locked up? Yep. Fortunately there are water fountains outside so I mix up 3 bottles of good water and Infinit.

So singletrack is awesome. Riiiight. Chris had said somebody that knew somebody, that once knew somebody, that pedaled the singletrack. I don't think I could pedal most of it on fresh legs and no weight. But I have no pride when it comes to HAB - I check that pride in at the start of all these adventures. So off I go, for maybe a mile? Maybe a little more. Then I pop out on an old roadbed called the Upper Meadow Trail. And it's awesome for about 100 yards. Now get in your mind this is an old forest road - not gravel. With time vehicles had simply worn the road into shallow two-track depressions in the old roadbed, which was now filled with assorted stick, leaf, and baby head rock debris. And it went up, and up, and... you get the idea. About the time I think I am topping out, that road intersects another.

This one happens to be called the Allegheny Trail. I look up with my lights and just start muttering. How long is this hill? Oh only a couple hundred yards at about an 8 pitch roof angle - loose, slippery, hiking. After about 3 of these I figure out I am on the ridge spine and might be doing this for a while. Yep. Buried giant elephant after buried elephant. Game clearings came and went. More elephants came and went. How many dang elephants did they bury up here? So after many more mutterings ( I said a lot of nice things about Chris ) and breathless HAB, I finally get to a point where my race plan profile says I have to start down. And finally, it did. Somewhat. You see, in the Appalachians, even the downhills have a lot of uphill in them. So I did descend quite a bit in elevation to about mile 120 and 18 hours into the ride. I decided it was time to stop for the night.

I am not one that can go days with sleep dep. My natural sleep is late to bed and wake with the sun. I should have pushed on another couple of hours and gotten to mile 140 or so. But I succumbed to the call of my nice comfy tent, pad, and bag. I went out solid. Right around daylight I heard a bike crunch by, and assumed it was Greg. I went through the wonderful ritual of putting on a wet kit and breaking camp, then rolled on down to water resupply. What water? Every blue line on my Garmin was a dry creek bed, or "run" as they are called in the Alleghenies. Evidently they are called a run because the water runs out of them very quickly. Later I would go by creek beds that were 30 feet wide filled with rocks and dust - drier than a mummy that died of thirst. But I found one water hole with clear water. So I treated - so far so good a few days later.

Day 2 started with a very long climb up and over the next ridge. It was relatively low grade, but my legs were a little sluggish and it took them a while to wake up. Only a couple of miles in I see Greg riding back down the mountain. He was smiling, but I could sense the frustration because of a rear hub that had gone bad. This was the second year that a mechanical had put him out a day or two in. I guess having it happen then is better than making it 400 miles before something breaks, but still. We chat for a bit and get to know each other just a little, then it's time for me to move on, and him to start the slow nursing back on blacktop.

Topping out there was a very nice downhill on gravel, then a long downhill on pavement into Mill Gap. Here I was on the search for water again. I found some where one nice creek had several dry runs leading into it.

The pedal for about 15 miles was rolling uphill through a beautiful valley. The shady areas were welcome comfort from the sun beating down on my back. Even though the temp was high 70's or 80, it felt much hotter than that, and humidity levels were getting up ahead of the remains of Tropical Storm Nate. Soon I got up into the neck of the valley and the terrain got a little more alpine-looking and cooler. Before long I popped out on Mountain Pike.

Mountain Pike is a fairly busy paved road on a Saturday, but not spooky busy. The climb was fairly low grade again with some steeper bits. My legs still were not fantastic but OK, so I just enjoyed the views and spun up. As I approached the top, I began to hear high-powered rifle firing, from both sides of the road. I'm sure some folks would be spooked by this, but I have grown up in the woods doing all types of hunting, and plenty of practice over the years. 99.99% of hunters are safe and responsible - the shots are very familiar for me. So I just slipped into a happy place thinking about going out onto a powerline in the Narrows at home. I was with my grandfather shooting my first rifle - a Marlin .30-30 lever action.

PawPaw as we called him never believed in scopes - he never used one. And he put plenty of venison on the table without one. I felt almost embarrassed a couple of years later when I bought my first scope and had it bore-sighted. I wanted him to go with me to sight it in, which he happily did. Of course he wanted to shoot after we got the shots on a pie plate. He was a tall lanky guy so the eye relief did not fit him well, and on the first trigger pull the kick of the Marlin popped the scope back and cut a perfect semi-circle around the top of his eye. I thought it had killed him it bled so badly. He laughed it off. I've followed that guy through the hot nights of Middle Georgia running the dogs after 'coons, and up and down Appalachian ridges in all kinds of cold, wet, windy weather, and continued that same "outside" affinity my entire life. Maybe that's why being tired, uncomfortable, gritty, and grimy on a bike doesn't bother me too much.

Speaking of bikes - back on point. So I top out and ride another rough two-track forest road across the top of the ridge for a while, then begin the descent into Bartow. It had been a long day without solid food and I was looking forward to something - anything - at Trent's. Like I said before the downhills have uphills, and that was certainly the case as the old forest road turned into a rough dirt road, then a little better gravel road. I was really anticipating that cold Coke and some Doritos, and it took me a frustrating for-ev-er to get off the mountain. At one point I ran across a couple of guys with a big dually and stock trailer blocking the road. We exchanged "hey, how ya doing?" as I lifted myself and the bike up and around the front of the truck on the road bank. He was smiling big and I said "Man I gotta get off this mountain!" He got a good laugh as he carried on and I pedaled on.

So finally at Trent's I walk in and immediately apologize to Kim (as I found out later) for being so stinky and dirty. She immediately told me she'd seen worse with a big smile, and I thought "yeah, I guess you have" working at a general store. That's not a West Virginia comment - that's just a human comment. What they probably don't see as much is a bikepacker walking in with a thousand yard stare wearing Lycra. I asked her for one of everything from the grill, which I knew was already closed. She did say she had plenty of homemade sandwiches in the cooler so I asked her to make it a double. I killed a chocolate milk, and sat down to eat two sandwiches, a large bag of Doritos, and a fully leaded 20oz Coke.

The wifi was across the road and she did not remember the password anyway. Her phone was connected so I managed to get a text off to my wife, and then proceeded to buy a couple more sandwiches and a few candy bars for the road. Kim had really looked after me for the time I was there, making sure I had anything she had and I wanted. It's a great little place, and you can tell it is a community hub in Bartow. I gave her a thanks one more time as I threw the leg over, groaned a little from the stuffed belly, and rode into the dusk.

By the time I climbed off the pavement and onto gravel up Middle Mountain it was dark. Today had not been as productive with mileage, and I was still feeling it. Soft pedaling, stuffed belly, and tiredness kept tugging for me to stop, but I was going to get up on top of that mountain before pitching camp. The wind was getting blustery as I got closer to 4000'. I really did not want to pitch a tent in that wind, so I descended into the first saddle of the ridge, and found a nice spot where the wind was less intense, with the ridgeline blocking most of it.

As I started setting up to sleep, I looked up and lights were coming at me from the opposite direction and immediately knew who it had to be. Jason! He had already been to the tip of Maryland and back - actually he had taken a nap the night before near the spot I was at on Night 2! To say the least he's a beast on a singlespeed.

Jason "Allegheny Abe" Murrell

We caught up and chatted for a little while - it was good to talk to someone familiar. We weren't actually looking at each other so our lights would not blind the other. I laughed about how easy the rest of the route might be, and of course he said it was pretty tough. The northern half is certainly the more difficult. He had seen Ed a bit earlier, and evidently it was a couple of hours before Ed's brake failure and crash that put Ed out. I certainly enjoyed the company for a bit, but as with all these meetings out on the route there comes a time when you just have to move on. So we bid farewells and he moved on toward a rest stop and I hurriedly set up camp.

It was warm enough that I did not need my bag at the time so I just rested on top of the mat and fell asleep almost immediately. Sometime during the night I woke up with a chill, snaked into the bag, and passed out again. I woke just before daylight to a pouring rain outside. That realization is like a left cross to your psyche, and I badly wanted to just stay there until the sun came out, which was probably a couple of days later. So I bit the bullet and pulled on the bibs and jersey that never dries at night, put on the wet wool socks and shoes, threw on my rain jacket, and stepped out into the rain. To me that's always the worst part - getting dressed in wet clothes. Once I'm up and riding it's all good.

I actually feel good on Day 3, and know there is a well pump at Middle Mountain Cabins up ahead. After a few big rollers I come up on the driveway which is blocked by a big FS gate, but know from Jason the people that have it rented that weekend are friendly and interested in what we were doing. Jason had told me they were partying pretty good the night before when he stopped in, and the evidence was laying around the cabins when I rolled up. The few out of bed were reluctant to move off the porch into the rain, but one hearty soul came out and kinda apologized for the current state of affairs (like I cared - I mean how could I judge them - they were at least smart enough to stay out of the rain). This guy even hand pumped the water for me, and cleaned up a broken beer bottle while he was at it! They certainly were not in the same frame of mind that they had been in when they saw Jason the night before! So with some pleasant goodbyes and good luck I rolled off. I overheard the end of the conversation where one of the guys was talking about bike fit and this and that, and one of the girls saying that she liked to ride, but not like that. I chuckled to myself at how ridiculous we must look to normal folks.

So I spend the next few hours going up, and down, and up, and down, and up... you get the idea. Middle Mountain is basically a ridgeline or just-off ridgeline ride for 30 miles or so. I knew I was nearing the end before Wymer, and based on my stopping point for the ride I needed to figure out how to get to some civilization for extraction. Fortunately I ran into a crew of people of all ages setting up camp for the opening of Fall turkey season. They were about 7 miles from Wymer, and had one of the largest yurts I had ever seen. It was huge, with a metal chimney rolling from the wood stove inside. I learned from a very friendly Vietnam vet that the annual tradition had started over 60 years ago in that same spot, by ancestors of the people there now. I was fascinated.

They first offered me a nursery grown ripe tomato. I was all in and asked if they had salt. I sat and ate that huge tomato like an apple, and kept dousing the salt to it. Then they offered me up some homemade sliced sourdough bread. Good grief! These people are going to nice me to death! They were really down to earth folks - the kind you love to meet along your journey. In the midst of the rain and them setting up camp they were making sure I was fed something besides Infinit or a Snickers bar.

They also had a good old-fashioned book map that they were able to use to get me to a location I could get wifi or a cell signal, since I was near my aforementioned stopping point. We decided Elkins was my best bet. So when I hit the pavement at Wymer, I turned left and went scooting off the mountain. I crossed one of the small forks of the Cheat River, and climbed a small grade. I knew the bigger climb was coming, and of course was not looking forward to it. But I lucked out in a little area called Alpena, and a roadside motel/restaurant/store/picnic area called the Alpine Motel. I got there 20 minutes before they closed, and the girl graciously allowed me to have the wifi password and call my wife, as they whipped up the best cheeseburger and fries I have had in months! Literally.

So there's the journey, which is the primary purpose to my riding. So I will close it out with a few of my favorite Avett Brothers lines...

A lotta movin',
A lotta rollin',
A lotta drivin',
A lotta strollin',

A lotta leavin' here, arrivin' there, I'm tryin' to go just about anywhere, a lotta thinkin' about where I'm goin' next.

See ya next time Allegheny's. Happy trails.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Well I am not really good at this am I?

I noticed that it has been almost a year since I took the time to blog. My buddy State Farm has always encouraged me to journal, or blog, but there is something weird about putting yourself "out there" for people to inspect, find fault, or get offended by something. It might appear somewhat self-serving to blog and then go public. But really it's not. There is nothing to gain from doing it other than sharing a passion about mountain biking, and hopefully inspiring others.

Since I last wrote anything lots of things have happened personally, mostly for the better. Except for the broken femur on top of Horn Mtn in October that left me fat and out of shape for several months. But that's a story for another day.

My buddy and mentor Koz asked me help direct TNGA this year. And I loved it! I love everything about the race. We changed the finish of the route this year, and think we hit a home run. It finishes well south of where it did before, and uses most of the remaining Pinhoti trail in Georgia, before turning south and hitting the Silver Comet for about a mile before finishing at the Chief Ladiga arch.

Koz, myself, and a number of Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association and NWGa SORBA members like Rick Moon, Steve Harrell, Marcus Moore, and others get out in the nasty heat and humidity of July and August to work over 100 miles of the western Pinhoti to make it a little more bearable for the riders of the event. But even at that, the Pinhoti is no joke. It can suck the life right out of any competitor, and cause normally sane people to sometimes lose control - even if for just a little bit.

Anyway, we had a full field and a few ITT'ers this year, so TNGA is blowing up in popularity. And now it has become a part of even a longer route called the Southern Highlands Traverse, which starts near the Maryland border in Virgina and runs the full length of the western side of Virginia, runs the Trans Western NC route, the TNGA, and the Skyway epic toward Birmingham. 1,250 miles of rugged and remote Appalachian bikepacking. Can't wait to see how that turns out.

So anyway, on very sporadic training I am going to go up and run Chris Tompkin's Allegheny Mountains Loop Extreme in October - AMLX for short. It's a 500 mile route in really remote areas of Virginia and West Virginia, and I am pumped. I love riding routes I have never seen before. So we will see how that goes - ultra bikepacking can be glorious or spirit-crushing, but that's kind of a condensed version of everyday life, packed in a short period of time where I rarely feel so alive. And that is a very difficult thing to explain to people that do not do similarly "out-there" things. Most reading this know what I mean.

Anyway, there it is. I will try to write more often, and make it a little more entertaining. The reading is always better when I am in action on the bike, regardless of the result.

Happy trails, Honcho