Monday, September 8, 2008

The Hardest Ride in America

This past Saturday I did the hardest ride in America.

Now, this is probably going to garner a few arguments because "hard" is subjective. There are days when you go out and do three sets of intervals and find a new max heart rate, and that might be the hardest ride. And there are 1200Ks and 1400Ks and RAAM, where you have to factor in sleep deprivation, and those are really hard. And, although I don't mountain bike, there are things like the Leadville 100 and that one where you ride the whole continental divide from Alaska down to Land's End, and I would imagine that those are hard.

So, I'll add some qualifiers: This past Saturday I rode the hardest ACP 200K route in America.

What? You're still going to argue with me?! You say that the 200K in Magma in late July is harder because of the melting asphalt? Or that the 200K in Bluetoe in February is harder because of all the black ice that is only occasionally relieved by the 15-foot snowdrifts?

Pah, I say. Phooey. Heat and cold are just temperatures. Climbing is the true battle, for there you fight the essence of Earth, which any physicist will tell you is just mass. And where there is mass there is gravity, and where there is gravity and hills there is pain. So again I say: Pah!


Okay, I'll stop saying Pah! It’s not funny after the fourth time, anyhow.

The hardest ACP 200K route in America – and the hardest one-day ride that I’ve ever done – is the North GA Fall 200K, also known as Ten Gaps.

If you’ve biked much in the American Southeast, you’ve probably heard of Six Gaps. It’s a century that the Dahlonega Chamber of Commerce runs the last weekend of September, crossing six gaps of the Appalachian Trail. It has over 10,600 feet of climbing.

That’s a pretty tough ride. By contrast, Triple Bypass in Colorado has 120 miles and just over 10,000 feet of climbing.

The North GA Fall 200K, however, is 127.8 miles and has anywhere from 16,000 to 23,000 feet of climbing, depending upon whether you believe the results of your Polar HRM or GPS (which usually report between 16,000-17,000 feet) or the Topo map (which insists 23,000). I usually go with the Polar/GPS results, since Topo maps still tell me that I don’t live on a road. It looks like a road to me, but it just ain't on the map. Go figure.

So, Ten Gaps is worse than Triple Bypass, but what about Death Ride? Oh, sorry, they don’t call it Death Ride any more, since somebody actually died on it. It’s now formally called the Tour of the California Alps, to be politically correct.

I did Death Ride last summer, so I can compare these two. Death Ride is 129 miles with over 16,000 feet of climbing. Sounds pretty close to Ten Gaps, right?

Wrong! And the reason is … and this is the kind of thing that could start a war, but I’m going to say it … the reason is because Death Ride is west of the Mississippi and Ten Gaps is east, and the world east of the Mississippi is generally steeper that it is west of the Missippi.

It’s all a matter of Old vs. New. New mountains, such as the California Alps, are bigger. The tectonic plates that formed them are still slowly pushing them up and they haven’t eroded down yet to silt up the rivers and fill in the bays and gulfs. Old mountains, such as the Appalachians, have had their sides washed away by millennia of rain, so that they aren’t nearly as tall, but they are steep. And steep is harder to climb than long.

For example, Death Ride has Ebbets Pass, which climbs to 8, 730 feet. It’s the tallest of the passes on that ride, and probably the hardest climb (Carson seems harder, but that’s because it’s later and you often have a head wind). It has a couple of sections that are 15%.

Ten Gaps has Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4,784 feet. (The new picture on the right shows the Masi looking up at the tower on top of Brasstown). The pros climb Brasstown at the end of the hardest stage on the Tour de Georgia. If you watched that, you may remember Phil and the boys talking about “The Wall.” That section is 25%. Have you ever climbed a road that is 25%?

Well, sure, you say, but it’s only 2.5 miles. Ebbett’s Pass is 10 miles long. Yes, I reply, but you can spin your way up Ebbett’s Pass with a compact crankset and 12-27 cassette. Unless you are Superman and have gears pilfered from a tandem and a mountain bike, there is no way that you can go all the way up Brasstown Bald without standing up and gutting at least part of it out.

But what about the elevation, you ask? The air is thinner 4,000 feet up, like on Death Ride.

Maybe for some folks, but I didn't really notice it much on Death Ride. And thinner air is less humid, which would have been nicer this past Saturday.

Okay, you say. Brasstown is pretty tough. But the Brasstown Bald Buster climbs it, and it’s a century with 14,000 feet of climbing.

Yeah, I reply, it is. And it also goes over Hogpen before hitting Brasstown Bald. But Ten Gaps goes over Hogpen before Brasstown, then it goes back over Hogpen on the way back to Dahlonega. And the way that it goes over Hogpen on the way to Brasstown is actually the tough way, with long stretches at 15%, as opposed to the longer but gentler route that the Brasstown Bald Buster and Six Gaps uses. And, of course, there’s that other 2,000 or more feet of climbing and 27.8 miles.

Geez, Randoboy, you now say, maybe you’re right. (This is why I love arguing with myself – I almost always win). So, how’d you do on the ride?

Well, I finished.

Yeah, but what was your time?

This is randonneuring. We don’t really think in terms of times. There's no winner or loser or ...

Yeah, yeah, but isn’t there, like, a cutoff for controls? Don’t you have to do a 200K in 13 hours and 30 minutes or it’s not official? Doesn’t somebody write down the time when you pull into the last control?

Well, yeah. Sure.

So, what was the time?

(This is why I hate arguing with myself. Self knows too much, and loves to embarrass me).

About 12 hours and 30 minutes, I mumble.


But, hey, that’s within the time limit. I was official. And it was a really hard ride. I was cramping up before I even started up Brasstown, so that I was having to walk even on some sections of Woody’s Gap on the way back. And you know how easy that gap is.

Gee. That sounds tough. What went wrong?

Well, I probably went out too hard at the start. And it was really humid, so that I probably got dehydrated. And I’m still 10 pounds over a good climbing weight. And I should probably go ahead and bite the bullet and get a triple crankset, because I could not spin in the compact crank. I definitely won’t do this ride again without a triple.

Wait a minute! Do this ride again? Weren’t you the one that promised yourself that if you ever got back to Dahlonega you would 1) never do this ride again, and 2) find David Bundrick, who designed this ride, and punch him in the mouth?

Hey, that was the pain talking. Now that I know what I did wrong, it will be better next time.

Next time! There’s no reasoning with you! You’re an idiot! I’m out of here.

Fine! Walk away! I don’t need you anyway!


P.S. to David Bundrick, my friend and crewmate on RAAM: I am not going to punch you in the mouth. Thanks for designing a truly challenging route.

P.P.S. to Andy Akard: Thanks for running this route. It was … fun?

P.P.P.S. to Alan Gosart and Kevin Warren: Thanks for sticking with me for far too much of this ride, and driving down and back with me. I’m almost looking forward to next year.


  1. Nice to see you made the GA Fall 200K. It's truly a ride that you must pace yourself, but not many people can claim they've ridden a "10 Gap" in northeast Georgia.

  2. Of course, if I was a real man I would have done it fixed.

  3. It was a fun ride. Too bad that I won't be able to do the ride in 2009 because I've opted to do the 600K in NC instead.

  4. Just got back from the Leadville 100 Trail Ride. I went with Doyce Johnson who is one tought guy and has done both rides. I am sorry to tell you, Doyce says and I have to agree that Leadville is harder than the Fall 200K. I think it is the elevation and the 12 hour time limit.

  5. Doyce is a madman and one fast sumbitch (he currently holds the record for the fastest time on the Clarksville Sunrise Century at 3:44:55), and I would never argue with him. He was also my RAAM crewmate in 2008 with Team Gran Fondo Fixies.

    However, this is why I said above that Bundrick's Revenge is the hardest ACP 200K route in America. Leadville is obviously hard, or else Fat Cyclist would not have crashed this year, and Lance would not have returned. Plus, mountain biking is so ... well, dirty.

  6. I do not see how 2 rides with the same elevation gain over the same distance can be so different in difficulty unless some other factors (high altitude, strong wind, heat etc) If climbs are steeper than you get more flats to recover, that's all.

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