Brasstown Bald, Hogpen Gap & More

Another weekend, another state. This time I was in Atlanta, GA, catching up with some family. Of course I brought my bike, and somehow I convinced family to drop me off in Helen, GA. I would ride my bike while they would gallivant around.

Brasstown Bald had my eye, the highest point in Georgia. I had heard stories about ‘The Wall,’ where the grade increases to above 20%. Many have said this is the among the toughest climbs in the Blue Ridge. On top of that, it used to be a stage finish spot in the defunct Tour of Georgia. Lance, Levi and other celebrated pros battled it out on the steep grades, adding to the mountain’s legend and lore.

Jeff Dilcher was gracious enough to help me devise the route. Towards the last minute, he decided to join me. That was great. Not only would I have some company, but I would also get words of wisdom from someone with riding experience out here.

First on the menu was another legendary behemoth, Hogpen Gap, the prize climb of Six Gap Century. Again, I had heard that this is a beast. It is approximately seven miles with many steep grades.

We left Helen bright and early, and turned onto the Richard B. Russell Scenic Parkway. Before long the road turned upward. I asked Jeff if this was Hogpen. “No,” he said. “This is the climb before the climb.” In a couple miles, the climb really began.

The grade ranged anywhere from 6% to maybe 15% in some sections. It went on awhile and was quite the climb, but not quite the quad killer that I had expected. There were even a couple level sections and a slight downhill near the top. I mentioned to Jeff that the actual Hogpen climb paled compared to its reputation. He reminded me that most who ride up Hogpen, do so at mile 70 of Six Gap Century, where it hurts a lot more. Good point. We tackled it with fresh and tapered legs. By the time we reached the top, those legs were feeling loose, stretched out and ready for the big challenge ahead.

Hogpen had not been a particularly scenic climb, but the descent more than made up for it. The tree line opened up on our right and revealed a splendorous view of the North Georgia mountains below. We started down aside a rocky cliff to our left, as the road pitched steeply downward. There weren’t as many bends on this steeper side of the climb, which made for a screaming and somewhat scary descent. I had to continually pump my brakes in order to keep my speed under control.

The next climb was Jack’s Gap, which would be more of a prelude for the main event, Brasstown Bald. Jack’s was not much to speak of, just a short and not too steep of a climb. What was imposing about it was that we would still be climbing when we reached the spur to Brasstown Bald.

As we reached the park entrance, the difference between Jack’s and Brasstown was apparent. The winding road to our left turned straight up, with a yellow sign warning of steep grades for the next three miles. We stopped briefly to collect our breath, then put rubber back on pavement. Here goes nothing.

Yep, it was steep alright. The early portion was a double digit grade. “This is the easy part,” Jeff said. He warned me not to push too hard during the first mile. He said that if my heart rate was too high when we hit ‘The Wall,’ that I would have to stop. No problem there. I took it as easy as possible.

We reached the mile one marker. Really, that’s all we climbed? The steep grade continued and I kept the pedals moving slowly. We reached a clearing and I could see the road zigzag ahead far above my eye line. I figured that must be the wall. As it turned out, that was only the beginning. We turned the corner and the punishment began.

I have noticed that some grades get exaggerated in cycling circles. Not this one. It was at least 20% and maybe higher. It reminded me of Pinnacle Mountain from early in the year.

It was so steep that my wheel would leave the ground. I had to lean forward and be careful not to topple over. My riding was wobbly. I could barely keep my balance. My wobbling unintentionally made me tack from side to side (something I try not to do), just trying to keep control of the bike. After pushing and grunting for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only a tenth of a mile, the grade leveled out to an ‘easy’ 10%. The rest of the way was not too bad, but I kept going easy in case the road pitched up around another corner.

We reached the parking lot, but not yet the summit. There were still approximately 400 more feet to climb to reach the highest point in Georgia. I had heard of Brasstown’s strict rule against letting cyclists ride to the top, but had also heard that on quiet days, they would sometimes let you through.

The ranger met us at the gate. I asked if we could keep going. Absolutely not, was her answer. I begged. I had come a long way, and pleaded for her to make an exception . Nope, not happening. Jeff joked that she couldn’t catch our bikes going up. She replied that there is a hefty fine for riding to the top, and that effectively ended the conversation. I snapped a picture of my bike next to the ‘No Bicycles’ sign, then took the shuttle bus to get my summit pictures. It was a glorious view, even if a little hazy on this morning. I walked back down and got back on the bike.

Descending Brasstown was a white knuckle affair. We had to ride the brakes much of the way down, and throughout all of the wall. Fortunately the descent was short. After winding down the steep switchbacks, we were back at Jack’s Gap in no time, ready to finish the ride.

We looped around via the Unicoi Parkway, where one more challenge awaited us. Unicoi Gap would be the last hill of the day. Jeff warned me that it was no cakewalk, but how bad could it be compared to what we had just climbed?

The grade was not terribly steep, yet it was tough nonetheless. Part of that was because my legs were worn down from the last two climbs. The heat was also taking a toll. And, this was a nagging, tough little climb. Fortunately once we were done, we were done.

The descent from Unicoi Gap was exhilarating. It had technical, winding roads, but the grade was moderate enough that we were able to glide through them, barely touching our brakes. It was a nine-mile stretch back to Helen, mostly downhill.

After the ride, I reconvened with family and we had lunch at a German restaurant. Bratwurst and a gigantic glass of German beer was the perfect recovery food. Prost!

Strava GPS link


8 responses to “Brasstown Bald, Hogpen Gap & More

  • Theresa @ActiveEggplant

    I was in Helen last week! (My brother lives in the neighboring town of Cleveland). Brasstown Bald is QUITE the challenge – I can barely even stand to drive up those roads & can’t imagine how tough it would be to ride them! Congratulations on conquering so many legendary climbs!

    • aaronwest

      Hi Theresa, very cool! We drove through Cleveland on the way there. It’s a nice little town. I believe there is another ride that starts from there, but I forget which. Yes, BB was pretty brutal. What makes you stronger, right?

  • Ben Foxworth

    I remember being at Brasstown during the Tour of Georgia several years. I remember watching the famous French breakaway artist, Jacky Durand, SOLICITING pushes up the grade! I doubt Durand knew more than a dozen English words, but one he DID know was: PUUUSSSHHH! PUUUSSSHHH! PUUUSSSHHH!

    And I remember the crowds literally RELAYING Mario Cippolini up the climb. He was moving fast! Probably faster than the leaders had, when they came through, 20 minutes earlier.

    Finally, I remember a friend of a friend saying he STARTED to give Lance Armstrong a push when he went by. I congratulated him on deciding against that. I can’t imagine a quicker way to get hit than by trying to push Lance.

    The officials would likely give the leaders a time penalty if they accepted a push, but they turned a fairly blind eye with riders an hour or so down in the general classification. Like it would matter to a rider to finish 60 minutes down rather than 65!

    My sister and I attended the event two or three years in a row. She would hook a finger in my belt loop and I’d tow her upward, on foot! All the way to the top.

    The most amazing thing I saw was one of the big US Postal years. The team left their bus down at the bottom, so all the riders (except Lance, who got whisked away in a helicopter containing Sheryl Crow) rode their bikes back down. George Hincapie went flying down the road at speeds I wouldn’t consider attempting if the road was empty! But, it wasn’t empty! It was full of spectators walking back down! He was FLYING! Swooping left, swooping right, very relaxed and totally in control. He was by just about everyone before they ever knew he was coming, which was probably his saving grace. Had they known he was coming, they would have probably tried to dodge, when all that he needed them to do was ‘hold their line’ and descend predictably straight, as indeed they did! Never saw anything like it!

    • aaronwest

      Hey Ben, hope you’ve been doing well.

      That’s an awesome story about Hincapie. It was probably nothing to him.

      The pro cycling history of the place really added to the climb. What was really cool was talking to the park rangers at the top, who otherwise knew nothing about cycling, but they reminisced about the stage finishes and had interesting stories.

      It’s unfortunate that most of the Southeastern events are gone. This year even Greenville lost their event, and the Tour Dupont has been gone awhile. With such a vibrant cycling community in the upstate and in NC, hopefully one day another tour will show up.

      • Ben Foxworth

        Yes, it’s not easy to replace Nationals or events like Tour DuPont or Tour of Georgia. It’s nice that Nationals will now be in Chattanooga, which is still Southeast. To clarify, Greenville didn’t ‘lose’ Nationals, they declined to bid on future years, obliging the organizers to go elsewhere. They did this because they won the bid for the 2014 UCI Paracycling World Championships. I am usually pretty attentive when it comes to developments like this, but this year I was ‘busy’ trying to recover, so all this happened without my knowledge, and certainly without my input.

        You may be interested to learn that I was asked to make first contact between the City of Greenville and the Tour DuPont, back in the ’90’s, when it looked like they were headed our way. I was promoter of the Michelin Classic in Greenville, which brought professional racing to town for the first time, a tradition about 25 years along, now. It was clear to me from talking to Mike Plant (who put on DuPont) that they wanted to get to Atlanta by 1996 for the Olympic Games tie-in. The ONLY viable path was through Greenville, which they visited twice. I told Greenville to ‘bargain tough,’ but whether they did is anyone’s guess. Hosting a Tour DuPont stage was NOT cheap!

        The fellow who announced my race announced all the Tour DuPont stages (He also announced Worlds in Colorado Springs in 1986, which I attended, and the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. I don’t know if he will do Worlds in Richmond in 2015, but I plan to be there, regardless. A Worlds is as good as it gets on this side of the Atlantic. We went to Hamilton, also, in 2003, for the Worlds hosted there, on a course designed by Steve Bauer. I spoke to him about it in Dahlonega during a Tour of Georgia stage one year, very cool.)

        In any case, in many ways this area is a cycling mecca. I don’t know what will happen next, but something will, and I’m excited to see.

        I certainly agree it is special to ride roads that the greats have ridden. Places like that abound. Caesar’s Head was a Cat. 3 climb in Tour DuPont in a stage which finished in downtown Asheville. My understanding is that some riders rode that climb in the big chainring. Abdujaparov broke away that day with an American rider named Clark Sheehan. Not often you hear of a world-class sprinter joining a break in mountainous territory, but he did that day. Sheehan dropped him on the final climb of the day, and won the stage by seconds from the fast approaching field.

        I got Paul Sherwen’s autograph on a picture of his (with him riding completely alone up a mountain pass, suffering and bloody) in a book on the Tour de France. He had a terrible crash, finished way outside the time cut, but the organizers were so impressed with his fighting spirit, they let him stay in the race. The next day, still suffering from his crash effects, he was dropped again very early, rode alone again all day, but finished that time within the time cut. Stories like that inspire me to this day. Paul Sherwen is a hero.

        Hope my embedded link to Paracycling Worlds works in this venue.

  • aaronwest

    Thanks for sharing all this. Caesar’s Head would be an amazing climb for a pro race, and I believe that they would use their big rings. We have got to get together for a ride sometime when you get healed up. Would love to pick your brain on the history of pro cycling in the region. Agreed that the Greenville are is a cycling mecca. I would say that Asheville, Spartanburg, and Boone are not too far behind. I’m sure there will be plenty of excitement in the years to come.

  • Savannah Century Synergy

    […] climbing up the Talmadge Memorial Bridge which looks a little menacing but it sure ain’t Hog Pen Gap, it’s a climb of approx. 200′. Thank You gypsy journal rv for the photo. After that […]

  • aumic

    Excited to hit this on Thursday! Thanks for the article.

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