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!