Okay, like I would ever really write a post called “The Beginner’s Guide to” anything. I can’t really guide anyone or anything…
So let’s start over.
There’s a cycling legend here in North Georgia and it’s called THE GAPS.
The Gaps is an approximately 80 mile (depending on where you start) ride consisting of Six “Gaps” or climbs in the North Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains.
Cyclists and triathletes alike enjoy scaring the living shit out of beginners talking about the Gaps this, and the Gaps that, and “have you ridden the Gaps yet”…
It’s really crazy, actually.
“Oh you’re doing Coeur d’Alene? Hmmmm… but have you ridden the Gaps yet?”
“Oh you’re doing Lake Plaicid? Hmmmm… but have you ridden the Gaps yet?”
Everyone talked about it so much that, in my head, I decided that I would never do the Gaps. Because I don’t like being told what to do, and I felt that everyone was being sort of bossy pants about the damn Gaps.
Well then… it happened. Coach Brett said, “We will ride the Gaps before Lake Placid.”
And I responded, “Like hell we will.”
[As you can imagine, I didn’t win. Never do.]
And we scheduled to do Three Gap (three of the six climbs, approximately 4000 feet of climbing in 30-ish miles) on July 5th. I was terrified. Really. In my TrainingPeaks, I labeled it as, “The First Annual Sh*t Your Pants Gaps Ride.”
The Gaps is so much of a legend that when folks talk about going, you get this sort of conversation:
“Okay. I will go. So what’s the address for the start?”
“Oh…there’s not really an address.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you just leave from the Rock Pile.”
“What the hell is the Rock Pile?”
“Oh, nevermind, I’ll just pick you up.”
There’s no real address, so part of the legend is having someone wiser and more experienced to take you up the Gaps. Not to mention, it’s kind of a sketchy ride. It’s the mountains, for the love.
Oh, and here’s the Rock Pile.
I kid you not. Anyway.
Brett picked me up bright and early and we headed up to the Rock Pile. I am a nail biter from a starting point, but I had no fingernails by the time we pulled up and parked.
Then the rain started dripping on us.
I was seriously about to puke.
I don’t know why. Almost like the legend of the Gaps was getting to me. What if I fall? What if I literally can’t do this ride? What if I have to quit? What if I have to sh—” Nevermind.
I had to game up and make this happen. My coach was watching. As were 8 other people who came along, one of whom (Don) is doing Placid in a few weeks too.
Before I had much time to worry about anything else, we were off.
The Warm-Up: Rock Pile to Turner’s Corner Cafe
We started off with a lovely 5.9 mile rolling warm-up from the Rock Pile to Turner’s Corner store. To give you an idea of the difficulty of this part, my average speed was 19.7 MPH. So it wasn’t bad.
It only went downhill (uphill) from there.
At the corner store, Coach Brett gave us a pep talk and some pointers (e.g., “Go at your own pace”). Then we all took a left.
And it was time to climb.
Gap 1: Neels Gap
I positioned myself in the back of the pack, knowing that was where I was going to end up anyway.
I needed to take my time to breathe, climb steady (at my own pace!) and make it through the first Gap unscathed and ready to tackle the most difficult of the three: Wolf Pen.
The lower end of Neels Gap was about 5% grade.
The rest of the climb (6.6 miles worth) ranged from 4-9% grade… and was slow going.
Relentess with the exception of one little tabletop, then back up again. At one point, I looked down at my watch and realized that we had been climbing for 40 minutes… no stopping. Wowzers.
Brett hung back with me and told me to stick on his wheel. Lawdy I tried, but it was just slow going… and I knew it was still so early in the ride.
So I kept true to what I knew, and that was to pedal at my own cadence and pace.
After over fifty (50!!!) minutes of straight climbing, we made it to the top, and reconvened.
The rain started to really come down, and I was surprisingly cold. Cold in Georgia? In July? What in the world…
Brett gave us some pointers on the descent from the top of Neels Gap to Wolf Pen Gap Road, where we were taking another left and beginning the assault on Wolf Pen.
Gap 2: Wolf Pen Gap
I won’t lie. Wolf Pen was a bit of mean mother. I might have thought of pooing my pants a little, except I was too busy hustling my ass up the climb.
So what is Wolf Pen?
Well, it’s three solid miles of pure love—ranging from 4% upwards of 13% grade in steepness.
My average speed was 6.4 MPH. I was really killing that.
But even the leader on Strava only hustles up this puppy at 13.4 MPH, if that gives you any idea.
Me and Don. Taking on Placid in T-minus 19 days.
I managed to chat with Brett a little during the way up… wasn’t heaving and throwing up my cookies, but it was a good solid all-ya-got effort to make it up Wolf Pen in one piece.
But I did.
We all gathered at the top of Wolf Pen, and took the obligatory group photo.
Or, if you are me… the obligatory selfie.
Gap 3: Woody Gap
We reconvened at a gas station for a few minutes. Knowing that I only had one more gap (and the easiest of the three left to do), I felt awesome. I was on Cloud Nine, actually.
The rain was still happening, though it had slowed. The wet roads were fairly unnerving, especially on the descents. But we had a super alert and safe group of 10… everyone really took great care and it was a fantastic pack to ride with.
So we headed out for our last Gap.
Nothing too remarkable about Woody Gap–it was solid, but nothing like Neels or Wolf Pen.
Just a nice steady 5%-7% grade for a little under two miles.
Now… the descent from Woody back to Rock Pile?
Well, that was 5.3 miles, and it was super intense.
I was one of the few out there on a time trial bike. (I don’t own a road bike at this point… that is going to change soon, though…) But I am riding Placid on a tri bike, so made sense.
The brake levers on my tri bike are a little skinny. I didn’t lay down the brakes the whole 5.3 miles, but I did spend a lot of time on the brakes. To the point where I had bruised hands of awesomeness at the end.
Not really sure what to do about that. Brake hard or go off side of mountain… I went with brakes. 🙂
It was a tough ride, but really great. I had an absolute blast and I can’t wait to do it again. The best part is now I know what to expect, and will know how much I can give and take on each part of the ride. That’s always the tough part for me–knowing when to really push and when to conserve on a first time ride. Now I know.
And maybe next time—all six. Okay, maybe not Hog Pen.
Am I Ready for Three Gap?
So for all the beginners out there who are terrified of the Gaps, what do I say to you?
You probably should maintain a healthy fear of it–it did not kill me dead, but it was also no joke.
Coach Brett has prescibed lots and lots of climbing over the last few months in preparation for Lake Placid, so I have been in the saddle and going up-up-UP for several thousand feet, a few times each week. I’ve done a handful of centuries this season. So the combo of that… made my experience so much better for my first time in the Gaps.
If it was me, twenty pounds and six months ago, I’m not sure I would have made it up Wolf Pen, to be honest… not without some sheer balls and grit. Which sometimes I have been known to have–so, maybe it would have been okay. 🙂
I would say that a healthy respect for the ride is definitely necessary, along with some good bike-handling skills for those descents (especially in the rain, if that happens like it did to us). But a white-knuckled death fear, poo in the pants or serial nail biting is probably not really that necessary.
But then again, I haven’t tackled SIX gap. I do think diapers might be required for that one.
For a first time trip to Three Gap, I would recommend the following:
1) Ride your road bike if you have one. The handling on the descents is better on a roadie and you’ll have more climbing power;
2) Make sure that you can gear, climb and descend comfortably and well; and
3) Ensure that you have some experienced “tour” guides with you.
All in all, I really did have a fantastic time, and felt like some sort of super hero once complete.
Especially after lunch at Moe’s. (Welcome to Moe’s!)… Special thanks to Brett for “dragging” me up there and leading the ride. Rumor is there is video of my entire Neels Gap climb from the rear of Brett’s bike. I really don’t know if I want that to surface. Just saying. Also, thank you to David for his additional tour guiding and little pep talks along the way.
Until next time…
Okay, okay… here’s the last part of the first climb. Thanks Brett. 🙂