Posted by Logan Watts
On Halloween, Rue and I drove from Atlanta to Amicalola Falls, Georgia, for the start of the Cohutta Cat, a 296-mile bikepacking race in the Appalachian woods of North Georgia and Tennessee. The route is a dirt figure eight that passes through Blue Ridge twice and features about 25% singletrack.
We came to Georgia a month ago for the Bikepacking Summit and an event with Wahoo. Any time I fly to events, I always try to squeeze in some kind of riding adventure. For that trip, I rode three days and 215 miles of the Trans North Georgia from the South Carolina Border to Mulberry Gap. The temps were in the 90s and extremely humid. It was so hot that I didn’t even bring a pair of pants.
A month later, we came back to fall colors, freezing temps, and 13-hour nights. We’re back in Atlanta for a Tour Divide screening with Wahoo (note: it’s happening at Second Self Brewery on November 5th at 6:00 PM!). I realized I had just enough time to fly in a few days early to race the Cohutta Cat. I brought an extra bike for my friend Jen so she could race too. Jen is a low-key badass. On Thursday, she put the bike together, threw some bags and gear on it, and then rode 300 miles over the weekend.
This is the fourth year of the Cohutta Cat. Daniel Jessee is the organizer and he puts a lot of heart into getting people together and encouraging them to take on a huge challenge—the route includes 33,000 feet of steep climbing over 296 miles. He even left a cooler full of drinks and snacks at Mulberry Gap as trail magic for all the riders. This morning, I found out it was his birthday during the event and he didn’t even tell us. Happy Birthday, Daniel! Next time, the chocolate milk is on me.
It poured rain the day before the race, and we woke up to clear, cold weather. There were 11 people on the start list and I counted eight at the actual start. We all introduced ourselves and gave Daniel our cat patches—the only requirement for entering the race is that you contribute a cat patch. Daniel briefly went over the route conditions and considerations. The main takeaway was to recognize the positive energy and tight-knit community in bikepacking, and to bring that spirit back home to our respective communities. At the last minute, we talked Jen into borrowing a down vest, and this morning she told me it saved her ass and she wore it for three quarters of the ride.
We set out at sunrise on Friday, just after 8:00 AM. I rode with Jen for about five minutes, talking about Netflix, and after that I rode alone. Rue was at the start and finish, but had to work for the weekend, so she couldn’t come out to take photos. My back had been feeling weird the days leading up to the ride and I had a low back spasm around mile 45 when I was pulling my pants up after peeing on the side of the road. It all locked up and I had to lie on the ground. This was terrifying. I guess I’m getting old. I had no exit strategy and 250 miles of the ride to go. I took a couple Ibuprofens and told myself I’d see if it would loosen up in an hour. My backup plan was to try and make it to Mulberry Gap at mile 80, where I could rest. I couldn’t really walk, but I could sit on my bike and pedal. Within 45 minutes, I was feeling a lot better. Such a huge relief and I’m really happy I didn’t have to scratch.
I was on a brand new bike, a Specialized Epic with Hope components and Revelate Designs bags. I was really curious how a lightweight full-suspension bike would fare for this style of ride—loads of climbing on dirt roads, but also a considerable amount of rough, rooty singletrack. This was a terrific bike for the ride and I feel like my recovery will be really quick because my body didn’t get too beat up.
The main challenges were the long nights and the cold. I had great lights—a Hope R4+ bike light and a Black Diamond Icon Polar headlamp ziptied to my helmet. Even so, the Georgia woods are really dense and dark and it was hard to stay alert for so many dark hours. I didn’t bring any kind of sleeping system. I planned to get 180 miles to Ducktown, Tennessee, for my first sleep. There were a lot of downed trees on the trail and my progress was much slower than I had anticipated. In addition, nighttime temperatures were in the 20s. I started getting really sleepy and my strategy the first night was to warm my body up climbing, then lie down on the side of the road with my helmet and all my gear on for a catnap until I got too cold, then get up and ride again. I did this four times and probably slept for about 20 minutes each time. The route passes a lot of churches, and I tried the handle on one, thinking I might be able to go inside to sleep. It was locked.
The highlight of my whole ride was sunrise on the second morning. I was riding a ridge above Lake Ocoee and could see lit up rolling hills of yellow, red, and orange leaves extending down into the water. It was absolutely stunning and special and made the whole ride worthwhile.
I got to Ducktown around 11:00 AM for a meatball sub and pizza and packed some to go. Thirty-three miles later, I was in Blue Ridge and got a hotel room to get some real sleep and charge my electronics. I got chicken strips, jo-jos, and Ibuprofen from Walmart. I’d resolved to sleep long and just ride during daylight hours because the night riding just wasn’t very fun. I ended up waking up at 1:00 AM, after five or six hours of sleep and felt ready to go, so I packed my gear and got back on my bike by 2:00 AM.
I was also motivated to finish my ride in the daylight. That morning was freezing and I spent a good three hours trying to distract my brain from thinking about my cold feet. I did this by switching back and forth between listening to a Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for J.K. Rowling) crime novel and Terms of Endearment audiobooks. The truth is always that when the sun comes up, everything gets better. And it did. This route in daylight is really fun and pretty.
Daniel and Louie met me on singletrack 15 miles from the finish and I stopped to talk. They had to scratch the day before and it was great to catch up with them. I never really felt like I was in race mode. I just felt like I was pedaling in the woods. At the top of the final hill, a woman in a Jeep told me something like, “You’re really amazing,” or “You’re really a trooper,” or “You’re really getting after it.” I wish I could remember her exact words. I usually can.
Three miles from the finish, I really started hating on the rough roads and I knew it was time to be done. Fortunately, it was mostly downhill. Rue was with Matt Porter and his family and they surprised me at the finish. The parking lot at Amicalola Falls was packed with families of leaf peepers. We walked out to the bridge above the waterfall so Rue could take a finishing photo of me. When I looked over, she was taking a portrait of a family with their iPhone. I love how there’s no disconnect between bikepacking events and races and the real world.
I finished the ride around 2:00 PM yesterday with a total elapsed time of two days, six hours. Later in the night, Graham finished on a single-speed and Jen finished on the borrowed bike. I caught up with her on the phone this morning. Graham had to get back to work today and Jen slept in her van in the parking lot. Those two are bikepacking heroes, for sure.
Congrats on a great finish, Lael! For more on the Cohutta Cat bikepacking route, click here.