Mountain Range

TELLICO HIGHLANDS

Chris Coney

5/01/21

What an amazing journey on the Tellico Highlands ITT course in Tennessee this weekend! Total stats: 93.69 miles and 11,402 feet of climbing. Tellico Plains is really a gravel riders dream with endless remote, backcountry forest roads with a mix of smooth to semi-technical gravel.

I didn’t see many people except a few fisherman, and a couple of Jeepers. I had the nutrition dialed and never really bonked the entire day. I did have to stop at the two stores along the route to charge my phone for about an hour at each stop. I had an external charger, but did not have to use it thankfully. I ended the route with 16% charge left. That was a bit unsettling, but I kept watching my phone and knew I could safely make it to the finish. I ended up buying a paper map on course just in case, because in these remote areas, paper maps can be a lifeline back to the real world literally. In the future, I will probably bring two external chargers and not stop as long. My phone does not save Strava correctly if I put it on low battery mode unfortunately. Mentally and physically I felt good all day and only had to walk a couple short sections towards the end when I was getting tired. It is such an amazing experience pushing through tough situations and coming out in the end. I had a blast! You are capable of more than you think! Thanks Steve at McHone Performance Training for loaning me your Spot tracker, frame bags, and all the support.

As far as the riding, all I can say is Tellico Plains is some of the best gravel riding in the Southeast. Most of the course is pretty smooth, well traveled gravel. There were only a few sections of technical terrain I remember on course. One was a long technical descent after the halfway mark, and the other a mix of loose up and down sections behind one of the only closed gate sections on course that had a few washouts towards the end of the route. I was tempted to take a bit of air out of my tires during those sections, but did not need to in the end. After the first mile on course the gravel started, and I was alone with my thoughts in the wilds of Tennessee.

The first climb up Miller Cemetary Road was smooth and rolly and went really fast. The next big climb up Bald River Road unfortunately had a layer of new gravel on the last few miles near the top. I had been pre-warned of this, but honestly it was not bad. There were only a few sections of really loose, fresh gravel where I would slip a bit. My new Maxxis 700x45c tires gripped just fine through the looser stuff, and I finally made it to the top and back down without too much of an issue. There was a long beautiful section along the river after those initial climbs that was so sweet! Smooth, remote gravel next to a river seemed to be the theme of the day and this section was the first of many where all you would hear is the sound of water flowing and the gentle sound of tires making progress on the dirt below you. In those moments, your mind really gets into the flow of the moment, and I was all smiles. Luckily, those good moments lasted the entire day for me. I had always gone into this challenge with the mindset of having fun and pushing through mental barriers to see what I was capable of doing. I was not really going for time, but really just the experience and to finish. When I was forced to stop for an hour at each of the stores along route to charge my phone, I just sat there taking it all in and just relaxed and ate all the snacks! It was interesting just people watching there because honestly I had seen very few cars or people most of the day. I only remember being passed by two sets of motos and maybe three cars while on the gravel sections all day. Even the stretch on the Cherohala Skyway, only one car passed me on the long downhill to Indian Boundary. Many times during the day it was just me, my thoughts and the sound of my breath, or the particular song I was humming in my head or singing out loud to pass the miles. I had so much time to ponder on things and mainly I just remember having good thoughts all day. There was only a brief time on the rough section of unmaintained Road 36-1 towards the end where I was starting to feel like a caged mouse on a treadmill. The section was endless up and down and you would get to the false summit, descend for a bit all smiles and then around the corner it would pitch up again. At mile 70ish, those moments can get the best of you and suck you into a negative head space. I realized it was happening though, and then just started laughing and taking it all in as part of the process. There is always more climbing and that is just the way it is riding in the Southeast. Even the downhills have climbs. Embrace the suck right? Then after just a bit of perseverance, you were at the true top, and blissfully ripping the long descent. Mind tricks for sure got me through that brief negative time.

I made it up and down Bald River Road and stopped for refueling and charging at Green Cove Angler. The people there were really friendly and welcome bikers. I was there for awhile charging the phone for the next stretch to Indian Boundary.

Next up was Forest Rd 217, which was a beautiful, long up and down section with plenty of water and solitude. There was one section there I missed a turn at the junction with Forest Road 61. My Ride with GPS saved the day and warned me with the off route alarm and I only went about a 100 yards off route. It is so wild out there, and be aware most of the turns are not labeled, so you literally are trusting the computer. Since I had never ridden in the area, I was just going with the flow of what the map was telling me. It was only the third time I was using the navigation on RidewithGPS, and it is awesome, but at the same time a bit of a mind fuck. You just trust it is taking you to the right place and there is a lot of giving in to the universe, and hope this works kind of thinking. Trust the process. I was actually very impressed with the app. I missed two turns on route and the phone warned me each time. I have always been a paper map adventurer, and only about a year ago started using Avenza and RidewithGPS. Both work very well and have saved me numerous times in remote areas of Nantahala and Harmon’s Den in North Carolina. After a long stretch of amazing gravel I finally made it to the Cherohala Skyway for the huge descent to Indian Boundary. The Skyway is just like the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, and has a couple of sections of climbs, but I mostly remember the endless, fast descent. It felt like I was a man possessed and I was just ripping the downhill like a Tour De France rider. I got lucky and only two cars passed me on the 9 mile descent. Then there was a short, fun section of rarely used gravel that led to the greenway around Indian Boundary Lake. The singletrack trail section around the lake was so smooth and fun. I ripped that part and saw my first people on route hiking around the lake near the campground. I made it to Indian Boundary General Store and got some snacks and waited patiently for my phone to charge again. Chad, the trail angel at the store, let me charge my phone in his office and that made my day.

The next section of gravel along Indian Boundary Road was so classic too. It followed Citico Creek and weaved its way through the remote wilderness sections of Citico Creek. I think a section there was one of the more technical descents that had lots of larger rocks and some wash outs that you had to be careful on. The Ramblers cruised that section with no issues. Then the tech led to some smooth gravel again on Citico Road, which followed a creek again for many miles. After Jake Best Campground is the next section where I missed a sharp left turn onto the unmaintained gated Road 36-1. You are crusing along sweet, fast gravel and then all of a sudden have to turn sharply left up a not often traveled section of road for a long haul up and down the mountain. That section had some of the best fast descents, but man it also really messed with my head at times. It was so quiet and there was no one around at all. It was around 7pm when I was on that section and I knew I was getting close to the end. But this section is long with many false summits and gaps. I kept thinking I had to be near the top, but it never really was. I really had to play the keep it going in your head mantra, and keep making forward progress. It worked and I made it safely off that section. I was able to get a text out to my wife on a high ridge telling her I should be done by 8:30pm and only had about 18 miles to go at that point. Then I made it to Rafter Road and what I thought was going to be a quick road section down the Skyway. Nope. We had to go on another gravel section like 50 feet before Cherohala Skyway on Turkey Creek Rd down to the community of Waucheesi. That section was really fast and fun, but I was getting tired at that point for sure. Then I crossed the Skyway and did the short out and back to Bald River Falls in the fading light of the evening. That was so magical, because there were no cars on the usually crowded section of road. The river was lulling me into a relaxed state and the miles ticked off rather quickly. My body was in robot mode at this point and I was just moving to the sound of the water and the thought of a cold beer in the car at the finish. I turned left on the Skyway for the quarter mile stretch to the Oosterneck Overlook and what, no car!! Where was my wife Shannon? I knew she would be along soon, but I just sat there in the dark and stillness, and the elation of the finish, alone with my thoughts on the side of the road. It was really nice actually, but I really wanted that beer. Finally, headlights pierced the darkness and it was Shannon. She had missed a turn somewhere and was about 5 minutes late. She snapped the photo of my phone before I saved my Strava file, and I was officially finished. Shannon gave me a big hug, and we sat there for awhile having a beer together and talking and reminiscing about our day and also the past 17 years we have spent together. It was our anniversary and we both got to do something we love, ride bikes, explore and adventure on two wheels. She rode mountain bikes at the technical and steep Parksville Lake Trails while I was out on course. We drove back to our AirBnb and I ate the biggest plate of pasta I have had in awhile. Actually, I ate everything, pasta, chips, cookies, and drank a couple of beers. In the end, I accomplished what I set out to do. I overcame preconceived mental barriers about endurance riding, and I persevered through tough situations. I wasn’t sure I could do it at first, but when I was out there it all just came together and I was truly in the moment. You are capable of more than you think.

This ride report was copied from Chris's blog "Voice of the Blue Ridge."