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Mountain Range


Jason Vance (4)


On 6/15, Matt Mustin and I set out on the DMR, the first ride of three to complete the Tennessee Gravel Triple Crown by the end of June. Our preparation for this ride included three weeks of ruthlessly ridiculing Joe Wharton in hopes that he’d come up from Florida and join us; but Joe’s will is strong and he chose to have no part whatsoever in our shenanigans.

As is the case of my first Triple Crown attempt back in 2021, riding these routes on consecutive days is simply time-management. It’s difficult to make 3 separate trips up to Tennessee from Charleston, SC (on top of coming up for the Three Rivers Way), so scheduling a visit to ride them all in one shot makes sense to me. It’s still a bad idea, but I like bad ideas. And I like to share my bad ideas, so I drug Matt along with me.

In 2021, I led off the Triple Crown with the Tellico Highlands, but suffered tremendously on the DMR the next day. This year, I opted to ride the DMR first. The elevation gained per mile is significantly greater than the other two routes, and with only Mulberry Gap near the mid-point of the ride, this route has no resupplies (except for two piped springs and a couple of rivers for water) and no bailouts if something goes awry.
As Matt and I are unloading our bikes in the Thunder Rock campground parking lot, Chattanoogan Chris Gehrke pulls up, unloads and sets off on the route a few minutes before us. I’m riding single-speed and Matt is geared; I’ve let Matt know that it’s not a problem if we split up, as we’ll likely have different strengths along the route and I’d hate for our ride to be the sum total of our weakest segments if all we do is wait for each other. We meander out and head up the first climb, catching up to Chris about 3/4 the way up to the intersection. Matt and I stick together, but we’ll leapfrog with Chris several times as we make our way to Mulberry Gap. Though I felt strong, I probably pace myself a bit too hard for these early efforts…it’s a combination of not wanting to slow Matt down, and going too slow to comfortably grind away at the gear I’m riding. Chris catches up to us at the pipe-spring up the road from Jacks River Fields camp, and then again at Mountaintown Overlook. We leave Chris at the overlook while he’s fielding phone calls from work, and Matt drops me a bit later on a steep climb as I struggle to keep enough speed to get over the top of the crank-stroke. Matt waited on me before we descended into Mulberry Gap, and Chris rolled in a few minutes after Matt and I arrived.

We pick up some snacks and drinks from the shop and Chris high-tails it out of there. Matt and I eat and chat for maybe 15 more minutes after Chris leaves, then head up the road. I could feel the spring had left my step and realize I probably was behind the curve on staying fueled during the first 40 miles of the ride. After a few miles of rollers, we return to the stick of the lollipop and the road pitches up. Matt rides on and I basically implode on the climb out of MG…feels like heat exhaustion with a side of leg cramps. When I get to the top, back onto the big loop, I’m happy to see that Matt hasn’t waited for me. I text him with the time I got to the intersection, just so he’s aware of how far apart we may be. I keep up on eating and drinking, but I’m still waiting for the food I ate at MG to make its way to my legs. It takes a few more miles of nursing up the climbs, but the energy slowly comes back as the rolling terrain turns more and more downhill, and gravity assists the next hour of recovery as I roll down Cowpen and over to Jacks River. I catch Matt as he’s filtering water from Jacks River and we roll up Big Frog together. The next 20 miles are spent fighting off mini-bonks as we climb, eat, descend, repeat. Matt does take an unfortunate spill when his front wheel washed out during a turn, but he ain’t got time to bleed. We hustle up and finish the ride, and we’ll worry about whether the Ocoee Dam Deli will serve us when we get there.

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