Congratulations to 18-year-old PJ Terry, who set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 286-mile Cohutta Cat in North Georgia… and he did so on a singlespeed. Find a few photos and PJ’s recap of his incredible ride here…
Photos by PJ Terry and event organizer Daniel Jessee
After sharing a Trans North Georgia win last year with Andy Wiedrich, 18-year-old PJ Terry from Dacula, Georgia, just set a new fastest known time on the 286-mile Cohutta Cat bikepacking route in North Georgia. Despite a full-throttle attempt by Chris Schwieker to catch Terry, PJ held the lead to the end—on a singlespeed, no less. PJ’s time of 36 hours and 22 minutes bests the previous FKT by our own Neil Beltchenko of 37 hours and 10 minutes set in 2018. Though Neil’s time was on a slightly different course, they’re very comparable, especially given the conditions this year. The route breaks down to a mix of about 15% singletrack, 40% gravel, and 45% pavement. With substantial rain the day before the start, only four of 18 riders completed this year’s route. Read on below for PJ’s write-up about his ride!
Words by PJ Terry
In October of 2022, I found out that the Cohutta Cat grand depart was coming back for 2023, and I added it to my “must race” list. Later that month, I did a three-day credit card tour of the route, so I started this year’s race familiar with the course. Cedar Blanchard, a friend who has done the route several times before, said that 40 hours would be a fast but attainable time for me, so the goal was set. Neil Beltchenko set the FKT at 37 hours and 11 minutes in 2018, so I kept his time in the back of my mind as the time to beat. It was just a three-hour difference, right? I knew my biggest competitor for the race itself would be Matt Schweiker, and I was looking forward to racing him.
As the start got closer, the weather forecast got worse. As the race approached, I became more apprehensive about destroying a second drivetrain within a month after the Fried Clay 200k mudfest. A friend suggested going single speed, and the rest of my group agreed. I’m not sure what made me think that was a good idea since my longest single speed ride was five hours, and I hadn’t ridden SS at all in around five months. But, what the heck, a couple of hours before I left I made the switch to single speed. Any thoughts of going for the FKT or shooting for the win were out the door, but I was hoping to enjoy myself and learn from the experience.
I was the only one ready at the start, so I had a 30-second head start rolling down the Mulberry Gap driveway. I knew I had to manage my efforts on the climb up Pinhoti 3, so I walked most of the switchback and steep sections. There was some rain on P3-4 that gave me flashbacks from TNGA year one when I faced constant rain through the Pinhotis. I was relieved to make it to the top of P4 for a break from hiking, but the gravel climb afterward was way steeper than I remembered. Probably because I was missing eleven gears. The gravel/doubletrack descent to P5 was a blast, but I was heavier on the brakes than usual while trying to avoid the wet, off-camber rocks. With all the rain in the three days prior, the creeks at the bottom of P5 were pretty much unrideable, so I had to get my feet wet early on.
Bike Check: Binary SuperB w/ 120mm RockShox Pike, 32 oval x 20t, 29 x 2.25 Vittoria Barzo/Mezcal, kLite Ultra Mtb light w/ SON28 dynamo hub, Saddle bag, corner frame bag, top tube bag (all self-made)
I had been dreading the Fort Mountain connector even before I decided to run single speed. It’s pretty much straight up, gaining 1,200 feet in about a mile and a half. I rode very little of it, which I expected, but I didn’t expect that walking was far harder on the legs than riding. By the top of the climb, my calves and hamstrings were absolutely on fire, which was concerning since I was only 15 miles in. To save some time, I decided to skip the Fort Mountain store and go straight into the singletrack down to the bottom. I was having tons of fun and riding great until I got a little overconfident and misjudged the grip on an off-camber rock. It was a minor crash, but enough to slow me down for a while.
The bottom of Fort Mountain brought some much-needed easy miles. My goal was to maintain my lead on Matt, but I was sure he’d catch me on the flat, paved miles before the next climb. I stayed ahead, though, and began the six-mile Mill Creek climb. The climb seemed steady and mellow just the previous weekend but was very different on single speed. Off the main gravel road was the doubletrack to Sumac Creek trail. The previous days’ storms left it so saturated that there was constant road spray, which sucked. The fog was so dense that I couldn’t put my sunglasses on; I had to manage by squinting so that I got as little mud in my eyes as possible.
I hiked a couple of sections but made it to the gravel on West Cowpen in good time. Sumac was the last of the singletrack for about 30 miles, and I was glad to get a break from the excruciatingly slow miles. I stopped for the first time at the ranger camp to fill up water and took the time to try to diagnose a weird feeling from the front of the bike. It felt like my headset was loose, but that wasn’t the case. After going through everything I could think of, I determined it was the fork itself. Some lateral play between the stanchions and lowers caused it to feel pretty rough and stick a bit. It would be rough, but I couldn’t do anything to fix it in the middle of the woods, so I kept riding.
The miles up to Sylco were pretty uneventful and a nice change from the constant hike-a-bike. Sylco Trail itself was pretty nice, which may sound odd because it’s most people’s least favorite trail on route. I saw two bears halfway up the climb and stopped to yell at them before walking up the rest. What was far worse than the dreaded Sylco was the logging road that was waiting for me at the top. My tires sank a couple of inches every time I tried to ride, so I stuck to walking. There was a 24-hour gas station just 30 miles away, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it there by the time they closed for Christmas.
There are no easy miles on the Cohutta Cat. Road conditions did eventually improve from hellish to just crappy. As I approached a switchback on the same road, I saw a group of hogs in the woods; it looked like a few babies and an adult. They ran up the mountain towards the other side of the switchback, so I was prepared when one came charging out of the woods toward me. I was instantly off my bike and using it as a shield when the pig reached the road, which scared it off. That got the blood pumping!
I was looking forward to the gas station in Ducktown, but the miles of nearly vertical climbs were taking their toll. Once those were behind me, I enjoyed the flowy Thunder Rock and Brush Creek Trails into Ducktown, and they boosted my mood after some demoralizing hours between Sylco and Thunder Rock. I stopped at mile 103 for my first food supply of the route just as the sun was beginning to set. I cruised through a few more easy miles to the start of Watson Gap before a long slog to the top. Right after the descent off of Watson Gap is the longest pavement stretch of the route at around 20 miles. It gave me a mental and physical break and also boosted my average speed, which is always welcome. After a quick stop at a 24-hour Conoco in Blue Ridge to grab enough food for 14+ hours, I was off again into the night.
I passed Sandy Bottom Campground around 1:30 a.m. and was starting to have some trouble keeping my eyes open. I climbed about another mile up the road and decided to lie down before the next section, which I was dreading. After a 10-minute nap, my alarm went off, and I started walking up Weeks Creek Road. My legs felt the accumulated miles and weren’t too happy on grades above 8%. At the top of the climb, there’s an odd section of very large rollers. You could probably hold momentum on fresh legs and gears to make up most of them, but I was solidly on the suffer bus. I walked a pretty embarrassing number of them but was just trying to keep moving forward. I had been struggling to eat the previous couple of hours, too, and it was starting to haunt me. My stomach was empty, but I also felt like I was going to vomit with every bite. I didn’t want to throw up the few calories I had left, but after stopping to regain composure a few times, I just let nature have its way. It helped a little, but my stomach was still unhappy about taking down anything else.
The Toccoa swinging bridge was the next major landmark and is a mandatory hike-a-bike. I made my way down as fast as I could but was doing a pretty lousy job at being quick and stumbled on plenty of roots in the dark. The sun started to come up as I climbed up from the fish hatchery to Cooper’s Gap. There were some great views, but I didn’t manage to get any pictures. Jake Mountain singletrack was slow but not terrible. I sat down for a minute to eat and check the tracker. I was predicted to finish two hours ahead of Neil Beltchenko’s record run from 2018. Heck yeah! That gave me the motivation to get off my butt and start toward Bare Hare, a climb that I knew would be about 95% hiking. I was right. It was a miserable three miles. It felt like an eternity to make it to the top, and I had never noticed how much climbing there was, even on the downhill. I had zero flow and was walking whenever the trail turned up. This was absolutely one of the lowest points on the ride. When I finally made it to the other side, I was only 30 minutes up on Neil’s time. That freaked me out as it had only been three hours since I last checked the tracker.
I made a rash decision to fill up from the river at the bottom of Nimblewill Gap without filtering. The water was crystal clear, and I was in the mountains. What could go wrong? I don’t recommend it, but no parasites yet! Nimblewill Gap seemed pretty mellow, with a very steady grade both times I climbed it before, but the pitches show on single speed. I’m sure you can guess by now that I did some more walking. The downhill is notoriously chunky and left my hands almost completely numb. I had lost 15 more minutes by the time I reached the bottom.
Big Creek was another climb that I had forgotten about and was the final straw (for a little while at least) for me. It was paved, but still unrideably steep. I don’t mind hiking gravel roads or singletrack all that much, but I find walking on pavement to be completely demoralizing. By the time I hit the other side, I called my mom and told her I was done going for the record. I was steadily losing time, and I knew there were more slow miles ahead. I still had a 20 or so mile gap on second place, so I decided I would have time to stop at the Iron Bridge Cafe and eat some real food to get my stomach back in check. I took my time and enjoyed a fried chicken wrap, chips, and a soda. I didn’t check the tracker or clock and figured I would just try to enjoy the end.
Leaving with a full stomach, I was unpleasantly greeted by another paved hike-a-bike on Aska Road. Drivers love to fly on that road, so I stuck to the grass. I turned into the Aska trails and surprised myself with how much I rode; I was feeling good through the whole climb and descent. When I got to the other side, I had 40 miles left and five hours to do it. With how much better I was feeling, maybe the record was still up in the air?
I pushed hard through the cabin roads on the other side of Blue Ridge, riding as much as my gearing choice would let me. I’d guess all of the pitches are close to 15%, and I only had to walk two of them. Wolfpen Gap, some more hike-a-bike on paved cabin roads, and Pinhoti 2, then I was on the road to Mulberry Gap! I pushed as hard as I could to get up the driveway, but only made it about 2/3 of the way up. That was close enough for me. My finish time was 8:22 p.m., putting me ahead of the previous (geared) record by 49 minutes which I couldn’t believe.
After a few pictures, I was thrilled to take off my helmet for the first time in 36 hours and eat some real food. I had a nice shower at Mulberry Gap and took a nap outside on the bench while I waited for Matt to finish. He rolled in strong around 10:30 p.m. after a full three hours of sleep in a hotel the night before.
It may not have been the same type of enjoyment I planned after my switch to single speed, but the result was more than I ever could have hoped for. It’s always fun (although maybe the type 2 kind) to push the limits of the mind and body deep in the forest. I enjoyed the route just as much the second time as I did during my three-day tour. It’s just the right ratio of scenic to punishing and is certainly never boring. Thanks to Neil for setting the bar so high, and to Matt for keeping me on my toes until the last minutes of the race. Also thanks to my parents who support me doing these silly races through the woods.
34,695 feet of climbing
36 hours and 22 minutes total time
32.5 hours of moving time (more since it would pause when walking)
40 minutes of sleep
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