Sunday, June 2, 2013

Aska Trail System Mountain Biking

Memorial Day - May 27, 2013

I had to work 7 days a week for several weeks so my riding was constrained to the Chattanooga area. I was in the mood to check out a new place. One of the trail systems within 2 hours of town that I had not visited was the Aska Trail System in Chattahoochee National Forest, outside Blue Ridge, Georgia. I knew how to find the trailhead at Deep Gap but little else about the trails there.
The Deep Gap Parking Area on Aska Road.
When I arrived I took a snapshot of the trail map with my iPhone for reference on the trail if necessary. Heading up the connector trail for the Flat Creek Loop, I immediately noticed that it was typical National Forest mountain bike trail, which is to say that it was really fire road or near to it. The path was wide and I soon noticed that the climb out of the parking lot, while not steep, showed no signs of relenting. I've ridden some stuff like this is a couple of places and I think of it as old school mountain biking. Of course many people consider it to be real mountain biking but I've been spoiled by carefully purpose-designed swooping single track that tends to spread out elevation changes a little better. According to singletracks.com, it features a total of 1400 feet of climbing on the day. I find that not hard to believe.
A sample of the wide path typical of the Flat Creek Loop. Note the steady incline.

As is often the case, there were very few views, although it was a pleasant mid-Spring ride through Southern Appalachian forested coves. Although I'm sure the area must have been logged at some point, much of the forest seems to be old growth. There were also some nice shallow stream crossings. I stopped to take pictures but could have ridden all of them had I wanted to so they were not too difficult.

Wide open under -story in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Not many views. Just a few glimpses like this one of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I think this is Green Mountain but not sure. I think that is Mountain Laurel blooming in the foreground (just past peak color I would say).

My weight has been up since the winter and I've been trying to drop it to no avail so my fitness level is not exactly enviable right now. That came into play on the second major climb I encountered (having gone right to ride the Flat Creek Loop counter-clockwise). I died out shortly before coming upon a huge tree down across the trail so I would have had to stop anyway but I was still displeased with my performance, or perhaps I should say lack thereof.
For the love of God, go right. It's brutal climbing either way but the climb is very rough and steeper if you go left for a clockwise route.

After completing the Flat Creek Loop, I was still hungry for more exploration. Even though my legs were a bit shaky after the long climbs, I knew I really would not be satisfied to drive home having ridden so few miles after such a long drive, so I examined the map and found the trail I probably should have gone to first had I realized how difficult Flat Creek was going to be: Long Branch Loop. The trailhead was within riding distance but since Aska Road was so very busy with annoying holiday traffic, and since I had never been to the trail before, I decided to throw the bike back in the pickup and drive down to it. It wasn't too hard to find, although the parking lot is guarded by trees and there is no sign on the road. You really have to know where it is. I think the Forest Service should put up a sign but that's your tax money so perhaps they decided it was not worth it.

I love this sign at the Long Branch trailhead.
The easier Long Branch Loop Trail. It still features a surprising amount of climbing considering that it is usually labeled as an easy or beginner trail.

Stream crossing of Long Branch.

The Long Branch Loop is pretty easy, although there still is significant climbing, albeit mostly at a gradual pace. In order to extend the distance I forced myself up a connector trail that joins with the Green Mountain Trail although I had no legs to proceed once I got there. That probably added a couple hundred more vertical feet as well, making it probably around +1800 feet or so on the day for the two loop trails plus the connector.

I turned back, completed the loop back to my car, and then learned a very important lesson. All the epic climbs at the Aska Trails were accompanied by an equal amount of descending, some of it break-neck and sketchy. I had been riding my brakes all day and they had gotten so hot at one point that I couldn't even touch the brake assembly when I wanted to tighten them. I just kept putting off adjusting them. As a result, on the final downhill with a hairpin turn just before I got back to the parking lot, I found I had essentially no brakes at all and making the turn was questionable. Rather than just riding off into the forest, which probably would have been a viable option if slightly risky, I decided to just lean the bike way over on the non-banked turn and see if I could make it stick. Well it did not stick. The front tire broke traction and skipped sideways three times before I completed the turn and jerked the bike back into the normal vertical alignment. The second skip must have been about a foot and I'm amazed that I didn't suffer a catastrophic crash. I was able to kill my speed gradually by circulating around the parking lot sort of like a downhill skier at the end of a run. It was an important lesson and I made sure to adjust the brakes before I locked the bike in the back of the truck. I was lucky.

My legs hurt all week but started doing a lot better after I cracked the knee back into place so it track properly. I think I need to raise my seat a little further if I'm going to be sitting on the saddle while cranking uphill for so long.

Anyway my curiosity about the Aska Trail System was satisfied. It's not a bad place to ride but it represents old-school mountain biking trail and while it features and easy, smooth surface to ride most of the time, the monster climbs make it moderate to difficult. I probably won't go back unless it is with a group of friends. It's not the type of cross country riding I like.