Each year in late September the Dahlonega Chamber of
Commerce hosts the Six Gap Century Ride. It’s a challenging
100 mile bicycle ride over the North Georgia mountains
with 10,700 feet of climbing.
For riders would don’t want to spend all day climbing
the mountains, a shorter “Three Gap” 50 mile option is
offered. I thought this might be interesting to attempt
on my unicycle – a 36" Coker – partially as a challenge,
but also because I needed the training miles in for next
week’s MS 150 “Jack & Back” ride and didn’t want to totally
miss out on the Six Gap fun.
A few days before the ride, I installed 170 mm crank
arms to give the Coker more climbing leverage. Normally
I ride with 150mm cranks and lately I’ve been trying arms
as low as 140mm. The longer crank arms meant that I had
to cut off an extra centimeter from my seatpost so I could
reach the pedals. In the process of experimenting, I applied
too much torque and snapped off my seatpost collar bolt,
requiring a replacement collar.
One day prior to the Six Gap ride, I rode the 170 mm
crank/seatpost configuration on a 31 mile “Habitat
for Humanity” charity ride in Springfield, Tennessee.
Everything checked out okay, though the new cranks
felt different and made me spin like crazy on the
On 1:30 am Sunday morning Tom Cayton, Alan Gosart
and I rode down to Dahlonega, Georgia. It’s about
a 5 hour trip, though we lose and hour because of
the time zone difference (central vs. eastern standard).
We arrived in Dahlonega to a cool, misty morning sunrise.
Most riders had on jackets or vests and arm warmers. I
didn’t bother because at the speeds I’d be riding (8 mph),
the wind chill wouldn’t be much of a factor.
I waited about 5 minutes after the official start for
the large packs of cyclists to clear out, then managed to
roll out of the parking lot on the Coker. The big wheeled
unicycle attracts a lot of attention at organized rides.
It’s a conversation starter and a camera magnet.
On the ride out to Neals Gap, I was passed by
100 or more late starters. The inevitable questions
asked in order of frequency:
“How far are you riding?”
(Six Gap would take me 16-18 hours!)
“Can you freewheel?”
(Freewheel? We don’ need no stinkin’ freewheels.)
“How do you handle the descents?”
“When did you start learning to ride?”
After a while the riders thinned out. There were
a few short climbs on the way to Neels Gap.
The early morning traffic was fairly light.
Around mile 20, I dismounted and took a brief
nature break at the base of Neels Gap. I think 20
miles is the longest non-stop distance I’ve
ridden on the Coker, though I wasn’t trying to set
any non-stop distance records. Usually I figure that
I’ll be forced to dismount either at a traffic light
or for mundance klutziness – which a convenient
time to take a brief saddle break.
One reason I was interested in riding Three Gap on
the unicycle was to see how the Coker and its rider
would handle multi-mile climbs – terrain that is
sorely lacking in middle Tennessee. My main concern
was how I would get started again if I was forced to
dismount in the middle of a long climb. Would I be able
to remount and keep riding uphill? It’s difficult even
on a bicycle to start up on a steep hill. Since I have
pretty poor freemounting skills even in the best of
conditions, starting uphill is nearly impossible.
On shorter distance climbs this is less of a problem,
since I can simply walk up to the top and remount.
Neels Gap has a decent road shoulder and a consistent
grade throughout the climb. I passed four slow climbers
on the way up. Since I didn’t have to dismount on the
climb, I wasn’t forced to test my (lack of) ability to
freemount uphill. There weren’t many attractive
places along Neals Gap to remount if necessary, and it
would have been a long walk to the top. The wind along
this section was pretty brisk, I’d guess the gusts were
in excess of 20 mph. When a crosswind would hit me, it
would throw off my balance slightly.
At the top of Neels Gap, the rest stop crew volunteers
were patiently waiting for us slowpokes. The food was
so-so (store cookies, dry peanut butter sandwiches)
and Gatorade. I refueled and headed slowly downhill.
With one climb down and two to go, I was feeling more
confident that I could complete all three gaps. The
slower Three Gap riders passed me on the way down.
My Coker unicycle frame was build by Rick Hunter and
it has bosses for V-brakes. David Stockton built
the wheel (“Strongest Coker Wheel in the world.”).
David also made an effort to ensure that the wheel
and brake functioned together properly.
Operating a unicycle brake is different than a
bicycle brake. If you squeeze hard on a unicycle
brake, you’ll go flying off. It is therefore necessary
to apply just enough force to create some light pressure
between rim and the brake pads. Ideally, I can find a
sweet spot where I’m applying just enough pressure
that I’m leaning back slightly and applying just the
minimal pedal force to keep the ride smooth.
At the bottom of Neals Gap, the Three Gap riders were
routed directly toward Wolfpen Gap. For the Six
Gap riders, Wolfen is climb #5, immediately following
the notorious Hogpen Gap. As I started up Wolfpen, I
was suddenly reminded of its feature characteristics.
The turns are sharper with high, steep banks. Normally
these are barely noticeable to a bike rider because
they’re short and can be easily powered through.
However early into the Wolfpen climb I felt like I would
lose control. Eventually I did. I was worried that
I might be forced into lots of UPDs and might spend a lot
of time trying to remount and/or walk up.
Fortunately, I was able to remount from the high side
of a banked turn and point the Coker perpendicular to
the road. The traffic was fairly light, so after the
second attempt I got it back up climbing the hill.
Surprisingly, I suffered not a single further UPD, though
there were several close calls. At the top off Wolfpen
Alan passed by as I stopped to refuel at the rest area. He
was probably in the top 10% of the finishers for Six Gap, so
I could count on a lot of company through the remainder of
Coming down Wolfpen was a lot of fun. I had gotten the
hang of using the brake, and the twisting banked curves
made the descent more interesting. The final hurdle was
Woody Gap, a climb I’ve ridden many times in both directions
on my bike. The road is smooth and the grade is relatively
easy. On the way to Woody Gap, I passed by a place
where some kind of Indian reenactment was going on, with
guys dressed up in full native regalia. I slowed down to snap
a couple of quick pictures.
As I was climbing Woody Gap, the slower bike riders were
noticing that it was harder to pass me, since the unicycle
was at less of a disadvantage uphill. Finally at the 1 kilometer
KOM (King of Mountain) marker, I poured on the steam and
started passing riders uphill. At the top of Woody Gap I took
my last rest stop and refueled with a sandwich and Gatorade.
One of the volunteers said she had a message for me, but
forgot the message or whom it was from (she was a bit
ditzy). I figured it must have been from Alan since he
was the only rider to pass me that I recognized all day.
The ride down Woody Gap was uneventful. My butt was
sore, but I knew the ride would soon be finished. As much
as I enjoy descending on a bike, on a unicycle it’s not
as fast nor as much fun. The descent from the top of
Woody Gap is over 10 miles long. I was actually looking
forward to some minor climbs afterwards (the last few
miles) just to get into a different riding position.
As I got closer to the finish, friends from the Harpeth
Bike Club started passing me. A couple miles before the
finish line I recognized Mark Wolff (whom I rode with on
part of Paris-Brest-Paris) in his Audax Atlanta jersey and
his brother Lou. Mark stopped to take a picture of me. I
passed my camera back to Mark, asking him to take my
picture at the finish.
My primary goal was to complete the ride. A secondary
goal was to finish it in under 8 hours. Total elapsed
time was 6 hours, 38 minutes. Average speed was 7.4 mph,
with a max speed of 14 mph. I stopped four times for quick
breaks and had one UPD, so I was fortunate in that I spent
very minimal time “off wheel”.
Finally, I should mention that bringing a unicycle to
an event of this kind attracts a lot of attention.
Not only the riders – who’d whip out their cameras
scaring me as they’d turn back and shoot a pic on a fast
descent – but the hundreds of motorcyclists would smile
and give me thumbs up and yell encouragment, or the other
motorists who would sometimes slow down to gawk a this big
wheeled roadside distraction. The Coker is fun, but it’s
not the transportation of choice for introverts.