The Cohutta Cat is a 290-mile bikepacking race, spanning the North Georgia and East Tennessee Appalachian Mountains. The course begins and ends at the Mulberry Gap Mountain adventure basecamp, located a short drive from Ellijay Georgia, and nestled in the Cohutta Wilderness area. The route packs an impressive punch, with 33K of climbing along a mix of singletrack, gravel roads, and pavement. Consisting of a large figure 8 loop out of Mulberry Gap and circling around Lake Blue Ridge, there are few opportunities for resupply and the weather can be notoriously fickle. Sleep, resupply strategy, and fitness all need equal attention to ensure a smooth ride. 

Cohutta Cat doesn’t have the same name recognition as some larger national bikepacking events, but a few big names from the bikepacking racing community have traveled to North Georgia to take it on. Neil Beltchencko called the route “One of the hardest mile-for-mile routes around,”—high praise from the multi-winner and FKT holder of the Colorado Trail Race. Going into the 2023 race, Neil held the Cohutta Cat course FKT w/ a time of 37 hours 11 minutes from his 2018 ride. The following year, Lael Wilcox rode the 4th edition of the Cohutta Cat, pedaling her way back to Mulberry Gap in 56 hours.

The Cohutta Cat served as a key training block in my Tour Divide preparation. As a local rider who frequently trains on sections of the route and dreamed of connecting them in a single, big effort it was also a “bucket-list” ride. It is a true grassroots event. There is no entry fee, and the only requirement is that you bring a quirky cat patch. If you manage to cross the finish line, you get your pick of any of the remaining patches, which makes for a very interesting trophy.


17 riders assembled at Mulberry Gap for Friday morning’s pre-ride meeting. Kate, the owner of Mulberry Gap, tried her best to corral the Cohutta Cat (the race’s namesake) into our pre-race meeting. When the race director, Daniel Jessee, was looking for a name for the route he chose the MG Adventure Basecamps resident house cat, who alternates between cute and cuddly and attack mode. An apt analogy for the array of emotions felt navigating the different sections of the course.

There was heavy rain in the forecast for the weekend and much of the week preceding the Friday morning roll-out. Fortunately, the grim forecast turned into manageable pockets of rain on Sunday. I made a last-minute gamble to remove a warm layer and rain pants. My kit was packed with the bare minimum: Food, tools, a rain jacket, and a 3oz emergency bivy. If the weather reverted to the original forecast I’d be much less comfortable, but sometimes it's exciting to roll the dice and find out what you can get away with for the sake of moving fast with a light setup.

I’d set a pre-race intention to not let other riders influence my pace. My primary goal was to push a faster pace in the 2nd half of the race and go easy in the 1st. It’s easy to overestimate yourself and then blow up in these longer events, and hard to manage your ego while watching other riders pull away in the beginning. I settled into my “endurance pace” and tried not to worry about my position. I passed a few folks and was in second place at the top of P3 before turning onto P4. It was there that I had my last glimpse of the first-place rider, 18-year-old PJ Terry.

The first day passed rather uneventfully. I finished the singletrack on the Pinhoti, pedaled through rough terrain at Fort Mountain, made the big climb up Mill Creek, and then navigated a brutal section of overgrown singletrack called the Sylco Creek Trail, that connected us to Big Creek and the Ocoee River area.

As the sun was setting, I pulled into Thunder Rock campground for a quick water top-off and entered the flowy singletrack on Brush Creek at sunset. Soon afterward I arrived at the first resupply point: The local Hardees (one of 2 resupply options in Ducktown, TN). Off the bike, I follow a health-conscious diet, but these rides are a constant battle to get enough calories down. I caught a glimpse of my mud-caked face in the window before ordering 5 double cheeseburgers, a large fry, and filling my bottles with half Powerade/half Coke. The employees looked at me as if I were a madman while I scrambled to eat 2 of the burgers and stuffed the rest in my frame bag. After that, it was off into the night, onto Highway 64 towards Blue Ridge.

After a big gravel climb, the final push into Blue Ridge is fast and paved. I knew this was a good opportunity to eat into PJ’s lead. I try to strike a balance between watching the tracker for updates but also being conscious that constant monitoring can drive you crazy. Despite his musings before the race about taking it easy, PJ was shot out of the cannon from the start. He made a last-minute decision to ditch his drivetrain and roll single-speed. I made every effort throughout the race to take advantage of his lack of gears, especially on the fast-rolling paved sections.

Cohutta Cat: 250 miles of Cohutta Wilderness

In Blue Ridge, I was forced to make a crucial sleep decision. Sleep deprivation is my least favorite part of the sport. It’s unhealthy and there’s a very good argument to be made that it’s also unsafe. Some prominent figures in the sport contend there needs to be a community-wide re-evaluation of how we go about these events where it’s so tempting to gain an advantage by foregoing sleep but there is no easy answer. I’m not making a judgment one way or the other. Sleepless nights nodding off on the bike aren’t what draws me back to these events so it's a decision that must be navigated carefully when trying to move fast.

I was well ahead of the pace I expected but unsure my body could hold up for another 24 hours without rest. I’ve been working with a coach recently who gave me solid-sounding advice: First, don’t wait until you’re desperate to sleep. Second, shivering on the side of the trail isn’t restful. If you’re going to stop, get warm and give yourself an opportunity to really sleep. I chose to watch PJ’s dot drift away as I got a hotel room to sleep for 3 hours, hoping I’d gain the crucial strength needed to bridge the gap the following day.

At 4am the alarm went off; I ate quickly and was back on the road. The following day, I felt strong and moved quickly through some singletrack and leg-burning gravel climbs. I finished the 100+ mile loop around the lake back to Blue Ridge more quickly than expected, but it was 40 miles back to the finish line at Mulberry Gap. I remembered from a scouting trip done the previous Fall that there was still some difficult ground to cover.

At some point in the final stretch, as we neared the end, I had to resign myself to the face that I wouldn’t be catching PJ. As a final reminder that I’m “not out of the woods yet” both literally and figuratively, I saw a huge and very healthy-looking brown bear and cub sitting along the route. They saw me approach and scampered into the woods. I shouted “Go Bear!!” for a few minutes before deeming it safe to pass, then burned a few of the last matches I had left, trying to pass that section as quickly as possible.

The sun went down, and it started to rain as I navigated the last section of single track leading back to Mulberry Gap. With 1st place taken and the 3rd place rider not anywhere within striking distance and only 5 miles from the finish line, my body and mind began a small revolt. I’ve done this section of trail dozens of times and would have previously described it as “flowy and fun.” This time, every pedal stroke was a fight against my body shutting down. Some calories and a trailside self-pep talk turned me around and I crossed the finish line in high spirits around 10:30. My total riding time was 38 hours and 26 minutes. 1 hour and 15 minutes off Neil’s previous FKT pace, and roughly 2 hours behind PJ’s new FKT.

PJ was sleeping on a bench in the rain, waiting for me at the finish. The rest of Mulberry Gap was quiet. We foraged around the kitchen to find two unclaimed packed lunches as our celebration dinner and a chance to recount our adventure. This respect amongst competitors is another facet of the sport that keeps me coming back for more.

My perspective was that this was a pretty epic battle, but I think don’t think PJ felt that way. He stayed in firm control of the front for the entire race. He timed his pace perfectly and set a new PKT, on a single speed (32x19). As an 18-year-old, I cannot express how impressed I am with the mindset, maturity, and grit he demonstrated. His love for the sport is contagious. While I would have loved to win Cohutta Cat, I’m also extremely excited to see what PJ can do in this sport.

According to the race director, the course conditions were particularly bad, and it proved to be a tough year for the rest of the field. Only 17 of the 25 entrants showed up to the start and only 4 of us crossed the finish line. The final racer finished showed a lot of heart, making it back to Mulberry Gap in 103 hours, closing the book on the 2023 Cohutta Cat Grand Depart. For those of you unfamiliar with this region, you might think the absence of snowcapped peaks and high elevation means less climbing and easier terrain. But I welcome you to come down and try to tame the Cohutta Cat.

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