Groad Trip: The Dirty 130 FKT
Pete Stetina and Heather Jackson head to Tennessee to explore new-to-them gravel and reinvigorate the concept of an FKT.
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Perhaps my favorite thing to come out of the pandemic was the rise of cycling FKTs (Fastest Known Times).
Throughout 2020 and 2021, FKTs were a prominent focus for myself and many pro racers. Websites were created for record-keeping, and routes were either pushed into infamy or established as a bucket list ride.
It was a fresh way of looking at competition with a whole new set of challenges, like picking the day based on wind and weather patterns.
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As racing returned to normal, FKTs started to lose some of the limelight, but myself and a few colleagues have stayed smitten with the idea and occasionally attempt one to keep things fresh.
I didn’t want the FKT movement to lose its momentum, and I also feel there needs to be more drop bar, gravel-friendly routes out there; indeed, most are MTB-focused. I set out looking far and wide for a route that would tick all the boxes.
At the same time, I realized the Southeastern US seems to get less attention in the greater gravel discussion. There’s a lack of national-level events down there, but I knew the dirt is prolific and the terrain is vast. Coincidentally, a guy named Shannon had reached out to me last winter about a series of routes in Eastern Tennessee that he promotes. My interest was piqued.
Ain’t no place I’d rather be
Eastern Tennessee is home to the base of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest. Tennessee Gravel promotes three TT-style routes that riders can challenge themselves on. I asked Shannon what the most prestigious of the three were — the Dirty 130, he said. He then introduced me to the route’s creator, Kim Murrell. Kim also runs the Fireside Outpost, and she offered up some of the property’s cabins for us to base from for the effort.
Heather Jackson is the closest thing I have to a teammate these days, as we share a multitude of sponsors, as well as similar outlook. Her husband, Wattie, happens to do video work. I rang them up and pitched an idea of a double assault on the Dirty 130 in early April. Without hesitation they said yes, and with Big Tall Wayne running point on equipment, we made plans to venture to the Southeast.
We planned for a Thursday attempt, but as we got closer to the day the forecast worsened. With BWR California just a week later, we didn’t want to ride all day in the rain. So a few hundred dollars later, Wayne and I moved our plans forward 24 hours, packed bags, and sprinted to the airport. There’d be no shakeout ride or recon, but a Chipotle burrito near the airport was enough to suffice as a “race meal.”
It was still better than getting soaked, rolling slow, and getting sick.
Upon arriving at Fireside, our eyes widened. We met Kim and realized we’d stumbled onto something special. There’s a tight-knit community centered around these routes; as folks complete them, they submit ride reports to Tennessee Gravel, so others are able to learn from previous attempts or enjoy the effort vicariously through the journal.
The routes are detailed with GPS tracks, and provide refuel suggestions so one can plan their effort. And at the end of the year, anyone who can gathers for a party to celebrate their adventures.
Kim and Shannon are the hub of all of this. Kim seemingly knows every dirt road, trail, and river in the region and loves to share her knowledge — until, that is, one starts the ride. She holds the sanctity of the effort in high regard so once you set off she refuses to respond unless you’re calling with an emergency. Shannon has helped create the community and guidance at Tennessee Gravel.
Heather and I compared notes, refill locations, and set our alarms for an early rise in an effort to beat the heat and humidity.
Per the name, the Dirty 130 is 130 miles and, per my Wahoo GPS, over 16,000ft of vert. It’s a lollipop type of route with the out-and-back encompassing an hour-long climb on either side of a pass.
I don’t know what led me to believe it was a fast trail, maybe it was optimism that folks wouldn’t ride chunk all day, but I was flabbergasted on the first climb and descent. It was rough and the descent was slow-going. I knew the current record of 9 hours 5 minutes was fast enough that it couldn’t stay this technical all day, and indeed the terrain smoothed out and my speed picked up accordingly.
The countryside down there is lush, canopied, and quiet. Barely a car was seen all day. There were moments of mild panic, like when, at mile 34 the trail seemingly ends and you have to know to ride through brush and ford a river just trusting there’s an old logging road on the other side (it’s well documented in the ride reports but still …).
Or, when the only resupply store within hours of pedaling has an “always on spigot” but it’s all the way around the side of the building; I scurried around like a panicked critter until I found it.
The most notorious climb of the route is Buck Bald, and the final stretch is an out-and-back to a 360-degree view of Cherokee National Forest. Kim has implemented a rule that the rider must take a selfie on the summit to prove they rode the out and back and didn’t just cover the pass to save time.
Eventually, the lights began to flicker, as they do in these types of rides. In fact, it’s kind of the point of these efforts. Unfortunately for me, it happened at the base of the hour-plus climb towards the finish. Maybe it was the heat and humidity after a rainy and cold California winter. Maybe it was getting overzealous on Buck Bald and nabbing the KOM along the way in a 130-mile effort. Whatever the reason, my body went dark. And that rough road I mentioned at the beginning, well, the climb out to finish the lollipop’s loop was even rougher.
I bounced my way home, pedal stroke by pedal stroke. My dream goal of a sub-eight-hour attempt slid by and just finishing became my priority. I stopped the clock at 8:20.
Wayne and Wattie were waiting for me under the shade-covered porch with some locals who regularly stop by for a light beer or their Coca Cola. They’d lingered to see “the bike rider” come finish the course out of mild interest. Wayne passed me a cold ice cream, some salty chips, and a cold beer. As the salt, fat, sugar, and alcohol resuscitated my soul, we shared some laughs about actually riding a bike over that road they wouldn’t dare drive their truck on.
Heather came home not much later to shatter the female record and post the fourth-fastest time ever at 9:45! I was witness to the legs that would propel her to BWR victory a week later. That evening we hung around the bonfire with Kim and Shannon. Sharing adventures, giving our take on their gravel vs the rest of the country’s, and swilling beers.
The Southeast has a lot to offer in terms of deep mountain gravel adventures coupled with its famous hospitality, and I’m considering a return for Kim’s other two routes someday. I hope you enjoy this video of our battle with this appropriately named epic, The Dirty 130.