I had only heard about this ride a few weeks previous, starting as semi-interested when it was suggested to me, and slowly psyching myself up for it to a week beforehand and deciding to enter. The draw for me was the 8 or so mile descent from Saluda back to Tryon. I thought … what a great way to end a ride and a tough climb, to come blasting down the last part to the finish. That part did end up true for me, as I ate up those last miles with a huge grin on my face, re-living my motorcycle days of riding the very same road. How I got there was not without some poor decisions on my part…
Having pre-registered online, “packet” pickup was very easy on the morning of the ride. All operations (including the post-ride meal) were based out of the “lodge” at Harmon Field in Tryon. A pair of socks and a bib number and I had what I needed. I thought it was notable that my number was the same as the US highway that I would be riding to finish the ride to Tryon!
The morning was very pleasant, almost cool … a front had come through the day before and had turned a thick and humid week into a wonderful July 4th to be outside. Harmon Field itself is a nice spot, with the NC mountains all around. It was fairly “roomy” though, with spots for trailers (I assume for the horse events). One couple had parked a Class A Motorhome there the night before to participate in the ride before heading off to other destinations. Maybe next time we’ll bring our camper?
With this wonderful change in the weather for our nation’s Independence Day, I could not help but think of a passage in Leviticus:
Leviticus 26:3-5King James Version (KJV)
“3 If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them;
4 Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.
5 And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely.”
With all that our nation does to disavow the existence of God, today we’ve been blessed with the relief of a milder summer day for our Independence Day. Something to think about.
Lining up for the start, it seemed about 200+ riders had shown up for the event. I was feeling pretty good, and was hoping based on my past rides that I could break 4 hours moving time. I tried to choose my place carefully. When I rode Assault on Marion, I think I started too far back, had to work too hard to catch a group I wanted to stay with, and got too close to blowing up. This time, I wanted to start closer to the front to ride with a group that was more my speed and get a good pace. My plan was to conserve for the first part and be strong for the climb over Callahan Mountain Road and then the Watershed, making the final push to Saluda with enough to enjoy the descent to the finish.
Well 1 out of 4 is better than nothing.
I soon found myself with a group that was waaay too fast for me. We (they) took off quickly from the start (why is this always a surprise to me?) and kept moving strong. I really should have thought about where I was at the start … I saw Boyd Johnson (5th overall 2014 AOM) lined up not to far ahead of me. What the heck was I thinking! I had done zero warmup before the start. On the other hand, a whole group of folks came in from a warm up and filled in the starting line right before take-off. Another duh! moment…
As the group moved (sprinted) along down 176, I soon became “that guy” – you know, the guy you see just barely holding onto the back. Yup, been there, done that. For some crazy reason I thought if I could just get into the group, I could settle down into a pace in the draft. Except this was not a relatively flat ride (where did I think the 4500+ elevation gain was going to come from, all at the end?). Just when I got into the group, there was a small pitch. Then another. Having already tried to bridge a gap a few minutes into the ride, I was toast.
What have I done!?
Soon another small group of riders caught me. I would stick with them for about 10-15 minutes or so, only to get dropped. Then another group would catch me, and then another drop. Frustrating. In a moment of lucidity I knew what I should have done. Had I warmed up, been smarter at the start, and not redlined I could have stuck with some of these groups that were catching and dropping me. But I had burned too many matches being foolish and had lost some of my power.
Then at about the same time, I needed to take a breather and a felt a tightness inside my right leg. At only about 20 miles, my typical cramp zone was already speaking to me. Right then I knew I was going to have issues later and had to be careful not to light it up. I stopped, stretched, rubbed it out and had the opportunity to get my heart rate down. Then I saw another group coming up behind me of 3 guys. I wondered if I could stay with them, and I did, for the most part. We took turns pulling and I managed a decent pull for the group. But I struggled on some of the hills. Hills that I knew I should have been able to manage. After the second rest stop, I was dropped again. Right around 34 miles, in the doldrums of the ride, I was alone.
Having learned my lesson about 3 or 4 times over I made a point to keep my heart rate below threshold as much as I could and survive to stop #3, hoping for some recovery before the part of the ride that I know – Callahan, the Watershed and Saluda. That would be no small climb and I had to at least be mentally ready for it. With no group to chase and having slowed my pace to conserve what little I had left, I did what I should have done long beforehand.
I enjoyed the scenery.
The metric ride out towards the east of Tryon was certainly picturesque, but after the first loop and heading west, with the clear blue summer day, the countryside was very enjoyable. The ride up past Lake Lanier wasn’t easy but it offered nice views of the lake, and Oak Grove Rd, while having challenging rollers one after another, gave me nicely framed views of the mountain terrain I would soon climb on the way to Saluda.
I settled into my typical rolling countryside approach – not afraid of my 34/28 combo “granny” – spin to survive the climb, and power down the other side through the flat and partially up the next hill. I saw a family on the side of the road “giving me more cow bell” and waving as I rode by. I can make it, just keep spinning… and thank you Blue Ridge Baptist Church for this marquee! “God has a plan Trust and Believe.” I was feeling the burn at this point (at the top of another hill) and had to break a bit of a smile here…
By the time I got to rest stop #3 I was hurting. I recall a flat on the way there where I couldn’t even put the power down. On a flat. Rolling along at about 12mph. That’s just demoralizing. Struggling up the hill to the rest stop, I clipped out and ate another cookie while I stretched out my legs. No more talk from my typical cramp zone but I knew it was coming. More Accelerade / Gatorade and another Salt Stick. I tried to make the most of this rest stop and tried to calm my heart rate as I lamented to one of the volunteers how I felt as if I was the last guy out on the course, just struggling to finish.
Just then a whole pack of people came rolling in. One after another, where there were about 30-40 people at one time at this stop. I saw folks whom I hadn’t seen since the start, when I had wondered if I should have positioned myself with them rather than where I was.
Oh how we learn things.
I waited until there was a critical mass of riders, and jumping into a pack of about 10 guys, we made our way down highway 11. It was very windy (mostly headwind!), and I expected the front guy to pull off after a couple minutes to leave the pull to the second guy in line (who happened to be me). But he just kept pulling, and pulling, and I was certainly happy to ride his back wheel all the way to the turn for Old Highway 11. At that point we started to break up as the road approached Callahan Mountain Rd.
From here I had an idea of what I was getting into, having just seen this part of the route a week earlier. Callahan was a sit/stand struggle, but as misery loves company, it was somewhat encouraging to see the guys around me try all sorts of things as well to get up the climb. (Why hadn’t I just stuck with these guys from the start, I kept thinking!)
Down the other side past Camp Old Indian I had a little fun passing some of the guys who had got by me on the climb up. The road turned semi-flat, and I tried to power into it on my way to rest stop #4, but I was still paying the price for my fast start and struggled into the stop needing another stretch break. My right inner thigh was beginning to speak up again.
I needed some oomph for the Watershed and went for a caffeine chocolate GU I had held onto for just such an occasion. I sugared up a bit more with another cookie, topped off a bottle and I tried to get into a sustainable pace up the climb. I was already well past the 3 hour mark and was not only wondering if I would meet my goal but had thoughts if I might get to the point of calling for SAG. How tragic that would be…
This is where I’d like to say I had a boost and managed my way up to the top feeling fairly positive about the whole thing, but this was nothing more than a suffering climb and pain management. I had a few moments to enjoy the serenity of the watershed – but I was struggling to just keep moving. Somehow, I kept my leg cramping in check and between sit/stand/mash/spin/stomp/pull I kept moving and made it to the state line. I had to stop again soon afterwards to stretch out the twinge, took another salt pill and had a nice chat with a couple guys who stopped to see if I was ok (thanks guys!).
I took a deep breath and headed towards the 2 or 3 more hills to Saluda. I knew after these I would be just about home free. Again … my mind started to attempt the math. After this hill – or the next – is how many miles? So I would have to average 25 mph to make it back to Tryon in time? Or is it 30mph? Is any of this possible?
I reached the drop into Saluda and started to feel a kick. (Nothing like the speed of a descent to get your spirits up). Power to the ground, speed is up, cramps are at bay. Let’s roll!
Into downtown Saluda … a little bit of traffic, a couple other riders out a “Bakery Ride”, maybe a bit startled by those of us with numbers trying to make time back to Tryon. A couple little hills outside of town (who put those here?!). Wondering if I’m going to even get close to my goal. Then the start of the Saluda Grade to Tryon. You know it when you see it – the road drops beneath you. To some, fear – to others, opportunity?
I’ll make the point here that we had a fairly clear safety talk from one of the volunteers at the ride start, indicating the problems with the US 176 road surface down to Tryon and the potential for crashing. In short, broken pavement with cracks in your direction of travel, and tar snakes (sealer over previous cracks that is very slick). Don’t do anything stupid, “we don’t want to be mopping you up from the road.” From my motorcycle days, the saying was “ride within your limits.” I wanted to charge the descent but not at 10/10 – more like 8/10 with room for error. I hadn’t been down this road for awhile (no pun intended) and never on my road bike so I “took it easy” at the beginning and let it go a little more as I got comfortable with what the road was throwing at me. Of course I wanted to go “all-in” to reach my goal but there are certain rules to life – like get back home to see your family in one piece.
Apparently my version of taking it easy must be crazy to some because I gapped the guys behind me quickly and passed more than a few riders down the mountain. What I had in front of me was mostly unbroken pavement with a few tar snakes that I could easily pick a line through, plenty of visibility through the corner and almost all sections in the sun (nothing hidden). I got in the groove and let it rip where conditions would allow. I had fun. I had a blast. I was grinning like a kid in a candy store. And I kept it “safe” (well – at least to me).
Then the period of doubt set in – the slight downhill, almost flat, some slightly uphill last couple miles into Tryon. I knew I had to power down on this section to make it back. My bike clock was already around 3:55 and counting and I had no idea if I was going to make it in time. I got in the drops and went for it, with a mashing, spinning, to heck with the HRM let’s-get-this-thing-done effort. Then out of nowhere, my right inner thigh, my cramp zone – locks up.
There I am, slowing down, unable to pedal, trying all sorts of things to keep moving. Jabbing one hand into my leg to try and keep the cramp away worked, but I couldn’t bend my right leg hardly at all. Which meant no pedaling. I couldn’t believe that I was only about a mile away and I was locking up. But I found a solution.
Remember Days of Thunder? (I know, a poor movie representation of NASCAR racing, but hear me out). The scene where Cole Trickle “limps” into the pits only in reverse? Well that was basically me back to Harmon Field. I found that I could stand up and not cramp. So imagine a guy, full pedal stroke with the left leg and straight legged with the right, mashing his way back to the finish. I hope it’s funny to someone as I’m sure the cop holding back traffic for me at that last intersection was trying not to laugh (it’s ok officer, laugh all you want, I’m just happy you held those cars back just a little longer for me!).
Reached the finish in 3:59:33 ride time, with about 20 minutes worth of stops. According to my Strava data I averaged over 28mph from Saluda to Tryon – just what I needed to get back in time! How rewarding when a nice volunteer hands you a medal at the finish 🙂
This ride was an example of doing many things wrong and dealing with the consequences – but managing to salvage enough to have a good ride and a good result (blowing your strategy with poor tactics, then re-grouping to attack again). Next time around, warm-up and an honest evaluation of where to start will be at the top of my mind. I am happy that I had a sound nutrition and hydration approach, and managed through my (mostly) self-induced cramp problem.
After a post-ride meal of wraps, chips, chocolate chip cookies and plenty of water, I stretched again and was thankful that I simply made it back safe and without major incident. Beautiful weather and a well supported ride – thank you to Rotary Club of Tryon!
James 1:17 New King James Version (NKJV)
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. “