2015 Fabulous Fourth Ride – “better” than last year!

Event summary: The Fabulous Fourth is a well supported ride, and popular enough to where you shouldn’t find yourself alone for very long amongst all the participants.  The first part of the Metric Century ride is generally through scenic rolling countryside, with the last “half” sending you on a climb up the Greenville Watershed to Saluda, and finishing with an invigorating descent back to Tryon.

Strava link of my ride this year


Seeing the Fourth of July approaching this year, I couldn’t help but think back to when I rode in this event last year – and how I made it tougher on myself with some “self-destruction.”  One year later and with more experience and training, I wondered if I could best my time and overall approach this time around.

Last year saw excellent weather.  This year … not so much.  Looking at the precipitation prediction for the day, I was wondering if I would get any dry miles at all!

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Once again, they had doves ready to release at the start of the ride.  Always a unique touch.

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I lined up at the start, very conscious of my mistake last year, trying to stay with the front group (what on earth was I thinking?!).

This time I positioned further back…

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Once we were off it took a serious amount of self control to not get caught up in the speed.  I watched the front group go, then constantly held myself back as I saw a couple more small groups swallow me up and then leave me.   One of the things about this ride is that the rollers start right away – no time to warm up on some flats.

After about 15 miles I was riding alone and thought “well this is going to be a long day.”

Here’s one of the few photos of dry pavement.  The first 35 or so miles of this ride is through beautiful “horse country!”

 

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Although not as many as last year, still quite a few folks out for the morning to cheer on the riders.  This was one of the most surprising and enjoyable parts of the ride which I discovered last year.

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Many many farms along the way.

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I remembered this turn from last year – where I had to stop and stretch out a leg muscle that was complaining after my too-fast start the last time.  Not this time!

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A few miles in and somewhat happy about my pace to this point.  Still mostly riding alone, and it was windy.  Wondering if I was going to be able to beat 4 hours again…

 

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After looping through the countryside southeast of Tryon, crossing over I-26 to head northwest up to Landrum and back to Tryon.

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This is where I finally got with a group!  Just before this were rollers along the interstate, where I was surprised to be able to keep with these guys.

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This group was a Godsend as we worked into a strong headwind and quite a few “flats.”  I was able to conserve a ton of energy thanks to these guys – although be forewarned, there are a few “grunts” north of Landrum on this route!

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Arriving back into Tryon after finishing the “first loop.”  Just after this was the second rest stop.  I decided to keep going to the third, while the rest of the group stopped.  I hated to lose the group, but I had a plan to only stop once.

It was interesting to see many of the people who had passed me earlier at the second rest stop.  I never saw them again … either they were on the shorter ride, or they had done like I did last year…

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This might look familiar – descending back into Tryon on the same road as the “out route” at the start of the ride.  After reaching 176, don’t miss that left turn onto the road around Lake Lanier (Lakeshore Dr).  I think this gets a few people every year, and it got a few this year too.  Some folks got a few bonus miles…

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Get ready for some climbing around the lake.

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One of the few views you have of the water.

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Soon you get some relief with descending after the lake but the rollers keep coming.  I was able to keep with this guy for a little while, he had his phone jamming some music and it made me want to keep up.

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Then he left me at the church.  Oh well.

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Looking towards the northwest I should have known the clouds were an omen…

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Finally to the third rest stop.  Now my stops are more efficient … grab something to eat, use the can, refill bottles and add Skratch, stretch … look for a group to join and hit the road.  Experience is a good thing, despite what you have to pay for it sometimes.

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And look who I found!  These guys were still rolling strong and passed rest stop #3 just as I was leaving.  I joined up again and was happy to have their draft for a few miles.  Truth be told, I never had to pull with this group….  it seemed this pair was much stronger than they let on, and they kept pulling for whomever was behind them.  With the strong headwind today, I was thankful for that.

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Passing the Cliffs…

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Strong winds today!

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Our little group has grown a bit!  Here we are on Highway 11 fighting the wind

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The route takes a turn off of 11 and when you see this sign, know that there is going to be a very steep section up to Camp Old Indian.

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Grunt!  This is where I really started to suspect that the two guys in dark gray were out for an “easy” metric.  As I was sucking wind at max heart rate, they were having a really deep conversation about military something or other (it’s hard to pay attention when you’re maxed out).

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Down the other side and past the Boy Scout camp – too fast to focus for this picture!

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Cross a couple bridges before reaching Old Highway 25 up the watershed.

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Here is where the rain let loose.  No thunderstorms, but from here almost all the way back to Tryon was showers and heavy rain.  Soaked!

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I wondered about this section, with all the previous miles and tough efforts, was I going to be able to ride strong on this last climb?

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Riders behind…

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More climbing and wet roads ahead.

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At the state line I had to take a break, but I was happy with the climb to this point – able to dig down and climb at my expected pace the entire way.  The rain was nice and cool, and didn’t have to worry about heat today.  But with some ups and downs ahead I put my vest on to avoid getting the chills.

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Looking at my bike computer I wondered if I was going to get back before 4 hours…

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From here I would have liked more pictures, but with my camera in my jersey pocket under my vest, only got a few.  I wasn’t looking forward to the rollers after the state line, but it was unexpected how I was able to still reach down, “power” through them and get them over with.

I caught and passed a few groups on the descents back to Saluda, but it was getting tricky with all the rain.  I hope I didn’t make anyone angry with the passing … but I knew what my bike and tires could do and stuck with it.  On the other hand, my brakes were getting on my nerves!

Finally back into town.

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The normal stop for the typical “Bakery Ride”

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Down 176 into Tryon was somewhat anti-climactic.  I hated I missed some pictures here, and a video would have been so telling … rain at 35+ mph really stings!  The new pavement was sweet but I had to be extra cautious as folks said it was still slick in the rain, being so new.  Couple that with my brake delay (rim brakes, arg…) and it was a terribly annoying descent.

The last stretch into Tryon the guy I passed on the descent got me back, and I jumped on his back wheel almost all the way to Harmon Field.  The draft was nice, but when there is that much rain – I felt like I was drinking from his rooster tail!  It was a huge contrast to last year – instead of fighting cramps and limping back, I was in for a full-on sprint back to the finish line!

Still, I missed beating 4 hours by a couple minutes.  I blame the windy day and the rain …  🙂

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It was nice to have the rain end just as I got back.  Quite a challenging ride, but in unexpected ways.

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Looking at my ride data from this year it was clear to me that I was able to finish much stronger than last year, and I was nowhere near as physically exhausted at the end as last time.  I probably could have pushed more, worked harder to stay with the groups at the start – but I was pretty happy to have such a satisfying ride.

A couple thoughts post-ride…

  • Stomach problems are gone thanks to Skratch (No more Accelerade for me during rides).  I’m fairly convinced the type of whey that is used in Accelerade gives me problems.
  • Experimenting with different solid food options is still working (carried Clif bars this time around)
  • It’s telling that my AOMM training plan this spring gave me much more endurance, but not huge gains in power.  Said another way, my peak efforts are about the same as last year but I can do more of them.  Next time I get into a “training block” I think I’ll look for something to give me power improvements.   I’m thinking the TCTM Cyclocross plan will be just the ticket before CX takes off this fall.
  • Most of all, having a mindset of “negative split” enabled me to finish strong today.  It is much more satisfying to sprint at the end than to roll into the finish completely gassed out
  • Short term, I have got to swap out my stock 105 brake pads for Kool-stop pads.  I had those on my old brakes but couldn’t swap them over to the new when I did a 105 upgrade.  The bite, feel and wet weather performance were much better.  Long term … a new road bike with hydro discs would be fantastic…
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2015 Miracle Hill 100 – Putting it all together

Not long after the “agony” of the 2015 Assault on Mount Mitchell, I started to think about another ride to put to work all that I had learned.

Then I convinced myself that another century ride was the only way to do it, and I better find one with significant climbing.  Enter the Miracle Hill 100 – a ride for a great cause, and in case you missed it, lots of climbing (8000ft give or take)!  Does Caesar’s Head mean anything to anyone?

Thankfully, this day went much better than AOMM!

In the weeks after AOMM, I put some thinking into my nutrition mistakes and strategy for having enough energy through the end.  This time I was determined to ride strong all the way.  I replaced my hydration with Skratch, decided to be open to variety at the rest stops for food, and finally – hold my exertion to reasonable limits so I would not blow up anywhere, with no unscheduled stops.  Did I succeed?

Once again, an early start to the day.  Bike ready to go, sun rising:

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Ready!

Still relatively cool out…

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Sun rising

The Century group lines up at the start.

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The Century group is ready

The start was almost anti-AOMM.  That beginning was a frenzy of riders taking off … this was more subdued and made it much easier for me to stay “calm.”  Still, it didn’t take long for me to get dropped off the “lead” pack and lagging behind.

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Dropping off from the peloton

Noting where each rest stop is located…

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Notes for rest stops

I was determined to save energy on this ride, and if I were to err either way, it was going to be starting out too slow.  I got with two guys who were riding the metric century and worked with them all the way to the base of the first climb (Caesar’s Head).

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Working with a couple guys

What was nice about this ride was the multiple chase vehicles keeping an eye on riders.  Nice to know we weren’t out “alone”

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Chase vehicle

Soon enough we see hints of what is to come:

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Mountains rise ahead

as the sun continues to rise.

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Sun is up

One more easy section before we get to the hard stuff.

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Still some shade

This was just after the second rest stop, where I was able to meet Doug Guth, one of the originators of this charity ride.

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Meeting Doug

And there he goes up the first hill … too fast for me!

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Doug is gone

Seeing the peaks ahead…

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Mountains ahead

And now about to turn onto 276 north

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Left turn for climbing!

This ride brought back lots of memories.  I think the last time I had been on Caesar’s head was on a motorcycle, at least 10 years ago.  All the turns came back to me – which was a good memory to have, as there were some switchbacks I recalled being rather steep.

I remembered soon after this rise was where the fun started:

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Passing Ashbury Hills

A short descent, right hander and up we go.

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Climbing after this turn

The rocks remind you that you’re climbing out of red-clay country,

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Remembering the rocks

which you can see “below”

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View down below

I had never ridden a bicycle up Caesar’s Head – in fact most of this route I had never seen on a bicycle.  But I had seen a good portion from my motorized two-wheel days, and knew that I could manage the climbs.  I was glad to be able to find a good pace all the way to the top.

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Managing the climb

This sign is deceiving – you think you’re getting there, which is true – but there’s plenty left!

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Getting there…

Couldn’t help but laugh at this sign!

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I’m slow

The first switchback is a sign of things to come.  These pictures do not do justice to show the grade:

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The first switchback

Looking back down the switchback:

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Looking back at the grade

A few more “straights” here and there with lots of sharp turns and climbs

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More switchbacks

Finally, just ahead!

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Almost there!

Made it to “the top.”  I was happy to see later in Strava that I got the climb done in just under an hour, which was one of my goals for the day.

At this point, I saw a group of riders leave the rest stop.  I wondered if I would have anyone to group up with for the rest of the day…

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Second rest stop

However I needed to take some time to enjoy this place.  About 17 years ago I proposed to my beautiful wife at the top of this mountain…

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At the top

Since then they’ve added this accessible walkway to see the view

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Taking a few moments to enjoy

Still a fairly clear day.

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View of Table Rock

Here is the original observation point from years ago

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Observation point

And the very spot where she said yes!.

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Memories

What better way to remember the exact location!

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Where it all started

After a few moments of reflection … my bike beckoned to continue on – 70 more miles to go!

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Let’s go!

A big thank you to all the great folks working at the rest stops.  Here I helped myself to a homemade brownie and chocolate chip cookie.  Nothing like “real” food instead of processed bars.  Bottle refill and Skratch and ready to go…

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Wonderful folks at the rest stop

On the way out, I met another rider, Dave, who was doing the century as well.  We had a blast descending the north side of the mountain and working the flats all the way to Brevard.  I was worried about doing the remaining 70 miles alone and it was great to have the company.

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The flat to Brevard

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Riding with Dave

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Fast traffic

Finally we get into town and I was feeling the day getting warm as we stopped at a light or two.

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Into town

thankfully we were out into the country again and it wasn’t too hot just yet.

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Countryside

We were able to find shade here and there

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Following Dave

and another rider caught up with us as well.  This lady was strong on the climbs!

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Another rider catches us

After a few miles it seemed that we dropped into a valley west of Brevard.  The views were amazing.

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Other riders out for the day

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The valley opens up

We turned onto a flat road with excellent pavement and the other two riders started talking about Walnut Hollow.  What’s that?

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The flat before more climbing

Oh nothing – just another small climb…

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Walnut Hollow starts

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The turn for Walnut Hollow

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More mountains

Small on the map maybe.  I think Dave was being kind here and waited up for me…

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This is steep!

There was “no place to hide” on this climb.  Sit, stand – whatever – your heart rate will go up.  I don’t know how I managed this picture, but it tells the story.  What I did notice was that this many miles in I was still able to dig down and put in a strong effort.  Thankfully – although it was steep, it wasn’t too terribly long.

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Really steep!

Finally at “the top”

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The “top”

After Walnut Hollow, I had a treat of riding along a mountain trout fishing destination.  The water was beautiful and plenty of folks out fly fishing.

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Trout fishing road

At about 63 miles, we made it to the third rest stop just south of Rosman, NC.  I was happy to get to this point in about 4.5hrs of ride time.

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Third rest stop

I really appreciated the fresh fruit at the stops as well!

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More goodies!

After a short break, back out on to the road

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Thank you!

From this point I was mostly “alone” – the lady we were with, I could never catch.  Dave stayed back to work with one of the last riders, but in the end I think that guy “SAG”ed out and then Dave caught and passed me.

Not a big deal though – once I saw this sign, my memories of 178 started to rise out of hibernation.  I recall a climb after this sign…

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More climbing ahead

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up to the divide

Up to the Eastern divide.  From here it was a fun descent for quite a few miles.  I was grinning the whole way!  Just like back in the day with the motorcycle … except going uphill was a little slower…

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Another climb done

Plenty of fun turns ahead

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Lots of descending

Even more after dropping into SC

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Back into SC

and then into Rocky Bottom

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to Rocky Bottom

After Rocky Bottom I had a few climbs to take on before the last descent and back into the foothills.  I really appreciated the folks in the chase vehicle.  At this point I was the last rider and they followed me all the way back to Furman, checking from time to time if I was ok.

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Chase vehicle

Here is Dave ahead, pulling away from me

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Losing the “group”

I managed to get a picture of this old house – it’s still there even after I saw it last 10 years ago.

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Old house

A few more miles of exhilarating gravity, and past Bob’s place on the right, across Highway 11 and into the foothills.

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Bob’s place

At 178 and 11 I did “catch” the other two riders, but at this point in the day it was hot, I had a headache and needed a boost.  So I took advantage of the convenience store and pulled an AOMM trick – a bottle of coke.

I never drink that stuff normally – c’mon what self respecting foodie would ingest high fructose corn syrup on a regular basis?  But I’ll say it’s just the ticket when you need a boost!  That caffeine and “sugar” is what got me through the next section of 288.

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Stopped for a Coke

After the store were some rollers and very little shade…

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Tough rollers ahead

Followed by some flatter sections and still very little shade.  It was getting very warm, but I took to dousing myself with water for the evaporative effect and along with the Coke “boost” I was able to put my head down and do 20mph+ on some sections.  By now I was happy that I could make some speed and I wasn’t bonking!

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Flattens out a bit

Finally the turn for the next rest stop, the Children’s Home, around 86 miles in.

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Turn for the Children’s Home

More excellent goodies, yes I’ll take a brownie and a cookie!

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Goodies!

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More goodies!

These folks were so encouraging, and it was a real boost to see all the kids cheering me on, even though I was Mr. Last!

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Great people helping out!

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Saying goodbye

The next 20 miles was not easy.  There were some significant climbs between the Children’s Home and Furman…

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A few more tough climbs

And I had to stop at the last stop at 95 miles just to collect myself.  It was very tempting on all of the remaining climbs to take a break, but I wanted to be able to say I stuck with my plan this time and had no unscheduled stops.  Kudos to the guys at mile 95 for all the encouragement!

Now I had two vehicles with me…

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Lead vehicle

Once I was at the stoplight at 25 I started to feel relieved that I was almost done.

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Almost back

The gate and the fountains were welcome sights..

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Through the gates

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That would be nice

And I made it!  A tough day, but a completion nonetheless.

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Finished!

Now – “lunch”

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Let’s eat!

Wow – what can I say – it all came together this time and I stayed strong through the end.  My no-cramp formula continues to work, and I’m figuring out a good distance strategy for myself concerning energy and nutrition.  When can we do this again?  I must be crazy…

Miracle Hill does a great event.  You can tell they put a lot of thought into details….  for example:

  • Plenty of varied foods at the rest stops (not just bananas, water, gatorade and bars) – I especially liked the fresh fruit, brownies and cookies
  • Chase vehicles on the route making sure the last rider makes it back
  • Overwhelming amount of encouraging volunteers
  • Food even for the last people in….  and bringing in boxed lunches for the last group.  This is really smart – knowing that “lunch” will be sitting out too long for those of us rolling in around 3pm, they ordered fresh boxed lunches so there isn’t a worry about food spoiling.  That last detail really impressed me.

After this experience, I will definitely plan to be back for the event next year – and next time I’ll register early and put effort into fundraising.  I entered at the last minute this year and didn’t have the time to raise money, but Miracle Hill does great work – I want to help more next year.

Matthew 25:36 New King James Version (NKJV)

36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

2015 Assault on Mt. Mitchell–Baptism by Fire and Rain!

“My wife, Helen, said I was crazy – she told me that when we were picnicking on Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina and I said I’d like to climb the 6,684 foot high peak on a bicycle.” – the late John Bryan, Founder of the Assault on Mount Mitchell.  From the History of the Assaults webpage

The Assault on Mount Mitchell is a 103 mile bike ride, but like no other “century ride” that I know.  Founded by the late John Bryan, the route winds from Spartanburg, SC to the top of Mount Mitchell via Marion, NC,; Highway 80 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  What makes this ride so (in)famous around the world is not only the elevation gain (close to 11,000 feet!) but also the fact that much of the worst climbing is at the end.  Below is my account of attempting for the first time – and by the Grace of God – finishing, this epic adventure.


Ready … Set … Go!

I had set two alarms the night before, and tossed and turned just about all night.  It’s a good thing I found some decent sleep on Saturday night; as for Sunday night, my fight against pre-event adrenaline was just about pointless.

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4am is just too early to think.  Thankfully, I had everything lined up and packed in the car the night before.  Just a small, quick breakfast and busywife and I were out the door and on the road to Spartanburg (what made this day even more special was she was going for the Marion Assault while I was taking on the challenge of The Mountain).

We arrived at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium just before 5:30am, one hour before the start.  Time enough to get everything together, a short warm-up and of course one last trip to the row of plastic outhouses:

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For it being so early in the morning, I was already charged up and literally aching to get going.  Coming off a training taper from the previous week, I could sense all the energy of months of preparation just waiting to be released.

As the countdown to the ride start reached the final minutes, I looked around and noticed quite the crowd of riders all joining in on this big event.  There is something intangible about such a large group of people, from all over the country, lining up for a bike ride.  An epic bike ride, for sure.

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It took me awhile to get comfortable with finding a starting position.  Last year, when I rode the Assault on Marion as a way to understand the Mitchell ride, I misjudged where to be and wasted precious energy trying to “catch” groups ahead of me.

This time I decided to err a bit too far forward in the pack, determining that I would have the self control to drop out of a group if the pace was too high.

Once again I learned that I’m terrible at managing my starts!

The rush of riders was amazing to watch (again) as we all thrust forward with the energy of months and months of anticipation.  I spotted the elite group far ahead, as they almost immediately strung out the mass of riders and big gaps began to form before the first turn.  The course had been slightly changed for 2015 due to bridge construction on the “original” route and our first turn was a sharp right onto a two lane road.  I knew this would squeeze the groups and thankfully I didn’t get caught up in any rider traffic – quickly we made the next left and were back onto a four lane road where more shuffling for position occurred.

That little voice in my head reminding me about “our agreement” before the start was trying to make itself heard, but the burning fire of adrenaline kept it silent – as I got eaten up and spit out by a number of groups.  Odd the phenomenon of self-deception – you are aware of what information your brain is gathering for you to process (heart rate – above threshold!  Warning!) … yet your rational abilities to rein yourself in have apparently been – suspended.

Eventually reality ushers in truth.  For me it wasn’t until 42 minutes in, close to the NC border, as I finally came to terms with yet another pack dropping me off (who are these people and what do they do to get this fast?).  Later I would pay for burning some of my matches…

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I think what helped me “come back to earth” was another rider who was struggling alongside me to keep up with the group.  Just about the same time, we looked at each other – and gave up chasing.

It was incredibly difficult to just “slow down.”  I knew there were hundreds of riders behind me, and I had to trust that fact.

Taking a few moments to get the HR down:

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Enjoying the relatively cool morning (although humid) and the sunrise greeting us:

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I could see a massive group approaching from behind far in the distance..

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…and soon enough I was swallowed up again.  Finally, I was with a group of riders that I had the ability to work with.  This group stayed together (more or less) to the second aid station, and I was very thankful for that.  I pulled once, and the rest of the time I had a relatively lazy spin in the middle of the group, holding down a very reasonable heart rate and effort level.

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Saying goodbye to a great group at the second rest stop, 43 miles into the ride.

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My plan was to push through to the stop at Bill’s Hill, take a quick break and then continue on to the church at the 82 mile mark, right before the real climbing starts on Highway 80.

Just after the second rest stop, watch out for the sharp right hander.  This one gets many people, and I was glad to see the precautions the organizers put together at this curve.  Cones to keep traffic separated, EMS on hand and a guy right at the curve with a megaphone warning everyone.

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I have to admit I caught the curve wide open without any other riders and took the opportunity to enjoy it.  This ride is all about the climb at the end so why not enjoy some speed when you’ve got it?

Being careful not to burn up while riding alone I managed my way to the start of Bill’s Hill and focused on a fairly slow pace to rest stop #3 at the top and a much needed break.  Not often do I ride 48 miles without a break!

Approaching the turn:

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Trying to keep the HR down in manageable territory:

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Almost there…

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Time to take a break.  I knew that Highway 80 and to the top of Mitchell was going to make this look like a cakewalk.  I was at rest stop #3, the top of Bill’s Hill in just over 2.5 hours and felt like I was on track for a pretty good time to the top.

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I took the quickest “gas and go” I could – eat something, restroom stop, stretch my back, refill bottles with water (thank you to the great volunteers for filling my bottles!), add Accelerade mix and back on the road.  Next stop, rest stop #6, Sunnyvale Baptist Church.

Recalling my experience last year on the Marion ride, I knew that there were some big rollers in between here and Marion.  Last year I struggled towards “the end” and had to take an unscheduled stop at the rest stop at mile 63.  Was I going to run into the same problems again?

On the way to Marion I took  the approach of conserving as much as I could, and did my best to not ride alone.  I would get dropped by a group of riders who would climb faster than me, but then I’d catch them on descents and be able to have a group again for the flats.  When groups would leave me, I’d slow down and let another catch me.  The strategy mostly worked out until too many rollers left me dropped off without seeing any sign of another group behind me.  I wrestled with the same mental battle of “should I bridge this gap?” and “don’t burn yourself up!”

Thankfully, before I made any more mistakes, we hit road construction.

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At first I hated to see this.  I’ve got time to make, and I can’t afford to sit here and wait!  However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  This bunched up all the riders I had been trying to stay with, and after only 5 minutes of waiting (I was at least smart enough to take this time to stretch / eat / drink etc.), the Gate Keeper indicated we were allowed to proceed (maybe a bit melodramatic – so the construction guy flipped the sign from Stop to Slow but doesn’t something this momentous deserve a better description?)

This group pulled together almost all the way to Marion, where I rode on my own through the last turns and the exhilarating descent Greenlee road along the river.  I was feeling great and as I turned onto Resistoflex and crossed the bridge, I saw that I had almost matched my time last year to Marion!

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I felt invigorated from seeing the clock at Marion – having beat 4:30 and feeling totally in control at this point.  Last year I finished at this point just about exhausted.  With the exception of burning a few matches in the first 42 minutes of the ride, I had kept my HR below threshold the rest of the way to Marion.  Now I had confidence that I had the energy for the push to the top, and thought that there was a distinct possibility I could come in under 9 hours at the finish. (Later I would compare my rides and noted that my HR averaged a few bpm less this year than last for almost the same ride time – happy to see a fitness improvement and the result of training!)


The Pain Cave Begins

Soon after passing Marion, the overcast day gave way to the sun – and my nemesis, heat – began to take it’s toll.

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I had seen this route last September, and knew after the flat there were rollers, but also shade and relief from the direct sun.  I set a relatively slow pace, caught a few riders for a draft here and there, and focused on making it to the church, knowing it was my next planned stop.

Once I saw the dam for Lake Tahoma I knew the shade wasn’t too far ahead.

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The Lake Tahoma Casino:

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Finally out of the sun again.

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Made it to the church!  82 miles so far and only two stops so far, just as planned.

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Thankful for every one of the volunteers that were out today.

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The heat was making its presence known … jumping into this creek would have been just about perfect at this point.

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82 miles in and still feeling fairly ok, but something just wasn’t quite right.  My stomach was a bit unsettled … when this had happened before, I thought that my system was telling me that solid food wasn’t working anymore, and I had to focus only on liquid.  I decided at this point to hit the pause button on the cookies and fig bars and go with only Accelerade.  Water refill, added drink mix, restroom stop and another quick back stretch and off I went to where the real climbs started.

Later I would realize that I was actually having trouble with the Accelerade itself – the whey protein component was no longer agreeing with my system – and what I was fighting from this point all the way up 80 and partway down the Parkway (along with fatigue) was actually a “bonk” as my system wasn’t absorbing what it needed…

I pushed away from the aid station and focused on the enormity of the immediate task at hand – climbing 80 up to the Parkway.  Riding the last straight stretch of road I would see all day, the mountains loomed:

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Appearing to be curious more than anything, I spotted a deer that looked as if she was watching all the cyclists riding by and wondering to herself why humans would do such a thing:

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All day – and truthfully, all week – prior to this point, I had this climb in my mind.  I wanted to save myself for a good push up 80, and felt that I still had some matches saved from the previous 82 miles and was ready.  True, I blasted away some energy at the start but I think I recovered well, rode with some good groups and conserved the rest of the way to Marion.

Which is exactly why I was confused with my performance as soon as I was into the first serious grade on 80.

Pictures do not do justice to show what was probably 6-7% grades and higher.  Uphill…

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and looking back down.

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I felt that I was ready and chose my next to last gear (saving granny for later) and tried to fire the legs up, use some more HR and set a good pace for the climb.  Except I had nothing.  Just about NOTHING.  My closest analogy is like trying to drive a turbocharged car with the turbo off – no boost.  I tried to dig down for some heart rate and power and it was as if Scotty kept yelling back to me from the engine room that we had nothing more!

As I was wrestling with my own personal dilemma, I noticed many riders experience their own version of the Wall, the Pain Cave, or even – The End.  I saw groups of riders sitting on the guardrail, long looks of despair on their faces.  Guys with their heads in their hands, sitting down as if in major grief.  Then a few guys would pass me going down the mountain, … Lord no I did not just see that.  It’s one thing to see people stopped, but yet another to see people that have thrown in the towel and are riding back to Marion.

Without warning, the previously unthinkable happened to me.  My body couldn’t handle the push – and I just stopped on 80.  Almost unannounced … in the middle of the lane.

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The grade was too steep, the effort too high – for whatever reason, I made an unscheduled stop, the first of many.

A thousand things tried to roll through my mind at this point.  “I’ll never make 8:30, and I’ll probably miss out on beating 9 hours” … “why can’t I get my HR over 150?” …. “It’s getting really hot” …

Then I did something that I don’t normally do in tough situations.  Instead of bellyaching to myself and directing all sorts of anger at innocent bystanders, nearby animals, my Lord above … I surprised myself with a simple thought:

“Let’s just make sure we finish this thing”

I swallowed my pride, clicked into my lowest gear (yep I’ve got an 11-32 cassette on my road bike and very happy to have it!) and pedaled on – low cadence, low HR, no power and all.

I made what seemed like countless stops on 80.  Nothing of any significant length, but just enough to gain composure each time.  The mercury kept rising (later I would see from my ride data that 93 degrees was the high) and then I noticed a few clouds that were working their way over the Blue Ridge.  I called out “Lord bring me a rain shower!”  I constantly worried about cramping.  Heat brings on cramps for me if I don’t get my hydration and electrolyte intake just right.

From time to time I couldn’t help but recall #3 from the BikeLaw Cycling Collective Manifesto:

Cycling is not suffering. Hunger and the plague are suffering. Cycling is a joy, even when it’s hard.

This sure is hard.  But in it’s own way, enjoyable.

The battle continued on until I saw a very welcome sight – the sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Another rest stop was ahead!

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By now I was dealing with a moderate headache (of course, I was dealing with a bonk, but I hadn’t put two and two together yet) and was looking forward to some Coke at the next stop.  Sugar and caffeine would be a huge help right now.

At the stop I saw plenty of riders who looked as gassed as I felt.  A couple guys were literally laid out in the grass, some were playing with their phones … it was somewhat surreal.  Are these guys done or just taking an extended break?  Aren’t we all burning daylight here people?  The clock is ticking!

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As I gathered myself from the climb, I got back into part of my routine – fill bottles, add mix, stretch, restroom break.  Still not feeling that great and not sure why as I hadn’t had anything solid for an hour or so (another clue McFly, hello?).  No solutions to that just yet – let’s grab some Coke and keep pedaling.  I’m fairly sure I can handle the Parkway section if I just had some Coke…

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Nope, sorry we’re out of Coke.

Look at all those empty bottles!

Now I want to send a message to the poor folks volunteering at the rest stop at the top of 80.  I’m sure you had to bring the bad news to a few hundred riders that day, and I noticed your slight wince as you expected me to say something not very nice.  I chose to say nothing, and I hope that you can understand that I totally appreciate the fact that you were there (Momma always said, if you can’t say anything nice…). At the risk of failing Momma’s rule, and making a poor volunteer decide never to come back – I kept my mouth shut and reached for plan B.

A caffeine GU packet in my seat bag.

I had no idea if I could handle a GU with my stomach making odd noises but something had to be done for this headache and I needed a sugar boost.

Just then I noticed dark clouds coming over the mountain (see the “No Coke” picture above!), and showers began to move in.  I had been so hot climbing 80, I was thankful for the answered prayer.  I unpacked my vest, zipped up and started up the ramp to the Blue Ridge Parkway and more climbing.  I exchanged a wave with the Park Ranger directing traffic and we both agreed this was much better than burning in the heat.

I had no idea exactly how much rain “relief” I was going to get!

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The showers turned into moderate rain here and there, and although I had to get over the initial “I am getting wet!” response, it was very welcome to exchange the heat for a 20deg drop in temperature.  Cooler weather = less chance for cramps.  I’ll take it.

Visibility wasn’t too bad, and I was thankful for a strong rear and front light to be seen by the car traffic.

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Looking down off the ridge, I could only imagine what riders behind me were experiencing.

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As I mashed away in granny gear, many riders would pass me at a pace I knew I was capable of, but today could not sustain…

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When this would happen I just had to ignore the rampant thoughts of “why” and focus on what I could do.  I can still make a little power, and I can still continue up the mountain.  Just color me blue and call me The Little Engine – I’m going to make it to the top of this Mountain!

The rain let up for a short time, and I took more breaks.  The Parkway isn’t as tough as 80, but it has it’s sections – which forced me to take a couple breathers.

I stopped at the bottom of this short climb…

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… then yet again at Hewat Overlook.  Off in the distance I couldn’t tell what was coming – fog, rain or worse.  (Yes, it would be worse…)

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I was really struggling at this point, and it was quite difficult just to get onto the bike and push on to the next rest stop, at Green Cove Overlook.  Two hours ago I left the church on 80 and I have felt each and every pedal stroke, unable to make good power.  What kept me going were the words often spoken by our church Pastor when relating to the Daily Walk of the Believer – “if you don’t quit, you can’t lose.”  How appropriate, here and now.

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The deepest of depths

Psalm 71:20 New Living Translation (NLT)

20 You have allowed me to suffer much hardship,
    but you will restore me to life again
    and lift me up from the depths of the earth.

By the time I made it to Green Cove Overlook, I felt simultaneously closer than ever to my goal, and about to fall apart.  Rolling along at 4mph (or whatever was just faster than walking) was demoralizing, and I just didn’t know how much more of that I was able to handle.  Did I even have enough energy to make it to the top?  I rolled into the rest stop and out of all the voices in my head vying for my attention, I had a brief few seconds of lucidity…

“Accelerade has protein in it … is the whey protein messing me up?”

Desperate times, desperate measures .. I took quick action, and dumped all my bottles and refilled with just water.  I might have been able to deal with Gatorade, but wasn’t sure about the taste.  What I knew was that I was hungry for trail mix and quite a few other things.  So I ate up a bag plus a banana, and probably had a few cookies in there too.

Taking a few moments to compose myself, I had a few positive thoughts about the road ahead.  I’ve been here before, and it’s not that many more miles.  The next rest stop at the turn to NC 128, the last big grade to the park entrance gate, the false flat and you are just about there at the finish.  It’s not so bad right?  I still have plenty of time to finish.

Just as I was thinking about moving on, the real rain moved in.  Stinging, pelting, wondering-if-hail-is-next type of rain.  An in your face ferocious mountain thunderstorm.

Everyone huddled up under the easy-up.  All of us were shivering.  Someone offered me a seat.  I thought “yes! thank you so much” – I said “No – if I sit down there’s no way I’ll get back up.”

Ironically, the hardest thing I had done all day was to step out into the rain, check my gear and get back on the bike.  Waiting any longer and more excuses would have overwhelmed me. Just as was about to pull onto the parkway and into the deluge, another rider pulls into the rest stop.  I thought it very odd that right there and then, when he could have been turning to a volunteer for many a need, looking for shelter and food, he instead looked right at me and said:

“Get out there man, get up the mountain and Finish Strong.”

This was my “Come to Jesus” moment.  I really had no choice.  I had decided years ago I was going to do this ride before I turned 40.  This was my day, this was my year – and everything in between me and the finish was inconsequential.  Already shivering, I gritted my teeth and pushed through the driving rain and the two mile descent.

The next two miles were some of the worst riding I had ever experienced.  I was glad to have had years of motorcycling riding under my belt, and countless experiences of getting caught out in rainstorms.  You have to learn to trust your tires (good tires are a must!) and be very smooth with your inputs to the bike.  I was also thankful for the times I forced myself to train in some wet weather.  I knew about the (very) delayed action of my rim brakes at speed, and not to get too freaked out by the sensation of my front wheel plowing through the water and further soaking my feet.  I’m riding on water – it must be a miracle!

By the time I reached the bottom of the descent, I was shivering cold.  Gripping the bars was more like holding on for dear life.  The rain was so hard I thought Noah was going to float by at any moment.  I didn’t need my water bottles, as I could literally drink from the sky.

There was no stopping.  Stopping meant getting even colder.  Moving meant staying warm.  Move, then.  It’s all there is.

One brief moment where I had enough clarity to snap a picture.  Just about completely soaked at this point:

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From when I left Green Cove Overlook to when the storm finally let up was about an hour.  At one point I felt like I was right in the middle of the storm – thunder and lightning were no longer separated events but more like sumo wrestler twins scaring the snot out of you just about every moment.  When was I going to get smashed by them?


Finish, and Finish Strong

For some reason, my bike computer was one mile ahead of every rest stop (according to my minimal cue sheet – taped to my bike stem).  So for every anticipated stop, I had to think one more mile before I could reach it.  When you’re climbing at such a slow speed, one mile is a significant amount of time!  By the time the rain slowed down and I caught a break in the clouds, I wasn’t too far away from rest stop #9 and the turn onto NC128 – but did I have to go yet another mile to reach it?

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All at once, I had one of those “angels” moments … I didn’t hear them singing, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were.  The rain stopped and the clouds started to part.  Another rider caught up with me, and instead of watching him ride away – I kept up and we started chatting up our ride experiences thus far.  The road grade evened out and I was able to push above 10mph … then we reached rest stop #9 exactly where my odometer said it would be.  What kind of time warp did I find?  Can I find it again to the top?

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I’ve got to hand it to the kind people at this stop.  They were some of the most encouraging people I’d met all day.  I can’t imagine what it takes to be fired up all day for each and every rider, with all the weather that had been coming through.  Standing around in low 60 degree weather with the rain pelting you – not at the top of many favorites, I’m sure. To the guy in camo with the dog, thank you.  You got me fired up for that last charge up the mountain.

At this stop I felt that my change in nutrition strategy was a success.  (But didn’t really figure it out until later – funny how serious contemplation is suspended until the challenge is complete – but it’s the challenge itself that brings on the contemplation).  No more headache, no more digestive problems – not spilling over with energy but definitely felt capable for the last miles up the mountain.

Next up, NC 128 – the road to the park.  Some of the steepest grades of the whole ride are here, just before you reach the gate to the park.  The section right before the gate was on my mind – would I have to get off an walk it?  I had been able to avoid walking up to this point – would the cramps continue to stay away?

As I made the last turn, I couldn’t help but get emotional.  Praising and thanking my Lord for the strength to reach this point, having been so doubtful so many times before.

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The sun would peek in and out of the clouds and warmth would soon take over from what had been a cold couple of hours.

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On my way to the summit, I saw plenty of SAG vehicles loaded down with riders, passing me on their way to a bus ride back to Marion.  Seeing this now was motivating.  I am going to finish this ride!  I am not going to end up in the SAG!

A few breaks along the way and I reached the steep pitch just before the gate.  Must … keep … going …

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Made it to rest stop #10, past the gate, no walking!

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A welcome sight – 2 miles to the summit.  Once again seeing my speedometer climb above 10mph!

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Beautiful view…

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Taking a moment to appreciate the logistical madness of this event.  Rows of Penske trucks waiting to transport bikes and who knows what else at the end of the day:

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After the restaurant, the road kicks up one more time, in a last ditch effort to defeat you.  Stay strong and push through it!

After the last, small climb, what remained was the one turn between me and finish line.  Standing there was my wonderful wife, who had finished Marion and hopped on a bus to the top of Mitchell in time to cheer me on and finish.  The best, most fantastic part of the ride is what she made it at the end – cow bell ringing and cheering me to the finish.  I felt so good, I clicked up a few gears, stood up on the pedals and did my best sprint to the end, belting out a victory yell to top it all off.

Crossing in 9:52, I met my “fallback” goal of beating 10 hours to the finish.  Just after crossing and settling myself down, I snapped a pic looking back at The Finish:

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Exhausted, yet inspired.  From the depths to the highest of highs – I now understood that simply to finish The Assault on Mount Mitchell is an achievement all on it’s own.  I gave thanks for the finish, and I knew the Tabernacle was with me all the way to the top.

Isaiah 4:5-6 New King James Version (NKJV)

then the Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering. And there will be a tabernacle for shade in the daytime from the heat, for a place of refuge, and for a shelter from storm and rain.

To the late John Bryan, the man who started it all – I bet you never knew what this would become, and what it would mean to so many people.  Thank you.


Enjoying the Moment and the Journey Home

After the ride finish, I’m sure many choose to hop a bus and head back down the mountain.  Having enjoyed this special moment in the company of my bride, we decided to take some time to appreciate the day.

After all that pedaling, just a few steps are between you and your dry bag and hot tomato soup!

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First, a big Thank You to the nice lady who wrapped me up in a blanket to stay warm:

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the countless drivers and workers coordinating bus rides:

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The guy working the tomato soup station:

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It really does taste that good…

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hoards of volunteers moving, staging, attaching bikes for transport:

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and many more people working the finish line, ham radio operations for communications…

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After changing into dry clothes and getting in a good stretch, my wife and I chose to walk up to the actual summit and the observation tower.  Why would anyone in their right mind want to do this after riding 103 miles “to the top?”  A few reasons – 1) I wanted to be able to say I made it “to the top” 2) A friend who deals with cramps has told me that a walk after a ride is helpful vs. sitting down for a long period (the bus trip down is not short) and 3) Because it’s there.

It really wasn’t that hard walking up this.  Just don’t ask me to ride my bike anymore, please.  (I recall first learning about AOMM and thinking how much a bummer it is to not be able to ride down and enjoy the speed of gravity pulling you down.  Now I know why.  I was so happy to hand my bike off to a perfect stranger.  In fact, I think someone could buy very expensive bicycles for pennies on the dollar if they had cash and a truck at the top).

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We made it!

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Views from the top:

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Looking down towards the finish:

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and a closer view as another rider completes the challenge:

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We walked back down to the parking lot and ran into friends Dave and Mike – Dave made this youtube vid of his experience – congratulations guys on finishing!

On the bus we go for the journey down the mountain:

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From here a 2 hour “school bus” ride down the mountain got us to Marion.  The bus takes a route back towards Asheville and then east to Marion.  Once there, they still had some BBQ dinner left and I ate it up as I was just getting my appetite back.

Another 2 hour ride back on a nicer tour bus to Spartanburg.  Our “in-flight” entertainment was “Casablanca” and it was a great diversion from bus ride boredom.  Our driver timed things perfectly, as we arrived at Spartanburg Memorial just at the end of the movie.

Bikes were waiting for us in Spartanburg and the staff made retrieval seamless.  On to the car and off we go towards home.  At this point my appetite came back with a vengeance!  There isn’t anything remotely healthy open at 11pm.  Wendy’s on the way home, maybe it was better than nothing, maybe not.

Home.  Shower.  Midnight.  Bed.


Parting Thoughts

Deciding to ride AOMM, finding a training plan and sticking with it, the EPIC ride itself and decompressing from the whole event is simply a massive amount of information to process.  With that disclaimer, here were some thoughts that still stay with me days after the event:

Work on a couple of lists for the event.  What to bring in your car, what to wear, what to pack and in which pocket it goes.  Rehearsing for the ride is a big help – and make no changes in equipment without having tested it well first.

Wrap your dry bag contents in a plastic bag (maybe double it up).  Pack snacks in your dry bag, and some cash for snacks at the top too (wondering, why not more than tomato soup and bread at the top?)

As I finished in ~10h, with some dawdling at the top this meant back at Spartanburg at ~ 11pm.  Take the next day off if you can … plan a day at the spa for that day too!  One tip: for some reason I have trouble sleeping not only before big ride events but also after.  A mild sleep aid (e.g. Benadryl based) works wonders…

What I did right:

  • I had my bike tuned up well and had zero mechanical issues.
  • Dropped 5lbs of fat before starting my AOMM training block
  • All my preparation with lists paid off as I lacked for nothing but wasn’t loaded down either on the ride.
  • Buying an excellent rain vest was a great decision.
  • Had a backup plan for caffeine.
  • (Mostly) set a good pace for Marion leg.
  • My training plan worked out well – I found The Time Crunched Cyclist “Leadville 100” plan to be good prep for AOMM as well. My ride time was “only” 8:13 (Strava link). ..
  • After years of trial and error, I finally have figured out the solution to my bike cramps.  Combining SportLegs with electrolyte pills such as Elete Tablytes kept the cramps away all through my toughest training days and on the day of AOMM.  That is a victory in itself!
  • Married a fantastic woman who – after riding the 75 miles of the Assault on Marion – went through the trouble to meet me at the top.  This was a motivator in itself – knowing she was there waiting for me!

What I did wrong:

  • This was my first century (I know – I’ve heard it a ton of times not to do AOMM as your first century, and I didn’t plan it this way!)  I had planned on one in April but chickened out on it due to really bad weather (little had I known it would have been great prep for the rain of AOMM!). If I had done a century, it would have exposed my Accelerade problem after big miles.  In retrospect, I should have done one last year and no depended on fitting one into the spring training plan.
  • Looking back, I think I was slightly over-trained going into the event and should have started tapering sooner and respecting the need for rest.  I think I underestimated rest as a component of training.  I also probably packed too much of an 11 wk plan into 8 wks (due to some scheduled surgery).
  • Once again, I tried to maintain too fast a pace at the beginning.  One of these days, I will learn.

What I’m changing:

  • Drop 15 lbs of fat before my next AOMM (yes I’ve already been convinced to revisit in 3 years, I must be especially crazy)
  • Fine tune the training plan and respect the need for rest
  • Switching to Skratch Labs for on-bike liquids (no whey protein and more natural than most everything else I’ve seen)
  • Enter more centuries for the experience
  • Continue with cyclocross in winter, but with a training block beforehand.  ‘cross kept me from losing fitness in the “off season” like in years past, and this time I want to go into the season with some training instead of just jumping in.

Looking forward, I hope to be able to put together a better plan and a good ride next time and beat 9 hours.  There may be a chance of finishing under 8 one day.  Whatever the final time, as one of my friends has put it, I’m very happy to have entered the “family of finishers.”  Truly, for everyone who has reached the top, it is an accomplishment beyond words.

North Carolina Cyclocross – Asheville Finale at the Biltmore

Last two races of the 2014/2015 season – I was hoping to make it to Asheville for the finale and thankful everything worked out.  The weather turned out fairly nice too – for January!

We arrived Friday night at Wilson’s RV Park just outside of Biltmore for a convenient drive in for Saturday morning.

This campground gets some so-so reviews because of the proximity to the interstate.  That much is true.  But it is super convenient for the Biltmore and if you like Greenways there’s one that goes right through the campground.  We’ll visit again.  Just bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper to deal with the road noise.  The owner was even nice enough to let us come back in the afternoon after Sunday’s racing to empty the tanks before we headed home.  With normal check-out times about 11am or so this was a nice gesture.

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View both ways down the French Broad River Greenway.  In between all the racing activities the kids did get out for bike ride time on the greenway.

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Up and at ’em early enough to get to the course for a pre-ride before the 10am CX 4/5 Master’s race.  Had I been able to get up early enough, I think I would have preferred this group!

NCCX staff/volunteers and Biltmore staff did an excellent job of pass pickup and directing traffic.  I was concerned about driving a big rig into the estate but they had a spot for us – RV parking just off to the side of the main parking area.

Below is where most everyone was parked.  Beautiful day with the mountains in the distance.

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Here’s the guys lined up ready to go for the first race…

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After Start/Finish is a left turn for the holeshot and then the course twists and turns through part of the field.  Then it returns to pass from left to right in front of The Barn in the distance below.

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Next you pass closer to the winery, over sidewalks…

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And then this off-camber section back in front of The Barn – which will make you hope you got your air pressure right!

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Behind The Barn are some mud and low barriers, and then you climb up a few sections to reach the worst run-up of the course.  I don’t know what to call this hill (to the right in the distance) but it was tough.  Hike-a-bike is my term for it I guess.  No running for me here!

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Some guys were even strong enough to ride it!

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Here’s a video of the Elite guys killing the run-up…

After this is a technical section literally “dropping in” (like a half-pipe move it seemed) from the top of the hill, a gradual descent for speed fun, flat sections through the field and then uphill charge to the finish line.

But I get ahead of myself – Saturday mid-day was the Men’s CX 4/5 race.  This time I came with the family and prepared…

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Yes I admit this isn’t the hardened cyclocross racer image for sure.  I felt for the guys getting ready in the cold and wind.  But if you had an RV I’m sure you’d want to bring it too!  Why not have access to a hot shower after a cold race?

Saturday’s race started out like my last two – just hang off the back and see if I can keep up.  No desire to mix it up just yet – still learning.  I was a bit surprised that I didn’t have to work nearly as hard to not get spit out of the back.  One theory for that is two equipment changes in the week prior to the race.  I had a bottom bracket that had been close to seizing up for months – can’t be a good thing for power!  I finally got around to replacing it before this race.  Additionally, the two races prior I had forgotten to remove my Stop Flats (tire liners) from my tires.  I use these on my home trails because there are so many thorns – but they can’t be a good thing for rolling resistance.  This time I remembered to take them out pre-race.

So placebo effect or reality – whichever – I found that I could take small “breathers” here and there on the course this time.

I even had a great cheering section that got photos of me in “action” as well!

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I hope my little guy wants to get out on the race course someday (actually both kids did during the youth race)

 

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Day 1 Race Strava link

The end result was at the back of the pack again, 63rd out of 64 guys racing.  However this time I finished feeling like I had a good effort and some left for Sunday.  A good sign.  I’ve got to hand it to Dave Cassen from Team REEB for sticking it out to the end.  I’ve been last, my friend, and I know how it is!

Sunday morning we made it to the course in time for the start of the first race again.  I thought about a pre-ride again but assumed that the course didn’t change (oops – will find out later)…

Master’s men CX4/5 had to deal with a weak front coming through and a few sprinkles.  Thankfully the sun came back out quickly!

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Another nice touch by the event staff.  Multiple warnings for pedestrians at crossings to look out for racers.

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After the first race I took a quick look at the course at the run-up and found that they had re-routed it through the woods (apparently this was another experiment for testing out different courses for CX nationals next year).  It was nicely done with folks running leaf blowers before the first race to get things in order.  The re-route also looked to play towards my strengths this time around.

This is part of the climb after the run-up.  From what I saw I knew I had to leave a little left after the run-up to get up to this.

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Last bit of the climb to the peak of the course…

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And then a fast, fast descent out of the woods…

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Sharp right hander into “chicanes” on the grass, more gravity fun…

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Then out onto the gravel road where you can get some really good speed, before another tight chicane and re-joining the original course layout in the field.

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Once again, lined up for the start of the Men’s CX 4/5.  I saw a few guys from yesterday’s race and a couple juniors and masters as well.  Looks like a few people were making the most of the last day to get racing in.

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Once again we were off at the starting bell, but this time I knew to hold some back for after the big run-up.  At the top I hopped back on my bike and took the opportunity to weave and pass a few guys who were dismounting for the next steep transition.  I must have done well because no one yelled at me for getting too close and a spectator even gave me props for a nice move.

Hoping to keep up the effort I settled into the climb, following a few more guys to the top.  This was new territory for me … actually racing with people for positions, instead of being alone!  At the peak of the course, I made my move again and passed one or two guys in the descent.  That is quite ego-inspiring to take positions at that rate – having some skill to let gravity do the work for you and enjoy the drop off of the hill.

The second lap was similar … holding back a little for after that run-up, charging the next transition, surviving the rest of the climb and taking positions in the descent.  Happier than a pig in slop…

Late into the second lap after the descent I found myself working to catch and then stay with a guy in orange.  I have no idea who he was … whomever you were it was fun racing with you for a little while.  With the very windy day I drafted him as much as I could, wondering if I could set up a pass.  Through the field we went and I was still hanging with him but my technique at the first run-up out of the field faltered, and he pulled away.

I thought I still had a chance as I could catch him after the descent like last time, so I repeated my same strategy of holding back a little for after the biggest run-up in anticipation of the long and fast drop out of the woods.

Up I climbed towards where I would dismount, and I could still see him ahead.  Hopping off the bike, picking it up for the big hike and … WHAM!  Both quads cramped up.  Not good.  I went limp, fell into the grass and thankfully the cramps mostly let go, but any effort to walk signaled their return.  In my head was a long “Nooooooo!” as I struggled to find a way up the hill.  One guy watching gave me the one tip I needed – being totally out of my mind I couldn’t even think of what to do next.  He said “push your bike up, don’t carry it!”  Of course!  I dropped it and slowly made it to the top, using my bike to pull myself up like a cane, then pushing it up higher, then again … over and over.

At the top of the run-up I knew I couldn’t make the next steep transition on the bike.  So I rolled up to it, dismounted, and gingerly made the climb on my feet.  Next up was the long but less steep climb and I managed to make that pedaling with my hamstrings, just begging my quads to give me some life.

At the top I gave thanks for the descent and the break and made good time with the help of gravity.  Then I had to survive the field section and get over the barriers somehow.  Once I got into the field my quads were having nothing of it and my pedaling motion was all pulling.  I started to see more guys I’d passed catch up to me.  I lost a few places.  Where was I going to finish?  Am I going to finish at all?

Pull, pull … pull, pull I pedaled through the field section one turn after another.  Now my left leg was giving up.  I reached the barriers, not able to do any jumping off and on.  Just stepping over them one at a time I re-mounted my bike slowly and knew I just had to make it one more turn to the finish line.

Except now my left leg was blasted.

So there I was, pulling with only my right leg, trying my best just to get up the hill and finish.  This must have been humorous to watch.  At least I hope so anyway!

Closer and closer I got and louder and louder the crowd became.  Are they cheering for me?  Or are they….

Whoosh!  As I had almost reached the finish line, here comes Dave Cassen of team REEB again!  He sprinted off of the last turn and passed me right at the finish!

That’s racing folks.  No mercy.  It certainly was poetic that we flipped spots from the day before.  High-fives at the end – it was fun racing with you Dave!

Day 2 Race Strava link

This time I finished 51/59.  Could have been better, but could have been worse.  I’m happy I finished and had the fun I did for the first two laps!

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What I’ve come to really enjoy about ‘cross – although it does sound cliche – is the camaraderie.  Both race days felt like when you were a kid, and you’d go out with a few buddies and just see who was the fastest on the bike.  Of course we’re adults now and we have to make it a little more organized, with categories for those who are really good and deserve rewards for hard work and top results.  But regular guys like me can have a great time too.  Get out there and try cross!  You’ll slip, slide, and probably fall down.  But the fun factor is unbeatable!

Next year I hope to get out again, this time with my wife recovered from her bike crash and ready for CX season.  She had been planning to get out on the race course this season but those plans had to wait.  Next year I’ll have put some training in prior to the races and hopefully can get a little faster than last!

NCCX Hendersonville – GP weekend – my second CX race ever!

Next up on the racing calendar – after my first CX race at Greenville CX Cup – was to do my first event in the North Carolina Cyclocross series.  Fairly close to home, I drove up Friday afternoon to pre-ride the race and see what this course had in store…

This was quite the contrast to my first race.  NCCX is an established series and it shows – there were tons of people out Friday afternoon checking out the course!

For an overview of the course here is a great video of an elite race from a few years ago:

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I should have thought to bring our RV … what a great idea as a race support vehicle

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The next day I got up early to get to the course in time for an 8:30am race start.

Ready with my new Bike Law kit – if you can’t be fast you should at least look fast!

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Given the compressed schedule to make room for the GP races in the afternoon, all the CX4/5 categories were mashed together at 8:30am.  Another baptism by fire … Men’s CX4/5 followed by Masters CX 4/5 and then Women’s CX 4/5.

It was a staggered start by these three groups – I took off with the Men’s CX 4/5 group, watched them pull away from me and tried not to get in the way as most everyone, including the ladies, passed me by.

Towards the end I was struggling – truth be told I probably should not have raced, having come down with a cold only a few days before.  But I was determined to at least see the course, and tried to not push too hard.  But that went by the wayside as the prospect of finishing last became a very real possibility!

The one place I tried to make a good show of it was the big run-up, or “the wall.”   This was a spectator heavy spot and everyone cheers like mad.  First two laps I held some back to make this climb.  Then my third lap I had an opportunity to catch and pass a guy on the dirt “singletrack” in the woods.  I pushed up the hill, held on to make the pass and then started through the few turns to the Wall.  But before I got there I saw my HR get a little too high and discovered what it’s like to “blow up.”  Seems like 185bpm is about max for me!  Side stitches and the whole nine yards slowed me down, to where I had to dismount and walk up the Wall.

I gathered myself and rode through the last few turns to start/finish – wondering if I had more to go, or if I was going to get pulled being so far back.  I technically hadn’t been lapped (yet) but the race official probably did me a huge favor by waving me off the course.

I was glad to do it.  Everything hurt.  So I guess I raced just about right – leave it all out there!

I collected myself and got some warm clothes on and found my way to where they posted the results.

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Not last this time!

Strava link for the race

Afterwards I took some photos of notable sections:

The barriers

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End of a fairly long straight to the rooted climb in the woods..

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Fairly technical through here.

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Near the top:

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Better get some speed to make it up this climb!

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This junior racer did a great job making it up the Wall

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A short video of the singlespeed / junior racers attacking this climb.

Spectator / vendor section.

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NCCX really puts on a great event.  Registration for easy enough for a newbie like me to figure out, ample parking, course was marked very well … nice job.

Hopefully I’ll make it to the two race season finale in Asheville, at the Biltmore!

The Art of a Cyclocross Course – Kite Hill CX (Clemson,SC)

This was a race I had on my calendar, but backed out to support a friend in a time of loss.  I was still in the area that day, and stopped by with the plans to take photos of whomever showed up to race in the mud.

That would be about 2 people from what I saw.  How disappointing for the organizers!  From the looks of things, the collegiate races went on but the afternoon of “regular” USAC CX entries went empty.  One junior and another men’s competitor showed up.  I would have been there ready to race in the mud …

Looking back on it Dingo Cross was on the same date.  Being so close to Clemson I can see where folks stayed with the established race series instead of trying something new a state over.  I hope they try again next year!

Regardless, I walked the course and got a few good photos.  What struck me is the organic, flowing (mudded) lines of the course contrasting with the dormant grass…

Top of the course…

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I would have enjoyed these features.  At least I know I can bunny hop this height…

 

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I think this was a climb.  I can see grabbing for traction here…

 

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Snaking esses across the hill:

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Muddy shoes after these barriers for sure!

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Deep mud … Hope those shoes are on tight!

 

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My favorite shot of the winding course.

 

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Please try again next year Clemson Cycling!

2014 Greenville CX Cup – BusyDadCycling goes racing!

After years of maintaining a casual curiosity for cyclocross racing, and finding various excuses every fall not to drive up to NC for their series – Start Smart Cycling, Upstate SORBA and Greenville Rec bring a CX event to Greenville.

No more excuses.  I pre-registered and got in some basic skills drills on my CX bike.

Today was the day.  Now I was in for it.

http://bible.com/114/mat.20.16.nkjv “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
Bible.com/app

Now before I start a war over hermeneutics let’s be clear I know I’m using this verse out of context.  Think of it as a Biblical pun.

The nice folks organizing the race were kind enough to post the route a few weeks previous on ridewithgps.com.  I arrived the Friday evening before, hoping to pre-ride the course and was not disappointed.  The course was just being completed as I took a few laps.

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This one was not flat by any stretch of the imagination.  Plenty of ups and downs, covering much of the park (Westside Aquatic in Greenville, SC).

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Fast forward to Saturday.  My checklist was complete from the night before as I had all my gear.  Arrived early to get my number, warm up and be ready.

Hincapie Sportswear was there providing goodies for the drawings, Swamp Rabbit Cafe selling their tasty food for lunch.

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Number pinned on.  Check.

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My strategy for the day was simple.  I had read a few “how to do your first cross race” accounts online and took them as a call to pack a normal 2 hour training ride effort into a 30 min race.  I had practiced for the barriers and stairs (dismount / mount).  Finally, I had been on the course previously and scoped out challenges.  I decided on the following:

– Finish the ride strong (find a strong pace, hold it and don’t blow up)

– Cleanly execute all the obstacles (don’t crash! Be smooth and don’t rush the stairs or barriers)

– Ride the WALL every lap (attack this hill every time and don’t wimp out by hiking up)

Below – the stairs, just after the start line.  First lap the field went to the right for a bypass.  After that, you had to negotiate a few stairs plus a barrier at the top, then more uphill.  A bit of a challenge to find a good spot to re-mount.

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The barriers.  Slight downhill, which was nice.  I had been practicing with my own barrier at this exact height and felt I could do these cleanly if I didn’t rush.  When I pushed too fast when practicing I lost rhythm and bad things happened…

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Finally, the Wall, the last big feature before rounding the ball field and into start/finish.

This was a tough pitch that required brute force.  Thankfully I was accustomed to doing leg presses.  Maybe I should call this leg press hill as that ‘s pretty much what it was like.  Right …. left …. right ….. left …. or maybe “The Stairclimber” would be better…

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One “how-to” guide recommended warming up on the trainer.  I didn’t see anyone else doing this, as they chose instead to pre-ride the course and around the facility.  I’m very thankful that I decided to do this and to my triathlete friend who let me borrow her bike trainer.  I brought my road bike for it, warmed up exactly how I wanted over 30 min to work up to being able to push my max HR, and then hopped on my cross bike to go to the start line.  No fiddling with swapping rear tires or disconnecting from the trainer.

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This is what the typical field would look like for each race of the day:

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And this is what my group looked like.  This was, in fact, the only view of this group I had the whole race.

Did I mention I entered the Masters 35+ CX 4/5 race?

Who’s idea was that?

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A quick talk from the USAC official and I knew I was in for something.  I felt like I was joining in for a fast SCTAC group ride where everyone knew each other (including the official) and I was the newbie.  As in the guy who accidentally fell in with the wrong group…  As he rattled off each entry by first name, and as each racer confirmed their presence I felt a group familiarity, to which I was a bit of a foreigner.

Nonetheless, the starting bell was imminent.  Put up or shut up time.

Off we went!

From the line I had no intentions of going for a hole shot.  If you’re concerned about being the slow one, the worst move is to jump ahead only to confirm that fact to the entire field as they pass you by.  Instead I fell into the end of the pack and played “watch and learn” as we moved through the first part of the course.

About halfway through the first lap, this was the lead group… (photo credits to BusyWife)

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And then a little ways back … this was me (in red).  Holding onto last place.

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Still there, fighting over last place…

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At the Wall.  I had a fantastic cheering section!  Need more cowbell!

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Still trying to catch that guy…

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I passed for next-to-last once on the course, right at the Wall.  It seemed like the only advantage I had over the guy in front of me, but he was too strong everywhere else for me to catch him.  I tried to pace myself 3 laps in so I could catch him on the last lap (4) but I just didn’t have enough juice.

But it was still very sweet to have my family cheering me on.  Daddy was last, but it didn’t matter.

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On to the finish…

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 Strava ride link

It was a bit disappointing to finish dead last.  But someone had to do it … and I’m glad to have had the humbling that it was.  Later I learned that the open men’s CX 5 would have been better for a beginner like me, but looking back on it I would have done it the same.  The competitiveness of this group made me push crazy hard.

Things were still a success.  I didn’t crash.  I managed all the obstacles cleanly and from an effort point of view did exactly what I wanted to do.  My ride data showed me jumping up to a 175 HR from the start and holding it there as an average until I bumped into the low 180s on my last lap push.  Everything went according to plan.

To complete the pun, this race was a first for me … so not so bad to be last!  Nowhere to go but up from here, right?

(And if anyone is wondering, yes I’m completely hooked on ‘cross and plan a few more races this season!)

Another great thing about CX racing is how much of an event it is.  Spectator friendly as the course is very compact, and at least for this event very family friendly.  Mid-day they had a race just for the kids, and our two little ones had a blast running the kids course.  Our oldest even did two laps!

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We decided to stay for the entire day of racing to soak in all the fun.  Many people chose to drop in and see some action, as well as many participants who would just up for their race and then depart shortly thereafter.  Hoping to catch some of the best action, we waited around for the Men’s Elite CX 1/2/3.  I wasn’t disappointed – these were some fast guys!  This very amateur videographer got some footage from the first two laps.  Watching these guys at the Wall was a learning point for me.  Taking it wide made the grade a bit easier…

Youtube: 2014 Greenville CX Cup Men’s Elite CX 1/2/3

What a great day.  A very fine fall day and a good day of racing.  A first for me – I’ve never pinned on a number and “gone racing.”  Lord willing, those won’t be the last.  One of the nice things about CX training is that it’s much more suited to a time-crunched schedule.  Training for a 30 or 45min event is much different and can be less time demanding than 4-5 hour endurance efforts.

More CX to come!

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