Archive for April, 2014
2014 Cohutta Men’s Open Podium (left to right) – Brian Toone (8th), Garth Prosser (6th), Tom Burke (4th), Rob Spreng (2nd), Jeremiah Bishop (1st), Chris Michaels (3rd), Andy Rhodes (5th), Andrew Dunlap (7th) – not pictured German Bermudez (9th – off screen to the left), and Ben Richardson (10th – off screen to the right).
I never thought I’d be able to do this race because it is the same day as Athens Twilight. But this year was different because Kristine was out of town all week for work and to run the Big Sur marathon today in California. I wasn’t as excited for all the crazy awesomeness of Twilight without having Kristine to share it with. So I figured this would be as good a year as any to race Cohutta, and I was not disappointed. What an amazing race course and race!
Update – Kristine and her BRF Kim Moon (I think that stands for Best Running Friend) finished her marathon – see instagram pic below
My race went really well – attacked from the line and entered the singletrack with a good 15 second headstart on the rest of the 225 rider field. I figured I would get caught within the first minute of singletrack, but I held onto my lead all the way through the first singletrack — mainly because it wasn’t technical and it involved a climb. When we shot out onto the Boyd Gap overlook after 2 miles of singletrack, I let Jeremiah Bishop and a few others including single speeder Gerry Pflug pass me before the long singletrack descent back to the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
I hopped in front of the next few riders because there was a small gap and stayed out of their way until the hairpin switchback where I shot wide (partly on purpose) to let them by. I think three or four more people came by and that was it. I didn’t get passed by anybody else the rest of the day until really late in the race when German Bermudez (Rare Disease Cycling) caught back up to me in the final singletrack shortly after I passed him on the final climb up to that singletrack. I then followed his wheel all the way back down the final singletrack with the confidence of seeing somebody in front of me I had no problems keeping up. I then passed him on the final road section to finish 8th place.
But before all that … after the course crosses the Ocoee on the forest service bridge pictured above, it enters another long singletrack section but on a somewhat substantial climb. I had no problems staying in front of anybody coming up behind me. In fact, I started to catch two riders on the steeper sections of singletrack. They were not too far ahead of me when we exited the singletrack onto the first forest service road about 16 miles into the race. I thought “sweet” I’m going to start catching and passing people any minute. Well, the forest service road starts out with a long descent and those guys could fly on the descents. Even though there were a few really steep climbs in the middle, you are basically descending for 8 miles with some tricky switchback descents in the middle.
My first sign that I was starting to catch back up to them after what seemed like an eternity was Andrew Dunlap (Rare Disease Cycling) pulling out of Aid Station #2. We chatted and rode together on the flat section, and he mentioned that the two guys I had been chasing had been crushing the descents, but were just ahead. I saw them riding together right after Andrew fell off my pace at the first or second steep section of the long climb to Aid Station #3. It took a couple minutes but I caught up to them near some of the construction areas on the forest service road. I figured they would hop right on and draft me for a bit, but I think they came off pretty quickly. I wasn’t looking back, though, for fear of being discouraged that they were keeping up with me.
At this point, I figured based on the number of people I had passed and the number of people who had passed me that I was well inside the top 10. I kept hammering the climb all in the big ring for fear of shifting into the small ring and easing my pace. I spent a lot of time cross-geared or close to it, but it felt good to stand and roll instead of spin. Also, it really forced me to concentrate on finding a good smooth line since I was standing and needed the traction. I think this was really important on the climbs because there was a lot of loose gravel and you would waste a lot of energy bouncing on the rocks if you didn’t find the sweet spot of pine straw or dirt.
The next person I caught was a Toyota rider. A few minutes later, I caught his teammate. Then after another 10 minutes of climbing, I caught eventual third place finisher Chris Michaels (American Classic/Kenda/Tomac). This was shortly before the top of the first really big climb. Not too long after passing him, I got a small stick in my rear derailleur. I pulled over to stop thinking it might take a few seconds to pop out of the pulley wheel and that Chris would catch back up to me, but it came right out as soon as I stopped and pulled on the stick. Oh, if only it had taken a little bit of time to come out, it would have saved me 24:32 minutes in the race because I would have been with Chris and I don’t think we both would have missed the turn. Instead, I hopped right back on, crested the top and proceeded to ride 2.8 miles off course down into a saddle off the wrong side of Potato Patch mountain and then halfway up the climb to Little Bald Mountain (see annotated Strava screenshot below) I started getting suspicious that I made a wrong term when I couldn’t see another rider that I had been catching after passing Chris. Then eventually I stopped two different cars and asked if they had seen any cyclists. Both said no, so I turned around and headed back. The turn that I missed was marked with blue paint on the ground instead of the SRAM banners and arrows that I had been following. I don’t know why there wasn’t somebody stationed at the triangle there telling people to turn as it was in the middle of a fast descent where the natural direction is to go straight to carry your momentum up the next hill after it. I was going over 30 mph when I missed the turn.
After turning around and riding for a few minutes I knew for sure that I had missed the turn because all the people I had passed should have caught up to me. My first instinct was to cry knowing that I was racing essentially a perfect race up to that point and already in the top 3 or 4 about halfway into the race. My second instinct was to hit it hard to try to make up time. I think if I were younger I would have probably done the second, but having raced now for 20 years I knew that my best bet was to stay calm and just continue as if what I was riding was actually part of the course … continue to take in nutrition and eat as normal and don’t lift the pace at all. I did, and I was hoping to get the KOM on the reverse direction back up the climb with my steady Zone 4 effort as a reward for my being off course, but I missed it by a few seconds. Another reward, which I didn’t miss and greatly tempered what could have been huge disappointment was the absolutely fantastic view of Fort Mountain from partway up the Little Bald Mountain climb where I was off course. Fort Mountain will always be significant to me for a lot of reasons but especially because it marks the start of my foray into ultra endurance cycling. Read about Fort Mountain at the end of this post and towards the middle of this one.
Back to the race, I knew I had made it back to the race course when I saw two guys coming down towards an intersection. I saw the blue paint on the ground and knew that I had missed the turn. They were confused, too, as were many racers at that intersection. Most racers ended up missing the turn and hitting it on the other side of the triangle. But at least one other poor soul who I met when I climbed back up to the same spot 20 miles later had missed the turn and gone up and over the ridge like I did. I had the unfortunate (and somewhat ironic) opportunity to tell him he had missed the turn and had to go back down the hill I was climbing up. I was just ahead of those two guys on the start of the correct descent. There was another person just ahead of me on the descent and another person ahead of them. I immediately dropped the two guys and flew past the guy in front of me — I was guesstimating that my ability to drop people on the descent meant that those people were well outside of the top 50 of the race, and that was discouraging. I tried really hard not to think about the blown opportunity and what might have been and instead thought about 24 hour mountain bike nationals, how this was all good experience for future races, and man did i mention the course was awesome??? I think I passed four or five more people on the descent. I was out of water so I had to stop at Aid Station 4, even though it was not quite the bottom of the descent (hate losing all that momentum – my original plan had been to stop there on the way back, but going 24 minutes off course changed that plan!) The aid station workers there were super fast, and I got a bottle and was on my way in just a few seconds. I passed more people (perhaps some of the same) on the rest of the descent.
Then we hit a gravel road to start the long, never-ending, inferno of a Cat 2 climb (just a tiny bit short of Cat 1) back up Potato Patch Mountain. Initially, I was passing people somewhat constantly. As soon as I passed one person, there would be another person just up ahead on the climb. I would guesstimate I passed 10-15 people through here during the first 20 minutes of the climb. I had to stop at Aid Station #5 about 25% up the climb because I had gone through all my gatorade and the bottle I had in the back I hadn’t drunk out of and I knew it would be warm. I dumped that bottle on myself to get some cooling from the water and then refilled my big bottle out of the pump which was ice cold water. This was super helpful because the climb up Potato Patch Mountain from that spot was hell. My Garmin shows that temps were only in the upper 70s, but it was full sun in a lot of spots and you were only going 3-5mph at a hard zone 3, low Zone 4 effort. Sweat pouring. Eyes burning. One thing that really helped me towards the top of the climb was a rider I didn’t end up catching until many miles later – James Wiant (Peachtree Bikes, Atlanta).
I was closing in on him towards the top, but I didn’t catch him. He went over the top ahead of me maybe 15 seconds ahead and was maybe twice that far ahead by the time we made it to the next steep hill. This process repeated itself through all the steep cat 4 climbs across the top of the mountain. Each time, I would be a little bit closer until I actually caught him maybe close to 10 miles later on the last kicker before the longer descent down to aid station 3. I think he was pretty tired by this point because by the time I made it to the crest, I had put enough time into him that he didn’t catch me on the descent. That descent was particularly long and bumpy – it was one of a few later in the race where I was struggling with cramps in my hands. I would take one hand off the bar so I could stretch it and then alternate back to the other hand. I also spent a lot of time riding no-handed on some of the smoother sections of the course either in an aero position with my elbows on the bars or sitting upright stretching. I think that is really important in these long races otherwise you get to where you cannot hold onto the bars anymore.
After I passed James, there was nobody for quite a while – until close to the bottom of the 10 mile descent down to aid station #7. I passed two people in short succession, who then proceeded to pass me back when I stopped at the aid station. I had gambled with water by not stopping at aid station 3 and had been out for about 5 miles of the descent. In fact, some of the longer flatter parts of the descent I kept motivating myself that the aid station was just ahead, got to make it to the aid station for water, got to make it to the aid station for water. I was glad that I was well-hydrated up to that point and ended up drinking about 120 oz of gatorade and water in total for the day. That may not sound like a lot for an 8.5 hour race, but you have to remember that the first 3 hours of the race were quite cold with temps in the 30s and 40s in the valleys. It was definitely hot by the end, though, with temps climbing into the upper 70s and lower 80s.
At the aid station, I was told by the awesome volunteers who were also very quick (very proud that several of the volunteers were Samford students!) that there was one guy about 30 seconds ahead and a small group ahead of them by maybe another minute. I knew that there was only 14 miles to the finish, but I figured I could make up a minute on them – the question would be could I hold any kind of lead through the singletrack. At this point, I had still not passed any of the people that I had passed earlier in the race before going off course so I am imagining that I am sitting somewhere in the top 25. As it turns out, I was probably in 12th position at that point because I passed four more people (the group the aid station volunteers had told me about). This group had shattered on the final forest service road climb to the singletrack, so I passed them all one-by-one up the climb.
German was the first rider I caught, but he was the only one to catch back up to me in the singletrack. So that makes me think that he was the lone rider behind the group and was in fact catching the group when I first caught him. I mistook him for Andrew and said “hello again”. He asked what happened to me? And I told him I had gone 6 miles off course. It was very cathartic to finally tell someone that I had gone off course, but more importantly catching one of the leaders meant that I was well inside the top 25. Also, I caught one of the Toyota riders I had passed earlier. Still, I wasn’t convinced that I was anywhere close to the top 10 because I figured they were just having a bad day. As it turns out, I was having an amazing day but ended up adding 24:32 to my total time going off course. I wasn’t the only one, though. Singlespeeder Gerry Pflug was leading until he went off course at mile 95 and rode an extra 30 minutes of singletrack. Nathaniel Cornelius was in 3rd place and missed the same turn on the singletrack and ended up riding even more singletrack than Gerry. Fourth place finisher Tom Burke also went off course in about the same spot.
Even with the course snafus, this was a really well run event with some great volunteers. Any time there is a course problem, unless it is sabotage, it is ultimately the racer’s responsibility to know the course. That’s a bit harder for 100 mile mtb races where you’ve never ridden before, but still I could have spent some more time memorizing and studying the detailed maps on the website (I memorized the whole 500 mile route for the Heart of the South 500 mile race). Also, I could have pre-loaded the course into my Garmin. Normally I would do that, but I wasn’t sure about the battery life and whether the Garmin would crash if it were trying to follow such a long course. Live and learn!!!
Huge shout out to Greg Schisla, friend living in Murphy, NC who let me stay with him and also met me Friday after pre-ride for dinner at a very nice local Mexican restaurant. He was doing well in the Big Frog 65 in second place when he had major mechanical end his race (freehub body stopped engaging). It seems like even with perfect weather this year, the bad luck gremlins were out in full force at this year’s Cohutta! Maybe next year will be the year of perfect weather and good luck for everyone.
2014 Cohutta 100+ heartrate zone summary
I summarized the race in my Heart of the South 500 post, but there are many, many details that I left out that I’m going to include in this post. Grab a cup of coffee, your reading glasses, and get ready for an adventure! Long post, so use the links below to jump to a specific section:
- The Start – Friday, April 4th at 8pm CST
- Flying – miles 0-200 including Lookout Mountain
- Climbing – miles 200-400 including Fort Mountain
- Real Climbing – miles 400-450 including Mount Cheaha
- Sleeping – miles 450-517 including Vandiver
- The Finish – Sunday, April 6th at 3:48am CST
- Equipment Used
- Nutrition and “Drugs”
- Lessons Learned
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I had toyed with the idea of getting up at 2AM so that I would be tired enough Friday afternoon to take a nap before the start of the race at 8PM. After thinking about how much I still had left to do to get ready for the race, I decided I’d be better off getting a full night’s sleep and then spend the afternoon packing and double-checking the support vehicle. So at 6AM, I woke up, ate a normal breakfast of oatmeal and then biked my direct route (7.5 miles) into Samford University to teach my two Friday classes. It was raining so I wore my backup shoes. After class, I biked home again on a direct route this time in heavier nastier rain. See instagram pic below, which I captioned: “Clearing to the northwest behind samford, nasty commute home right now though.”
Home from university, I worked a bit, answered a few emails, and then started to think about packing. My father-in-law, Dale Cardwell, tested out our light setup and mounted the slow moving vehicle sign on the back of the car. About 2PM, I started throwing all my spare bike equipment into the back of the car. I took my Scott Addict as a backup bike, two extra Martindale wheels, a floor pump, my normal on-the-bike toolkits, and my normal travel tool bag. I also put in a couple extra bib shorts and jerseys. At the last minute I decided to throw in my lighter winter jacket just in case, but I was thinking that temps would stay in the 50s the whole race so I thought leg warmers and arm warmers would be enough. I was really wrong about that as temps plummeted to 32 degF on the descent off Lookout Mountain just before sunrise.
Even though I started packing kinda late, I had been formulating an idea all week of what I would need. See these two instagram pics from earlier in the week:
“Stopped by Brick Alley to pick up my backup bike for Friday.” I rode the 3 miles home from the shop carrying the Scott. Then I realized I was running late for picking up the kids from school, so I dropped the bike in the front yard and then took off through the woods to meet and walk home with the kids.
“Love the irony of biking to the auto parts store to pick up all the follow vehicle equipment required for the race.”
Nevertheless, I thought everything was on track for our Friday departure until I went to put in all my nutrition. The car was packed with a lot of stuff for Dale and my wife Kristine for 30 hours in the car. I wasn’t sure where to put the nutrition so that it was easy for them to grab and hand to me out the window of the car. At this point I had an inkling that this was not going to go quite as smoothly as I had imagined in my head for weeks. I put some gatorade bottles on the front passenger seat floor and a box with powerbars and powergels on the middle row of seats thinking that whoever was in the passenger seat would be able to turn around, grab what I needed, and hand it to me out the passenger window.
From Kristine early in the race – “Pile of maps, pile of charging cords and electronics, pile of food. #necessities Not seen: the pile of clothes and pile of bike equipment #needmorecaffeine #hots500″
My parents were coming over to pick up the kids and keep them for the weekend while Kristine, Dale, and I drove over to the pre-race meeting at 3:30 only 3 miles from our house at the Colonnade. But they couldn’t be there until 3:20, so we decided to go to the meeting without Kristine. At the last minute as we were driving away, my parents drove up so we scrambled to get Kristine in the car and get to the meeting on time. Smooth sailing on the drive and we walked into the meeting at exactly 3:30 and were pretty much shocked at what we saw. I thought there would be five or six people in the room since I thought there were only two other racers and everybody would have a similarly sized crew of two people. Well, there must have been 20-25 people in the room with 4 other racers (5 total) doing the race!
“500 mile pre-race meeting, getting real now!” Race director Tom Robertshaw was standing up in the blue shirt giving the pre-race instructions while I instagrammed this pic below. Most of his instructions were route related and brief review of the UMCA rules regarding lights.
One thing that came up that I had missed in the rules was required reflective tape or stickers on the wheels and cranks. I did not have anything reflective on my bike. We stopped by a hardware store on the way home and bought some reflective tape, but I remembered that I had bought some reflective stickers years and years ago to put on my helmet. I found the leftover stickers and thanks to Kristine’s suggestion and help, I used clear packing tape to secure about 10 stickers per wheel and 3 stickers per crank. This took a surprisingly long time, at least an hour to put all the stickers on both sides of my four wheels. I wasn’t sure how well it would hold, but it was both aerodynamic and amazingly secure.
Towards the end of the pre-race meeting, Tom indicated that we would be starting in 2 minute intervals starting at 8pm. He asked for volunteers to go first, and I shot my hand up as fast as I could realizing that it was going to be challenging enough for my crew without us having to pass other teams and their support vehicles. I didn’t know what to expect out of the other racers including a rider from Italy, but I figured that I might be the fastest given that I had a realistic shot at the record and that the record has stood for so many years. That’s the one downside of living so close to the start and timing everything so close – I didn’t really have an opportunity to meet the other riders. There was a total of five racers, and I believe I met three of them. Everybody was super nice and offered to help. It was not nearly the cut-throat mentality I had imagined ultra-endurance racing would be.
The Start – Friday, April 4th at 8pm CST
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With the car being packed full, there wasn’t a lot of room for my bike. I decided that it would be easier if I simply rode to the start – about 3 miles down Acton Rd. I realized a flaw in this plan about halfway there because I didn’t have any tools in case of a flat or problem. Fortunately, no flats for the short ride and, furthermore, no flats or mechanical problems of any kind for the next 500+ miles either!
When I arrived at the start, I saw the RVs of two of the other racers and then saw Kristine, Dale, Pat Casey, and Heather Hagan near the parking lot entrance. I rolled up at about 7:40. Race director Tom came right over and inspected my bike to make sure it had all the required reflective material – check! Then we took pictures. During that time Chris Shelton came over right as we were mounting the “Caution Bikes Ahead” sign to the back of the car, which turned out to be Chris’s sign he had loaned to Tom a couple years ago. Five minutes to go and Heather took this picture with my phone, I instagrammed it really quick, and a minute or two later I was off!
“5 min to start, let’s do this”
The course started out down Blue Lake Rd and turned onto Sicard Hollow Rd, which has several steep rollers. Dale was driving first, and it took a while for him to adjust to my sudden changes in speed as the road rolled down and then back up. I really wanted to hit the descents hard in order to take the climbs easier, but the negative consequence of this was my speed dramatically changing throughout rolling sections – from 10mph to 40+mph back down to 10mph all within half a mile. This made it tough for whoever was driving to match my speed and stay close. This upset me at the beginning because I really needed the headlights for the rough sections of Sicard Hollow. I stayed within the range of the headlights, but not close enough so that I could use the lights to see the nasty sections of road. Instead, I had to rely on my Axiom light set to its maximum power and a knowledge of the location of every pothole from having ridden the road hundreds of times. Everything turned out fine, but I called back to my crew several times (I had my phone with me) to let them know I was displeased. This is all within 5-10 minutes of the start of the race.
Once we made it onto the flatter roads of US-78 and AL-25, my speed stayed constant and pretty fast. I couldn’t believe how fast I was flying with what felt like very little effort. As it turns out, there was a nice westerly wind blowing, which my Martindale wheels picked up as a cross-tailwind and pushed me forward incredibly fast. About half a mile before the I-20 intersection, I saw an eighteen wheeler sitting at a factory exit about to pull out. Fortunately, we made it past him just in time, and I sprinted to the next section to the 4-way stop to make sure he didn’t try and pass before the stop. I stopped at the stop sign and then took off again, thankful that they had removed the stop sign on the other side of the bridge and also at the Co Rd 10 intersection half a mile later.
We flew along Kelly Creek Rd until I tried to coordinate on the phone our first pee break. After calling to tell Kristine, I found a quiet section of road at the top of a hill in the dark, signaled I was pulling over, and expected the follow car to pull halfway off the road (keep in mind these roads are absolutely deserted!). This was something we hadn’t talked about ahead of time or practiced at all, so Dale didn’t know what to do. I thought they were going to pee, too, but since I was already finished by the time Dale had gotten the car completely off the road in what felt like a parallel parking maneuver, I was already ready to take off again. I told them to hold it and took off. I was not very nice and for that I’m very, very sorry! Looking back, I realized now that I had not prepared either Dale or Kristine at all for what to expect. I just assumed that everything would seem obvious, but that is the problem with riding bikes, doing races, doing group rides, for years and years and years – what seems obvious to me is not going to seem obvious at all to people who have never done any of these things. Lesson #1 learned in the first hour of the race.
I kept thinking of the Iron War book and how I am much more like ironman athlete Dave Scott than his rival Mark Allen. Kristine had downloaded that book for our drive up Iron Cross in Pennsylvania last year, and we listened to the entire book on the trip. She had it again for her and Dale to listen to while they were following me. In the book, Dave is described as constantly berating his crew sometimes bringing them to tears, whereas Mark Allen is described with the ability to take everything in stride. As far as athletes go, it seems Dave showed more fire, more raw passion, but Mark internalized and pushed through adversity more on his own without taking it out on his crew.
Flying – miles 0-200 including Lookout Mountain
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US-231 north and AL-144 all the way to Co Rd 73 outside of Jacksonville were brand new roads to me. We crossed the Coosa River for the first of four times at the Neely Dam. With a nice tailwind, and generally flat roads, I averaged 20.1 mph to the first time station 73 miles into the race in Jacksonville. During UMCA ultra-endurance races, there are several time stations where the crew simply calls in your time at a designated spot using their cell phones. The spot, however, is chosen based on the location of physical land line phones for those racers who choose to do the race without a cellphone. I think that is absolutely awesome. This spot was not too far after passing Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack, which I remembered from this epic adventure climbing ride while Kristine was working in Anniston. In any case, I was flying as we headed north on the 4-lane highway of AL-21. Kristine was happy to report in after calling in the first time split. Shortly before Piedmont, we stopped for another pee break and my crew switched drivers (about 4 hours into the race).
Heading north from Piedmont on AL-9 was a fun, rolling road but the temp had started to drop and I was still in shorts and short sleeves. I was getting cold as the temp was in the low 40s by now but opted to wait until the climb from Leesburg onto Lookout Mountain to put on leg and arm warmers. During the climb, I pushed the pace hard wondering if I could get the KOM at a sub-threshold pace. By the top of the climb, it was cold enough I decided to forego the arm warmers and switch to my winter cycling jacket that I had thrown into the car at the last minute thinking I wouldn’t need it. The terrain across the top of Lookout Mountain is some of my favorite terrain for riding – nothing flat and everything is at least 10% up or down … none of this 3-5% flat stuff, which makes for some really fast average speeds but doesn’t give you the adrenaline rush of a 50mph descent or the challenge of a steep climb. 10% up or down constantly means that you are either absolutely flying or crawling, both of which are fun to me. I like the crawling parts because it’s easier to look around and take everything in and think. I like the fast 45-50mph parts because, well, they are fast.
Even though it was at night, this was definitely my favorite part of the ride. Rather than detailing everything in narrative form, let me just highlight the key parts of our 60+ miles spent atop lookout mountain:
- Passing through Dogtown, Alabama at 3 in the morning with, guess what, lots of dogs was fun. Also, the county sheriff was sitting at the 4-way stop – presumably looking for drunk drivers blowing through the stop sign. I stopped, waved, and made the turn to head over to Little River Canyon. We probably saw 20-30 county sheriffs or city police throughout the entire race and none of them stopped or questioned us.
- Little River Canyon – constant rollers, lots of gravel and debris on the roads from the heavy rains and storms the night before. One tree was down blocking the righthand side of the road. This was in a descent around a blind curve, but we made it no problem. Kristine posted the picture I’ve included after the highlights. No view over the side of the canyon, but you could tell that there was a large drop-off, and I could hear loud waterfalls at several points along the route. Also, we saw bunny rabbits hopping away a few times in the grassy sections next to the road.
- Camp Comer, where Josiah and I spent the night at the boy scout camp for Cub Haunted this past fall was another highlight on the route. We had an absolute blast, so it was fun to reminisce about our time there. We stopped, and I took the pic below which I would instagram later when Kristine and Dale drove ahead to get breakfast for themselves and coffee for me after sunrise near LaFayette.
- Cloudmont ski resort and Dan Taylor’s family house – we passed these landmarks approaching Time Station 2. Cloudmont is Alabama’s only ski area, with one slope and a tow rope. My friend Dan Taylor from Birmingham sponsored the cycling team I was racing for back in 2008 when we had an epic team camp in January of 2008 – quite the bonding experience. See last of the three pics below
“Still going well, stopped at camp comer, Josiah cub scouts camp”
2008 Tria Cycling team on the last day of our winter training camp at sponsor Dan Taylor’s house atop Lookout Mountain next to Alabama’s only ski resort (Mentone). The inset picture is from the Tria Cycling podium sweep of the Cat 3 race at Pepper Place at the end of the season. Left to right: Wes Douglas, Jacob Tubbs, Philip Thompson, Lennie Moon, Mike Lackey, Brent Marshall, Brian Toone (me), Daniel Taylor, and Darryl Seelhorst. Dan Taylor was taking the picture. In the inset from left to right – Sammy Flores, Philip Thompson, and Jacob Tubbs.
I stopped somewhere along Co Rd 89 to duct tape my shoes. I had not brought any shoe covers because I wasn’t expecting temps near freezing anywhere along the ride. It’s amazing the difference made by duct-taping all the ventilation holes and also the “worn-out-from-too-many-miles” holes on the shoes. At the bottom of the fast descent off Lookout Mountain, I saw the coldest temps of the entire ride at 32 degF. An hour or two later outside of LaFayette, GA, I instagrammed this pic during one of the sections where Kristine and Dale had left me to go get breakfast for themselves and coffee for me.
“Wasn’t expecting temps in the 30s. Duct tape really is the fix for everything!”
The water bottle coffee was great for warming me up, but the temps had also started to climb pretty quickly into the upper 30s and lower 40s by the time I made it to Snake Creek Gap about 210 miles into the ride. At this point, I needed to recharge my Garmin. I had a cool on-the-bike charging solution that I will describe later in the equipment section of this post.
“Georgia is blooming to welcome us! Almost 200 miles done in 10hrs 40min. @kartoone76 is amazing!”
Time Station 3 was at a Love’s truck stop at I-75 in Resaca, GA. Coming down from Snake Creek Gap with still a bit of a cross-tailwind, I made great time. The wind was clearly coming from the north, now, which I thought was awesome b/c it would mean a general tailwind for the route back home. I knew that the turn onto GA-225 due north towards Chatsworth and Fort Mountain would be brutal. And it was. Strong headwind. The road was rolling so that on some of the steeper downhills, you got a bit of a break from the wind. We took advantage of a porta-potty in a construction area almost directly on the route in Chatsworth for a quick potty break.
Towards the bottom of the climb up Fort Mountain, we stopped at a pull-out so I could take off my leg and arm warmers. Temps were still in the upper 40s, but I knew that it would be getting warmer as I climbed for the next hour. Also, I figured the effort I would be putting out would be more than enough to keep me warm on the climb. This worked out well, and the temps had warmed enough by the top I didn’t even need to stop to put any extra clothes on for the long descent. Kristine snapped this pic at the overlook near the top, where I had stopped on my pre-ride of this portion of the course and talked to some motorcycle riders. I knew from my pre-ride the week before that the climb wasn’t steep and that the descent on the backside had lots of short steep uphills. Still, there were some steeper sections of the descent and I maxed out at just under 52mph. Thankfully this was during the day so I didn’t have to worry about staying within the headlights of the follow car. They were quite far behind by the bottom of the steeper part of the descent.
“Climbing up Fort Mountain in GA to the 250-mile point – the turnaround! Somewhere around 14 hours in for my stud @kartoone76! #HOTS500″
Elijay was super busy so we decided for the follow vehicle to head up the road and wait at the next turn. This made it easier for cars to pass, but unfortunately my follow vehicle missed the turn. No worries, though, because I made the turn and after they figured out they had missed the turn, they caught back up to me pretty quickly on one of the hardest stretches of road – GA-382. This was a very hilly section of the course with steep uphills and long gradual downhills (I prefer it the other way around). It was still a really fun section of the course, and we passed a couple sag stops for an organized ride being held in the area. At the end of GA-382 was GA-136, a much flatter but more exposed road. The wind coming out of the northwest was a strong cross-headwind, which is one of the hardest wind configurations to battle with deep aero wheels. Nevertheless, the scenery was nice and I just plugged along until we made it back to Time Station 4. It was encouraging during this difficult section to know that I was approaching 300 miles covered with only 200 miles to go!
“Fort Mtn in the distance, that @kartoone76 climbed 50 miles ago. Approaching the 300-mi mark in the next half hour. #keepridingBrian #HOTS500″
My longest stop of the day was at the Love’s truck stop (Time Station #4). Shortly before stopping, I saw one of the other competitors pulling away from the time station. I was nearly 100 miles ahead of him! This was my first inkling that I might be really far ahead of everyone else. I still didn’t know where everybody else was, so in the back of my mind I was driven by the thought that whoever was following might roll up on me every time I stopped. By this point in the race, however, I was more than content to change clothes, eat a full sandwich and sun chips, and enjoy the warm sun in the parking lot.
Kristine’s post on twitter celebrating mile 300 two hours ahead of a record-breaking pace. At this point I only needed to ride the last 200 miles in 13 hours to break the record.
I was a little apprehensive as I went to start riding again that I wouldn’t be able to pedal the bike at all. Lo and behold, my legs, tendons, bones hurt a bit but nothing to the point of making me question whether I could ride 200 more miles. In fact, I was surprised what a little rest did and hit the pace pretty hard — especially since the turn onto the next road meant several county roads all with a nice tailwind. Unfortunately, there were several stop signs through this beautiful tailwind section. There is nothing more frustrating than hammering along with a tailwind (on a downhill no less) and then have to slam on the brakes for a pointless 4-way stop with good visibility. Nevertheless, the rules are the rules, and I stopped at each stop sign.
Sikes Story Rd led to Big Texas Valley Rd where we had a bit of a crew miscommunication. Actually, my crew did exactly what I told them to do – head up the road to Friday Rd (the next turn) and wait for me there. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how long Big Texas Valley Rd was. I ran out of food shortly after they left me, and there was no cellphone coverage to call them and ask/beg them to come back with some food. I did this whole section of Big Texas Valley Rd very hungry and worried that I was hungry with no food. When I made the turn onto Friday Rd, I flew past them and hollered for food angrily even though me running out of food was my own fault.
A few minutes later, Kristine had a bagel with cream cheese ready for me. I apologized for yelling and enjoyed the section of Friday Rd which was pretty nice and hilly. At this point of the race, my recollections are going to get farther apart because my brain’s normal recording mode was switching over to more of a survival mode. Still, I do remember a few things highlighted below:
- Generally heading south and southeast with a tailwind. Weather starting to get chilly as the sunset. Being disappointed at how far apart the towns of Cave Spring and Cedartown were.
- A couple swamp-like areas near Cave Spring
- Happy to make the turn onto US-278 knowing it was taking me back to Alabama, but then really disappointed with how long it was taking me to get to the small Hardin Rd turn. I kept thinking that each next side street would be the turn to take me across the Chief Ladiga trail and back into Alabama. And then it would be some other random street!
- Being chased by dogs almost as soon as I crossed the border into Alabama. Welcome to Alabama!
- The hills on the foothills road race course not being as steep as I remember them. I think that is because the only other times I have ridden those hills is at max effort during a Pro/1/2 road race with a lot of pros. The hills are a lot easier if you can just spin up them easy!
- White Plains Rd in the near-dark with instagram and facebook beeps going off every minute or so … more on that in a minute
- Endless AL-9 in the dark(I thought I only had less than a mile to ride on it, but in reality it was nearly 8 miles!)
- An extremely busy gas station stop and bathroom break immediately before tackling Cheaha
About the instagram beeps – I was starting to struggle around mile 400 being a bit sleepy and tired. I gave Kristine my phone and asked her to instagram something so I could hear the “beeps of encouragement” with the phone back in my back pocket after she finished instagramming. For the first couple minutes, there was nothing, and I thought “oops, bad idea, better forget about it”. But then a beep, and another beep, and pretty soon my back pocket was beeping at least twice a minute. You all really pulled through and it was super encouraging for the next hour. Here is the picture she instagrammed and cross-posted to facebook:
I had taken this picture when I reset the Garmin about 12 hours earlier near Snake Creek Gap. Kristine’s caption: “An old photo, but 100 miles to go! Like this or comment and Brian will hear the alert in his pocket! And go!”
This takes us to Mount Cheaha, which I have ridden many times. The road has deteriorated quite a bit over the years. Believe it or not, the road used to be fairly decent chip and seal until one year they decided to redo the chip and seal and did an absolutely horrible job of it (although I think it might have been intentional to try and slow cars, motorcycles, and cyclists down). They put down some horrible chip and seal with too much chip and too much seal. So you have these sharp, rough rocks sealed in place that don’t move. You have to try to find a clean line over them while trying to maximize your downhill speed for the next insane uphill with gradients approaching or exceeding 20%. This was all in the dark, so I relied a lot on my headlight as Kristine again had a hard time staying close enough for her headlights to be much good since she was not allowed to use her high beams at any time during the race.
I knew the climbs would be hard, but there were more of them than I remember on Horseblock mountain. I usually approach Cheaha from Co Rd 24, which cuts off a bunch of the steep hills before Horseblock. I thought there would be one or two, but it felt like there were at least five sharp steep hills before even reaching the final steep climb up Horseblock shortly after Co Rd 24. I kept waiting and hoping to see the AL-49 sign because I knew that meant I had reached the Cheaha climb itself which has a few 10% sections, but is much tamer than any of the climbs leading up to it. Across the top, we did a super fast bottle exchange and clothing exchange while pulled off at the state park entrance. Several people camping out at the park hollered encouragement as I biked by at about 9:30PM – probably bikers who were themselves doing the Cheaha Challenge the next day.
By this point I was really cold and starting to get very, very sleepy. The first part of the Cheaha descent including the sharp turn onto the Old Cheaha Challenge course to Camp Mac is insane enough to keep you awake, but once I made it through that part of the descent my troubles began. We stopped in Camp Mac for food exchange and to assess everything before the last steep descent off the mountain. I realized how sleepy I was when I fell asleep standing up next to the car. We made it down the final and probably most dangerous part of the descent b/c of the steep dropoff into the river canyon at the last ramp down to the bottom. We made it down OK, and I think the fact that I knew we were down with the last major course obstacle out of the way caused me to relax a bit – which led to the next 67 miles being pretty much absolute hell.
Sleeping – miles 450-517 including Vandiver
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There is no other way to describe it. I wanted to sleep so badly yet I knew I couldn’t. I would force myself awake by trying to stomp on the pedals or stand up and pedal (I did a LOT of standing during the last 3 hours of the race). There is no feeling like wanting to sleep, being 75% (or more) asleep, and then being forced awake. That moment of coming back from 75% sleep state is so mentally painful. Rinse and repeat to various degrees and you have the last 67 miles of the race.
Before that though, down at the bottom of Cheaha, I was extremely cold, shaking cold. The air temp was still in the 50s but my heartrate was down in the 80s and 90s. I no longer had enough left to push the pedals hard enough to even remotely stress my aerobic system. So with temps in the 50s, I had the following clothes on: shorts, leg warmers, fully duck-taped shoes, jersey, and winter cycling jacket. This still wasn’t enough to keep me warm, so we stopped for me to add a layer — Kristine’s hooded sweatshirt with the hood up over my ears under my helmet — and rearrange the layer order so that my winter cycling jacket was on top of everything since it is more wind resistant. This still wasn’t enough to keep me warm but it was warm enough. In fact, it was probably good that it wasn’t too warm or I probably would have lost my battle to fight off sleep if I had been toasty warm.
When we made it to the town of Talladega, we headed straight for the McDonald’s where I sat in the car with the heat blasting while Kristine and her dad went inside to get coffee for me and for themselves (Kristine was half asleep as well). This was our second longest stop of the entire race, but it actually did serve to wake me up a bit. Teenagers were hanging out in the parking lot next to the McDonald’s blasting some music and just having fun. For some reason this was refreshing to me.
I have ridden to and from Mount Cheaha from my house a number of times, and the race route followed my preferred route almost to the T so I thought that would be helpful in keeping me awake. It really wasn’t. I was just too sleepy. I think it would have given me physical strength, but I was not in a mental state to really use it. I was just awake enough to pedal in a straight line, make all the turns, and coast on the downhills. In retrospect, I probably should not have coasted the downhills because that led to the following problem: coast sleeping. I’d be awake enough to focus on the downhill and then by the time the road flattened out or started to kick back up again, I would relax, forget to pedal, and come nearly to a stop. The physical act of almost stopping would then jolt me back into being fully awake.
It’s kinda sad because I would have absolutely loved the last bit of the race with all of my out/back rides to Cheaha having involved some form of epic adventure or another. I would probably have been in tears so happy to be on really familiar roads, so happy to be so close to being done, reminiscing back to previous epic adventures (e.g., this one on superbowl sunday). Instead, it really was a form of torture, each agonizing minute wanting to be asleep, but forced awake by the road, by Kristine honking, or by the simple desire to push through to the finish. No tears, no reminiscing, just a painful, painful effort to stay awake, to watch out for road hazards, and to not fall asleep. I have short glimpses of sections I remember, but most of them were disappointment realizing some other obstacle. For example, on the Vandiver climb, there are two curve signs – the first one which means you have a bit farther to go and then the sharp turn which means you are almost to the top. I remember a feeling of disappointment when I saw the first curve sign. I don’t even remember the second curve sign, cresting the top, or the first part of the descent. I remember the bottom part of the descent because I knew how dangerous it was and was awake enough to safely negotiate the turns at some ridiculously slow pace. I don’t remember the railroad track crossing or even going through the small town of Dunnavant, but I do remember the steep climb on the Hwy 25 rollers. I kept wondering if the dog in the house on the left, which is rarely out, would be out and chase me down. This led to my next thought, which was of the dogs at the next house on the left which had bitten me over 20 years earlier on one of my first rides on AL-25 – dogs that are probably long dead, but I wondered if they would be out … ghost dogs. I don’t remember the curves before the final descent, but I remember seeing the fog again on Elliot and thinking how 30+ hours earlier, that same fog was forming out of the valley. No recollection of Hwy 119, Zeigler, or Rex Lake. I remember more of the Sicard Hollow section because I kicked it up again after the four-way stop at Grants Mill. I think I stood up from the four-way stop all the way past Liberty Park and never let up on the pedals.
It wasn’t until I crossed Grants Mill Rd that I started to wake up again. At this point, the reality started to hit that I only had a few miles left to finish. Whatever adrenaline I had left came back to the surface and that pushed out the sleep. I stood up and hammered the last bit as hard as I could. By the time I made it to the finish, I was much more awake than I had been the previous 50 miles. I wanted to ride back to the house, but Kristine cleared out a spot in the back of the car while I was taking pictures with race director Tom, who had come out to Vandiver to check on us and then taken 280 back to the Colonnade to be there when we arrived. Tom helped me put the bike in the back of the car. I crawled into the car, and Kristine drove the final three miles home. All three of us slept until 12:30 in the afternoon without waking up once during the entire morning. It was probably the soundest sleep I’ve had in years.
I was disappointed to have missed breaking the course record after being two hours ahead of it over 300 miles into the race. I was disappointed to be so sleepy after only 400 miles. But then Kristine pointed out that I had not slept at all prior to the start of the race at 8PM. In a normal race starting in the morning, I believe I would have made it the full 500+ miles without the same sleep issues. Also, I was looking back at the reports for when the record was set in 2005 and 2006. Back then, they were able to choose a start time, with Chris MacDonald choosing 7AM for his start time in 2005 and Tinker Juarez choosing his start time of 5AM in 2006. This means both of them had a somewhat normal night of sleep immediately ahead of the race. I, instead, had a normal work day prior to the start of my race! I feel very confident that I would have either broken the record or come much, much closer to it without all the sleep problems.
Kristine took this picture, and then I instagrammed it on the short 3 mile drive home: “1st place! 31:48″
The centerpiece of this race for me was my Martindale 6.0 wheels shown at the top of this post with the reflective stickers. I have raced a long time and used all kinds of wheels, but these are the smoothest and most aerodynamic wheels I’ve ever raced. I had no mechanical problems or flat tires, but I had a second set of Martindale wheels – the 2.8 models ready to go as backup. Here’s the full list of all my equipment and backup equipment in the car:
- Trek Madone 5.9 – 2013 model frame
- Ultrega Di2 electronic shifting
- Martindale 6.0 wheels
- Vittoria Rubino Pro Slick 25mm tires
- Merckx setup (no tri-bars)
- Speedplay zero pedals
- Garmin Edge 800
- iBike Newton+
- Gomadic solar battery pack – I think it’s a discontinued model
- (2) axiom 200 watt front lights – used one at a time while other re-charged
- (2) axiom usb rear lights – used one at a time while other re-charged
- (1) axiom dual purpose light – used to supplement the cheaha descent
Backup equipment in the follow vehicle (all of it unused) -
- Martindale 2.8 wheels
- Full frame pump
- Two brand new vittoria rubino pro slick 25mm tires
- Backup bike – Scott Addict with SRAM force components, no wheels
- Two ziplock bags full of tire levers, tubes, chain tool, allen wrenches
- Backup shoes with speedplay cleats already mounted
- Backup speedplay pedals
- Several battery packs “bricks” for charging crew devices and my lights
- Garmin Edge 705 – sometimes in my pocket, sometimes in the follow car. Did not end up needing any of this data.
I do not like taking any kind of medicine at all because I simply do not like medicine. So my body is super sensitive to pain medication. I took two alleve about an hour before the start of the race. About 18 hours later sometime around mid-day when my body was starting to hurt a bit, I took two more alleve. That is the only pain meds I took during the race. Nothing after the race, and I didn’t really start to feel any kind of major pain until late afternoon on Sunday after waking up from sleep. Two more alleve on Sunday afternoon. One on Monday morning, and none since then. Everything is back to normal.
As far as nutrition goes, I stayed on top of it for the first 12-16 hours of the race eating a powerbar harvest bar (250 calories) at least once an hour. I really like powerbars, but it turns out that there really is a limit to the number you can eat. Sometime after Fort Mountain, I didn’t want to eat any more powerbars. Kristine had a whole bunch of panera bagels and cream cheese – so she made three or four of those over the next several hours. I also started to rely more on the caffeinated powergels and gu roctanes. In addition to all of that, I didn’t drink any water during the entire race – it was all orange gatorade and orange powerade. That adds another 150-200 calories per hour. At the Love’s truck stop (time station #4), I had a ham and cheese sandwich and half a bag of sunchips. Late in the race I was craving salt, and Kristine got me something that was pretty salty but I was half asleep and don’t even remember what it was now. Altogether, Strava calculates from my Quarq power meter that I did 20,307 kJ of work during the race and burned 22,643 calories. I would suspect that I consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 calories. I had a really light riding week leading up to the race and ate a lot so I had gained weight — all the way up to 149 pounds shortly before the race start. I forgot to weigh myself after the race, but a week later and after eating everything in sight all week, I’m still hovering around 144 pounds, meaning that it is safe to assume that I lost more than 5 pounds of non-water weight during the race. Unfortunately, I suspect that at least a pound of that was muscle but hopefully the rest was fat.
I am aiming to race the Race Across America in 2015 and be competitive. If that is going to happen, I need to learn a lot from this race. I think I have learned a lot:
- Plan, prepare, and communicate. They say that one of the hardest things about RAAM is the crew. Not only do you have the logistics to deal with, but you also have people having to endure a lot of sleeplessness and boredom. The more I can prepare people for what to expect, the better.
- I’ve got to stay on top of sleep. My general plan for the race has been to sleep less at the beginning and more later, but I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. I’m thinking more along the lines of 500 miles riding, 6 hours sleep, 500 miles riding, 6 hours sleep, etc… This would put me across the country in approximately 180 hours + 30 hours sleep = 210 hours = 8.75 days = a really good time for RAAM, certainly nowhere near the records of under 8 days, but also still the possibility to place well in the 2015 results while getting a sane amount of sleep each night.
- Nutrition is going to be tricky. I should probably mix more in than just powerbars from the beginning. My go-to food can be powerbars, but I should alternate in bagels, salty things such as trail mix, and other non-bar items so that I don’t get sick of powerbars so quickly and not be able to eat them anymore.
- Garmin charging setup worked really well. I’ll plan on doing at least one 500 mile leg in a single Garmin file just to see if it can make it, with backup options in case the Garmin crashes. My solar battery pack is really light and fits well in my back pocket. I have a green mini-usb cable that can reach out of my back pocket and up to the handlebars to charge the Garmin while I ride. It never came unplugged at all while riding, and it didn’t interfere much although the cable would bang into my leg very lightly with each pedal stroke. I got used to it after a few minutes.
- I need a hands-free set for my phone. It was annoying having to fish my phone out of my pocket, especially at night with long finger gloves. A hands-free set would simplify everything and allow for more constant contact with the crew. Also, I’m going to need to think of a good charging solution or battery pack for the phone, possibly a second solar battery pack as they are so lightweight.
One more time, the map of the course overlaid on the raised relief maps of the southeast that I’ve had up for years on my wall in the basement – the entire course fits on the map!
Quick summary – 1st place in a time of 31 hours and 48 minutes. I was hoping to break the record, but ended up about an hour and a half short of the record times of Chris MacDonald and Tinker Juarez who both had nearly identical times a year apart (2005 and 2006). Sleep issues late in the race were my downfall. I simply could not stay awake well enough to remember to pedal at the bottom of downhills. I’d concentrate just hard enough to make it down a hill safely, relax a bit and slow to a near stop. Just before losing enough momentum to fall over, I’d wake up and start pedaling again. This only happened a few times, but it gives you an idea of how much I was struggling with staying awake. Even so, I had a blast and learned a lot of important lessons during my first ultra-endurance race. My crew consisted of my wife Kristine and father-in-law Dale, who both had to endure sleep deprivation but without the physical exercise that helps keep you awake. They also had to endure me being very grumpy if they didn’t have exactly what I needed at the exact moment I needed. They did really, really well and as my friend Chris Shelton told me before the race – the hardest part of these ultra-endurance races is being a member of the crew. After having started at 8PM on Friday night with what I now realize was a completely unrealistic goal of being the first person to ever finish on Saturday, I rolled into the finish at the Colonnade at 3:48AM Sunday morning. I was discouraged after the finish thinking how much I was struggling with sleep after just 32 hours of racing — but then Kristine pointed out that I had been up since 6 Friday morning, biked to work, taught two classes, biked home, and then started getting ready for the race Friday afternoon with no naps. Altogether, I had been up for over 45 hours straight without sleep. That is really at the human limit of sleeplessness (I think!).
The maps and data
Even though this ride was only in two states, it did cross about half of each state twice. Along the way, I went through 16 different counties, hitting five counties twice for a grand total of 21 county line traversals (that’s a lot of sprint lines ;-))
ALABAMA counties outbound: Jefferson, St Clair, Calhoun, Cherokee, Dekalb. GEORGIA counties: Chattooga, Walker, Gordon, Murray, Gilmer, Gordon (again), Floyd, Polk. ALABAMA counties inbound: Cleburne, Calhoun (again), Clay, Cleburne (again), Talladega, St Clair (again), Shelby, Jefferson (again)
Annotated iBike data for the entire 500 mile route. You can see the trends of decreasing power and heartrate. You can also see exactly where I started to struggle with sleep b/c I basically stopped pedaling all the time creating a wall of cadence lines where it would drop to zero and then back up to a slow cadence.
I’ll save all the details for another post, but I wanted to get a somewhat quick post out here with the annotated data with a quick summary. I’ll leave the details and lessons learned for a post later this week as I work on piecing everything together. Thanks y’all for the support. Special thanks to Heather Hagan, Pat Casey, and Chris Shelton who all came out to see me off at the start. Also, huge thanks to Kristine and my father-in-law Dale who crewed for me and endured the same sleeplessness that I endured!
Life has been busy and is about to get busier, but I’ve had some pretty crazy adventures I wanted to blog about. These are ordered below based on when they happened, so you can jump to any specific one with these links:
My all-time favorite cycling movie out of the two that I’ve seen is American Flyers. In the opening scene, the lead actor is racing a barge along the Mississippi River. Then he rides into his building and onto the elevator. I do the latter every day on my commute to work, but I’ve never gotten to race a barge on the Mississippi until my Rouge Roubaix pre-ride this year. The race itself was epic as always – read my race report, but man sometimes I think the pre-rides are more adventurous than the races themselves … see Hell of the South exception, though.
Racing a barge on the Mississippi River – I just “American Flyered” my ride.
One of the ironic things about the Rouge Roubaix race is how close the course is to the Mississippi River, but you can never see the river from any spot on the course unless it is in severe flood stage (see pic below)
Google street-view of the turn onto 2nd gravel. The Mississippi River was at flood stage when the streetview car drove by. During the race, you cannot normally see the river. For my pre-ride I parked at the store annotated in the picture.
This was my fifth year racing Rouge Roubaix, but I had never gone out of my way to see the river because my time spent there is usually so short. I wanted to include a trip out to the river in my pre-ride this year. I ended up picking a route onto Cat Island that veered off of the race course shortly after the third gravel section (Tunica Hills). My route plan was about 50 miles, which I thought would give me plenty of time to just cruise through the second and third gravel section. After a late start on the 7 hour drive from Birmingham plus a bit of a challenge figuring out where to park and not upset the locals (turns out I could have parked pretty much anywhere), I only had less than 3 hours of daylight left. Not exactly a lot of time to ride the 2nd and 3rd gravel sections plus the 2nd gravel section again on the return route.
I was enjoying a nice easy pre-ride, but as my brain ticked away at timing calculations I realized that there was no way I was going to finish before sunset. I picked up the pace and realized that I was probably going to be making it to the turn-around point of my ride sometime near sunset. Stubbornly, I decided that seeing the river this year was worth riding in the dark with no light. The next challenge was finding a way to the river. I knew that the road I picked out onto Cat Island swung close to the river, but not until pretty far into the island. The road kept getting muddier from rain and floods (pic below was from the early part of the road where it was still easily rideable … imagine entire short sections of road covered in thick mud), so I decided when I caught a glimpse of the river behind a gate with a short dirt road leading right up to the edge that I had found my entry spot.
Right after carefully climbing the fence and setting my bike over on the other side, a barge started to pass by on the river. That is when I knew I had to get a pic of the barge. Unsure whether I was going to stumble into a herd of bulls or cows, I took off like a rabbit down the double track to get to the river’s edge and get a pic. The pic at the top is what I was able to get. So in some sense the barge won because it made it past my access spot to the river, but in another sense I won because it was still close enough for me to get a pic!
As you can see from the lighting in the picture, it was near sunset by the time I had finally seen the river. I was taking a slightly different route back to skip the Tunica Hills dirt section, but I still had over 25 miles left to get back to my car parked at Fort Adams. Plus, the very last part of the ride would be the reverse direction of the 2nd gravel section (i.e., backwards down Blockhouse Hill).
Sunset happened before I even made it off Cat Island. By the time I made it out to LA-66, the main road to Angola Prison, it was dark and dangerous (from traffic). I spent most of the 5 mile stretch of road looking backwards ascertaining whether an approaching car was slowing down and/or moving over to pass me. Only twice did it look questionable and both of those happened to be near sections of the road where there was a shoulder so I moved over into the shoulder. When I finally made the turn off LA-66 onto Pinckneyville Rd, I was super relieved even though it was now way past sunset and very difficult to see. Pinckneyville Rd is an interesting chip/seal road that has some really nice sections interspersed with short rough “repaved” or “washed out” sections.
Ironically, the darker it got, the faster I went as I desperately tried to cover as much ground as possible while still able to see the rough sections with just enough time to grab the brakes and roll over them at a non-pinch flat inducing pace. When I made the turn onto the Blockhouse section, I had to rely entirely on the GPS and the fact that I could see a house up on the left to know that I had reached the turn! It was so dark that I could barely see the turn and could not even see the cattle guard. I was wondering if I had made a wrong turn when all of a sudden I bounced across the cattle guard … “yep, I’m good, this is the way”.
The Blockhouse gravel was in great condition, and I knew this from riding it on the way out at the start of my ride. Also, it was a brighter, lighter color because of the sand mixed in with the gravel. This meant that this section was a bit easier than Picneyville Rd to ride in the dark. I could see two things – black and slightly less black which I knew was the gravel road split into a double track. I tried to stay to the left side of the road hoping that I was judging the right spot to end up in the lefthand track. I stopped at one point to try to take a picture of the conditions. These are three pics that I got:
Top – Blockhouse in the dark (with flash). Middle – My iBike and Garmin on Blockhouse (with flash). Bottom – the road ahead without flash, not even enough light to make ANYTHING out. Although this is partially because my Nokia Lumia 1020 with great low light photography doesn't always auto-detect its settings correctly. If I had manually set the exposure to a couple seconds, you would have been able to see the blurry outline of the road.
By the bottom of the Blockhouse Hill, the road turns from gravel to a partial pavement – which was in really bad shape. Fortunately, this was in a small community that had street lights spaced just far enough apart that I could safely make out all the potholes and slowly ride through. They were having a big party at one of the houses, and some of the kids shouted “hey biker dude” or something like that as I biked by. Epic. Adventure. Life.
Map showing my commute from Hoover, AL to Blairsville, GA in the North Georgia mountains. Click twice to enlarge and see all the annotations. The solid red line is an approximation of my route – the dashed red line at the end is the part that I didn’t finish due to being way slower than expected. These maps are on the wall in our basement next to where I do all my work from home. I get to see some of my favorite places in the country in a raised relief map, including the highest points in AL, GA, TN, SC, and NC!
Kristine bought a groupon for three nights at the Paradise Hills cabins just outside of Blairsville, GA almost a year ago. The plan was for the two of us to go up there sometime in January or February for me to do some pre-riding of the Southern Cross course. Well, life happened and we couldn’t schedule it, so we switched to a back-up plan of going over spring break and taking the whole family. With the Heart of the South 500 mile race coming up, I decided to ride what I thought would be 300 miles from Birmingham to the cabin as a “test ride”. The route looks like it would have been about 285 miles, but I called Kristine in East Elijay and got her to meet me in Blue Ridge, GA when I realized how far behind schedule I was. The plan was then for her to follow me the last 32 miles in order for her to practice her role as support crew chief for the 500 mile race. But when we met each other at the Arby’s in Blue Ridge, there was a much more traffic than I expected. Blue Ridge was hopping. The traffic combined with me feeling tired and the kids trying to stay up until I made it to the cabin made me decide to end the ride early, hop in the car, and drive the last bit with Kristine back to the cabin. The kids were still awake and I got to see them to bed, which was definitely worth cutting the ride short, seeing how excited they were to show me things in the cabin.
That is how the ride ended, but the adventure started about 18 hours earlier at 1:30AM after having gone to bed at 10:30PM the night before. I set my alarm for 3 hours after going to bed hoping to hit two of the magic 90 minute sleep cycles, which seems to fit well with my own personal sleep pattern. By leaving this early, I was hoping to make it to Blairsville before sunset or at least before the kids went to bed. Another benefit of leaving this early is that I would be able to make it through all of Birmingham and surrounding communities long before most people had even gotten out of bed.
I started out doing essentially my normal commute route, which includes the Vesclub climb (at just over 700 vertical feet diff, one of the biggest climbs in Birmingham) so that I could compare it to later climbs on the route. Doing that climb meant I would also be in good position to blast down Hwy 31, continue through Homewood, and climb over Red Mountain on the Red Mountain Expressway without any traffic on the roads. I had two Axiom 200 watt lights, one mounted to the handlebars, and the other mounted on my helmet. I barely needed them riding through Birmingham, but once I made it out towards Trussville/Leeds on Floyd Bradford and Blackjack, lights were essential. The helmet light is great for scaring dogs – perfect for the route I had picked through dog-infested Annie Lee and Blackjack road. Simply put the helmet on highest setting, turn and stare at a dog, and it will stop dead in its tracks completely blinded by the light. As soon as you stop looking, it will normally start chasing again, but it is still better than nothing.
Hwy 11 through Springville was awesome given that there was no traffic – so awesome that as I was flying along the valley I missed the turn to take Washington Valley road towards Walker Gap. I backtracked at the next major road to get over to Walker Gap because there was no way I was not going to do that climb. On top of Walker, traffic started to pick up a bit as the farmers and really far-out commuters had to start driving at about 5AM. I flew down the waterfall descent and when I made the turn in the valley to head over to Chandler Mountain, this was by far the coldest part of my ride. The temp bottomed out around 27 degF but felt much colder given that I was dressed for the entire day with highs expected in the 50s. As it turns out, I was way overdressed for most of the ride given that temps peaked in the mid 60s. At this point of the ride, I was freezing.
80 miles into the ride, I stopped for the first time in Gadsden and ate a full breakfast at McDonald’s. The police officer in line in front of me asked me where I was heading, and later a couple other guys who had eaten breakfast also wondered where I was heading. You could tell with all the equipment I was trying to recharge and all the food crammed into my backpack that I was heading a long distance. It was cold when I went into the McDonalds and already getting pretty hot by the time I left.
I did the very first new road for me about 82 or 83 miles into the ride climbing up onto Lookout Mountain via a rough chip/seal road called “Scenic Dr”. I followed this road all the way along the north edge of Lookout Mountain with two KOM goals in mind – Keener Gap and Flanders Gap. I didn’t know if these were already segments or not, but I was hoping Strava would auto-detect both as Cat 4 climbs. Both of these climbs are from the narrow US Hwy 11 valley floor back up to the Lookout Mountain ridge line. So to get to both of them, I had to first descend off the mountain to each of them.
Keener was paved and had some beautiful rock formations, one house, and a couple of dogs. I went down the descent way too fast for them to bother with me, but on the way back up as I was trying to put in an exactly threshold effort (not too hard, but not too easy either) here they come out of the house in the middle of the one switchback. Fortunately, they were friendly dogs and let me scoot on by. At the top of Keener Gap, I turned left to continue on Scenic Dr, which abruptly turns from chip/seal to dirt and gravel. The climb still continued on for another half mile or so. I really started to get excited about the ride as I was flying up the gravel road laughing giddily at how I’m trying to KOM a climb with miles and miles ahead of gravel in the middle of what I thought at the time would be a 300 mile ride. The road stayed Alabama dirt/gravel (graded and fast) for the next 5 miles to Flanders Gap. I flew down the gravel descent partly because it was really steep and I couldn’t go much slower and partly because it was easy to see good lines. At the bottom, the dirt gravel gave way to some other kind of large gravel that was not easy to ride. I slowed way down to make sure I didn’t pinch flat. I turned around at the train tracks (low spot in the valley) and headed back up to go for the KOM. I drilled it hard and the climb reminded me a lot of the Blockhouse Hill climb in the Rouge Roubaix race.
Unfortunately, neither climb auto-detected even though they were both well within Cat 4 range. I went back and created the segments and after waiting a few days, it looks like only one other person has done the paved Keener Gap climb, and nobody else has done the Flanders Gap climb. I turned around at the top of Flanders and headed back down it again so that I could take Hwy 11 across the valley to Collinsville. I wanted to do the climb out of Collinsville because on the map it had a lot of switchbacks (somewhat rare for Alabama). I was completely surprised by what I saw when I approached the climb from the streets in downtown. The climb was a powerline cut! The paved road switchbacked across the cut 4 or 5 times, putting the grade at a fairly consistent 10% and closer to 15% in the switchbacks.
At this point I needed to cut across Lookout Mountain and down the other side to head into Georgia. If I headed any farther north on Lookout Mountain, I would have gotten back into some really cool roads I’ve ridden before – but the eastern crossing of Georgia becomes problematic as there aren’t as many roads that head across the many ridges that run north and south through that part of Georgia. So unfortunately I had to just barely brush by one of Alabama’s Hidden treasure – Little River Canyon. I ended up doing a super fun descent from a firetower down to the entrance to the canyon – a national monument called Canyon Mouth.
I took a short break here before heading on some really awesome valley roads (Co Rd 58 and Co Rd 41) northeast through Cherokee County. Somewhere through here I crossed over into Georgia and continued on a northeastern track eventually reaching Summerville, Georgia. After a quick lunch at Subway, I headed back out towards the Narrows Picnic Rd (Hammond Gap) knowing that this would be dirt – Google street view car turned around exactly at the transition to dirt. It turns out that this was the roughest road of the route. I didn’t have any problems on the climb, but on the long descent I had to go slow or run the very likely possibility of pinch flatting AND cutting my tires. We’re talking ruts and large granite rocks sticking out of the ground.
Up to this point in the ride I had felt great, but after going so slow for so long and letting my heartrate dip too low, I suddenly realized that I was tired. Looking back at my heartrate data, I never did get my heartrate back up to what it was before that descent. The route between the bottom of the descent to Dalton started to pick up some heavy traffic including after school traffic, so even though it was some beautiful scenery – being tired and dealing with a lot of cars doesn’t make for a fun ride. One highlight was a smaller road just before the start of the Pinhotti climb. That climb was very steep and VERY busy with traffic. Fortunately, there was a nice clean shoulder to ride to the top. I debated about just heading on down the mountain, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to climb all the way up to the towers. This dirt climb is the final descent on the Snake Creek Gap mountain bike time trial course. It was a blast to climb (and clear!) on the road bike, and not too bad coming down either.
Dalton was a traffic disaster as I hit it during rush hour. Even with a stop for dinner at Arby’s, traffic was still bad at about 6PM as I made my way over to Fort Mountain on GA-52. What a nasty road. Drivers were all pretty courteous, no honking or throwing things, but they passed you close, definitely not 3 feet. As soon as I left the town of Chatsworth, the traffic immediately disappeared. The climb up Fort Mountain was beautiful and mostly deserted. There were a few fast motorcycles, but you could hear them coming from a long ways away. I stopped and chatted briefly with three of the riders I caught up to at the overlook near the top. I did the climb pretty slowly, but was surprised that at 215 miles into the ride not to be struggling with cramps or any other problems.
I was hoping for a long 35+mph downhill for miles and miles, but instead the descent was very punchy with half-mile climbs and only lasted a few miles. After bottoming out, the road started climbing again. The sun had set a while ago so I put my lights back on and called Kristine to let her know I was running way behind schedule. This takes us back to the beginning of the post where she met me in Blue Ridge and instead of following me for the last 32 miles, I decided to just call it a day and ride in the car back to our cabin for the next few days. 253 miles instead of 285, but I got everything I needed to get out of the ride in terms of prep for the 500 mile race, and I also had quite the adventure!
After this ride, I took Tuesday off and then had two more fun adventure rides Wednesday and Thursday. Here are a few pictures from those adventures.
As I mentioned earlier, this year’s Hell of the South was extra epic, but Mark Fisher and I tried to outdo it the next day by conquering all 11 ways up the Grant plateau plus 4 additional climbs on the way back including one of the steepest climbs in Alabama for a grand total of 15 Huntsville Cat 3 climbs. Some of the climbs are rated Cat 4 based on where the segment starts, but they all have enough vertical diff to be made into Cat 3 climbs using a slightly different starting or ending point along our route. Huntsville has the perfect topography for hard training – lots of flat roads punctuated by 2-3 mile super steep climbs. This also makes for some fun descending. Check out that amazing topography in the two maps below. Double-click (or click once to load the large image and then click again to zoom your browser into the image) to see all the details and mountain names.
11 ways up the Grant plateau plus the rest of our ride. All the climbs are numbered starting with the Green Mountain climb, then all 11 ways up Grant, followed by Blowing Cave, Tony Wilmur Trail, and finally Cecil Ashburne. Click to enlarge. After your browser downloads the image, click it again to zoom in and see the details.
I am working on a separate blog with a catalog of the 11 ways up grant plus the bonus climbs of Green, Blowing Cave, Tony Wilmur, and Cecil Ashburne, but I have a feeling it might be a while before I can finish it. So I’m just going to put in a teaser here with the Green Mountain front-side climb, the Swearengin climb, and the Blowing Cave climb (quite possibly one of the steepest paved climbs of measurable category in Alabama).
GREEN MOUNTAIN - FRONT SIDE Dist: 1.87 mi (0:14:36) Climbing: 886 ft Min Avg Max DFPM Pow 81 270.6 391 W Gravity -16 231.2 354 W Speed 5.2 7.7 13.7 mi/h Elev 578 1026 1468 ft Slope -0.4 9.04 19.2 % Caden 49 67.1 109 rpm HR 95 143.5 158 bpm NP:288W IF:0.98 TSS:24 VI:1.06 3/30/2014 8:06 AM 40 degF; 1022 mbar
SWEARENGIN CLIMB Dist: 1.61 mi (0:12:17) Climbing: 640 ft Min Avg Max DFPM Pow 19 246.9 385 W Gravity -48 201.2 372 W Speed 4.9 7.9 14.3 mi/h Wind 0.0 8.1 24.0 mi/h Elev 591 887 1244 ft Slope -1.0 7.70 19.4 % Caden 30 66.0 99 rpm HR 112 142.1 157 bpm NP:267W IF:0.91 TSS:17 VI:1.08 3/30/2014 11:41 AM 62 degF; 1020 mbar
BLOWING CAVE (COMPLETE CLIMB) Note: I was super tired and weaved up the climb. Dist: 1.73 mi (0:14:04) Climbing: 751 ft Min Avg Max DFPM Pow 0 251.5 451 W Gravity -387 202.8 417 W Speed 3.3 7.4 19.4 mi/h Wind 0.0 6.5 25.9 mi/h Elev 725 1122 1470 ft Slope -7.3 8.28 23.6 % Caden 34 60.2 112 rpm HR 120 141.2 157 bpm NP:282W IF:0.96 TSS:22 VI:1.12 3/30/2014 3:06 PM 65 degF; 1019 mbar
BLOWING CAVE - STEEP CAT 4 section only From a 2013 ride when I went straight up the climb. Dist: 0.29 mi (0:04:06) Energy: 74.7 kJ Cals Burn: 71.4 kcal Climbing: 300 ft Min Avg Max Power 187 303.6 398 W Gravity 189 284.2 372 W Speed 3.1 4.3 6.8 mi/h Wind 0.0 2.4 7.1 mi/h Elev 27 187 329 ft Slope 13.2 20.23 26.8 % HR 141 149.0 155 bpm NP:311W IF:1.05 TSS:8 VI:1.02 2/10/2013 10:03 AM 51 degF; 990 mbar