Posts tagged ‘epic’
Pre-race pic, happy with 65th given this was only my second road event of the year.
Beautiful cool weather this year unlike last year’s scorcher, so hydration was easy. Sad that this will be the last year for Madison hosting the race, but perhaps Northern California hosting it will be a good reason to take a trip out there in 2016. Next year, however, I am aiming for a Southern California trip for the Race Across America. Already starting my training for RAAM 2015, I thought it would be good to do the race and then do a long point-to-point ride while still tired from the race. With my wife’s family in Northwestern Wisconsin, it made sense for me to ride up there from Madison for the rest of our vacation up here.
I got a good start near the front, but not having ridden in a pack much this year I wasn’t good at keeping my position as other riders edged beside me. By the end of the neutral section I was already near the back of the field. I felt good on the Cat 3 climb to finish the lap and started feeling more comfortable moving around in the pack. On the third lap, I found myself near the back again when the field slowed down on the county road before the climb. I noticed on the previous lap that the shoulder is very nice, rideable gravel. So I ended up passing almost the entire field in the gravel. In retrospect, I wish I had attacked instead of pulling back into line because there was still a few more miles of slow riding. How epic would that have been to have attacked in the gravel in the national championship road race. Oh well!
Instead, by the time we reached the bottom of the climb on that lap I had already slid back to mid-pack. I was running out of nutrition so I asked Kristine to feed me gels on the next lap. I was near the back the next time through the climb and pulled over to grab the gels. I grabbed them with no problem and chased back onto the back of the field, but by this point the back of the field had splintered and there wasn’t enough of us to chase back on even though we tried an entire lap plus mixing it up with the large caravan of vehicles.
Many people pulled out, but Shawn Gravois (Lupus) and I soldiered on eventually catching Andy Scarano (UHC/706). Together the three of us rolled the last half lap until we caught a few more people coming off the lead group. The last person we caught was near the top of the climb, and he came back around us which was kind of the universal sign that we’re still racing. I took off up the final climb to end up finishing 65th.
Cave of the mounds
After the race, we wanted to check out the cave of the mounds since it was right by the course … an hour long tour was worth it even though my legs were tired and my stomach very hungry. By the end of the tour, we were practically running to the car to get to the nearest place to eat. We ended up at the Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb. Very good, in-house produced root beer and cheese curds. Mmmmm, mmmm, mmmm.
Adventure in the hills of Southwestern, Western, and Northwestern Wisconsin
After dinner I drove Kristine and the kids on some of the routes through the hills between Blue Mounds and Middleton where we were staying – including Observatory Rd – the views are spectacular. One more trip to Starbucks, and I started this blog while the kids were swimming in the hotel pool. I tried to time my sleep so that I would get exactly 3 hours of sleep (two 90 minute sleep cycles) before getting up. Unfortunately, they were playing a replay of the highlights of last year’s Tour de France so I think I only ended up with one sleep cycle.
“Heading out for a little ride across the state of Wisconsin – 1:15am” – my instagram caption from the hotel elevator as I headed out for an approx 350 mile ride through the hills of southwestern, western, and northwestern Wisconsin.
I’ve included my route map below. I tried to pick the hilliest route I could find through all the hills that was still relatively straight heading in the northwesterly direction. There were many climbs I had to skip because they went too far out of the way, but I was still surprised when I was riding at just how many hills and valleys I went through — totaling just over 20,000 feet of climbing. The upper midwest has had quite a bit of flooding problems this late spring / early summer from all the rain combined with snowmelt. This translated to many bridges being out. That makes for quite the challenge on a point-to-point ride. Only two of the bridges that were out were on my direct path. The first bridge out I came to was actually not completely out, and I was able to cross it by hanging off the side of the bridge. The second bridge was really out with no bridge left. I wouldn’t have any problems with taking my shoes and socks off and fording the water, but it was very deep mud and grass that I would need to traverse — not something I wanted to do within the first 100 miles of a 350ish mile ride. The official detour was miles and miles out of the way, so I took an unofficial detour through several miles of gravel on steep rollers, whole fields of bunnies, and endless fields of corn. Some of the other bridges out meant that the larger roads were detouring onto the route that I was already planning on taking. Fortunately, this part of Wisconsin is really rural … no cellphone coverage for over 100 miles from Blue Mounds to Sparta. Then another 100 miles of no cellphone coverage until the outskirts of Eau Claire. So the traffic was minimal pretty much the entire day.
“All kinds of awesome on a point-to-point ride” – my instagram caption at the first bridge out … before holding onto the outside of what was left of the bridge to cross the creek. They had fenced off the bridge itself well enough that I couldn’t just climb over or around the fence.
I started out at 1:15 in the morning with the moon having already set. The Milky Way galaxy was bright enough to ride through open fields with no lights on! I tried this a couple times on the climbs up to Blue Mounds which have some stretches of open fields. Absolutely amazing. I had a four light setup for negotiating some of the fast descents in the dark – rear taillight, two handlebar mounted front lights (a 200 lumen and a small 50 lumen), plus a helmet mounted 200 lumen headlight. I thought I needed to conserve battery so on all the uphills I rode with just the 50 lumen light on. Then for the faster downhills I turned on the 200 lumen light at its lowest setting, and if the descent really started to turn downhill I flipped on the helmet light at its brightest setting. It turns out I didn’t need to worry about battery at all because this far north, it starts getting light outside by about 4:30AM. By 5AM, you can ride without a light other than a blinkie light for visibility for cars. Plus, sunset isn’t until 9PM with the afterglow lasting until about 10PM!
I also had two Garmins and a cellphone to keep charged during the ride. The cellphone was the most challenging to keep charged because there was so little coverage my phone battery was constantly draining as it boosted the signal to try to find coverage — unsuccessfully. Unfortunately, we had not anticipated so much non-coverage and Kristine was tracking me online. We pretty much gave up on the tracking after Blue Mounds, and I texted her in the two towns that had coverage (Sparta and Eau Claire).
I had split the route into five separate 70 mile courses, which I loaded onto my Garmin 1000. This was my first real course test for the 1000. It followed the courses with no problems, no crashes, no glitches. I know from much experience that my Garmin 800 cannot follow long courses with hundreds of turns without eventually crashing. But since I was doing all the navigation on my 1000, I was able to leave the 800 running without messing with it at all. It made it the entire 315 mile ride without crashing. I had to recharge both Garmins twice. I brought an Anker Astro Mini charger and a Gomadic Solar charger. I completely drained the Anker keeping the cellphone charged but it made it the entire day (21 hours) with a large part of the day spent searching for signals.
The Gomadic I split between the 800 and 1000 and was able to keep both charged although both ended the day with low battery and my Gomadic also with its low battery signal on. Also, in Sparta I knew that I might need extra battery so I bought a wall charger which I also used to charge the cellphone during an extended Starbucks stop in Eau Claire.
I’ll finish this post just with some pictures showing the scenery and describing the road as mixed conditions, a lot of smooth pavement with minimal cracking, the occasional perfectly smooth road, some larger cracks on a few of the heavier traveled roads, a few rough gravel roads, and one smooth fast dirt road which I think was being prepped for paving (county ww outside of eau claire). The terrain was steep rolling hills, long gradual climbs and descents in river valleys, plus the occasional long and steep cat 3 climb up to some of the higher ridges. Usually the top of the ridge would be flat to gently rolling with sweeping views of other ridges and valleys dotted with farms, barns, silos, forests … in other words flat out beautiful.
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
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
As if this race could not get any more epic, throw in three hours of light to moderate rain with temps in the mid 40s degF, lots of mud and gravel, and there you go – even more epic. Now if we would only do an extra lap or two, you’d probably have one of the closest races to the Hell of the North (Paris-Roubaix) that you can get this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Think about it, the race is a balancing act between the wind, the echelons, the potholes, the gravel, the hills, and the many twists and turns of the course. The only thing missing is the cobblestones and the 150 mile race distance.
After the race – my Martindale 6.0 wheels were the perfect wheel choice for this race. Excellent in the cross-winds, headwinds, and tailwinds. Plus, they roll really well and no joke these wheels are probably the reason me and Patrick were able to bridge to the break and also how I was able to catch David Novak late in the race.
The Extended Summary
I started at the back, missed the 5-man move after the gravel, attacked on the hill a couple miles later, made it about halfway to the break before Patrick Walle (I AM Racing) bridged up to me. Together we finished the bridge up to the break to make it a break of seven. We completely buried it to make it up to the leaders, but it still took us 10 minutes (4.5 miles at the speeds we were going). This was all about 10 miles or so into a 70 mile race, so we ended up rotating well for the next 50 miles before the attacks started.
Eventual winner David Novak (Kelly Benefits) rolled away with Ryan Shean (Texas Roadhouse). Tanner Hurst (Cumberland Cycling) and I bridged up to those to make it a lead group of 4. We rolled it hard but the 3 behind us caught back up again. A mile or two later, David attacked again. I figured we would roll together back up to him, but after I finished my pull no-one else came around so I drilled it hard and chased David for the next couple miles (seemed like an eternity). I recovered on his wheel for half a mile before the two of us started working. We killed it and had 30 seconds on what was now a chase group of just three. With 2 miles to go, we started to slow down trying to figure out the sprint. I ended up on the front going very slow waiting for him to attack. But when David attacked with 400 meters to go, he caught me by surprise even though I was trying to anticipate it – and I couldn’t grab his wheel fast enough or bridge back up to him.
Tanner took the sprint behind for 3rd with Ryan and Patrick in 4th and 5th. Kudos to Justin Lowe (Low Country Cycling) and David Carpenter (VW Volkswagen) who both rode a strong race but got caught out by the attacks late in the race. What an epic race! With the cold rain in the 40s degF, mud, and gravel it had everything you could dream for in a spring classic!
I decided to drive up this morning to the 9:50AM race start in Lewisburg, TN since this is within about a two hour drive of Birmingham. By the time I had made it north of the city, it was raining again. This was a bit problematic given that I had not left myself a lot of leeway for making it to the race on time. I got lots of practice negotiating a good line trying to find the strips of pavement where the water wasn’t pooled. I also nearly ran out of gas b/c I was heading into a strong headwind which blew my calculations for making it to the cheap gas. I arrived with 0 miles to empty.
The temp was dropping along the drive and continued to drop after I arrived. So I opted for a warm-up consisting of sitting in the car and blasting the heat instead of rolling around in the rain. I didn’t roll to the start line until nearly start time so I started at the very back. I remembered last year that it was crazy moving around in the pack and dodging potholes so I stayed at the very back of the group and gave myself some room to dodge the rain-filled bottomless abyss potholes. Still, I knew that I needed to move to the front at some point and waited for the race to string out and gradually work my way up. It didn’t happen though until the gravel where I moved up a bunch of spots and then continued to move up after the gravel.
It wasn’t far enough, though, and a strong move of 5 riders – David Novak (Kelly Benefits), Tanner Hurst (Cumberland University), David Carpenter (Village VW), Ryan Shean (Texas Roadhouse), and Justin Lowe (Low Country). This represented several of the larger teams so I knew it had potential. I was too far back to attack until the long hill on Rock Springs Rd where our group strung out. It was into a stiff headwind so I figured I would either drag the group back up or maybe get a second break going. I didn’t imagine getting away solo. Still, I was committed to so I drilled it up the steep part of the hill hoping to close as much of the gap as possible to the lead group before the rolling downhill.
I reckon I had made it halfway there with still 10-15 seconds of a gap left when I started to lose ground. Fortunately, I looked back and saw that Patrick Walle (I AM Racing) had also gotten away from the group. I eased up a bit so that we could combine forces and together we drilled it to try to catch the leading group of 5. Looking at my heartrate data, it looks like the total bridge effort only took 10 minutes with an average speed of 26.2 mph, but it seemed like an absolute eternity.
By the time we finished bridging up the leaders, we got a time split from the moto ref of 1 minute to the field. I knew we had a strong group, but I wasn’t sure we could hold that for the next 60 miles. Apparently everyone else thought the same because we continued to drill it and rotate well in the strong cross winds. It was difficult to echelon in the wind because you couldn’t just choose a position on the road – you had to scan ahead for potholes and then pick your position based on the least flat-inducing path. Soon our lead had ballooned to 3 minutes before the gravel on the second lap.
Our group split up again in the gravel, and I wasn’t sure if this was an attack from the front so I bridged across to David Novak and David Carpenter. We came back together on the other side of the gravel and continued to rotate. A few miles later we had a time split of two minutes having lost a minute to the lead group through the gravel section and the twisty descent leading into it. We started pushing the pace again, but our next time split was 1:45 and I thought “uh-oh”. This was right before the long tailwind section leading into the feedzone. We killed it through there and then across the interstate our lead was back up to 2.5 minutes.
I was expecting an attack in the gravel, but it didn’t materialize there. Instead, it was on the hill at the turn onto Rock Springs Rd where David Novak picked up the pace taking Ryan Shean with him. I saw it immediately and killed it across the top and then Tanner finished the rest of the bridge up to them. I encouraged everyone to drill it since we were down to just four riders and we did. Ryan was struggling a bit but the three of us worked hard to stay in front of the chasing three. Shortly after the second Duck River crossing (one of the most biodiverse rivers in the country!), they caught back up to us. There was some hesitation because what to do you do in that situation. Oh, hi, we weren’t really trying to get away from you, just having a good stroll off the front here ;-)
The hesitation didn’t last long, though, as David attacked again. I chased first and then when I went to pull off, nobody came around and there was a tiny gap so I drilled it as hard as I could on a downhill … thank you Martindale 6.0s oh my goodness it felt like a hurricane was pushing me forward down the hill. At the chicane at the bottom I literally thought “if the tires hold on the wet pavement, that’s great … if they don’t hold, oh well this is racing”. I had closed the gap quite a bit and David was right there maybe 2 or 3 seconds in front of me for the next hill, but he started pulling away again. I knew that my best shot was to catch him before the top of the long hill where I saw the deer last year (I thought about that deer every lap). I think David eased up after the left turn because I then closed the gap pretty quickly.
He wanted me to pull, but I was unable to pull. He graciously pulled for the next half mile while I recovered. This took us to the gradual downhill across the busy road before the feedzone. I took over there and killed it hoping that our gap would stick. We entered a good rotation through the feedzone, but then after the left turn with 2.5 miles to the finish we started to cat/mouse. My legs were not exactly feeling it for the sprint so I was hoping he would do more work but we had gotten a time split of 30 seconds to the chasers which was more than enough time to roll slowly to the finish. David knew it, too, and he kept me in the front. We started our sprint from 17mph when David attacked hard. He told me after the race that he was spinning out on the wet roads when he attacked. I don’t doubt it because even though I was trying to anticipate it, he still attacked with enough force to easily open the gap. We were still way out from the finish (maybe 400 meters) so I was hoping he would fade and I drilled it until about 50 meters to go when he was already posting up ahead of me. C’est la vie!
I am so happy to have finished on the podium two years in a row – 3rd last year, 2nd this year, maybe next year will be my year!
2014 Hell of the South heartrate summary