It had been 5 years since I last road the The Blue Ridge Bridge to
Bridge Incredible Cycling Challenge: "100 miles of Pure Hill", but when
I heard a couple of our touring clubs unsuspecting members had signed
up for their first attempt, I couldn't help but ride along to watch the fun.
(Insert evil laugh here)
The last few weeks before the ride were full of inquiries from them as to suggested training strategies, but I kept all the real secrets of how I had managed to stay in the top 600 finishers in past years selfishly to myself.
My first "Bridge" was in '90. Fresh from a personal victory of finishing my first (and only) Assault on Mt. Mitchell that spring in a snappy 10:17, I had heard such great things about B2B's first year ('89) I just had to sign up to try it. Riding my trusty Univega Grand Turismo with a 28/36 (34.7") low gearing I finished in a blazing 9:38 and 573rd place. Because of high winds on Grandfather Mountain all riders were forced to stop one parking lot short of the top, so I just had to come back in '91 to go all the way. I did, and knocked off over an hour, with a time of 8:33, and placed 452nd in the process.
I returned once again in '93, this time riding a Bianchi Trofeo which had been my main bike for about five years. I had previously never seriously considered attempting these kinds of grades without the triple crank of my Univega to rely on, but in the past couple of years I had ridden up both Roan Mtn. and Mt. Mitchell (from Burnsville to the North) on the Bianchi with only 42/23 (49.3") low gearing. This year I again bested my previous times finishing in 8:08 and 560th place, but this time I ended up walking at least a third of Grandfather for fear of blowing out a knee (or something else more serious). Even though I did ride from the last parking lot across the finish line, my pride was devastated because I couldn't ride the whole way.
This year I had three goals: To finish, to once again ride the entire distance, and to hopefully best my previous performances.
There were 894 challengers gathered at the Lenoir Mall for the 7:30am start. Four were regular KBA club riders, Larry Parkins, Richard Strang, Don Horne (all virgin B2Bers) and myself. Another KBA member and veteran B2B rider, Rick Offerman, was also in the line-up closer to the front. Rick more often rides for speed with the TCRC, another local club in the Tri-Cities, not the more laid back social style of our club. We don't expect to see much of him today, and aren't disappointed.
Contemplating the start with so many riders and so many skill levels among them made many of us nervous. The four of us have no delusions of top finishes: our collective goal is just to cross the finish line, so we elect to start towards the back and let the speed demons and want-to-bes jockey in the front. My past experience has proven that many will burn out and we will pass them down the road sooner or later. Even though there can be a great advantage of being pulled along with the packs, this is after all a personal challenge and we take pride in knowing we will survive or fail on our own.
Although I have often slipped my dinky Olympus Stylus camera into a jersey pocket on many rides and tours before, this is the first time I carried a camera on B2B. We pose for the obligatory group shot and say goodbye to spouses. A second Kodak moment beckons as a gorgeous sunrise signals the start of what will turn out to be an almost perfect day for cycling.
Those of us in the back never heard a starting gun/horn, but suddenly the mob of cyclist all came alive in a slow forward migration as there was a massive clicking of pedals being locked into. The route first circled the Lenoir mall and allows the riders to get a slightly more comfortable spread, then it was across the Bridge at the mall entrance and out onto open road. It took about the first ten miles for the pack to spread out enough to where I wasn't constantly worried about random novices who might cause the end of my plans for the day.
The first 10 miles of the course had been altered since the last time I had ridden it in '93 from Hickory, but all of the challenges were the same. The course change was prompted by the desire to place the proper recognition on the host county, and to further support the community businesses by the ride organizer, the Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce.
The weather was pleasant and probably didn't get above 85 all day. We looped south then east out of Lenoir, joined the original route at Dudley Shoals then headed west back through Lenoir, right past the warm comfortable bed I had just left a few hours before. This section has some real flat sections that allow for a great warm up for the punishment yet to come.
At one of these earlier aid stations I stopped briefly to refill my
water bottle and grab a snack. It was also one of the stations with
port-a-johns and I stood in what seemed to be an incredibly slow line
(realizing Larry and Richard would be catching me any second now). One
of the helpful aid station workers invited anyone who didn't want to
wait to step into the corn field and the line quickly disappeared.
"Mildred, does this corn taste a little funny to you?"
Larry and Richard turned the corner in front of the aid station just as I was remounting. The first fifty four miles were fairly flat to rolling and the three of us kept mostly within sight of each other, and averaged 17+, unusually fast for our club riders plagued with many hills of our own back home. One great thing I have noticed on all the B2B's I've ridden is not only is the pack escorted out of town by the local police, but every major intersection on the entire route is also manned by officers to ensure the safety of the participants. This really helps not having to slow or stop, and keeps the energy levels up.
I had noticed by this point that especially Richard doesn't seem to be at least grabbing some bananas and fluids as he passes the many well placed aid stations. I remember there being some pre-ride discussion by the others on not using valuable time at early stops. I had tried to discourage this concept realizing that even my clumsy attempts at receiving handoffs almost always proved successful thanks to the many dedicated aid-station volunteers. I'm hoping this doesn't seriously hurt their performance. These aid station workers are just a few of the hundreds of volunteers who give their time every year to make the ride a success. Thanks guys.
It's always uplifting to have the hundreds of spectators scattered throughout the route clapping and shouting their encouragement. I imagine it gives us tourist just a little taste of what the pros feel at the BIG races. One couple yelled out "Great outfit. You look like you should be in front"! Thanks to our spectacular club jersey, complemented with equally loud shorts, I can at least look fast.
As usual, I notice a wide variety of riding styles, bikes, clothing, and even shoes on this ride, but I couldn't help but wonder if I was going to be the first person to ever finish B2B wearing sandals (Lake/SPD), as I had become accustom to wearing in warmer weather the past couple of years.
At around mile 54 we start climbing the 11 mile NC-181 hill. This grind always helps to separate men from the boys (although there was this one pesky woman who past me and just chuckled when I complemented her on the quiet motor she must have had hidden on her bike). The start of this hill was the last I saw of Larry for a while and Richard slowly pulled away until I could just occasionally catch glimpses of his yellow jersey far in the distant. There were quite a few casualties strung out up the hill and it became painfully obvious that even with ALL the fancy gear, riders were no match for the mountains without the training to back it up. If these riders are walking now, what will they do when (if) they reach Grandfather?
This section has many deceiving sections that make you believe you have finally reached the top, only to resume again, often with an even steeper grade. I finally topped the mountain at Old Ridge School at noon. Richard had slowed enough to let me catch up, and we enjoyed the two mile decent and continued on to the Blue Ridge Parkway together. We were all trying to beat the 750 rider Parkway entry limit and were relieved as the BR Parkway officer waved us through saying we made ~575 so far. Richard obviously slowed at this point, but arrived only a few minutes behind me at our first significant rest stop. Here we found Larry enjoying the luxury of knowing he too had made the first cutoff.
Larry and I continued with a gradual climb, stopping once for a Kodak moment with Grandfather as the backdrop, until crossing the 221 overpass at Grandfather Mtn., where we could see those riders 25 miles ahead of us almost ready to finish their ride.
I again pulled the camera out for shots when we reached the Linn Cove Viaduct and enjoyed the beauty of some incredible views, not to mention the speed of some incredible down hills. When I slowed here for pictures Larry disappeared into the distance not to be seen again until the end of my ride. I believe the last thing I heard him say was "Gosh this is 'beutful'".
The course took us about 13 mile east past GF Mtn., exited the Parkway at highway 221 and looped back on highway 221 to Grandfather. This road is the favorite for many Bridge riders. It contains a lot of shade and this year much of it had been freshly paved. Unfortunately there are still some sections where there were rough gravely areas in the shade. I'm glad I wasn't in a pack coming through there.
To many riders amusement this, section of road had at least ten signs of encouragement posted along the roadside such as "Are you feeling over sixty yet Dad?" and my favorite, "Dad- save Granny for Grandfather".
Here I passed at least two more casualties: one a woman in a orange jersey I had talked with briefly earlier on the BRP who was loading her bike into a sag truck about mile 90. She had just passed me in a three woman pace line less than five miles earlier, looking fairly strong, and I had to wonder what possibly could have happened to make her give up this close to the goal.
The second was a guy being picked up by a personal sag a few miles later. I was actually glad to see this one go, since I had seen his sag drivers parked at least a half dozen places along the Parkway alone. This means I had been passed unnecessarily by a car, the same car, at least six times more than if they had stayed off the route as requested.
Right after I crossed under the Parkway towards the GF Mountain entry and passed the last aid station before the top (#13!), I heard a sweet voice calling to me from behind. It was my wife, Doreen, just finishing up a 54+ mile ride of her own on the Blue Ridge Parkway as she was waiting for me to arrive. Later on she would tell me how hard is to forage for food and water on the parkway when you don't have aid stations and how the official sag-wagons insisted on following her even though she repeatedly told them she wasn't riding B2B. For now, we had about a quarter mile for me to summarize the day and note where our other riders were before I reached the gates to Grandfather Mountain and we parted ways. I turned into the park at 3:15 with the odometer showing 102.1 miles and really knew for the first time that day that I could beat my previous best time.
On my last B2B ride, it was during the second mile of final 2+ miles ride up to the "mile high" top of Grandfather Mtn. where I finally decided I had to walk part of it to avoid injury. I was determined it wouldn't happen again even though some of the switch-backs reach grades up to 16%. This year I was on my year-old Lemond Chambery that I had specially built with granny gears for just such an occasion. Up to this point in the ride I hadn't used my third chain ring in an effort to force myself from taking too much time earlier in the ride. Without using it I had the same low gearing as on my Bianchi, and I had proven to myself in '93 I could ride most of the course on it.
One advantage in being one of the late finishers is the traffic up and down Grandfather is fairly light, so it's mainly just you and the mountain. The first part of the climb passes through lush trees, but soon enough you get to the point on the mountain where even the trees fear to grow and your view is mainly filled with rocks and switch-backs or one of the 4'x 8' mileage markers that are impossible to miss. Even with the low gearing it was very tempting in a few places to circle in some of the parking lots or stop and rest before continuing. This could have easily been justified by taking time to drink in some of the unbelievable vistas along the way.
But I wasn't sure if I could ever get started again, so I didn't allow myself to stop. Besides I had a personal record to beat and somewhere up above I could here cheering as yet another rider finished. I passed many individuals and groups catching a breather on the road side before pushing on. A few glances from these former riders seemed to say "how can YOU keep going?". Or maybe it was envy. I imagine some knew they were safe within the entry gates and felt they now had hours left to somehow get up the last two miles.
I also passed a few walkers pushing their bikes, usually carrying their shoes as well. I remember too well one of my first B2Bs trying to walk DOWN after the ride wearing Look cleats. It was just too steep to walk with blocks of plastic on the bottoms of your feet, so I had to take them off and walk in stocking feet. Those socks never did come clean.
Even this late in the day, during the final climb there are still dozens of people to cheer you on as you grind up towards the finish. I could heard Larry Parkins, our first finisher, yelling encouragement from somewhere above my head. I hadn't seen him for the last 25 miles but he had arrived 11 minutes and 15 riders ahead of me. I heard someone else yell "laugh at the Mountain". My mind, which obviously wasn't functioning at 100%, slowly processed this thought for a couple of seconds. Then I took an extra deep breath and did just that, letting out a loud forced laugh that all could hear. I WAS beating the mountain one more time! The spectators on The Wall clap and cheer louder the closer you get. Your adrenaline is pumping and you're just hoping everything doesn't lock up because you know you can't possibly last much longer.
As I reached the top I was directed to the right across the finish line and for my picture and the much needed final aid station to wolf down some cookies and Gatorade. It was over and I had accomplished my goals of finishing, besting my personal record by six minutes with a time of 8:02 (528th), AND I had ridden the whole way straight up the mountain- and with no stops. 104.3 miles total.
Doreen arrived a few minutes later via bus and we explored the top of the mountain and the swinging Bridge. Surprisingly I had never found the time or had the energy to do this on my three previous rides up Grandfather Mountain.
Richard arrived about 30 minutes later (8:33: 607th) having eaten and rehydrated enough to alleviate the cramping that slowed him after the 181 mountain. He quickly found a cup of soup to satisfy his craving for something other than bananas and cookies that had sustained him the last hundred miles.
Don's wife soon arrived to meet him, but he was still no where in sight. Since no one had seen him since the first few miles, we were beginning to be worried he might have had some problem or not made the Parkway cutoff. The 5:00pm cutoff up Grandfather Mountain was now rapidly approaching. We were waiting in the long line for the bus down to the meadow below and discussing ways to communicate to Don's wife if we found him down there when we arrive.
Suddenly Don appeared at the finish line placing #662 with a 9:25 finish. True to form, He broke into a rousing chorus of "I'm Incredible". I guess all those who made it to the top that day felt that way.
Upon arriving to the MacRae Meadows below by van, I checked my bike out of the "corral" where it was being watched over after being delivered from the mountaintop via flatbed truck. I then picked up my official finishers patch and time sheet. Somehow it seemed a little more significant when they used to hand your patch to you at the finish line and you could say sarcastically to them, "you mean this is IT?", knowing full well you had already received your real prize by just having finished. I also took major advantage of the free soup and soft drinks provided for famished riders, then treated myself to a massage.
After all, it was my birthday. Who says you don't just keep getting better with age.