Climb This!

Sunday, July 4th, I completed the Tryon (NC) Fabulous Fourth Metric Bike Tour. The ride’s website advertised total climbing of 7682.2 vertical feet in 68.3 miles. This information was compiled from the Delorme Topo Maps. I debated attenpting this as recently as the previous weekend, when, struggling in 100-degree heat on constantly undulating hills for 100 miles, I had a prolonged “I’m going to sell my bike” moment. Ever have one of those?

In the end, I had to go through with it. One of the most effective techniques I know in goal setting is to share my objectives with lots and lots of people. This puts the pressure on me to carry through with what sometimes seems like utter foolishness. Another tool is to enlist the company of another rider in any difficult ride. So, yeah, I did that too emailing a friend I made last year on a bike tour across the state.

Prior to this ride, I’d only pedaled a bike in the mountains for a couple of days. Neither of those days were loops. They both lost more elevation by far than they gained. The most I’d ever climbed in a single day was right at 5000 feet and that was in 100 miles.

I cut my weekly mileage by a third prior to the event. I took the day before completely off my bike, going tubing down a wonderfully cold mountain creek with my family for a relaxing day that also included lot’s of good food. I got almost eight hours of sleep and woke up feeling rested.

I zipped down Interstate 26 and arrived at the venue in less than an hour, a real treat. Most of the charity rides I do are nowhere near that close to my home. Driving down the Interstate, I saw many, many cars with road bikes on racks. At the exit, we formed a procession to the parking lot at the recreational complex that was the start and finish point.

Usually I register on the Internet for rides. Paying for a ride early on is another goal setting technique. This ride, though, required the actual writing of a paper check and the use of an envelope and a postage stamp. Not! So, I headed over to the table and in a short time got my packet and socks (better than a t-shirt at this point in the year).

I noticed something about the riders all around me getting ready – they all seemed to be on the thinner side of normal. I’m not that way. No one considers me to be heavy anymore but I did play on the offensive line in high school for a reason. I also hadn’t been able to convince a single person from hometown to make the trip. I reckon they were as intimidated as me.

I found my friend in the sea of riders. There wasn’t a mass start, more like a window of time where folks could take off. Since there were several hundred bikes and an uphill start, we were fine with letting the pack roll off without us. We got on the road and it didn’t take me long to figure out that I wasn’t going to ride at the same pace as my bud. I bid her adieu and fell in with a bunch of folks closer to my age and started the whole “fall behind going uphill, zoom past going downhill” yo-yo that mountain riding seems to be for me.

I had good legs. That much I could tell. Although my heart rate seemed to be staying in lower Zone 4, I still felt fine. I was relying on Clif Gels for food and they were working great. I got separated from my group before mile 20 when my chain came off. Since the terrain really didn’t offer itself to pace line riding and there was no wind to speak of. I was fine riding alone, passing the occasional rider. I realized that the ride was not the monster I’d made it out to be.

I live on the edge of the coastal plain and the Piedmont of North Carolina, what the geologists call the “fall line”. To the east there’s very, very little elevation change save for an occasional creek bottom or overpass. To the west there are a few more hills but it’s still possible to ride a century with less than 1000 ft of elevation change. I’ve ridden several charity rides in hillier terrain but for the most part, I just don’t have a lot of climbing opportunities short of some hill repeats out at the Ft. Bragg military base.

The style of riding my home territory engenders calls for us to basically power over every hill in the big chain ring. None of the hills are long and we just consider them a natural injection of interval training. I realize that in different circumstances there is an actual use for the little chain ring and that there isn’t an 18mph minimum speed 100% of the time.

So, I watched my heart rate and cadence more than my speed. I ate and drank by the clock and things just kept going fine. At about mile 35 I rounded a curve to see a monstrously steep hill. A rider 50 or so yards up the road was weaving back and forth in the lane and laughing insanely as he tried to maintain momentum. I put my bike in the granny gear and grunted to the top. It was a cruel, cruel 14% grade and I didn’t have to push. Yay me!

At the second rest stop, I learned that there was to be no rest stop food except peanut butter crackers. Oh well. I had NUUN for electrolytes and my gels. I did manage to eat a few crackers for insurance and I took off. At this point I started to pass a few more riders, which gave my confidence a boost. Having looked at the elevation profile about 900 times, I knew there was an incredibly steep hill at about mile 45. The hill is climbed via Callahan Mountain Road in Traveler’s Rest SC. At some points I pedaled so lowly that my Garmin thought I’d stopped moving. It was by far the toughest 200 yards I’ve ever spent on a bike. It felt like a 5-minute long all out sprint.

In just a few miles I pedaled up to the fourth rest stop at mile 50. There was watermelon and more than a few riders waiting for a ride back to the parking lot. The rest stop was at the bottom of the Greenville Watershed, a seven-mile climb with an average 4% grade. On the elevation profile it looked like a monster but in the end it was just a long steady slog in the small chain ring. I kept passing folks and knew before I reached the top that I was going to keep my good legs until the end.

The descent was kind of fun. I wasn’t all that confident in my rear brakes. I’ve done some relatively fast descents in my other days of mountain riding so I wasn’t totally unprepared for the shifting of weight, knee pointing, brake feathering controlled chaos at 35-40mph. Still, I would have like better brakes. Note to self – get those looked at soon!

I finished with a good strong push through the little valley back to the park where I promptly inhaled three hot dogs, two Cokes and a handful of little chocolate bars. A few riders were down in the cold mountain creek behind the picnic area and I snapped a few pictures of them.

At the end of the day, my Garmin showed around 5500 ft of climbing, well short of what they advertised but still a new PR for me. I felt good enough later on that afternoon to go hiking with my family.

  • alpainter

    Elizabeth,

    We talked about this briefly on the podcast, but I’ve got a friend who can provide some pretty good insight on this. Let me get him to chime in.

    Al