This blog post is long. Probably too long.
Saturday, August 7th, was the 2010 edition of the Mountain Mama Road Bike Challenge in Monterey, VA. I’ve done this ride 10 times (including the year 100+ of us did an unofficial version when the sponsor backed out) and every time I have felt a mix of emotions including fear of failure, anxiousness about the climbs, exhilaration at the incredible descents, wonder at the scenery, awe at the ability of the riders who finish this ride in a little over 5 hours and sense of personal satisfaction when I make the last right hand turn on Monterey Mountain and know that it is, literally, 2.5 miles of fast descending back into town to the finish.
I’m a map guy and a data junkie so I know every turn and every climb and every descent on this ride and I have a love/hate relationship with every mile. The ride covers 100 miles in Virginia and West Virginia and climbs over 9 mountains for a total elevation gain of 9,800+ ft. I’ve seen websites that advertise the ride as having 13,000+ ft. of climbing, but far too many GPS units come up with a figure closer to 10,000.
This year my training was good but there isn’t anything in central Ohio that even comes close to the kind of climbing that Mt. Mama offers. None of the hills are Ohio steep (only one goes into double digits for any length of time), but the short climbs are 1-2 miles long and the long ones are 5-8 miles long. So, it is always a bit of a guess if I’m really ready or not.
My group of 8 riders took Friday off of work and drove down early so we have time for a short shakedown ride. I was only 4 miles or so into the ride when my rear wheel started making unusual noises. After checking a few things on the road I decided to skip the rest of the ride and head back to town and then drove over to the start of the ride to see if the SAG mechanics were around. I was hoping they might have better news, but I was pretty sure that the freehub was damaged. It didn’t take the mechanic long to give me the good news/bad news info. The good news was that my diagnostic skills were sharp as ever and the bad news was that my freehub was bent internally, allowing the cassette to move on the hub. Monterey isn’t exactly a big town and there are no bike shops. The SAG guy was a couple of hours from his shop and there really wasn’t much he could do in the parking lot. So, we packed it full of grease and decided that it would be loud but it should hold together. Just the kind of confidence I would need at 45+ mph on a downhill.
Saturday morning’s weather forecast was for sunny skies, temperatures in the 70s and not enough wind to care about. The ride has a mass start at 8:00 with close to 350 riders doing one of 4 different routes. As we rolled into the parking lot at the school, I found Robert and Wendy Wells getting their tandem ready. Robert and Wendy designed the Mt. Mama routes back when her dad was the ride director. They are amazingly strong riders and have been among the first finishers of this ride on a number of occasions. But, 3 babies in 3 years have kept them off the bike for a while, so it was good to see them back.
As I was waiting for the start a young guy on an Orbea rolled up next to me and commented on my new Torelli Montefalco. He mentioned that he had a Torelli as well and that he’d gotten it near where he lives outside of Philadelphia. I’m originally from southeastern PA, and we quickly determined that we had attended the same high school (about 100 years apart) and that he new exactly where my mom’s house is.
After a round of announcements, including 11 reminders that this was not a race (tell that to the tall, skinny guys in team kits gathering at the front of the group and salivating) the starting horn went off. The warm-up part of Mt. Mama last for roughly 300 yards before the route turns right on Rt. 250 and begins the climb up Jack Mountain. The group strung out immediately and I settled in to find my climbing legs, figure out where my friends were and gauge whether I was moving up or back in the crowd. The first climb is a little over 1.5 miles at an average grade of 7%. My legs were complaining that they’d just gotten out of bed and were already climbing. I found myself in the 2nd group going over the top but I knew that the fun was about to start. After a couple of sharp turns, we had miles of straight, big ring descending and fast pace lines formed immediately. It didn’t take long to reel in the lead group and I rolled through the town of McDowell near the front of the pack.
9.5 miles into the ride we started the climb up Bullpasture Mountain, a 2.5 mile climb with grades from 4-11%. The group was still relatively civilized and I was comfortably near the front with my friends Kevin, Joe and Mark. As we got near the top, Mark flatted but he is the strongest climber in our group and would have no trouble coming back to the front as the climbs got tougher. I’m not a bad climber but I can descend as well as anyone in that front group. The descent off of Bullpasture Mt. is winding and technical and fast and I love it. I like it better with less people but it was still a blast, carving through multiple S-curves before making the turn north on Rt 614.
The next 16 miles is a fast, pace line ride through a beautiful valley. The first 6 miles are gradually uphill and the last 10 miles are gradually downhill and we typically cruise through there at 23-25 mph. This year, however, the pace seemed rather sedate. It turns out that the guy who finished with the best time last year wanted to duplicate that feat again this year and so he brought along some teammates who were keeping the pace down so no one got up the road on the flat section. At one point this guy, riding at the front of the group, decided he needed to take off his undershirt. So, he sits up, hands his helmet to a buddy, takes off his jersey and hands that to someone, takes down his bib straps, removes his undershirt (which he throws in the window of a passing SAG vehicle) and then proceeds to get dressed again. That was about as much as some riders could take so Joyce, Joe, Kevin, me and a few others went around these guys and picked up the pace.
At the 30 mile point we passed up the 2nd food stop and turned left to start the 3rd mountain climb. This was the point where I knew I’d need to let the first group go. Hoover Mountain is a steep climb that gets tougher as it goes. Approximately 2 miles long, Hoover gradually increases in steepness until topping out at 15%. It is definitely the steepest climb on the ride. The descent is typically fast with a few fun curves but, just as I neared the top, a dump truck full of mulch pulled around me and then rode the brakes all the way down. Of course, Joe made it over just in front of the truck so I watched him pull away as he took off down the mountain.
The 4th mountain is another climb up Jack Mountain to Moyer’s Gap and is one of the easier climbs of the day. 1.6 miles long with an average grade of 5%, topping out at about 9%. I was riding pretty much alone at this point, occasionally leapfrogging the same couple of riders. The descent off of Moyer’s Gap has one section of road that looks like a ribbon through the trees. It weaves gradually left and right but you can see all the way to the bottom. Definitely one of my favorite downhills of the day. At the bottom we ended up back in the valley and had about 6 miles of flat to rolling road before the food stop at the midpoint of the ride. I kept hoping for a paceline to catch me so I wouldn’t have to ride this stretch alone. Eventually I caught sight of a group being led by my friend Kirk charging up behind me but we were only about 3/4 of a mile from the food stop when they caught up. This was my first of 2 stops for the day and we saw Joe pulling out as we were pulling in. The volunteers took our empty bottles and filled them for us while we chowed down on one of the two rest stop luxuries of this ride. Each stop had a large tub of cooked, redskin potatoes. Covered liberally with salt, they are the perfect food on a ride like this. Feeling refueled and with high spirits we took off for the tougher half of the ride.
A few miles down the road the route turns right and heads up Snowy Mountain. In 2000, one of the volunteers told me “Snowy isn’t a mountain, it’s just an up-tick”. Well, this up-tick is almost 5 miles long with an average grade of 5% and sections as steep as 9%. It is unlike any other climb on the ride and feels a little out of place in Virginia. It remind me of climbs out west as the road eventually emerges out of the trees into wide open mountain pastures. I pulled away from Kirk and then rode up to my friend Greg as we neared the top. Greg had skipped the previous food stop and had passed me while I was enjoying the potatoes. He is an incredible descender and the two of us took off downhill, looking out over a spectacular view. We hammered through a short valley stretch before making the turn that keeps me up nights before this ride.
The next 2 climbs are over Allegheny Mountain. The first time over it we climb for 8 miles. The first 4 miles are relatively easy but you’re still going uphill and getting more and more tired. The last 4 miles averages 6% and gets gradually steeper with consistent 8-9% grades near the top. The road is rather straight and wide open and seems to go on forever. The descent is rather boring as well so there really isn’t anything fun about it. There is even a false top, just to get your hopes up, but I’ve climbed this mountain enough times not to be fooled. I did the climb alone with no one even in sight. Greg had dropped off at the rest stop 4 miles from the top so I had no company. In fact, I’d have no company the rest of the day but this is one place where it can really help to have someone to work with.
After the descent and a short flat stretch, I pulled into the 80 mile rest stop. There are 3 mountains to climb in the last 20 miles and the next one is where the day usually catches up with me. I kept the stop short but I did take time to enjoy the 2nd rest stop luxury of the ride. Fresh peaches. At this point they taste like candy. While I was finishing my 2nd peach, Jason, Greg and Mark rolled in. Mark was there all of 2 minutes and he and Jason both pulled out ahead of me. I knew I wouldn’t see Mark again but I figured Jason (a Mt. Mama first-timer) would be in my sights on the next climb. A mile or so up the road we started the 2nd ascent of Allegheny Mountain. It’s a shorter climb this time but it’s consistently at 8% for 3 miles. The West Virginia/Virginia state line is at the top and that signals the last of the really tough climbs. I felt pretty good on the climb which gave me reason to think the last 2 mountains wouldn’t be that bad.
The descent off of Allegheny II is fast and long and curvy. I was making up time on Jason and passed one other rider on the way down (apparently he thought you were supposed to use your brakes). As soon as the descent ends the road turns up as the climb up Lantz Mountain starts. This is my favorite climb of the ride. It’s just a little over a mile long with grades in the 7-10% range. I always seem to find a second wind here. I caught Jason about half way up and expected to ride in with him. But, as I pulled along side he asked where the top was and then pulled over to deal with some foot pain. I continued up and over Lantz and down into a beautiful valley through Hightown (which is a handful of buildings). There is one last food stop in Hightown but I waved and thanked the volunteers as I rode past.
The last 5 miles of the ride is a 2.5 mile climb up Monterey Mountain followed by an exhilarating 2.5 mile descent back into town. Not quite switchbacks, the climb is a series of S-curves with tremendous views as the road snakes up the mountain. There is an old wooden fence on the left at one point and I know that there are 8 right turns between there and the top and I counted down each one. Kevin saw a black bear on this climb but I had to make do with a few buzzards who seems to be judging whether I had anything left or not. I made the 7th right turn, swung left then turned right as the Monterey Mountain elevation sign came into view. A quick shift to the big ring and a fast ride back into town and the ride was finished. My ride time was 6:04 and my total time was 6:17. It would have been fun to break 6 hours of riding time, but I was still 14 minutes faster than my previous best.
I had minimal solid food during the ride. I finished off one Hammer 4-hour bottle (a thick mixture of 4 scoops of Perpetuem and 4 scoops of Heed), 4-5 ounces of gel (Hammer and Power Gel mixed together), 5 or 6 pieces of potato, 2 peaches, some water and Gatorade at the stops and a couple of water bottles with Nuun. I also took 2 Hammer Endurolytes, 1 Endurance Amino and 1 Anti-Fatigue every hour or so.
Just a quick note about my friend Frank. Frank is a 3 time Paris-Brest-Paris finisher and he is always looking for a bigger adventure. He’s not built like a climber but he is the Energizer Bunny of cycling. He has decided that riding the Mt. Mama century route isn’t tough enough so he added in a little extra. At the 60 mile point, Frank left the route and made the climb up the mountain to Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. After making the descent, he got back on the Mt. Mama course, finishing the day in 9:45 with 137 miles and 10 mountains climbed.