I figured out yesterday how to make a mountain century harder. Ride a fast century the day before your mountain century. Saturday consisted of 2 hours by myself at 20mph. Then maybe 2 hours on a fast group ride at 25+mph. Then I limped home about 30 minutes worth real slow and still ended up with a 22mph average for about 98 miles. I wasn’t really doing any of the pulling on the group ride, but I did have to make a few efforts here and there uphill and during some sprint portions of the ride. All in all I felt OK at ride’s end or so I thought.
With the Black and Blue relay coming up in two weeks, this is my last weekend to still get in some big miles and allow adequate time for recovery. I figured I would bury myself this weekend and then crawl out of the hole and taper till the ride. The Black and Blue is 218 miles with 18,500 feet of climbing. I’ve never done a ride that long. In fact, the longest ride I’ve completed to date is about 155 miles with about 15,000 feet of climbing. Black and Blue will take that to another level, so I had to adjust my training. Wanting to get some real climbing in my legs before the event, I headed out to Marion, NC which sits at the foot of the biggest mountains east of the Mississippi River.
The first thing I did was meander from the Tate St. Rest area off the Hwy 221 bypass down towards highway 70. Anyone who has ridden the Assault on Mt. Mitchell probably knows these roads. You pop out on Rt. 70 almost across the street from Rt. 80 which ascends some 1800′ up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the beginning of the ride, the sun poked out from behind the clouds and that seemed to motivate me to ride hard up Rt. 80. The real climbing doesn’t start for a few miles up the road here and as I got there I saw 2 green jerseys up in the distance. I thought, “cool”, some people to try and catch. By the time I got to them a minute or two later, I saw another up in the distance. This kept happening for the first 2/3 of the climb. I passed about 7 or 8 people in total I think. When I got to the Parkway, there was one rider in green waiting at the top. I went over and said hello and he was kind of surprised to see me as his group clearly started in front of me, but yet I got to the top only a minute or two after he did. He was a young skinny guy from Charlotte who clearly outclimbed all of his teammates to the top. Turns out he’s a cat4 and his name is Houston. Perhaps a name to watch over the next couple years on the race scene. He asked if I was continuing on to Mt. Mitchell’s summit, but at this point I still wasn’t sure which way I was going. I’ve done Mitchell a bunch of times. I’ve ridden the Parkway the other direction a bunch of times towards Little Switzerland and Linville Gorge. The one thing I hadn’t done was continue on Rt. 80 past the Parkway and sampled some of the roads on the northside of the Black Mountains. Houston headed back down the hill towards his teammates to snap off some photos of them coming up. I decided to try something different and continue on Rt. 80 heading north. There isn’t a big dropoff the Parkway heading north like you climb up from the southside when you come up 80. It descends for maybe a mile or 2 and then begins a series of rollers for the next 10 or 12 miles. Eventually I popped out on Rt 19E where I stopped to fill up on Gatorade as I didn’t know where the next stop would be.
I headed south on Hwy19E towards Asheville. I had checked out the map and put together a loop of some roads I had only ridden portions of on other trips out to the mountains. A few miles up 19E I saw the sign for Pensacola Road a.k.a. Rt 197. I took the left and headed 10 miles towards the village of Pensacola, NC. It was a beautiful road that snakes ever so slightly uphill along a creek/river bank. As I was riding up 197 towards the village, I began to realize the major planning debacle I had made. The sun had decided to go hide behind the clouds. In fact, I don’t think the sun ever came out on the north side of the Parkway Sunday morning. It was cold. I brought nothing. Stupid move on my part. Normally when you go riding in the mountains it’s always a good idea to bring along a vest and armwarmers. I knew that I would likely ride near or even up Mt. Mitchell on Sunday which is at 5500′ elevation and 6500′ if you decide to go all the way to the summit. It’s cool up there on a warm summer day. It wasn’t even warm. I realized I had really roled the dice by wearing the clothes on my back. If it actually started raining which it looked like it might I would be screwed and freezing in no time. I just kept pedalling at this point as it was all I could do to keep generating some heat. After you pass through Pensacola, Rt 197 kicks up skyward for real. It was an amazing climb. I don’t know the exact distance, but I’d guess about 4 or 5 miles at a very pleasant 6 percent. Lots of switchbacks and lots of kickass vistas along the way. The road just snakes its way up this gorge to the top of some anonymous gap. The only thing I can find labelled on a map nearby is “Wheeler Cemetery” Perhaps this is Wheeler Gap. The gap sits between Coxcomb Mtn at 5433′ and Big Butt at 5930′. The gap itself is at about 4300 feet elevation. It was about a 1400′ ascent from where the climb actually started to kick up.
At the top of the climb, the pavement ends and a dirt/gravel road ensues. This descent I had ridden before as part of an exploratory out and back route. I would never usually include a dirt descent unless it was of a known quantity. There was gravel somewhat recently laid down on the road which made the descent a little dicey in a couple of spots. There where however clear tire tracks that were well compacted most of the way down. I just stood up, leaned back, pinched my top tube between my thighs and let her roll on the straighish sections and slowed down to safetly take the corners. I had no issues I detected on the descent, but wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I got back onto nice pavement, my front goes flat. Fortunately, I was able to slow down and safetly get of my bike as it’s a little scary to get a flat at 30+mph.
In 10 minutes I was up and running again. I continued the descent down towards the village of Barnardsville. I had stopped at a general store there before, but it being Sunday I wasn’t sure if they would be open to replenish my liquid supply. Turns out they were closed, but not due to Sunday observances, but rather a crappy economy. The “for rent” sign in the window made that abundantly clear. I wasn’t panicked at this point as I was carrying an extra bottle and being rather conservative, but given the direction I was heading I figured it might be a while before I saw a chance to fill up. Right after the closed general store I made a left turn onto Dillingham Road. I began pedalling towards what would be my 3rd big climb of the day, Stoney Fork Road up to the Craggy Gardens pull of on the Blue Ridge Parkway. On my way to Stoney Fork Rd, I rode up on an old BP gas station. I didn’t remember it being on Dillingham Road, but there it was. I decided I needed a little boost so I bought a 20 oz. coke and poured it into my empty bottle. I was good on food and the rest so I continued on my way.
So here I was, 65 or so miles into a mountain century about to start the biggest climb of the day. I knew I wasn’t fresh, but I didn’t think I was in horrible shape either. I just kind of figured I’d settle into a conservative rhythm on the climb. After all, I had ridden this climb before and it wasn’t that bad. What I failed to remember was that I did it that day on fresh legs. I am at the end of a large training block and aside from being fatigued from Saturday’s century, I was tired from 3 weeks of increasing volume. I also failed to remember how hard it can be to do dirt climbs if they are recently graded or have fresh stone laid down. This climb clearly had stone put down at some point this year. The new stone means that it isn’t yet tightly packed into the dirt underneath which means no standing if you want any traction or stability. Throw in 5 miles at 8-10% which some pitches reaching 15%, and my back decided it had had enough. I have climbed a lot of mountain passes or gaps in my days and honestly, I haven’t thought of stopping on one in over 5 years. I was definitely considering it on this one. I knew if I could just suck it up and get up to the Parkway, the grade would slacken and I could then stand up and loosen things up a bit. It was touch and go for a while, but I managed to survive the climb up Craggy this time. I of course made a stupid mistake when I got up to the top. I thought that I was on the Parkway when I got there, but what I was really on was a paved road that takes you up to the picnic area atop one of the peaks of the Craggy Mountains. I ended up riding an extra mile at 8 or 10% to get up there only to realize what I had done. I pronounced myself, “STUPID” as I realized my mistake and didn’t waste anytime in turning around. I zipped back down the road, back by Stoney Fork Road where I had come out and then a few feet further down, I turned left heading north on the Parkway.
Almost as soon as I started my ascent up the Parkway towards the Black Mountains and Mt. Mitchell, I started getting the hunger knock. I pounded the rest of my coke, some gatorade, put down a clif bar and two gels. I felt just barely better than aweful that whole ascent up and I was still borderline cold. The good news was though was that the sun was coming back out. I made my way past the Craggy Garden visitor center and eventually reached whatever that high point just north of it. Once there, you skip up and down the Parkway for a few miles until you start the final descent towards the Mt. Mitchell access road and beyond.
I love descending. I love it when a few cars or pick ups pass me about a minute before I get to the top of the pass and then I begin bombing down the other side only to catch the train of cars. That happened a couple of times to me on my way north on the Parkway heading back towards Rt. 80.
I jumped on 80 heading south and back towards Marion. That’s a blast of a technical descent with plenty of opportunities to kill yourself. I know the descent fairly well at this point so I know where I can let it rip and know most of the tricky stuff by heart. I just carved my way down and didn’t take any real risks as I was tired and just wanted to get back to the car and my cooler so I could get some real food and drink.
After I crossed 70 and headed back towards the Tate St. Rest Area, I noticed all of the people who were setting up camp sites with bikes on the cars in preparation for what would be today’s Assault on Mt. Mitchell. I personally don’t think I’ll ever do the ride as it’s such a pain in the ass logistically to do it, expensive, and I can ride Mt. Mitchell any other day of the riding season for free. It just seems like a lot of trouble.
I ended the day with about 109 miles on the odometer. I have no idea of the vertical, but I’d have to guess around 9,000′ or so….maybe more…maybe less…..I don’t know cause I don’t have GPS.
I stopped at the Love’s/Subway Station on the way out of town and got a personal little pizza, a footlong turkey sub, a bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips, an extra large Cherry Coke draft soda, and a full tank of gas for my trip home. Everything except the gas was gone when I arrived back in Chapel Hill 2.5 hours later.
Today, I ache and eat. Speaking of which, I’m going to go eat now.
I hope to see some of you at the Black and Blue Relay. Is anyone on this list doing it?