BLACK AND BLUE DOUBLE CENTURY + RIDE REPORT
Prior to May 28th, 2011, the furthest I had ever ridden my bike in one day was about 155 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That ride I had averaged about 16.5 M.P.H. and I think it took about 9.5 hours to complete. I would guess that ride had somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000’ of climbing. The Black and Blue Double Century would bring my ultra cycling experience to another level with the 218 mile course combined with about 18,500 vertical feet of climbing per GPS measurement. I’ve had days of climbing in the 15,000 foot range before, but never over such a distance. There were a lot of question marks going into this ride. How would I feel 50, 100, or 150 miles in? Would my back get really sore? Would I develop any saddle sores or other friction problems? Would it be really hot and be difficult to stay hydrated? Would I go out too fast?
As last Saturday approached, it appeared there were going to be a slight risk of showers or thunderstorms, but fortunately the forecasted high temperature decreased all week to only a high of about 75 degrees. I fought a lot of thunderstorms and downpours on the way out to the hotel in Boone last Friday and I was really hopeful that the rain would clear out in time for the ride start at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. When Saturday morning came, it was about 65 degrees with very light drizzle.
There were 4 people in my group who were there for the ride: Ken Johnson, Rob Ferris, and myself for the double century and Louis Legendre for the century. One from my group (not going to mention any names) decided to take way too long in the bathroom before we left the hotel. As a result, we were 20 minutes late in getting going and we were barely able to ready ourselves and our bikes for the 6 a.m. start. My friend Ken was literally just coming out of the porta-john as the ride began rolling up the road.
The ride began casually enough. I pulled out the camera from my jersey pocket and snapped off some photos as we got rolling down Todd Railroad Grade Road which is a relatively flat affair by some branch of the New River outside of Boone, NC. In a few minutes, guys began rotating at the front and the pace picked up as we headed north away from Boone. We hit a small climb about 5 miles in and that created some separation in the small group of about 30 starters. By the top of the climb maybe 10 of us had dislodged ourselves from the rest.
One thing I did notice about the ride was that everybody there looked extremely fit and strong. There were no real weak links in the group. I guess maybe that with the short option being 100 miles that would keep a lot of riders away who just aren’t in shape for that kind of a ride through the mountains.
After the first descent, a guy named Roland took to the front and pretty much started drilling it. He just stayed there at the front for about 10 miles and never pulled off maintaining about 25mph. With the road constantly changing grade and twisting and turning, it was still work to follow the wheels behind him. Eventually he began pulling off and the rest of us starting sharing the workload. I was kind of concerned to be going that fast so early in the ride.
At around mile 25 the group came to the first rest stop. Ken and I from our group both had to stop and take a pee break as well as fill one of our bottles and ditch a vest. All told that took about 2 or 3 minutes. Robb and Louie from my group kept going, but soft-pedaled to wait for us. We joined up with them a mile or two up the road, but the large group we were with were now well ahead of us. We began working together and eventually pulled back a bunch of them about 10 miles later about 5 miles from the first big climb of the day by the Grayson Highlands in Virginia. No sooner had we caught them when Ken announced the next pee break. This time it was only a 1 minute stop, but the group we were with kept rolling ahead. Ken and I chased back on within a mile or two, but I definitely burned a match in that process. We caught them right at the base of the first big climb of the day. Since I was good and warmed up already from chasing back on post pee break, I just kind of kept a decent tempo going up the first part of the climb. Riders started to come unhitched from the back of the group pretty quickly. It appeared a couple of miles into the hill that you were done as the road we were on crested a gap. Instead of going down the other side though, we were directed to make a right turn and began climbing up a ridge towards a higher summit.
I just kept tapping out the same rhythm as we continued to head up. My teammate Rob, felt like going a little fast and opened up about a 10 second gap on Ken and I. Louie kept it a little bit more conservative on the climb and dropped back about 30 seconds. On one part of the climb, I noticed a guy way up the road. I didn’t know who it was, but I figured he was definitely on the ride.
Ken, Rob, and I regrouped just after the summit. I led the train bombing down the descent. We caught the guy out in front about halfway down. Close to the bottom a dog ran out into the road while there were cars coming in the opposite direction. We all made it through safely, but I always am concerned about events like that. Dogs don’t understand the danger they pose to road cyclists coming downhill at 40+mph. Their owners however should and keep them in the yard one way or another. I can’t stand dog owners that do this. It drives me crazy.
After the descent we came out to an intersection where we were directed left to hit the next rest stop. I quickly filled my bottles and grabbed a couple of gels out of the supply bag. One cool thing about the ride was that the organizer ferried whatever we wanted to any water stop on the course. This meant we had foods of our choice at each of the stops as my team of guys had a bag for each of the 7 stops on the course. While we filled up on Gatorade and water, the guy we had passed on the descent caught up to us. He quickly filled a bottle and then headed out with Rob, Ken, and myself. Ken and I opted not to use the restroom at the rest area as it was in a smoke filled convenience store and apparently there was a wait to use it anyway.
We headed up the road a couple of miles and eventually found a private enough turn-off to go pee. Rob kept going with the other guy whose name I had learned was John and he was from Ellicot City in Maryland. Although Ken and I kept the pee stop brief, John wasn’t waiting around for us and Rob decided to stick with him.
Ken and I worked pretty hard over the course of about 8 or 10 miles to finally catch them. We caught them as we got onto Rte 58 in Virginia heading down into Tennessee. John was taking monster pulls on the front and I was seriously impressed with how strong he was. I recalled thinking that I probably needed to back off if I was going to survive 218 miles. When he would pull off the front, he would go to the side, but he wouldn’t even slow down. I’ve been riding and racing my bike for a few years so I’m not about to foolishly up my pace just to pull through or do a turn on the front. I just maintained the speed the group was doing and waited for him to make the choice and slow down and get on the back of the group. I basically thought it pretty sensible that we take 1 mile pulls so that’s what I adhered to at least. I think Ken and Rob basically followed this and John might have pulled longer. Either way, John was tearing it up when he was on the front.
We arrived at the 3rd rest stop in quick time and we all took a quick pee break and refueled. Our average speed at this point was well over 20mph and we were about 80 miles in. 140 to go and that scared the hell out of me. I knew we could do our current effort for 120 or 130 miles, but for an extra 100 on top of that sounded crazy. Something had to give. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
After rest stop 3, the 4 of us continued our paceline for the next 6 or 7 miles until I had to pee again. I was paying a lot of attention to hydration so I was sort of glad to have to pee, but that meant that I’d be stopping again. Ken agreed to stop with me and Rob said he would keep going. After the quick stop, Ken and I began chasing again. This time it took a while to catch Rob and I had to burn another match in doing so. At some point, Rob let John go and when we caught Rob, John was up the road and out of sight. Rob, Ken, and I began working together while we took in the beautiful scenery around Watauga Lake.
At about mile marker 110, we rolled up on rest stop 4. I’m not sure what town it was in, but the rest stop was at a bicycle store. This was a complete stop in that it had bagels, bananas, peanut butter as well as hammer gel and liquid refreshment. All of us indulged in a bagel/peanut butter/and banana sandwich. We also used the bathroom for an extended break if you know what I mean. John was just leaving the rest stop when we got there. After eating, using the restroom, filling our bottles, re-applying sun screen, it was a solid 10 or 15 minutes later when we left. I accepted the fact there that we might not see John again. Ken and I were going back and forth as to whether John could keep up the insane tempo he was setting. Ken predicted we would see him stopped on the side of the road fully bonked or just cramped up to the bone. I wasn’t so confident. John had mentioned that he knew he was good for 180 miles. I figured that 218 wasn’t much longer so he might be able to hold that pace he was setting. I don’t know if John had ever done 180 in the mountains though. That’s a hell of a lot different than 180 rolling miles. Also a big question mark in my mind was how the second half of the ride would feel given that 70% of the vertical was going to be gained in the second half of the ride. The second half was surely a lot more challenging and technical than the first. Climbing ability, bike handling ability on descents, and overall economy would certainly come into play.
While still waiting to depart rest station 4, several other riders came in. They quickly filled up on energy and hydration resources and departed with us. I think 6 or 7 of us rolled out together.
As soon as we left, we began climbing. Some of the other riders who left with us began setting a quick pace up the relatively tame 4 or 5 percent grade of this climb. Testosterone got the better of me here and I chipped in some strong pace making when it was my turn. When we got to what appeared to be the top of this hill, we turned right and it kept going up. For some reason, when we turned right, guys kind of dislodged themselves from the paceline, so I just went to the front and resumed the aggressive pace. Ken and Rob followed me, but apparently the other two or three guys had decided they had had enough. We continued to climb for a while and eventually we crested out at a relatively uneventful summit. We then descended down for a while, made a series of rights and lefts on the well marked course and finally began the next climb up Iron Mountain.
We stayed together on this climb, but this is where I began to notice Ken and Rob both tiring a little. I knew I had trained pretty specifically for this ride, but Rob and Ken had not as a specific preparation as me. Both of these guys would ride away from me in a 40K time trial (or really any distance between 500 meters and 120 kilometers), but we were now at the 200K mark. This was territory that Ken and Rob had not seen in any recent time cycling, but I had seen multiple times in the last couple of months. I was feeling good and my breathing was not labored at all. Ken fell back just a tad on the climb and Rob’s breathing was a good bit deeper than mine.
We hit the summit and began descending a bit and then mashed several miles of rollers. We all new we were heading towards Roan Mountain which was going to be a huge obstacle as it requires about 2800′ of vertical to gain Carver’s Gap. Along the way, Rob mentioned that he was out of water. We then began speculating that we had missed a water stop somewhere along the way, but I found that hard to believe as everything had been so well marked along the course with multiple bright, yellow signs. As panic kind of began to set in about dehydration, we thought about pulling over at a house to ask if we could use the spigot to fill our bottles. With the sun beating down on us and the temperatures probably around 75 humid degrees, when we saw some people out in their front yard we stopped and asked if they had some water. They were so friendly and actually pulled us out some spring water in bottles from their garage refrigerator. We thanked them, poured the contents into our bottles and headed out. Not 3 or 4 miles later, we rolled up on the next rest stop. Apparently there was a glitch in the GPS Garmin data that Ken and Rob had downloaded about the course. The water stop was actually further along than the GPS profile indicated, but we didn’t really care. We were happy for rest stop 5 as we had lots of food, drink, and chamois cream waiting there for us. Now we were about 130 miles in. We had 90 miles to go or thereabouts.
I asked the ride marshal at the rest stop how far ahead John was and he reported that he had left about 20 minutes before we got there. Apparently John was not slowing down one iota. I kind of had ambition of being the first finisher on the ride and that was diminishing pretty rapidly. Given that the 3 of us stopped for at least 5 minutes that gave John a 25 minute head start. That kind of lit a fire under my butt so when we got going again the climb of Roan Mountain began almost immediately, I decided I was going to climb it at an aggressive pace and see how the body responded. About a mile into the climb Rob declared he was backing off and would climb at his own pace. I kept going. About a 1/2 mile later Ken backed off a little bit. I kept going. A couple of miles later, I looked back and saw Ken and Rob riding together behind me perhaps about 45 seconds to a minute behind me. We still had 3 or 4 miles to go to the summit so I just kept on trucking. Later near the top, I looked back and couldn’t see anyone. It was decision time. If I waited, I would probably be committing myself to finishing the ride with Ken and Rob. If I kept going, I could bomb the descent and get a time check on John out in front and see if I took back any time on him. I came to this ride to challenge myself, so I thought I would go for it. I bombed the descent and hammered to the next rest stop.
When I rolled up the first thing I asked the marshal was how long ago John left. She reported, “about 5 minutes ago.” “Wow!” is what I thought. I just might see John again on this ride after all. That motivated me tremendously. I filled my bottles: one with Gatorade and the other with water. By this point in the ride I beginning to feel sugared out and just wanted pure water to drink. I grabbed a banana for the road and was out of there within two or three minutes. So now I had a 7 or 8 minute gap to make up. I rode as fast as I could imagine I could given I had a lot of climbing left to do and still another 60 miles to go.
I was now on some road towards Beech Mountain and Blowing Rock, but I don’t know which one. The road climbed and descended several times. There were a couple of turns somewhere in this section and then there was one pretty gnarly descent on a very skinny road in rough shape. After I got to the bottom of that, I just kept trucking and noticed at one point off in the distance a little red fleck up the road. Eventually I got close enough to realize that was indeed John and he was coming back to me, but not very quickly. Eventually I clawed my way back to him just as we rolled up on the final rest stop of the day.
The ride director was the marshal at the final rest stop. As we filled our bottles, he warned us that the next climb a little bit up the road was very hard. John and I rolled out together from the last rest stop with 28 miles to go. I was definitely feeling not that well due to all of the energy food consumption. What I really wanted was a pepperoni and sausage pizza to gobble up. None was available. After one small climb, a short descent, and then a right hand turn onto Southerland Road. We crept up a valley heading towards the inevitable wall to come. John was still riding strongly on the front or even next to me as we talked and shot the breeze, but I think we both new we were going to probably destroy ourselves going up the climb.
Eventually, we came around a corner and then down a quick little hill and over a one lane bridge. On the other side of the bridge the beginning of the climb announced itself with a 10+% wall. I used the downhill there to get some momentum to at least get me up the first wall. I wasn’t actually trying to be aggressive as much as economical, but when I shot up that first little wall; John fell back just a little bit. That encouraged me. I knew I was tired, but I tried to set a quick pace up the early part of the climb. John fell back a little bit further, maybe just a handful of seconds to begin. Then as we climbed and came around a bending left hander, there was just a double or triple stair step part where the steep parts were easily at 15%. All I could really do was stand in my 39×28 and turn over the cranks at maybe 6 or 7 mph. I think at this point I realized I was a good bit lighter than John and just rode away from him. I didn’t look back for a good while and just kept climbing at a tempo I thought I could sustain for about 20 minutes or so. At the top, the grade slackened a bit and I was able to shift into a harder gear, but my hamstrings were beginning to give signs of spasm. Standing felt a lot more agreeable than sitting here so I stood for most of the rest of the climb. By the top I could no longer see John anywhere on the course below me and I headed over and began the descent.
Apparently the Blood, Sweat, and Gears ride does this climb in the opposite direction from what I was riding it in. The descent was very steep, full of switchbacks at the top, and had lots of gravel and potholes on the road. I safely navigated my way down and pressed on towards the finish. I got to the bottom of that road and banged a left at the T. I had one more climb to go and honestly, I remember very little of it. I was just tapping out a rhythm at this point that was as fast as I could go, but not so fast that I would cramp up. I drank everything I had and maybe tried to eat a couple of more gels. I got to the top of that climb and immediately descended the other side. When I got to the bottom, I hung a right back onto the Todd Railroad Grade road which meant I had about 5 flat miles to go until the finish.
I stayed low and aero and just enjoyed the views of the valley around me. I was amazed that I could still maintain 22-25 mph on this section given I had over 210 miles in the legs. My back hurt a little. My butt hurt a little. Overall though, I felt OK. I pulled into the Riverside Restaurant parking lot by the Start/Finish tent and there were even a few people around to cheer me through.
I was feeling mighty content at that moment. My total time form ride start to finish was 12hrs19mins03secs. Subtract all of the pee stops and food stops and it took about 11.5 hrs with an average speed of 19mph. I wasn’t sure when I would finish, but I was happy with that time.
John came in about 7 or 8 minutes later. I congratulated him at the finish. This guy is a real talent. He’s only been riding for 4 years and put in a seriously impressive ride. His sustainable power output for long periods of time is crazy. Because I’m a smaller rider than him, I probably go uphill with considerably less wattage which is probably one of the reasons I was able to do the second half of the course much more quickly. My bike handling skills on descents probably also accounted for a large percentage of that as well. I have years of experience riding in the mountains climbing and descending. Once John figures out how to become a more efficient bike handler, he’ll be that much more impressive on the bike.
Ken and Robb finished about 30 and 40 minutes after me respectively. I’m impressed that Ken completed the ride. Not surprised, but impressed. He wasn’t sure he had the mental toughness to finish such a long ride. Rob also impressed. He had a nasty crash just a week ago and had a lot of road rash to recover from. That type of injury can really sap a rider of his energy. He showed a lot of grit by finishing that ride and riding so strongly.
Ken Sevensky was the ride promoter I got to know a little bit when I was finished. He is a super nice guy and puts on a seriously tough event. He was even so good as to meet up with me the day after the ride to get back to me all of the left over food our team didn’t eat at the rest stop. He stopped and met me at a gas station on his way to church as I was leaving Boone and our hotel early in the morning Sunday.
The Black and Blue Double Century is a serious road cycling challenge. Just finishing in the daylight would be a challenge for many. There were many that had to throw in the towel on this ride. It’s just so much harder than a century. I have no real desire to do night riding with lights so it was kind of imperative for me to finish in the daylight.
I would love to see this event grow. I think this is one that cyclists from all over the country should make a vacation out of and check out Boone, NC and spend a little while here in the southeast USA’s high country.
There was a bit of everything on the course: steep climbs, easy climbs, long hard climbs, rollers, beautiful lakes, beautiful mountains, technical descents, easy descents. You name it, you were probably going to see it somewhere in the 218 mile course.