Facing Down the Mountains. Again.

Right after I started making plans for riding the mountains of 3-Gap again, the fear set in and stayed with me the entire week.  After all when I did that ride (successfully) for the first time back in the fall, I was at the peak of my strength and endurance for that season.  The difference between me-then and me-now was quite a bit.  After all so far this season, my ride averages hadn’t broken 16mph, yet, and I was still using the small chainring quite a bit for climbs on my regular rides.  This was something I didn’t do at all nearly all of last year.  So I was wondering, “how on earth was I going to get my tail-feathers up the mountain when I was so weak, by comparison?”

Ha!  Boy, the voices in my head had a real heyday with me all week long.  Then, the last 30 minutes of the drive up there, those frigging voices came out with boxing gloves and started taking serious swings at me.  I started to panic, and my heart-rate started climbing.  Crap, my bike wasn’t even off the rack, yet!  I could feel the tenseness in my body.  This was Not Good.

We all arrived at our starting point, Turner’s Corner.  There were 10 of us doing the ride and having a big group makes doing a ride like this a lot more fun.  Plus as I got out of the truck, I found out that a couple others were feeling as I did, and they voiced their own panic feelings. This was their first attempt at the mountains, and they had the fear of not fully knowing what was ahead of them besides LOTS and LOTS of climbing.  I had the fears because I knew EXACTLY what was ahead of me – Yikes!  It was official.  I was crazy for having organized this outing, and there was no turning back, now.

We pedaled down, and I stayed back a bit because my husband was still not ready to ride.  However, he is fast and encouraged us to go ahead because he knew he could catch up.  I kept watching for him in my mirror but couldn’t see him.  Meanwhile, I was now at the back of our group.  Then, a new wrinkle surfaced.  Mother nature called.  I knew I couldn’t ignore it because having that call ring loudly in my head (and body) while I’m trying to focus on climbing for the next hour would greatly affect my abilities and even potentially cause me to fail.  So, I found a quick little spot before the real climbing began and answered that call.  I put my bike down near the road in such a way that I was certain that my husband would see it as he came up to that spot.  Alas, he did not and passed right by me.

Oh. Sheet.

Now, I was in last place of our group.  As if I needed another reason to stress, my heart-rate went from high to Sky High.  I had to fight the desire to pound it in an effort to try and catch up.  While I did not want to be in last place – really, it was the feeling of being all alone on the climb that I did not want.  I came with a group and wanted to feel at least in a small part that I was still with the group.  Except, I was now a 1/2 mile+ behind them. 

While I wasn’t hammering my legs just yet, the pounding going on in my chest was earth-shaking.  I was surprised I didn’t set off all the seismic sensors in a 10-state radius, and the noise in my head from it was deafening.  With my heart-rate nearing my lactate threshold and I hadn’t even hit the climb in earnest, I had to work on it to get it to relax and lower.  I started doing some breathing exercises and resigning myself to the fact that I had done this climb “by myself” once before.  I could do it, again, and it wasn’t the end of the world.

Just as I finished that thought, I looked up and saw my husband come streaming down toward me.  Thanks to my friends, he figured out where I was and why I was back there.  “Phew!”  That helped.  I could feel a small measure of “release” in my body.  Within a few minutes, my heart-rate was back at a manageable level – not perfect, but better.

From our start at Turner’s Corner, the climb starts immediately, and it’s nearly 8 miles to the top of Blood Mountain (aka Neel’s Gap).  That is one of the longest hours of your life when you’re a novice on these climbs.  So, I knew from my previous experience not to look at my computer – AT ALL.  Nope, not even once.  I don’t look up, either, because seeing how much is ahead of me, still, is enough to psyche me out.  No.  Patience.  That’s my best friend on these climbs.  Before long, I started catching up with a some of my friends.  I would have been pleased if I wasn’t so consumed with focusing on turning my next pedal stroke.  “Umph”, swish – “Umph”, swish – “Umph”, swish…on and on.  Then, I looked up to see that most welcome of sites – the entrance to the welcome center at the top of the mountain.

Holy. Crap.  I did it.

You’d think that getting to the top of the first mountain would be the hardest part of the ride, but it isn’t.  There are fast, long descents – one of which you take after getting to the top of Neel’s Gap.  The descents freaked me out last time, and I was on my brakes almost the entire time.  This time, the roads weren’t so foreign to me, and I was able to rumble down the mountain faster. 

 

Alas, the worst of the climbs stares you directly in the face, because the moment you reach the bottom, your next ascent starts immediately.  Climbing Wolfpen Gap is half the distance it is for Neel’s Gap, but…  it’s steeper, harder.

This is the true test of the ride.  I swear this climb seemed longer. 

Plus on Neel’s Gap, there’s not much that stands out in the way of the landscape.  However on Wolfpen, there’s a set of switchbacks, and they are about halfway up.  You can’t help but notice them.  When you do, you realize, “oh crap, I’ve been working my tail off.  I’m tired, and I still have half of the mountain to climb.”  I don’t like that part.

At least the traffic was much quieter on this trip than it was in the fall, mostly b/c we had started much earlier in the day.  So, very few cars passed me in either direction.  That was a great help.  Plus, hearing the voices of my friends on up ahead of me and behind me was helpful, too.  Just.  Keep.  Pedaling.

At last!  The top of Wolfpen Gap is reached, and you think, “great the worst of the ride is now behind me!  Hurray!”  Whoops.

The section of between Wolfpen Gap and Woody’s Gap is, indeed, lovely.  You don’t descend much at all.  You’re still up at elevation, but you tend to forget about a few nasty climbs coming your way.  I did that, and my friends behind me didn’t even know of them.  When we got to the first one, the memory came flooding back.  I had to dig in and slog my way up.  That was nearly as hard as climbing Wolfpen Gap – thankfully not nearly as long.  After hitting that bugger, one of my friends behind me commented that she wasn’t sure she could finish the ride.  Yes, that hill is the slap-you-in-the-face kind that you just don’t need after the previous climbs.

Thankfully, Woody’s Gap is your reward.  You get all prepared for another long, hard ascent and just when the first thought hits your head of how long this part will be, you’re at the top.  “Oh, gosh!  That was easy!”  That’s right, and if you linger at the top for a moment, you get to enjoy the best view in probably all of North Georgia.  The valley floor drops down 2000 feet, and the views are wide and distant.  Awesome.  Stellar, even!  You can’t describe it, and pictures cannot begin to honor it or do it any kind of justice.  All your dumbfounded soul can muster is a breathless, “Wow“.

Now, you climb back on to your bike and reap the benefits of all your hard work.  Remember the length of the first climb?  That’s about what you have going back down.  This time, I was able to enjoy the wind in the face and the sloping curves of this long, long descent.  In fact, I was the complete opposite in the use of my brakes (from back in the fall), and barely touched them.  Now, that’s more like it!  Fun!  Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

We all met at the rock pile at the bottom and turned left to head back for the final 5 miles.  There are a few hills on this part, but as I mentioned in my post last fall, they are nothing in comparison to what I just climbed, and they don’t bother me, at all.  At this point, I am smiling and relieved. 

I. Did. It.  I hauled my slow arse up all three mountains, despite the fact that I don’t have the endurance I did in the fall, despite the fact that I’m not as strong or fast as I was in the fall…and despite the fact that my mind nearly psyched me out before I got started. 

Yeah.  I own these mountains, now.   …and I can’t wait to go do them, again.

How’s THAT for crazy?!