For us Flatlanders, the day’s second ride in our North Carolina training camp proved just as difficult as the first. We rode a few miles on smooth, level roads and then the climb began up to the apex at NC 276 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Sue led early on, and then I moved to the front. Not because I’m the faster climber this trip. She is. But I can always make it to the top, just not as strong as her. That’s the result of all her winter workouts turning those pedal on mornings when the sky was not even light yet. I admire her dedication and strength.
The rest of our crew was already a few minutes down the other side of the mountain when we arrived at the top. That backside descent was treacherous and twisty, a fact we only discovered by driving up to provide backup SAG support after we returned from our truncated ride. The full distance called for 90 miles today. The first climb was 9.7 miles in length, covered 2,254 ft in elevation gain and average 4.4%.
My pace for that climb ranks me 1240 on the All-Time list on Strava. I checked the Leaderboard to find a familiar name near the top. Matthew Busche was third in the KOM rankings. Matthew is a graduate of my alma mater Luther College and former pro Trek rider on the World Tour, including the Tour de France. He rode 38:24 for the same climb we rode today on January 31 of 2018. A fellow name Jimmy Schurman owns the 276 to Blue Ridge Parkway KOM title at 37.25. It took me 1:12:59.
It’s clearly astounding to me that anyone can ride so fast up an ascent like that. But a few guys from our crew tore up that hill today and then climbed an even bigger mountain on a longer climb later in the ride. It’s humbling to be riding with people so strong and fit. Frankly, it’s even a bit demoralizing. But we rode our own pace and that’s all you can do.
Life is so much like rain and fog. What we see clearly in our present state, much like raindrops on a car window, distracts from the bigger picture of fog and clouds rolling across the mountain tops. But Sue and I tried to see both the near and distant concerns at the same time. So we rode back down the hill when conditions were safest. The real rain only caught us on the bottom flats. By then we were rolling along at 20 mph throwing up rooster tails with our back wheels. And it was fun.
No woulda coulda
I’m not sure that I’d have fared much better at riding much faster back when I was 25. I was lean as could be, and that surely would have helped in the climbing department. I was also obsessed with hard efforts, and had the low heart rate and fast running times to prove it. But cycling is its own game.
Plus these days I weigh nearly 40 pounds more than I did at peak fitness. I am also not so obsessed with proving myself. I was admittedly stressed out before today’s ride, but tuned out my own brain and fixed my focus on getting up the first climb. And that went well.
Despite our luck in returning home safely, the weather was still threatening big rain with most of our riders still out on the course.
Thus Sue and I decided that we’d turn back because neither of us knew the true difficulty of the second climb that was still 30 miles away. If the weather struck or we were forced to hit the SAG wagon, it might not leave room for people who were going farther than we were likely to go. That was our bright idea for a dark day. If you can’t do the whole ride, make yourself available to others.
So in some sense, we took one for the team today, and the last five riders did indeed wind up in the SAG wagon because when the rain struck them on the twisting downhill after 70 miles it was not safe to continue.
Sue and I had driven back up the climb to offer additional SAG support if needed. All we found was a thick cloud bank at the junction of 276 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. That convinced us we’d made the right decision even though our ride was perhaps 20 miles shorter than we might have liked.
Our camp director asked me if the ride was “enjoyable.” There might be a hint of condescension there, but that’s okay. He’s a good guy and so are the others gathered here on this little mountaintop in North Carolina. I’m not the same caliber rider as them, and perhaps never could have been. But goddamnit, I did climb that mountain.