Coaches: A two-sided tale of why they help

“Let’s see,” Alan said thumbing through his small white book of eclectic statistics, “he’s got Beech Mountain rated as the sixth toughest climb in the Southeast. It’s three and a half miles with an average grade of 9.2 percent — and a maximum of 17 percent.”

I flinched. “That’s the one we’re doing today?” My grip on the steering wheel tightened.

It was early Saturday and Alan and I were headed to Blowing Rock for a mountain training ride. Our objective for the day was the 57.1-mile Blowing Beech route, which begins and ends in picturesque downtown Blowing Rock, with a mid-way detour up Beech Mountain. Just three and a half miles, but in those three and a half miles we would gain 1,700 feet.


We were training for the Roan Moan two weeks out. The Roan Moan is a popular mountain century ride that goes along civilly enough for 71 miles. Then it begins a 7-mile, 1,700-foot climb up to Carver’s Gap, elevation 5,512 feet.

“And the climb up Roan,” Alan said paging ahead … . I let my mind intentionally drift, tuning back in as Alan was putting his Phil Liggett on the ascent, “really, it’s only the first two miles you need to worry about. After that, it, well, it doesn’t level out. But you can start using gears again.” I pictured myself wearing Phil’s renowned “mask of pain!”

Alan waits out a rain delay on NC 194.

Doing a mountain century is one of my two goals for this summer. For years, my adventure accomplice Alan Nechemias has been gently encouraging me to try one. At the start of every cycling season, I’ve proclaimed, “This is the year.” At the end of every cycling season I’ve found myself saying, “Well, dang, maybe next year?” This year, after extensively discussing the merits of the various mountain century rides — the Blue Ridge Brutal, Bridge-to-Bridge, Hilly Hellacious, Assault on Mount Mitchell and the Roan Moan among them — we concluded that the latter might be the best for a first-timer. I made the ultimate commitment: I got out the plastic and registered online.

Alan’s oration from John Summerson’s “The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in the Southeast” worried me. I hadn’t romanticized doing a rigorous mountain century (easy to do watching Contador, Shelck, et al pumping their way up the Alps and Pyrenees) but I was starting to realize that, with two weeks to go, I wasn’t adequately prepared, either. I’d been riding, three times a week, mostly two-hour rides on the mountain bike at hilly Umstead. I’d even done a couple mountain training rides. But my longest ride of the year was 62 miles, and the toughest climbing I’d done was the Triple Hump — and of the three humps I’d had to stop briefly going up Pilot Mountain and I’d cramped climbing Hanging Rock. I had been training, but not training smart.

That was in stark contrast to my preparation for Summer Goal #2: running a half marathon. For it, I plunked down $125 and joined a training program through FAST (Functional and Specific Training) Coaching. The program included a day-by-day training schedule for the 12-week program, two organized training runs a week (one to work on pace, the other distance), and access to two coaches. When I went into the program, my goal was to simply finish a half marathon. After four weeks, I had little doubt I could finish; My thoughts had shifted to how fast I could finish. I didn’t need a list of 10 reasons why coaches help, I had physical proof.

Left to my own devices on the bike, I was still worried about simple survival.

We pulled into Blowing Rock a little before 10 under an unsettled sky. The forecast called for a 30 percent chance of rain in the morning, increasing to 60 percent by mid-afternoon. After years of getting suckered by bad forecasts, we had no second thoughts about pushing off.

After a gorgeous 5-mile descent down Shulls Mill Road, we jogged briefly onto NC 105 before heading southwest on Broadstone Road. Shortly after passing through Valle Crucis, we began a 4.5-mile climb up NC 194 that’s not in John Summerson’s cannon, but could be. (A MapMyRide profile shows the climb ranges from 6 to 9 percent.) That’s when the sky turned from ominous to overflowing. A little spit at first, and then — with about a half mile to go to the top, with our glasses fogged and bodies soaked through, Alan steered us off the road and under the meager eve of a small building.

“Now it’s just unsafe,” he said.

If we had $20, we agreed that we would have flagged down one of the ubiquitous pickups passing by and caught a ride back to Blowing Rock. Instead, we until the rain let up, reversed course and headed back. We wound up doing three good climbs over 38 miles, but it was far short of the 57-miler with the mettle-testing climb up Beech Mountain that I felt I needed in preparation for Roan Mountain. My schedule precluded a return training trip this week, next week is too close to the race.

Had I sought out a cycling coach, I doubtles would have more mountain miles in the saddle. I’m sure I would have done more long rides, probably a couple in the 70-mile range, and I likely would have done weekly interval work. And I know I  would have put in far fewer junk miles, or miles basically just for the sake of riding.  At this point, for this ride, it’s too late for a coach, even a Chris Carmichael. Now, it’s desperation time.

Anybody know if Tony Robbins is still around?

6 thoughts on “Coaches: A two-sided tale of why they help”

  1. Hey Joe,
    Don’t let the spec’s on Beech Mtn fool you, Beech Mtn is actually one of the easiest big climbs I’ve done esp. if you’ve already riden NC 194 (HC climb in Tour de Dupont) and Hanging Rock (the hardest I’ve done). Beech Mtn parkway has level transitions between all of the switch backs (6 in total) which allows you to recover after every turn. This allows you catch your breath and set up for each ascent which is not very common on 194 or HR.
    I’ve done that route you were planning to do in both directions and it’s a classic. You’ll esp. love the ride thru Bethel Community following Georges Gap (BSG).
    Have fun

    1. Hey Mr. Bender,

      Yeah, there was no breath-catching to be had on 194. Those small recoveries, modest as they may be, make a huge difference for me. I’ll keep that in mind on my rain date with Beech.


  2. Just a comment or two about Beech Mtn and 194. Beech is tough but particularly so (and what makes it one of the top ten most difficult SE climbs) is Ski Loft Rd (goes left at the 3.1 mile mark). This stretch is 13% avg grade (over 0.4 mi) with the max grade of the climb. Some miss this as it is easy to miss and it is a dead end and requires a sketchy descent. 194 is a solid hill (but easier than Beech) and I agree should be in the next edition of the Southeast climbs guide.

    Thanks much for the mention of the book and I am glad NC has so many hill and climbers and that some are checking out the climbs in the guide.


    1. Hey John,
      Thanks for shedding more light on the Beech climb. Thanks, too, for validating my claim that 194 is a good climb. Your book is fascinating, if sometimes scary, reading. Will we see that next edition any time soon?

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