I was afraid it was about to happen three miles into the ride. I had grave concerns at Mile 24, became concerned again at Mile 51, was taken by surprise by the short climb at Mile 63 and thought worried it might happen then, and was surprised that it didn’t during the long pull between Miles 65 and 74. I was certain, though, that it would happen between Miles 80 and 87, I just wasn’t sure how severe it would be. And at that point, if I made it that far, I didn’t really care.
Saturday, I tackled one of my two goals for the summer — two goals that have been on my list for several years. The one, which I have another month to prepare for, is a half marathon. Saturday, I got to tackle the other: A mountain century ride. That is, a 100-mile bike ride in the mountains of North Carolina.
On this particular ride, the Roan Moan, that meant elevations ranging from below 1,700 feet in Tennessee to 5,512-foot Carvers Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee line. Depending upon whose altimeter you believe, there’s anywhere from 7,500 to 9,000 feet of total vertical climbing along the route. While it’s not considered among the Southeast’s most difficult mountain centuries — that debate includes the likes of the Assault on Mount Mitchell (total climbing of 12,000 feet, the bulk of which is in the last 25 miles from Marion to the top of 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell), Mountains of Misery (10,000 feet, ending with a three-mile climb that averages 11.9 percent and hits 16 percent in spots) and Six Gaps (11,200 feet, including a seven-mile stretch that averages a 7 percent grade), among others — it’s a stout ride nonetheless, known for a seven-mile, 6 percent average climb up Roan Mountain that begins at mile 80.
A mountain century has been on my list for years, more years than I or my riding buddy Alan Nechemias of Chapel Hill can or care to remember. At the start of every cycling season I’d proclaim that this was the year I was going to do a mountain century; at the end of every cycling season I’d wonder where the time had gone. “Oh, well. Next year … .” Recognizing that I wasn’t getting any younger, Alan began gently pushing the point as spring approached, suggesting we start scheduling some mountain training rides. When I kept finding reasons not to go, he said, “Let’s just pick a ride and sign up.” Basically, put your plastic where your mouth is. I did and suddenly found the motivation to do a couple of mountain training rides.
But as we were driving to the mountains Friday afternoon, two measly training rides in the mountains suddenly seemed like not nearly enough. In fact, my whole training scheme, which basically involved two-hour mountain bike rides at Umstead two or three times a week, seemed frighteningly insufficient. I’d been riding at a state park in the rolling Piedmont: What was going to happen tomorrow when I was suddenly facing 100 miles and 7-plus hours in the rugged Appalachians?
That’s why, as the 50 or so of us on the century ride (there’s was a better attended metric century option) lit out of Bakersville at 7:04 a.m., I was well aware that I might burn myself out on the five-mile “warm-up” loop that heads east of town before circling back through downtown and making a beeline west for Tennessee. Three miles out and I couldn’t catch my breath, despite the fact the peleton was doing a mild 19 mph pace. We came to a sharp drop and the back end of the group, five or six riders, myself among them, hit their brakes and dropped off. An ensuing rise dropped another half dozen. Over the next five miles the pack would splinter into groups of no more than a half dozen.
Relieved of the pressure of keeping pace, my breathing settled. The gradual descent along Cane Creek put my legs back under me, and before long I was riding with five other cyclists, though hardly in an efficient paceline. Rather than ride single file and let the lead rider break the wind and create a drafting void behind, we individually sped up, slowed down, dropped off, came back. About Mile 17 our two-lane road dropped down to the North Toe River for seven miles of relatively flat riding, and what should have been recovery and preparation, for the first big climb of the day. Instead, we continued to yo-yo and when we did start the climb up to Spivey Gap, we were on our own. For me I assumed, that meant that my legs would seize up in one massive cramp.
But here I discovered something I would have learned had I done a sufficient number of mountain training rides: On a long, challenging climb — the 5.5 miles up to Spivey Gap would gain 1,050 vertical feet — it’s better to be on your own. You find a pace you can live with, you get a rhythm going, you pedal and look up the road only when you must. The climb proved a relief from the energy-zapping paceline-that-wasn’t. I pulled into the rest stop atop Spivey Gap at mile 30 surprisingly refreshed and cheered by this revelation.
“You’re here already,” Alan said, surprised, when I pulled up to the roadside tent where volunteers were handing out PBJs, bananas, orange slices and cookies. Alan is a 15-year veteran of mountain centuries, completing in the neighborhood of 50, finishing most at the front of the pack with the cyclists who aren’t on hand for the scenery. Yet he was so determined to get me through my first mountain century that he had agreed that, after going out with the fast kids, he would wait at the first rest stop and ride with me the rest of the way.
“Man, I found my tempo on that climb,” I said with a PBJ in one hand, a banana in the other. “I got into a rhythm and just spun my way to the top. I feel great.”
“Good,” he said with all sincerity. Then, merely stating a fact and not meaning to, he brought me back to Earth. “Now we just have 70 miles left.”
Tomorrow: The 70 miles left.
Photo at top: Alan Nechemias, right, and Jason Haley discuss strategy at the start of Saturday’s Roan Moan.