In yesterday’s post, I was a third of the way through one my main goals for the summer: Riding a mountain century (100 miles). Today, 30 miles into the Roan Moan, I contemplate the nearly 70 miles to go.
Thirty miles into a mountain ride I wasn’t prepared for and I had yet to cramp. For at least the next 30 miles I wasn’t likely to, either.
One reason the Roan Moan isn’t considered among the Southeast’s more brutal, misery-inducing mountain centuries is because it only has two climbs of note: Spivey Gap, a 1,050-foot ascent over 5.5 miles that I had just gone over, and the ride’s feature attraction, the seven-mile, 6 percent average grade climb up to Roan Mountain that comes 80 miles into the event. On its own, the climb up Roan to 5,512-foot Carvers Gap is formidable. But with miles of pleasant cruising before, between and after those two climbs, the Moan ranks low in bragging rights among the Southeast’s cycling elite. Other mountain centuries bask in their punishing nature through their names, either subtly (Six Gaps, which as its name implies includes six significant climbs and 11,200 feet of total vertical climbing) or not so (Blue Ridge Brutal, which gains 8,900 feet and includes stretches on the notorious Buffalo Road that hit a 14 percent grade). The reason my riding partner and mountain century veteran Alan Nechemias had suggested the Roan Moan as my inaugural mountain century was because of its generous, beginner friendly recovery stretches.
We had one of those stretches to look forward to for the next 30 miles.
“That was nice!” Alan said after we’d descended pedal-stroke free three miles down the west flank of the Unaka Mountains into Tennessee. We took turns pulling through a wide river valley that dropped below 1,700 feet in elevation, the lowest point on the ride. Confusion arose in the town of Erwin, when several of us passed an unmarked turn (the route — most of it — was marked with green arrows spray painted onto the pavement); we flagged down a helpful river guide in a trademark sawed-off school bus who got us back on track. Concern returned around Mile 51, just outside the town of Unicoi where a gradual, 10-mile rise took us into the foothills.
On the ascent up Spivey Gap, I discovered that the climbs could be less taxing than the flat stretches. On climbs, you fall into your own rhythm, set your own pace. On the flats, you tend to ride in a paceline, at the pace of the strongest rider in the group. On this 10-mile stretch, that was Alan, who was ridding himself of pent-up energy he’d accumulated plodding along with me. The four of us who emerged from the town of Unicoi together didn’t burn this stretch of TN 107, but we did pick up the pace. It was especially noticeable after 50 miles, on a grade that ranged from 1 to 3 percent. As the pull rotated to Alan about seven miles in, he accelerated from about 15.5 mph, to 17. I got in the drops and stayed on his wheel. After two minutes when it was my turn to pull, I noticed that our two fellow riders had dropped off the back. “Nechemias has decimated the pack, leaving only debris in his wake,” I offered in my best Phil Liggett. Fortunately, I only had to maintain this pace for a mile or so, to the next rest stop. Fifty-eight miles down, 40 to go. Almost all of those remaining 40 would be in a rain that vacillated from drizzle to steady.
In 1999, on the first Cycle North Carolina, Day Two of the two-week, 920-mile ride from Murphy to Manteo began in Franklin, in a thunderstorm. “We’re really going to ride in this?” I naively asked? “And the option would be?” came the answer. The downpour and the crackle of thunder and lightening all around took my mind off the day’s intense climbing. It worked again here — until we pulled into the Burbank Volunteer Fire Station at Mile 79.3. After this cinderblock structure along TN 143, the seven-mile, 2,442-foot climb up to Carvers Gap begins. And not a ways past the fire station; not 50 yards up the road it spikes for a breath-stealing distance before disappearing around a bend.
“Really, it’s just the first couple of miles that are hard,” Alan had told me earlier of the climb. “After that, you can start using gears again.” The MapMyRide elevation profile confirmed as much, showing two miles of 7 percent average grade followed by a mile of 6 percent and near the top, a leveling of sorts, to 3 percent. (By comparison, the 4.8-mile stretch of Interstate 40 that begins near Black Mountain and climbs west to crest the Eastern Continental Divide has an average grade of 4.8 percent.) I didn’t bother waiting to put on my mask of pain; it went on as I pulled out of the fire station and immediately found my lowest gear (I was riding a 50/34 with a 28 cassette, if that means anything).
Alan is one of the most efficient climbers around. He’s strong, smart, knows when to push, knows when to save energy and back off. A true rhythm climber who, at 58, can still climb with the best of them. I knew I wouldn’t ride with him up to Carvers Gap. But if I could follow his educated lead through those first two miles, I might have a chance. I put my head down and churned, watching as my speed dropped from 7 mph, to 6.7, to 6.4. I managed to keep Alan’s rear wheel in the corner of my eye. At 6.3 mph, he began inching away. I pushed and brought his rear wheel back into view. Twenty yards later, he inched ahead once again. I bridged the gap but only for a moment; 1.5 miles into the climb he began inching away for good — 10 yards up the road, 15, 20. I thought of “Castaway,” when “Wilson” slowly drifts off leaving Tom Hanks to watch helplessly. I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry. I didn’t have the strength.
My legs were cooked and on the verge of cramping. 2.3 miles into the climb I was about to pull over and stretch when I noticed what appeared to be a gap ahead. It offered a moment’s respite (I was, as Alan promised, able to shift gears), but only a moment. The road spiked again, I dropped below 6 miles per hour, a speed at which simply staying upright becomes a challenge. Again, I was about to get off and stretch, again I was teased by a brief plateau. I tried to stand on my pedals for extra power. My legs told me to sit back down, quickly. By Mile 4 the jig was up. The grade had diminished, but it was too late. My legs were giving notice: Stop and walk it out or risk cramps that’ll last through Labor Day. I pulled to the shoulder, clipped out and exchanged the mask of pain for the mask of shame.
Later, Alan, Jason Halsey, who finished fifth, and I discussed cramps over the post-ride barbecue. We talked about the role heat played. We talked about hydration. We talked about nutrition and we discussed a theory about how the position of your feet in the pedals could bring on cramps. But we couldn’t skirt the ultimate truth: If you haven’t properly trained, if you aren’t up to the task, no amount of cool weather and sports drink will save you. I managed to stave off eternal cramps by pushing the bike a little, riding the bike a little for about two miles.
Enveloped in a drenching fog as I neared the summit, with just one mile of climbing to go (the remaining 13 miles back to Bakersville was nearly all downhill), I found the incentive to get back in the saddle for good: I was not about to walk my bike into the rest stop at Carvers Gap. Soaked and cold, I slowly wheeled up to the blue roadside welcome tent, ate two chocolate cookies, then gave my legs the rest of the day off as I floated down to the finish.
Photo: Always a welcome sight, this Welcome sign never looked better than it did after pedaling seven miles up Roan Mountain.