Photo: StephenGA, Flickr Creative Commons
Seven hours earlier, the day hadn't started badly. It was a little chilly as I got out of the car and started getting my gear unpacked after getting to Lumpkin County High School where the event began and ended. I had left Marietta around 5:30 that morning and I actually had to stop a couple of times, first at a gas station only to realize they hadn't turned their pumps on yet, then at a QuickTrip that was actually open, and finally at a RaceTrac in Dawsonville for a second breakfast. I'd be burning through thousands of calories that day. I probably needed the donut and coffee. I had assumed I'd be skimming into Dahlonega by the merest margins for the century, which started at 7:30. Instead, even after the stops and the traffic jam getting into school parking lot, I ended up having time to leisurely get everything set up and still have time to have to wait for the official start.
There were a lot of cyclists here for this. Thousands, actually. We were packed in pretty tightly in the school's main driveway and we probably took up a good quarter mile of two-lane pavement. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of getting started in such a tight crowd. I'm pretty good at holding my line and being aware of my surroundings, but what about the other 2,000 cyclists around me? One they sent us on our way, it was several minutes of walking my bike forward before it opened up enough in front of me to actually put foot to pedal and go.
I took it easy in the beginning. I had no time goal for this ride. I just wanted to finish. The course includes 11,200 feet of vertical climbing and I don't get the chance to do much climbing, living in the flats like I do, so I knew it would be hard. I also haven't been riding much lately. I started marathon training at the end of August and I only have one day a week to ride. True, those Saturday rides have all been over 50 miles for the last two months, and I push hard, but our hills are barely hills. At 6 Gap, the hills are actually mountains. Mountains as in we passed the entrance to the short road that takes you to the top of the highest peak in Georgia and we weren't even at the top of the climb for that section of the ride.
I was doing pretty good on the first couple of climbs. When we hit the first true climb, not one of the famed gaps, but two and a half miles of steady climbing for 400 feet of elevation gain, I felt great. I was passing a lot of people, but I was holding myself back so I didn't start breathing hard. I knew I needed to save myself. This was actually pretty pleasant. The climbing kept me warm and the scenery was beautiful. I was truly happy. When we crested the first gap (Neels) around mile 26 (and this was a real climb of 1,300 feet over 7 miles of riding) I texted my wife where I was and that I felt awesome. I had promised to text her throughout the ride. I had been a little worried about the descents. I don't have a lot of experience there and I had heard stories about riders coming off Hogpen at 60 miles an hour and even a death a couple of years ago from a crash on a descent. The fact I had mentioned my concerns to her had her worrying about me, but at this point in the race, I felt like I could go all day. I wasn't the least bit tired, so after 10 more miles, mostly downhill, when I hit the intersection where the 3 Gap Fifty riders turned left and the 6 Gap Century riders kept going straight, I kept going straight.
Don't get me wrong. I knew that 100 miles (plus a few) is much farther than 30 miles, but I wasn't even close to feeling bad. The issues that would creep up later in the day weren't even starting to show at the time. If I had turned with the 3 Gappers, I don't think I'd have even considered my day much of a challenge. I was keeping a good speed with low effort and I made sure to take my time at the rest stops and to keep eating and drinking. I was doing what I should have been doing, or so I thought.
I hit Jack's Gap not long after deciding to commit fully to the full century. This was actually an easier climb than Neels. First, there's only one really steep section, but it's really short. I popped down into my lowest gear and climbed it easily. After finishing off the short steep section, there's a short section of relatively flat or easy grade, followed by another short steep section (but not as steep as the first section) that finishes at the top of the gap. Again, I climbed easily. However, my next text to my wife very conspicuously leaves out any reference to how I'm feeling. My legs were starting to get a little tired. The same thing happened at Unicoi Gap. It's steep, but really short. I climbed it without too much trouble, but I was starting to wonder how much I'd have left for the big monster of Hogpen still to come.
One of the weird things about this sort of riding, and something I've only been able to experience in one other ride in my life is that you spend a lot of time just sitting there on your bike, fingers draped over the brake levers just in case. It's not boring. Rolling so fast that the wind blocks out every other sound in the world except its own roar is thrilling in itself. Despite my pre-ride concerns, coming down off the gaps was as easy as the climbs were hard. The only difficulty is knowing how to take a corner at high speed and knowing how to slow enough before you get to the turn to take it safely. I'm actually surprisingly good at that. Even in the sharpest turns, I was able to take the turn at over 30 mph without getting any closer to the outside paint line on the roads. The more gradual turns I took at whatever speed gravity decided was right for me. Outside foot down, inside foot up, inside knee pointed out, and lean into the turn. Road bikes, at least mine, handle surprisingly well on pavement. Who woulda thunk it?
I was a little tired, but pretty hopeful for finishing the ride when I finally hit Hogpen. Hogpen Gap is more than 7 miles of climbing with a couple of false summits thrown in to try and break your spirit. In addition to that, the grade frequently gets up to as much as 15%. The first 3 miles went by without too much trouble. Sure, it's frustrating to know that you've got 7 miles of climbing and you can't get your bike computer to say you're going any faster than 7 mph (and usually slower than that), but I was at least moving and feeling more or less okay. Then I hit the first really crazy incline and realized that I was going just over 3 mph. I was literally riding at a walking pace. What was worse is that no one was passing me. I crested the first false summit and then after a brief descent (knowing the whole time I had to climb all that lost elevation back before I even got close to the top), hit the second really steep section. I was hurting.
To be continued tomorrow.