Photo: slimmer_jimmer, Flickr Creative Commons
The day before I set out to ride the 6 Gap Century, I had taken my bike in for a safety check. I hadn't noticed any problems with my bike and it had been riding well, but I've also never changed the brake pads and they were the same ones that came with the bike when I got it used more than three years ago. Luckily for my checking account, the bike was fine and needed no work, but I had been warned by the mechanic that there was a rest stop halfway up Hogpen that I should avoid at all costs. The road at that point of the climb is just too steep. He said that if I were to stop there, it'd be difficult to get the bike moving again even in my lowest gears. I took his advice and I steadfastly pedaled past the rest stop. Then, what felt like 30 minutes after passing the rest stop, I was all of 20 yards away and I hit the wall. I had to stop. I stood straddling my bike, rested my head on my arms above the handlebars and took a few deep breaths. When I felt a little better, I tried to get back on my bike and realized my thighs didn't have the power to get me started again. The mechanic was right, so I walked.
I would have felt a lot worse about having to walk here if the people passing me weren't going so slow. I was able to carry on lengthy conversations with the people who passed me before I couldn't see the fronts of their faces anymore. I was walking up the hill at 2.7 mph (my bike computer still registered the speed as I walked) while the guys passing were probably going around 3.3 mph. Both of those round to the same mile per hour, so I was basically walking as fast as they were riding. And hurting less. I walked probably a quarter mile before the grade let up a bit and I got back on the bike. The weird thing is that my legs didn't feel very tired when I was walking. I was able to keep a brisk pace up the hill with no problems. Just goes to show that you don't use your muscles in the same way between the bike and running/walking.
That wasn't the last section I had to walk. When the grade peaked again about a mile from the crest, I had to again get off and walk a quarter of a mile until the grade let up before I could get back on the bike and finish the climb.
When I did finally get to the top, I could barely get off my bike. My legs didn't want to work. I walked around, ate a sandwich and some Belvita cookies (which work great for me as bike fuel, by the way), drank some, refilled my bottles and worked up my courage for the descent. I'd heard the descent off of Hogpen was dangerous. Rough chipseal pavement (and as I descended I realized a little chewed up in places), and sharp turns make this a more challenging descent that the others on the course. This was where a woman died a couple of years ago. Apparently hitting speeds of 60 mph coming off the mountain is fairly common and the road is far from straight. There are several sharp corners where you're going to have to scrub off significant speed to make the turn.
Oh, and watch out so you don't overheat your brakes and rims and cause your tires to fail.
Apparently, my weeks of mild concern about my ability to coast down a mountain were misspent. I at no point ever felt the least bit in danger. Thrilled, yes. In danger, no. The closest brush with death I had was less than a mile from the top of the pass when someone had had a bike failure and a stupid SUV was parked on the side of the road taking up almost half of the lane and the cyclist was taking up most of the rest of the lane putting his bike in the vehicle. In front of me, too smaller riders were slowing up to try and pass safely.
Let me take a quick break here and point out that I am over 200 lbs. and my break hoods sit kind of low on the front of my bars, meaning to be able to have my hands in a good position to work the brakes easily and safely, I have to lean forward a bit giving me a fairly low profile. My weight and slightly aerodynamic position mean that I pretty much fly past anyone who is not pedalling downhill. I frequently passed people on descents even though they were pedalling and I wasn't.
In this particular situation, my inertia was not beneficial. I tried to scrub off a little speed by braking and hoping, but the guy loading up his bike didn't seem in a hurry (or aware of the dangerous situation he was in and causing) and the two guys in front of me seemed to decide to just brake to a crawl and pass him really slowly. That would have been great. I would have been perfectly happy to stop if I had had to, but I came around the previous bend at about 45 mph and could see well down the road on both lanes and had assumed the two guys in front of me would have just passed over the line and kept going instead of rubbernecking. By the time I realized they were going to go with the rubbernecking route, I didn't have time to slow enough. As I quickly increase my grip on the brakes (and visualized them melting against the tire rims), I tried to get a good enough look at the oncoming lane to make sure I wasn't going to hit an RV head-on and just hoped one of the rubberneckers wouldn't be so unaware of his surroundings that he'd veer into me as I passed.
Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic and the rubberneckers stayed their lines and I flew by as slowly as I had been safely able to go.
After that, my descent was incredible. The turns were tight and required me to pay attention and to use the cornering form I knew, but all of them were visible enough so that you had a really good idea of what to expect before you got to them and you could prepare. It wasn't easy, but it was great. I hit speeds I've never hit on a bike. Strava's analysis of my GPS data says that I hit a top speed of 59.9 mph. I don't have any independent confirmation of this because I couldn't look down at my bike computer much during the descent for safety reasons and the max speed record on it was reset accidentally on the trip home Sunday before I thought to check it. I'll take Strava's word for it. Seems reasonable. There was that one shallow pothole that I hit near top speed and I swear it sounded like my wheels snapped, but my bike really seemed to hold up well.
Of course, when you're descending at speeds of up to 60 mph, you don't get very long to rest. Distances that took an hour to travel uphill on the other side literally may take only 10 minutes coming down. If I had been able to coast for an hour, I think I would have arrived at the first aid station after the top of Hogpen rested enough to take a quick break and attack Wolf Pen. Instead, I finished the descent in minutes and struggled on the relatively flat last three miles before the rest area. There were sections that I'm pretty sure were mostly flat where I could barely manage to hold 12 mph. I knew this was bad. Normally, 19 mph on relatively flat terrain is keeping an easy pace for me. When I got off the bike, I went and found a chair and sat, which is where I started yesterday.
I don't think I was dehydrated. I actually had to stop and pee several times on the ride. I also don't think I was in serious carbohydrate deficit. I actually didn't feel particularly tired. It was rare that I breathed hard at any point of the ride, even on the steepest hills, I wasn't gasping for air. I was just breathing like I would on an easy jog. The problem was simply that my legs were quitting on me. I sat there in the chair, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some cookies, and drank some Gatorade. I texted my wife my location. I waited for a few more minutes and then texted her that I was considering calling it a day.
She didn't text back immediately and I watched the SAG wagon load a trailer full of bikes and load up for a trip of people too tired or with broken bikes back to the start/finish area. I half hoped that K would respond back and urge me to keep going. I wasn't sure that I couldn't make the last climb, and if I made that climb, finishing the ride would be easy and mostly downhill. I also knew that Wolfpen wasn't really a lot easier than Hogpen, especially given that you hit it around 80 miles into the ride. I called K and told her I was calling it a day. She was supportive, but it was hard to talk. I wanted to cry. I've rarely been as disappointed in myself as I was in that moment. I'm not used to failing when I set a challenge for myself. I loaded my bike in the trailer of the next SAG wagon, climbed in and stared out the window as all the Floridians babbled about their rides and damaged bikes and waited to get back to the high school so I could go home.
My attitude changed gradually after I got in the car, got a full meal in me and drove back to Marietta. I hadn't really trained for this event, and even though I've been riding better than I ever have in the last few months, I've only been riding once a week for more than a month. My cardio fitness is excellent, hence the fact I never had to breathe too hard during the ride. The problem is that biking and running don't use the same muscles in the same ways. That's why I found it so easy to walk up those sections on Hogpen at almost the same speed as I had been riding on those sections. It was other muscles that were failing me that aren't used as much in walking or running.
Also, I did manage four of the six gaps, which totalled 74 miles and about 9,000 feet of elevation change. That's like pedalling almost two miles straight up into the air. It's significant, especially for a flat-lander who had only even attempted riding in the mountains once before in his life. When I got back to Marietta, I was still disappointed in myself, but not so miserable about it and I was well on my way to convincing myself that next year I'll just officially train for 6 Gap so I'll have a better chance of it.
And that's the thing. By the time I got back to Marietta, I had stopped focusing on my failure and started focusing (without realizing it) on what I was going to do next year to fix it. I'd already decided to ride the century again without realizing I was even making a decision. It didn't hurt to have a little girl's face to light up when she saw me and demand to be picked up and a little boy running around yelling, "We're so proud of you daddy!"
So, next year when I finish my last triathlon in early August, I'm going to be transitioning into a training plan for the bike. I'll be spending 4 or 5 days a week on the bike, looking for the steepest hills I can find within a reasonable trip of my house and putting in the hours. I even started talking to my parents and sister about going in together on a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina so I can afford to stay up there a couple of weeks and just ride the mountains.
I am aware of my obsessive tendencies. Thank god I don't love heroin.