Tuesday, October 14, 2014

That Six Gap Thing

I just realized I never followed up about Six Gap. It wasn't because the experience was so traumatic for me that I avoided it. I simply forgot to pull up the blog and post. The short version of the story is that I finished. I didn't even hit a point where I felt even close to wanting to quit. I made sure to eat more and to drink more this year and I probably took longer breaks between climbs than I really needed. I finished the ride feeling pretty great and even managed to get done before the rain hit. Next year, assuming I do it again, which I probably will, my goal will be to finish faster, not just to finish.

As for the actual ride, let's start with the first climb of the ride's six serious climbs. The climb up to Neel's Gap isn't a big deal, at least not compared to most of the others. It's mostly uphill, except for a short downhill in the middle, for 6.6 miles with an average grade of 4% according to Strava. There are moments when the grade gets up to 8% or so, but this is the range where I'm fairly comfortable. Remembering last year's massive flameout after the fourth climb, I kept my effort easy and still put in a nearly identical performance on this climb as I did last year when I may have gone out too hard. I averaged just over 9 mph for the 6.6 miles.

The fact that I felt like I was taking it easy while going about the same speed is probably largely due to the fact that I've been riding a lot more this late summer and early fall than I did last year. Last year, I started training for a marathon in August, running 5 days a week and only got in one ride a week when I rode at all. This year I was putting in about 4 rides a week and repeating every decent hill I could find. So, despite the fact I was about 8-10 pounds heavier this year than I was at last year's ride, I was a stronger rider, which we'll see evidence of later.

The next climb is Jack's Gap. This climb is actually harder than Neel's despite averaging the same grade and being shorter. The serious climbing is only 4.1 miles, but it's not a steady climb. You climb a section of nearly 10%, then you go down a little, you hit a sudden steep short burst and hit a section that is almost flat and then you hit the final mile and a half where you're constantly between 6 and 9%. Despite this, I actually finished this climb 11 minutes faster than last year, and like I said, I was trying to keep things easy in the beginning this year. This climb actually ends at the beginning of the road that takes you to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia.

Unicoi Gap was actually a little slower, but this isn't a major climb. It averages 6% instead of the 4% of the first two, but it's only 2.3 miles and it's very steady. I'm good at steady. If I can lock into one gear and one cadence and just go, I do pretty well. This is that sort of climb. Fairly uneventful climb.

Hogpen Gap is my nemesis. This is where I broke last year and what caused me to quit, 14 miles after the top of the climb. Why did I manage 14 miles after the climb? Because the next 7 are all downhill so I didn't have to pedal and then it's actually a fairly easy 7 more to the rest stop. Hogpen is actually more than 7 miles from the start of the climb to the top, but none of the Strava segments cover the whole climb and the timed portion of the climb is only 6.2, but by the time you hit the timing mat, you've already been mostly going up (aside from a couple of short descents) for more than a mile. In that 7 miles, you climb around 2,000 feet in elevation and you climb all but 500 feet of it in 4 miles. If you clicked the link for this climb, you'll notice that the elevation profile looks flatter than the previous three, but if you hover over the chart, you'll notice the numbers are all much larger. The timed segment, which includes a short descent, averages 5%, but hits sections of steeper than 15%. If you look at just the steady climb for the last 4 miles, it's averages 7% with a max of around 16%. Sure, this doesn't sound much worse than the previous climbs, but when you start this climb you already have more than 60 miles in your legs and it's more than 2 miles longer than any other climb. You don't hit the steepest sections until you've been climbing for miles. When you get to those sections, you're putting all the power you can into your easiest gear and still barely getting the wheels to turn. I started passing people while only going 4 miles and hour. That's not normal.

This is where my story changes from last year. First, I finished that last 4 miles of Hogpen 7 minutes faster and unlike last year never had to get off the bike and hike. I was able to ride the entire climb and averaged a mile per hour better for the climb. I got to the top and I was tired, but not spent. I took a 15-minute break and got ready to descend.

I bought a knock-off version of a Go Pro camera called a Nabi Square off of Woot.com this year for $50 and I brought it along for this ride to video some of the descents. I had a waterproof, shock resistant case that I kept it in. As I got on the bike to start the long, fast, winding descent from Hogpen, I started the video and went.

Now, one of the dichotomies of Hogpen is that the road going up is smooth and freshly paved. That's good because rough pavement would make those steeper sections nearly unrideable, but the descent is much worse. It's not necessarily dangerous (or any more dangerous than would be reasonable for a steep descent where only your brakes are keeping you from hitting 60 mph), but it's rough. Bouncy. I'd gotten a quarter mile into my descent when I heard something clattering on the road behind me and I looked down to see I was missing my camera. I was going around 44 mph, but luckily, there was a parking lot just ahead, so I slowed, pulled over and went looking for my camera. First, I found the detachable viewfinder on the shoulder. Destroyed. Then I found the battery a few yards uphill. Not destroyed, but not in the camera. A good 15 yards further up the hill in the grass I found the camera itself. Surprisingly, the battery cover was lying next to it and the only damage to this part was scratches on the corners, but the lense and body were still fine. I put the battery back in, closed it up, and it seemed like it could still be working (although without the viewfinder I didn't really have proof). As I gave up looking for the case and turned around I saw the protective case lying in the middle of the road. I picked it up and noticed it had shattered the hinges. Unrepairable. I decided to reattach the camera to the mount without the case this time and video the rest of the descent and discovered the problem. The protective case had a faulty connector to the mount. My camera screwed in tightly to the mount while I never could get the case to feel secure. The camera never did fall off and unlike with the case, the screw holding it on never loosened. The resulting video is what starts off this post. Still a little sad it didn't save the video of the actual fall. That would have been neat to see.

My descent of Hogpen was actually a little slower this year. This wasn't because of caution, but because of people in the way. Every time I got to a really steep descent and could have really opened it up, I caught more cautious or lighter descenders who didn't' give me a safe line to pass for a while. This was not their fault. The road  constantly winds around the mountain and at those speeds you don't want to take the turn on the edge, you want to use the whole lane. Finding a straightaway long enough for me to pass safely was difficult, so I scrubbed a lot of rubber off my break pads during this descent.

I also realized just how tired I was after Hogpen last year. The section of the road that convinced me I was too tired to continue last year was, I thought, a flat section where it felt like I was working too hard to just be going 14 mph. When I got to this part this year I realized it's actually a visible, but easy, climb. It's not even a true false flat. It looks like you're going up, albeit slowly. It's at the end of this very gradual climb where you hit the aid station where I quit last year. I didn't really want to stop there this year because of bad juju, but I could really use some caffeine, so I stopped at a gas station a couple of miles before the aid station, drank a Coke, and then cruised by the aid station and immediately made the right turn onto the Wolfpen Gap climb.

Wolfpen is the second of the two timed climbs and it's name is incomprehensible to me. Cowpen Gap makes sense. There was probably once a pen full of cows up there. Hogpen, the same thing, but what kind of hillbilly farmer keeps wolves in a pen? It boggles the mind.

Anyway, Wolfpen is actually just as hard as Hogpen, for the exact same reasons (with the addition of adding Hogpen to your legs), but it's shorter. Technically, you're climbing without respite for about 5.5 miles, but 2.5 of those miles are like 1-2% grade and don't really count. The real climb averages 7% and lasts for 3.1 miles. It's hard climbing and you hate yourself just as much for those three as you did for most of the 6.2 of Hogpen, but the knowledge that it's only half as long makes it more bearable. I made it to the top, took another short break. Ate something and found out that the last climb was just ahead and apparently really easy. I was going to finish after all.

Woody's Gap is only a hair over 2 miles long and averages 3%. When I hit the aid station at the top, I was actually surprised. What's better is that once you crest it, 90% of what remains is downhill, including a steady 6-mile descent following by 10 miles of rolling terrain that trends downward. Woody's descent is fast and really fun. I was in good enough shape this year that I was able to enjoy the descents, punch it up the short remaining hills and actually sprint for the finish line. The guilt about giving up last year has been redeemed.

I'm just going to make sure to go in lighter next year. Weight matters in the mountains.

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