Friday, July 22, 2011


This long entry includes the cycling and hiking in our annual vacation to the North Georgia Mountains. I'm skipping the family fun, since this is a cycling blog. Thus, I start with my first cycling foray.
Truely, it takes some time to get used to climbing, and more so as the years mount. I have learned to take it easy and just get it over with on the first day. However, there is a bit more interest in the rides since at the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive adventure, we (Barry and Rick and I) are doing the Six Gap Century out of Dahlonega. It so happens that my vacation riding includes all six gaps, although I take them three at a time and without the extraneous mileage.
So, off I went, leaving the cabin and doing a counter-clockwise circle of the gaps. Woody Gap is first, only a mile from the cabin, and fortunately in this direction, quite a mild climb. On the century ride it is the last of the gaps and truthfully, not as difficult as some of the rollers leading up to it. From the top of Woody Gap it is a five mile descent. There are no steep ramps, some tight turns, a few straight-aways, and a couple of chicanes. All in all, a delightful ride, mostly in the 30mph range, and especially easy when there are no cars to challenge you. A stop sign at the end means turn left and continue downhill for another mile, then rolling the rest of the way to Turner's Corner.
A left turn starts me on the way to Neel's Gap, nine miles of mostly ascending. Fifty minutes of climbing gets me to the top and a short breather while I turn my phone on and email Marilane that I'm safe and on time (this is the only place where AT&T has coverage, but we have wi-fi at the cabin). It is another five mile descent. Much of the way there are gentle turns, two lanes and a wide shoulder, allowing for increased speed (I won't use the term "breakneck"). There was a tentative driver who pulled over for the cars in front of me and I also passed him and stayed ahead all the way to the left turn to Wolf Pen Gap.
Wolf Pen is a three mile climb and probably my favorite of the six. The turns are tight, banked, and a few are pretty steep. I managed the ascent with a gear in reserve, and dipped down the other side. Just like last year, I did too much braking on the curves (but got better with each pass), and arrived back at the cabin exactly at the estimated 2 hours 45 minute time. I can tell you my legs were not happy campers, but then they never are on the first day.

I pick my days based on time constraints, weather, time of day, and lastly, how I feel. The next day I got out in the morning and did the same ride in reverse. Neither Wolf Pen nor Neel's is very strenuous from this direction, but the road down Wolf Pen was wet and dark, so I mitigated the speed (putting a damper on the "wheee" feeling). The descent from Neel's Gap, on the other had, was great, especially with no cars behind you. This is a nine mile, wide curves, and high speed drop. Lots of "whee" here, and only one car passed me. Unfortunately, the traverse over to Woody is more uphill than down. I took a short break before beginning the slow slog up Woody. This narrow, two lane road is more travelled but thankfully the drivers are used to cyclists. I have no idea why the mph is so slow, since the grade is only moderate.

Kurt and Nic (son and wife) arrived Saturday night, so my Sunday ride was a short out-and-back to Wolf Pen Gap. I estimated 45 minutes out and 30 minutes back, but apparently I'm getting better because I was 35 out and 25 back. That gave us plenty of time to sit and chat and absorb the great scenery our cabin presented (I highly tout High Valley Resort). However, this may have proved to be the beginning of my downfall. In the afternoon we became restless, waiting for the other siblings and their family to arrive. Last year, Kurt raced me up Brasstown Bald, him trail-running and me cycling the road. My time was 32:20 and quicker than Kurt by several minutes. Since then, Kurt has completed eight marathons, most of them over trails, and is much more fit. I, on the other hand, have had a poor training season and am less fit. Given the disparity, neither of us felt a need to race, however I proposed we hike up Brasstown Bald, something I have not done in my previous five years.

One hundred yards into the hike I was cursing the fool who suggested hiking. It was a hot, humid afternoon and I was already soaked in sweat. Kurt set a moderate pace, yet I had a difficult time getting my breathing and heart-rate stabilized (Nic was with us and, like Kurt, showed no signs of distress). I'm thinking it took about an hour. Kurt had mentioned a short downhill section to get to the parking lot of Brasstown Bald. Our definitions of short differ, in that my idea was a couple hundred yards. I could say it was a mile, but that would be a slight exaggeration. We couldn't very well just go to the parking lot, we had to complete the mission to the top, another steep climb (although on a nicely asphalted path). We made it to the top, but I didn't make it to the observation deck. I sent them on up while I rested and pondered the state of my health.
Ah! The downhill. Ok, they wore me out coming up the trail. When I considered the long climb from the parking lot (I'd had enough of hiking UP), I balked at taking the trail back to the car. So, we took the road. Half-way down my shins reminded me that they hadn't hiked in a year. Two and a half miles of steep downhill walking really did the shins in. At least my breathing was normal. The clothes were soaked, as was the dry t-shirt I had in the car, two minutes after I put it on.
One of the family goals is to complete the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Georgia. We do this with short hikes and half the time include the grandkids. Monday was a good hiking day, so there was no cycling. We got a late start and the travel logistics put us in the cars more than hiking, but in any case, put in 4 miles on the AT. My shins complained the whole time. Tuesday was also a good hiking day, and we did another 6 miles (without little ones) up to the North Carolina border. The shins merely wimpered. Wednesday morning a heavy shower cancelled both hiking and/or cycling (Hallelujah, a rest day).
Thursday the family activity was swimming. I don't do water. This would be my long day. Skeenah Gap is not one of the six gaps, and is to the north of Suches. It's a great ride and the weather cooperated nicely. Rather than a left turn to climb Woody Gap, a right turn takes me through Suches and several miles of superior downhill. The road was dry, shady, with great turns and several steep ramps which pushed the speed above 40mph. Sixteen miles later I took a right and had some nice, mostly flat riding through scenic countryside. One more right turn brought me to some short, steep hills. I saw deer, a box turtle, no dogs, and only a couple of vehicles. Of course, to get back to the cabin, the last part of the ride took me up and over Wolf Pen again. Fifty-one miles today.

Friday and Saturday were family oriented. Sunday two families returned home, plus church, so I was left with the option of riding in the afternoon heat or foregoing a ride. I opted to once again do the three gap ride, starting with Woody. I had the wind against me going down and had to pedal, albeit in my big gear, the whole way. Hardly any traffic for a Sunday afternoon. I came in ten minutes quicker than previous, although the time up Neel's Gap was the same. I think I did both sides of Wolf Pen faster.

Monday the rest of the family left, some needing a ride to the Atlanta airport. Once again, an afternoon ride was on the agenda. My plan was to do the other three gaps, Unicoi, Hog Pen, and Jack's. But I was looking at a three o'clock departure and in truth had no clue as to the mileage. I knew it was more than 34 and less than 45. As I dropped down the east side of Jack's Gap, the starting point, I calculated the time it might take. By the time I reached the bottom, five miles later, this was looking like a bad idea. But the climb back to the car was just the warm-up I needed for the legs to attack Brasstown Bald, which happened to start where the car was parked.
I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that my body cannot get up that one section of 26% grade without stopping. Once again my heart rate had another 10 bpm (or 14 under max), but the legs/lungs couldn't take it. The legs were shaking pretty bad when I stopped. Let's recap the climb: total of 2.5 miles that starts you off with a 14% grade, then relaxes to between 8-12% before jumping to 15% at the half mile mark, dropping back to 6-8% and jumping to 14% at the mile mark. For the next half mile you are between 9-12%, then you hit 16% followed immediately by the 26% wall (this year the Garmin registered 27% but in the previous years only 26%). After that come ramps of 16% and 17%, then single digits which seem downright flat. Shakey legs and all, my time was 32:09, or 11 seconds faster than last year. The descent took 5 minutes 38 seconds, with speeds topping 40mph, and too-hot-to-touch wheels at the bottom.

Looking on the bright side, I got back to the cabin with time to spare. That left one more day to do the three gaps. Early in the morning I was back at Brasstown Bald, parking and again heading down Jack's Gap. I was the only vehicle on the road. The first mile down is fun, but the other four are pretty boring and necessitated pedaling on occasion. A right turn at the bottom and shortly thereafter the climb up Unicoi. This is only three and a half miles and not difficult and has a great descent. I call it a nine mile descent, but only half of that is challenging, with long straights, chicanes, several U-turns, and many wide turns. When you start paralleling the creek, you know the fun is about to end.
The traverse to Hog Pen. I took my time and didn't let the hills bother me. Two miles later, the turn onto GA 348 signaled the ascent to Hog Pen Gap. According to the computer, this climb is about seven miles long and only tops out at 14%, but there are lots of double-digit ramps. Like last time, I found a need to take a breather about two-thirds of the way up. Beware the false tops, where you think you are done. Believe me, it isn't the crest until you see the AT sign. The descent is faster than Brasstown Bald (43mph with my hands squeezing the brakes) and quite straight. But after a few miles you are into rollers, and at this part of the ride, they hurt. I didn't remember this stretch going on for so long. Eventually I came to the stop sign and turned right.
Immediately I was on the climb up Jack's Gap and it was about six and a half miles of climbing.
I had no strength in the legs, so relied on cadence in a small gear. I must have zoned out, because I don't remember the hills being particularly difficult, the Garmin telling me 8 and 10% hills (not short ramps) and the miles passed relatively quickly. I was only 20 minutes later than my projected time, not bad for not knowing the mileage. Turned out it was a tad under 39 miles. Driving back down, I was more impressed with the hill I had just come up.

So, another foray into the North Georgia mountains has been completed. Can't wait for next year. I have a new plan to strengthen the legs and conquer Brasstown Bald.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Barry wanted to ride last Friday. He was going to do 70, how many did I want to do? I replied 60-65, since I need to work up to long rides once or twice a week, and the one with Amy and Chuck last week was my longest so far this year. My fitness has suffered. Speaking of Amy, we invited her along, and Rick (who is soon off to the TdF, Alps).
Wheels down slightly after the 7am planned time, so we could be off the road before noon. The temperature was in the high 70's and no wind (thus humid).
From Berry Springs to Schwertner to Bartlett to Granger, a nice loop. We stopped in Bartlett for fresh water and Gatorade (for them, I had plenty of liquid). None of this has anything to do with a guardian angel (although the ride was very pleasant and practically traffic free). The G A guided our movements to bring our ride in at 55 miles.
Shortly before 11am the wind strengthened out of the south, which happened to be in the direction we were going. Fortunately, it was only for a few miles before we turned east for a few miles and then would turn north and get the wind at our backs. So, as we headed south, we could see by our computers there would need to be a course correction if we were to actually get in 60 miles. Nope, my mouth was bigger than my legs when spouting out I needed 60 miles. But my brain, and body, had the final say and we completed the loop at 55 miles. As we cruised back into the park, all body parts were in agreement that today they had had enough. (Ed. note: the whole point of this entry is that leg and lung strength is only part of the equation. You also need to build up time-in-saddle muscles)
I added another 31 miles on Saturday and today (Sunday) had my fastest ride time ever on the 360 Loop ride (subtracting the 16 minutes to change a flat). About the flat, right after crossing the dam and as I finished up, a DPS trooper stopped by to alert cars and provide protection while I got myself together. I really need to get some tire-toughies if I'm to continue to ride 620.