The Ben That Inspired Us

jeopardy-toc-winner-2014

In case you haven’t heard, someone from the Carolinas won the Tournament of Champions. Ben Ingram has ties to a lot of places: Florence, Charlotte, Spartanburg, and yes, Columbia. He is a Florence native, went to school at Wofford and South Carolina, and currently works in Charlotte.

It’s no secret that Ben’s run was phenomenal, and we’ve enjoyed following along, at times from a distance, at times up close. His Jeopardy triumphs bookended our own experience, which is miniscule in comparison, but still something we’ll never forget. Our adventure, at least in our memories, will be inextricably linked with his championship and how he inspired us.

Ben’s run first aired in July of 2013. Coincidentally enough, that is right after the time Andrea auditioned in Nashville. Jeopardy was at the forefront of our minds and it was fantastic to watch someone from our region achieve such success. In the back of her mind, Andrea was probably thinking of strategies from all of the contestants. I think she paid extra attention to Ben, because she did employ a similar strategy when she made it to air. It worked for her.

This has been an active and highly publicized season for Jeopardy. When Andrea taped her episodes, Arthur had just begun his run. I believe he had won five games by that point, but in such impressive fashion that we wondered whether he would still be playing. Arthur quickly went viral. At first he was villainized for his unconventional, jarring strategy. That transformed as he went on, and a lot of people embraced him, including ourselves.

When Andrea taped, we heard about another upcoming championing that would be appearing at some point before her episode would air. We knew it would be a female, and we watched religiously, speculating which one would be the champ. It turned out to be Julia, and what a champ she was! With her infamous sweaters and bubbly personality, she became a media darling. She won 20 games, the 2nd most ever in show history. At first social media didn’t seem to notice, until she kept winning, and winning, and winning some more. Eventually she was doing interviews for major publications and TV shows.

During this time, we were preparing for Andrea’s episodes to air. It was tough to keep quiet about it, while planning for to celebrate with a viewing party at the same time. It was at this time that we engaged with Ben. He is active on social media, and if memory serves, he first took attention of us when I notified him that another Carolinian would be appearing soon. The three of us tweeted together. Since he was such an inspiration, it was nice to have him in our corner during the whole ordeal. He gave some valuable advice as to how to deal with everything.

One time he asked: “are you the steep climbs guy?” LOL. That’s me. It is not the first time I had been asked that question, but I would have hardly expected it from a Jeopardy champ.

We knew the Tournament of Champions was going to be coming up eventually, and we were sure that Ben had qualified, even though his first episodes taped over a year ago. We soon put our enthusiasm behind #teamben, rooting for the hometown hero that we had found to be just a downright good guy.

Ben won his quarterfinal match, and then obliterated the field during semi-finals. I’m not sure whether Arthur and Julia watched that match live. If so, they would have been shaken. Ben had two advantages. He was a formidable opponent and had become the forgotten dark horse. I tweeted the following:

Arthur retweeted it, which is interesting in hindsight.

A Fox News article came out about the Tournament of Champions, and they summarized it as a rivalry between Arthur and Julia. Ben wasn’t even mentioned. Instead, he became the “other guy.”

After Wednesday’s quarterfinal, we got an invite to the finals viewing party. It turned out he was having it at our hometown. It was short notice and the timing was actually terrible for us, but this was a chance to experience history. Not to mention it would be our second viewing party of the year, and this time all we had to do was show up.

The SC Jeopardy champs of 2014. The one on the right won a little more.

The SC Jeopardy champs of 2014. The one on the right won a little more.

We finally met Ben in person. He was just as charming, gracious and funny as he came off on TV. We met his family, including his mother who was at the screening. That meant she knew the outcome, but we knew better than to ask her. We’d been down that road, carefully deflecting the carefully worded questions trying to glean an idea of the results. We also met his girlfriend Liz, who was super cool. We met other members of the family that had flown in from Bismarck, ND. We met his brother, and plenty of his friends. He really has a wonderful family, and I could tell that they were all proud of him, although I don’t think any of them knew the outcome aside from his mom, who kept quiet.

Ben has a sense of humor too. This was his Julia reaction shot.

Ben has a sense of humor too. This was his Julia reaction shot.

We cheered loudly as the show went on. Ben played smart, and even though he fell behind Arthur, he completed his successful streak of answering every Final Jeopardy completely. It was a brutal question that both Arthur and Julia missed. We didn’t know it either. I doubt anyone else in the room did. Ben knew. Ben always knew. Well, almost always.

He had a $10,000 lead. I congratulated him, and he reminded me that this was a two-day competition. Anything can happen. He’s exactly right. His competition was fierce. I was impressed by how well he kept the secret, but I also remembered how quiet we had been. It was difficult for us, and Andrea only won a game. Ben had won the championship. I’ll bet that deep down, he felt euphoric and wanted to scream and yell the results. His exterior was cool, composed, and revealed nothing.

The final night had some tough questions and a brutal Final Jeopardy. Nobody got the answer. The question was which Shakespeare play had a place named in the title that was not in Europe. The Answer was Pericles of Tyre. Ben was a Mathematics major, and he made a smart, safe wager. It was good enough to win.

When Andrea had won, both of our phones blew up. It took days, weeks even to get through all the emails, social media notifications, and to finally come back to reality. I cannot imagine what it was like for Ben. There’s already a Wall Street Journal piece on him, and I expect many more articles in the coming days.

I expect him to continue to be successful, and he’ll probably play Jeopardy again some capacity. Maybe another Battle of the Decades, or maybe he’ll play Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, a computer .. or something. Jeopardy likes trotting their champions back out, and Ben is one that they, and we, can be proud of.

Congratulations Ben! Enjoy the celebration!

ben champ


Them Bones

stronger-bones

I’ve talked plenty about my bone density issues and speculated where they may have come from. We may never know completely why and how this came about, and what place it had in the perfect storm of the freak injury history of the last couple years. From now on, this is the going to be not just the primary focus of my recovery, but a major focus for the rest of my life. More on that and how it will impact my next few months in a moment.

I’ve posted this New York Times article ‘Is Bicycling Bad For Your Bones?’ before, but it is worth revisiting. The topic is controversial. I’ve talked to many who completely disagree and insist that my problems were due to other issues. They may be partially right, and I cannot blame cycling itself, but I can pinpoint where in my process that I started neglecting my bones and urge others not to make the same mistakes.

It has become clear that I most likely had some bone density issues before beginning to ride. Some of this probably has to do with diet. My worst habit has been soda products, most of which are not good for bone strength. Even now I find it difficult to cut them out completely, although I drink a lot less than I used to. Calcium has not been a major staple of my diet either. I don’t handle milk well, and tend to avoid fattening and high calorie dairy products just to keep slim.

Weight bearing has also been an issue. Even though I’ve dabbled with running and walking, cycling has been my sport of choice for years. Since I have worked at an office job and gone to school for the last several years, I’ve been off my feet a lot.

During the few years of intense cycling, I barely ran or even walked. The extent of my weight bearing was occasional strength exercises, but even those were not appealing to me. I preferred to develop strength on the bike. Climbing probably puts a little more weight on the leg muscles, but most likely not the hip. Proper cycling form minimizes the use of the hip. The flexors are being used to spin the pedals, but the quads and glutes do the heavy lifting.

When I wasn’t riding, I was recovering. That meant sitting on the couch. Sometimes I would do active recovery with short, easy rides, but I was not adding any weight bearing. After a tough mountain century, I would generally stay on the couch for the better part of a few days.

I was shocked when I had a scan last year and found that I had osteopenia in my hips. In hindsight, given my habits and training practice, I should not have been so surprised.

A couple weeks ago, we had a re-scan. I expected the numbers to be a little worse because I had surgery this year and a lot of recovery time. I’ve been on the couch a lot more in the last year than maybe the previous five years combined. The initial numbers that they gave me were discouraging. It sounded like the hip had gotten worse. On top of that, I was actually in osteoporosis levels in my hip joint. After receiving that news, I wondered seriously if I would ever ride again. I had even drafted a post basically ending this website. I have not and will not publish that one, because as has been typical with this roller coaster injury, the news got better.

When comparing my scan from April of last year with the one from a couple weeks ago, it turns out that my hip bones have actually improved by about 15%. That is significant enough for me to be encouraged. The osteoporosis is in my actual hip joint, the same one that was operated on in January, and it is barely at the level. The test last year did not scan the hip joint. Why would they? So there was nothing to compare, but I’d say the odds are that that bone was weaker last year than it is now.

The picture becomes clearer. What have I done differently? I’ve eaten dairy products, and over the past couple months have tried to walk around as much as possible. Over time walking has become less painful, which might be due to the bones strengthening along with the injury healing. The weight bearing will continue, but for now, any riding, running or jumping will not, at least for a couple or few months until my bones strengthen. The good news is I’m almost guaranteed to ride again and likely at a high level, but I will have to do things differently.

This is where I encourage all cyclists to learn from me. Implementing some form of weight bearing is important. Eating a balanced diet is important. A lot of us hate running. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it, but know that eventually it will be a necessary evil. Strength training isn’t my thing either, but it’ll also be necessary. That can be squats, leg presses, or even upper body exercises while standing. It is important that some time is spent on a weekly basis doing some sort of weight bearing.

Things are again looking better for me, and I’m keeping a positive attitude. As far as pain goes, I am feeling better than I have in two years, and I cannot begin to express how liberating that feeling is. I’m able to get out, explore, see and experience things. I’ve been to three concerts in the past three weeks. I hadn’t been to a concert in years prior to this summer. It’s good to get outside. The couch is a brutal prison.

Standing near the front row for two hours felt amazing and not painful.

Standing near the front row for two hours felt amazing and not painful.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep walking and eating calcium. My doctor said that I shouldn’t worry about the calories, and that adding a few pounds would not be the worst thing. It might even help strengthen my bones by giving me more weight to bear. And I know I can lose it later. As I get more comfortable on my feet and finish up with some other priorities, I’m going to mix up my training regimen. The idea for now is to start P90X3 in December. That will give me upper body strength and hopefully will turn some of that fat into muscle. It may not be the lean, climbing body that I strove for last year, but it’ll still be a functional and healthy body. I’ll be careful with any of the flexibility and jumping exercises that interact with my hip, and I’ll probably start easy.

When I’m on the other side of that, the bike will be waiting for me. So will the sneakers, and so will the leg press machine. It’ll be about balance, but if I’m smart, I’ll climb higher and stronger than ever.


Tunnel to Towers, Columbia, SC

main stage

It has been a little while since I’ve checked in. It is hard to believe that the injury first occurred over two years ago. Finally I am able to live life and stay relatively active without pain, and after this messy ordeal, that’s a good thing.

I’ve been reluctant to jump back onto the bike until I’m sure of having no setbacks, so instead I’ve been doing a whole lot of walking. Most of the time walking is not exactly interesting (with some exceptions, like a gator story I might tell someday), so the blog has remained dormant for the time being. Fortunately I found a walk that’s extremely interesting and highly personal, so I thought I would share.

Last week I heard about a 5k run to commemorate firefighters who passed during 9/11. Tunnel to Towers is specifically designed to honor the sacrifice of Stephen Siller, who ran from the Lincoln Tunnel to the twin towers in full, heavy firefighting gear. He is a true hero and is worthy of being honored. Yet, for some reason, I hadn’t heard about this event.

Let me backtrack a little bit here.

9/11 is the day in our generation that everyone remembers vividly, sort of like the Kennedy assassination for the baby boomers. I was working from home and didn’t have the TV on. I left to grab some breakfast around mid-morning, and when I ordered, someone at the counter said “Can you belief that we’re under attack?” The first plane had just hit the tower. I rushed home and watched the news and kept it on for hours, shocked and saddened by the tragic events as they happened.

Later in the day I visited my family. I have three younger half-siblings, and they were much younger then. The oldest was 10. They came from my father’s second marriage to a nice lady from Staten Island, NY. This was the ideal step-mother situation, as we got along splendidly nearly from the first time we met. Today I consider her to be a part of the family.

She had three brothers who were all firefighters. One of them was even a Battalion Chief. When we learned that the towers had collapsed and firemen were down there, she was worried that her brothers might have been caught in the wreckage. She made phone call after phone call, trying to account for their whereabouts. She got in touch with two of them, but neither had heard from Jeff, her youngest brother. The night passed, and in the days following, she continued making phone calls trying to find him, to no avail. She heard from her brother that his unit was one of the first in there, and it looked grim.

Jeff didn’t make it. We’ll never know what happened, but we do know that he passed away while saving lives, just like Stephen Siller did. Here is a little more about him.

I had never met Jeff, but because of what happened, I felt like I knew him. He was a young buck, in his mid-twenties, a good boyfriend to his girlfriend who was going to law school, and he and my step-mother were very close. He was a guy I would have liked to have met, and probably would have if that tragic day had never occurred.

It was tough on the kids. They knew Jeff and loved him. I did what I could to comfort them, but they didn’t truly understand.

Since then, the thought of Jeff and the memory of the grieving family has dominated my memories of that tragic day. It’s strange how people react, and I’m not an outwardly emotional person. I hardly ever cry in movies for example, but for awhile, anything 9/11 would strike a chord with me. I avoided movies and documentaries about the subject just because of how painful those memories were.

Time has a way of making things easier. When we visited the 9/11 museum, I made it a point to look at the memorial for Jeff. There were audio recordings from his mother, my step-grandmother, who I have met several times and is a sweet, dear person. It was touching to hear such a familiar voice talk fondly about her lost son.

One day we accidentally walked by the NYFD and stumbled upon images of all the lost firefighters. Jeff was in the picture.

lost firefighters
jeff stark

So when I heard about the 5k, I jumped at the chance.

The crowd was massive. 5k strong!

The crowd was massive. 5k strong!

Even though I’ve been walking for exercise, I was reluctant to sign up for a 5k. Sometimes my own worst enemy is myself and my competitive drive. If I start at a race with the intention of walking or jogging slowly, I may change my mind when people start passing me. This one was safe for a number of reasons. First off, it was massive. Approximately 5,000 people participated, and many of them walked. Second, part of the thrill of the event was the camaraderie and the tribute. I was able to experience plenty while walking around and looking around than if I had run.

Still, I was nervous and I prepared to go slowly. As I began to walk, groups of marching military groups would pass by. At first they walked, and as they got to the starting line, they would jog. They kept a call and response cadence, some of which were serious, others fun and lighthearted. I felt privileged to walk among them.

military marching

The most special event came a short while later. As we made a turn, we saw a line of people holding up pictures. I immediately recognized them from the NYFD. I made my way across the street between the marching military columns and looked at each of the signs in order to pay tribute. Then lo and behold, Jeff’s face showed up. I stood dead in my tracks. “That’s my uncle-in-law!” I shouted to the nice young lady. I was moved and even choked up when I saw him there. I asked if she would pose for a picture, and of course she obliged. Later I found out that these were all USC students who stood out there holding the signs. Thank you, students.

Jeffrey Stark

Jeffrey Stark, hero

As I continued walking, I made it a point to look at every other sign. I could only afford a quick glance at each, but that was enough. These firefighters were all heroes, and they all had families like mine.

Another benefit of walking was I was able to share pavement with many of the firefighters who were walking in full, heavy gear. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to walk with them. As I passed them, I made sure to let them know how much I respected what they were doing.

firefighter walking

Along the entire course were onlookers cheering us on, giving us high fives as we passed. Many of them carried American flags, and they contributed to both the excitement and the patriotism of the event. Even though we were paying tribute to a tragic event in history, the mood was jubilant, patriotic and everyone was full of resolve. The time for mourning has passed. We were celebrating their heroism.

I found out later that someone had officially run for Jeff in the New York event of this race. Next year I will make it a point to officially run for Jeff here. And next time I will run.


The Last Two Miles of Recovery

Just. 2. More. Miles.

Can you believe that as of a couple weeks ago, this injury began two years ago? It’s weird just thinking about it. Just a few weeks ago, I wondered if I was weeks, months, or maybe even years away from the end of this thing. The breakthrough came when I was walking around the streets of Manhattan, of all places. A few weeks later and the end of this journey is almost within sight.

I’ve learned not to blog about every single little healing point, because sometimes they can be fleeting or temporary. Before getting carried away and telling the world, I want to hear from someone smarter than myself. I heard that news today.

Just to backtrack, we discovered not too long ago that the majority of the setbacks were scar tissue related. Prednisone wiped them away temporarily, and then they came right back. Walking around New York helped too. The smoking gun was found when I had an injection into my pelvis. I was fortunate to work with my favorite radiologist, who I have seen an unbelievable three times. As he was performing the injection, he took an x-ray and used an ultrasound tool to see inside my hip joint. There it was, clear as day, a bright, think white line that enveloped my hip joint from end to end.

It was scar tissue alright, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The problems I had been dealing with were a result of tendons passing over the scar tissue and getting caught. That would result in inflammation and felt oddly similar to how things felt before surgery. It was a different form of hip popping syndrome, only this time it was not due to a torn labrum. I found myself recalling the philosophy from True Detective — “Time is a flat circle.” The line barely made sense when I watched the show, but it made perfect sense when I was getting that last injection.

For the first few days, the hip hurt. That was nothing to worry about. It was supposed to hurt. Then it would get a little better day by day. Sure, there were a couple bad days, and there will probably be a couple more, but the momentum was in the right direction.

Today I saw my doctor again. The good news is this scar tissue is manageable. It will never truly go away. My body will just adapt to it, and will re-build itself to accommodate it. It will probably give me a little bit of trouble in the future, but nothing like what I’ve dealt with over the last two years.

What is important is that I continue with regular, light activity. Walking works, as I’ve already found, and I can burn a few calories while I’m at it. For the next couple months, I’ll be doing a lot of walking, and maybe a little bit in the gym. That’ll break up the scar tissue and get my body to start getting used to it.

I decided to stay off the bike for a little while longer. I know I could ride right now. In fact, I would absolutely love to ride. There’s a chance that it would be no problem. The issue with me and riding is that I have only one speed. When I get on the bike, I want a workout. Rather than risk going too hard and setting myself back again, I’m going to slow it down. Now that we’re almost to September, the year is pretty much done anyway. I’ll give myself a little more healing time, and hopefully during the offseason I can gradually transition back. What’s important is that I remain patient and don’t push myself.

My doctor said he absolutely, positively expects me to get back to endurance sports again. The question is when. That depends on my body. Probably the earliest would be by the end of the year, and the latest next spring. All that matters is that I’ll be back.

Nice bridge view from the Roanoke Mountain lookout.

Don’t go anywhere, mountains. We’ll meet again soon.


2014 Blue Ridge Breakaway

I cannot thank Kevin enough for posting such a detailed report of his Blue Ridge Breakaway this past weekend. As I noted in my intro post, Kevin is someone that I’ve been in contact with occasionally over the years and have enjoyed following his exploits over at DoboVedo’s Journal of Journeys. Since I was still sidelined with injury, I asked him if he’d be willing to contribute something for me since I absolutely love this ride. Kevin wasn’t planning on riding until I asked him, and I’m glad that he agreed. The below post is an abbreviated version of his report with a couple of pictures. You can read the entire thing over at his blog, which I highly recommend. I left off some of his personal details, such as his experiences with Tom, his meet-up with Kent from Motion Makers, and yes, even a little bit about how I asked him to write this post.

lake logan


The Blue Ridge Breakaway is an annual bicycle ride starting from the Lake Junaluska Conference and Visitor Center in western North Carolina. The event features four routes of varying distances. As the name suggests, the ride is held in the Blue Ridge Mountains and historically the event’s 105 mile route, called the Hawk, features over 30 miles of riding along the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge Parkway. In past years the next shortest route, called the Trout, has been somewhere around 60-65 miles (a metric century), and has not gone up along the Parkway itself. There are also 50 and 25 miles options, called the Panther and Rabbit, respectively.

The only questio was whether to do the Hawk, which I have done every year prior, or do the Trout instead? Normally this wouldn’t even be a debate, I always opt for the longest route or time option in any riding event, but this year they did something a little different with the Trout that had me intrigued. By bumping the route distance up to 75 miles, they were able to use the same Parkway miles as the longer Hawk route. This was accomplished by cutting 30 miles of lower elevation – yet still hilly terrain – out of the beginning of the ride. Ironically, every prior year Scott and I have ridden the Breakaway together, we have joked in the early miles that we should cut the course, knock about 25 or 30 miles off of the route, and head straight for the big mountains. We’d never do it of course, but it was always good for a laugh. And now there was a legitimate route that did exactly what we had joked about.

With the route changes this year, the 75 mile Trout riders were held 15 minutes while riders for the other routes started at 7:30. In the interim, the announcer asked if anybody had ever done the Breakaway in prior years. When many people, myself included, responded with shouted yeses and raised hands he said “OK, you people should not do what you did last year, unless you want to be lost right from the beginning”, which resulted in quite a few chuckles. He then explained the various turns and landmarks for the beginning miles of the Trout route, which would basically take us into nearby Clyde in as few as six miles. After that we would be following the same route as the Hawk riders, sans 30 miles of smaller but still significant hills.

We took off more or less exactly at 7:45. Tom and I started out somewhat near the front of the pack but felt no burning need to stay with them. As we went up the first few moderate grades however, it seemed that although the lead pack of about two dozen riders was going along at a brisk and steady pace, they didn’t appear to be getting aggressive. At least.. not yet. I found myself hovering with that the group in just close enough proximity that it seemed silly not to get into the pack and enjoy at least a little bit of draft. I accelerated just hard and long enough to catch on to the back, and soon enough we rolled in to Clyde.

Over the next 10 miles the route gets relatively easy. It rolls gently with just a minor rise here and there, at an average gain of only 1%, bringing riders to Lake Logan, a pristine little lake in a lush green valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, at an elevation of 3000′. During this time I felt myself getting into a good rhythm and settled into the drops, feeling pretty good. I passed by a few more riders here and there, and figured there were probably no more than ten or a dozen still in front of me. So I started debating how I wanted to spend my day: hammering away or keeping things more chill and enjoying some fun in the sun?

If it had been like that yet again this year, it would be easier to just keep riding hard and get the ride over with. But this year the weather was just about as good as it gets in August in the mountains of Western NC. Mostly sunny skies with high wispy clouds, a gentle breeze, and temperatures starting in the 60s and reaching a normal high in the low 80s, staying nearly 10 degrees cooler in the higher elevations. Picture perfect!

We rolled out and began our ascent up the first major climb of the day.. 215 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. From here we’d be riding about 10 miles and gain roughly 2300′. The climb starts gently for the first three miles or so, and then gets markedly steeper as you enter the Pisgah National Forest Boundary near the Sunburst Campground. From there it stays pretty steady but gets gradually steeper towards the top. Along the way is cascading waterfall in a beautiful setting. Along with Lake Logan, it is one of the visual highlights along 215. I stopped there to capture a few images and also took a few more towards the top.

Tom on 215

Tom on 215

Nearing the top of the 215 climb, you come around a bend you see the “Blue Ridge Parkway Ahead” sign. Just prior to that, one gets the feeling that the grade is going to back off. Things level out for just a short moment and then BAM! the grade kicks up to near digits. “Ahead” seems to go on forever, but a few painful moments later, you do make the turn onto the Parkway.

For the Breakaway, the organizers are kind enough to put an Aid Station at the next overlook, just a quarter mile further up the road. I stopped there to regroup and spent some time chatting with the volunteers. The Blue Ridge Breakaway is one of the most well-organized and friendliest rides I’ve ever done, and it has been consistent every year I’ve done it.

Once on the Parkway, the next 8 miles take riders up to Richland-Balsam Gap, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at just over 6000′. There are a couple descents mixed in, with a total elevation gain of roughly 1500′.

Upon reaching 6000′ the first big descent of the ride begins. Well.. sorta. It’s 12 miles down to Balsam Gap at 3400′, but there are a few small rises in the early going. Most of them are really mild grades and can be ridden in the big ring. I’ve even done them in 50×12 at times, but not this time.

Once the rises are finished it is 7 or 8 miles of descending with no brakes, no slowing… just pure fun. Although at one point we did see a deer on the side of the road and slowed a bit, just in case it bolted into the road. Fortunately, it stayed put and calmly watched us go by.

At Balsam Gap the climbing begins once again. This is the Waterrock Knob climb, eight miles at a nearly unchanging steady grade. It’s not too difficult, but can feel relentless due to the length, and the curves can begin to look repetitive. I’ve done this climb countless times and know it by heart, so I called out some of the landmarks and clues to Tom, letting him know when it would finally let off about a mile from the top.

Waterrock Overlook

Waterrock Overlook Above

Normally this point of the Breakaway ride is where I start to crack. On three prior occasions, I’ve really started to suffer halfway up Waterrock. On the second of those three I turned the 105 mile route into a 155 mile day by riding to and from Lake Junaluska, so that much was to be expected. The first year, it had poured rain all day long and I was cold and wet and miserable.. the legs just wouldn’t stay warm. Last year wasn’t as bad but I still wasn’t able to go as hard as I wanted to and lost a lot of time in the overall.

This year was so much different. I still felt great and was having a blast riding up what is my favorite section in the entire length of the Parkway. I grudgingly admitted to myself that I really did like doing only the 75 mile option and skipping those first 30 miles. Will I do the shorter route again next year? That remains to be seen. Ego and desire will factor in, but right now I’m thinking “Drop some weight, do the 75 and go for best time.”

(Aaron: Kevin has convinced me to give the shorter route a try next year)

All along I had tried to predict when the fastest 105 mile riders might catch us on our 75 mile route. I figured it would be somewhere around 5 hours and nearing the top of the Waterrock climb. Sure enough, just a few hundred yards from the top I heard a voice behind.. “Hey Kevin!” and it was my friend Nick, who was a bit surprised and elated to find himself alone at the front. We chatted just briefly, and he then disappeared up the road, climbing with seeming effortlessness.

Since Tom had never been up to Waterrock Knob before we decided to take a few moments and add in the quarter mile climb (sorry Tom, I know I said a tenth of a mile!) up to the overlook. The view up there is stellar, looking in both directions off the ridge. The Smokey Mountains were their trademark smokey, but beautiful nonetheless.

At that point, the climbing is done. The only thing remaining is a 15-mile descent down the Parkway to Soco Gap continuing a steep descent down 19 and then a gradual downhill run thru Maggie Valley until reaching the finish line back at Lake Junaluska.

Tom and I started down the super fun 4 mile descent to Soco Gap. Unfortunately, Tom and I didn’t have as much fun on the descent of 19 as we had hoped. The traffic on this 2-lane road between Maggie Valley and Cherokee can be very heavy, and we got caught behind a line of about five cars that was trailing a pickup truck going much slower than normal. As it turns out he was looking to make a left turn up ahead and apparently wasn’t sure where it was. Once we got around that backup though we had more fun on the lower part of the descent and then I put in a long hard pull, taking Tom thru Maggie Valley at a good clip.

We had a grand time finishing out the ride and got back to the visitors center in just under six hours. All in all, it was a really great day out on the bikes. We grabbed some really good food after, chatted, and made our way home. Another Blue Ridge Breakaway in the books.


2014 Breakaway From Afar

Wes and Julie complete the climb up Waterrock Knob.

If you had told me after my January 31st surgery date that I wouldn’t be back up to full speed by August, I might have punched you in the mouth. Honestly, I thought there was a chance I could recover quickly and be ready for Mitchell in May. Alas, that didn’t happen. I put two rides on my calendar as goals for the fall, one of which is my favorite century ride in the mountains, the Blue Ridge Breakaway. While I’ve made progress and should be back on the bike soon enough, to my disappointment, I don’t have the fitness to even think about Blue Ridge Breakaway this year.

How much do I love the ride? As some might remember, last year when the weather report was sketchy at best, I woke up in the middle of the night to see if it had cleared out. It had, and I drove in the wee hours of the morning, rode 100 miles, and drove home later that evening. You can read about that experience here. It was not something I’ll want to do again – the driving that is. I’ll certainly do the riding again.

I am particularly envious this weekend, because the weather may be the best the event has ever had. The low is in the 60s and the high is in the 80s. I imagine that once you hit the higher elevations, you’ll be in perfect temperatures with the sun on your back.

Instead, like I’ve been doing lately, I’ll be living the event through others. Kevin Dobo has a blog called Dobovedo that I have read occasionally. Like me, he has a thirst for the higher elevations. He used to live in Sylva and has migrated to Asheville. We’ve corresponded a couple times on rides, and he seems like a good dude. He has ridden in four of the five Breakaways, and I am officially dubbing him my surrogate rider. I’ll live the experience through him. He’ll post what I’m sure will be an excellent ride report on his blog, and I’ll post some of the high points here, maybe with some commentary. If any other readers want to chime in about their experiences, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll include you in the recap post.

Highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Richland Balsam Mountain, highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway

I’m particularly interested in the ride this year because they have two rides that reach the Parkway this year. In year’s past they have experimented with the shorter routes. At one time the metric was nearly an out-and-back, and the century riders would cross paths with the metric riders about when the big climbs start. This year the “Trout” is a comparable challenge to the full century dubbed the “Hawk.” Rather than 106 miles, is is a mere 76 miles, but with nearly 8,000 feet of climbing, some on the Parkway. The “Hawk” is the granddaddy, which I can personally attest is a tough century and it has some tough, longer climbs and two of my favorite descents in the world. As curious as I would be about the “Trout,” my personality is go big or go home, and I’d be all over the longer route.

Thanks for riding for me again. I look forward to hearing about and envying your adventures. Soon enough I hope to be back up in elevation. Armchair cycling is for the birds.

To all those riding, Godspeed and have a terrific ride!


Not Biking in NYC

nyc

New York City is arguably one of the best bike cities in the country. People bike everywhere, and it’s a great way to see the city without putting too much wear and tear on your feet. While the city can be tricky to navigate and drivers are aggressive, with a little research and safety precautions, it is a great place to ride.

Or so I’ve heard and seen.

I didn’t ride at all in New York, as tempting as that was. As a cyclist, I observed a lot. That made it tough to stay off of wheels, and there were a couple times I considered either renting a bike or grabbing a Citi bike, but I exercised caution rather than risk hurting myself and ruining the vacation.

This post is just about the biking that I saw during this vacation.

The Three Tickets

This cop was on it!

This cop was on it!

We saw bike lanes practically everywhere in New York. At first I cringed seeing riders ‘sharing’ the road with aggressive taxi and Uber drivers, not to mention dodging walkers and dealing with traffic. I could tell that riding in Manhattan is not for the squeamish if you ride surface roads along with cars. There are plenty of isolated lanes that allow for a more safe and quiet ride, but those are generally scenic areas and not necessarily a way to get from point A to point B.

One of the coolest things I saw was while walking not far from the United Nations. There were a lot of bike lanes in that area, but as usual in NYC, not much parking. We walked along a road where three cars were idling in the bike lane, using it as a parking place. We thought nothing of it until we heard yelling behind us. Our heads snapped around and we saw that it was a cop, and he was yelling with authority.

We almost stopped in our tracks, wanting to watch the human drama that was about to take place. Instead we walked slowly and inconspicuously as we saw this police officer yell at the first guy. He swaggered up to the car and handed the first guy a ticket. The guy protested, tried to give an excuse, and he didn’t even listen. He then was upon the 2nd car, also delivered a ticket. By this time our slow walk had placed us in front of all three cars, and we saw the driver of the 3rd car looking concerned through his rear view mirror. Bam! The officer ticketed the 3rd guy. The entire thing took place in about two minutes, and I was lucky to catch a picture of the final ticket. I don’t know this officer’s name, but he immediately became my hero. People better not park in the bike lane on his watch!

Running Red Lights

When I hear or see something in the news about a cycling incident (usually an accident, and unfortunately sometimes a fatality), a lot of people point the finger back at cyclists for not obeying traffic lights. Stephen Pastis even twerked us in his Pearls Before Swine article by saying we are above everyone and allowed to do this. The truth is that most that cycle for sport are extremely safety conscious and they obey traffic laws. I pride myself on riding like a car would. The gray area is stop signs, which we will coast through without putting the foot down, but we first make sure that passage is safe. Essentially that is a stop because we are going slow enough to see danger in the area, but unclipping and putting the foot down, and then having to clip back in slows us down and makes it take longer for us to get through the intersection, which is a different type of danger.

Many of the traffic laws in New York are out the window for bikes and pedestrians. If the coast is clear, we walk or pedal through the intersection, red light or not. The cars will stop, but that’s because they would get a ticket otherwise and there are police everywhere. The law looks the other way with walkers and bicyclists. That’s all well and good, but I saw some people doing very dumb things on a bike. Usually these were locals or tourists. There was one time I saw a bike dart out into an intersection where I had already stopped because I saw three cars coming. He didn’t see them, and for a split second I thought I was going to witness a horrific accident. Instead he turned the wheel towards the right once he saw the cars. I still thought he was going to get hurt, just not as bad, and then he kept on turning. He did a U-turn right in front of us, and was fine. Mad props to him for his reaction, but I guess you learn survival instincts while biking in New York.

The Citi Bikes

Someone stealing a ride.

Someone stealing a ride.

At many major intersections, we saw rows of the familiar blue bikes from the Citi program. We saw people riding them often. The program has to be a huge success, and it really makes sense for Manhattan where many people do not drive (we didn’t either). These riders were mostly tourists, and a lot of them did not wear helmets, but they also tended to ride in safer areas like Battery Park City and across the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the biggest temptation to me, and I almost pulled the trigger on a Citi bike to ride over the Brooklyn Bridge on my last day in town, but I passed. The worst case scenario would be that I would flare up my scar tissue injuries and have a miserable flight back. There wasn’t a good chance of that, but I still didn’t want to risk it.

One of the funniest sights we saw during our trip was someone using the Citi Bike as an exercise bike. He even had headphones on and everything. Most people, myself included, would far prefer to ride in scenery than in one place, especially along the Hudson River, which was where this guy was riding. Not to mention, the bikes are relatively inexpensive. This was a kid, so maybe they were expensive for him. Either way, we got a good laugh and I hope he got a good workout.

The Central Park Ride

Riders were all over the place in Central Park.

Riders were all over the place in Central Park.

This was the toughest temptation for me. We visited Central Park twice, one day from the west side and the other from the east side. We were bombarded by people trying to rent bikes when we got off the subway. When we got into the park, we understood why. There were bike lanes and bikes everywhere. As we navigated through on foot, we were only able to see a small portion of the park, and even that little exhausted us. I’m the type of person that likes to explore and see everything, so it felt wrong to pack up and leave without seeing the main park attractions like the reservoir or Strawberry Fields.

Just because we were in the park, didn’t mean that bikers were any less aggressive. This time we had to watch out for them when walking around. There was one time that I was crossing the street when all of a sudden a road cyclist was darting right towards me. I stopped in my tracks. He nodded to motion that he would take the inside lane, and I was able to continue crossing. Just like in downtown Manhattan, the Central Park cyclists have built-in instincts on how to get around safely.

Even though I wasn’t able to cycle, I walked dozens of miles and the hip held out, so I should not be too disappointed. That said, I love to ride and that’s one of the major attractions for going to New York City. No worries because we loved the city so much that we’ll definitely be back again. I’ll make sure that next time I’ll be healthy enough to ride, and Central Park will be at the top of my wish list.


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