When I arrived at Smoky Mountain Bicycles early Sunday morning, I was surprised to see an open fire by the registration tent. That was a first. It was also the first time I had decided to ride my bike below freezing temperatures. This was a day for a lot of firsts for me. It was right at 27 degrees when the ride would start. It was flat out crazy to be on a bike in this weather.
I bundled up as much as I could. Virtually every part of my body was covered up by at least one layer, most with two layers and some parts even had three. The jacket I purchased the day before was a life-safer, as it took the edge off of the biting cold. The only part of my body exposed to the elements was a circle that exposed my eyes, nose and mouth.
I always ride my bike around the parking lot before a big ride just to make sure everything feels right. This time I found that something felt wrong, very wrong. My shifters wouldn’t work. What? I wasn’t about to try and climb in the mountains with a single gear. I caught this about 20 minutes before the ride began and fortunately Mark and Pam, the shop owners, were available to help. The culprit was a worn shifter cable. Both were in bad shape, but due to time constraints, Mark could only replace the rear cable. He got me ready to go just in time for the beginning. I cannot thank them enough for helping me out. Without their help, I would have been finished before the ride even started. Unfortunately, despite the quick repair job, things never quite felt right and would become problematic later.
The ride started and I did what I could to keep warm. I found myself pulling the balaclava further over my face. At one point I had my mouth completely covered. While that gave me relief, it wasn’t great for my breathing or hydrating. I expected/hoped the bright sun would warm things up quickly. Not the case. It took a couple hours for the temperature to get above freezing. It settled around the upper 40s and low 50s for the remainder of the day. This was the first ride where I kept my cold weather gear on the entire ride.
The shifting became an issue early on. The new cable made my shifters functional, but they were different and felt weird. I couldn’t get my rhythm and within the first few miles my chain dropped three times. Usually I can catch the chain when this happens, but not this time. I had to get off the bike, take off the gloves and put it back on. Things went smoother in the big chainring, so I did my best to keep it there, which made the bigger climbs more difficult. Usually I will shift down and spin my way up a big hill. This time I had to stand up and grunt my way to the top. With the cold, my muscles were not responding as well as usual and I was gradually becoming sore and losing power.
Despite the cold, the weather was gorgeous. The fall colors were vibrant and the scenery breathtaking. At one point I climbed a hill, looked at the colorful valley below and thought ‘this is what makes the work worthwhile.’ The pictures don’t do it justice.
At around mile 40 the real climbing began. The first one on South Skeenah Road really got to me. It was short and steep, somewhere in the teens. I anticipated it late and tried to get over it with my big ring, which was simply too tough and tired me out. I was able to shift down without dropping the chain and spinned up laboriously. This one hurt. The SAG car passed by as I was going up and I asked if this was the big climb. She said yes, but I think she misheard me. I strongly considered giving up right there. A little further and I was up and over, back to rolling hills for a few more miles.
The next climb was the big one, up Old Murphy Road to Standing Indian Campground. This was about four miles at a mostly steady 8-9% grade. It reminded me of Doggett Gap or a somewhat easier and curvier Tilly Creek/Ellijay Road. It would have been tough under any circumstance, and was especially tough on this day. I got lost in the fall colors and my headphones as I gradually made my way up the hill. The SAG vehicles came by every now and then and shouted encouragement. The SAG team was great, really. They were very supportive and I was aware of them nearly anytime. It was a nice feeling to know they were nearby on a day when I was not at my best.
At the top of Standing Indian we turned onto Highway 64. There was a short, easy climb, and then it was steep downhill for a few miles. I was a bit nervous here. The wind picked up and was blowing me all over the place. This is also a busier road than I am used to, so I was constantly keeping my eyes out for passing traffic. I descended carefully and conservatively and was relieved to reach the bottom.
From there I was at a crossroads, so to speak. I was comfortably pedaling back to Franklin, where I would begin the last loop of the century ride. My overall speed was a lot slower than usual, and because of the hilly course, I was mostly riding alone. There had been 11 people signed up for the longer route, more than half of which had already backed out. I was faced with riding the last 40 miles by myself, finishing late in the afternoon, and then driving four hours back home. With a 10-mile climb ahead, I knew that it would take at least three hours to finish, possibly longer. The closer I got to Franklin, the more inclined I was to pack it in.
After the 11-mile up and down ride back into Franklin on the Highway 64 shoulder, the decision was made. I was done, spent, toast, kaput. This was another first. Up to that point I had finished every century ride I started. I kept solace knowing that I could have finished had I continued.
One down, one to go and then I’m officially in the offseason.