And finally the Tour de Cashiers, my last training ride before Mitchell, and boy what a ride it was. A friend told me that Cashier was for “people who like pain.” Despite his comments about the difficult course, I wrote that off as somewhat of a joke. Yesterday afternoon, however, I found that this ride was no joke. His description was absolutely spot-on and then some. As difficult as the course was, it was equally gorgeous. You would be hard pressed to find a 100-mile course that rivals the sheer, majestic beauty that we experienced. Every mile, every inch, was photo-worthy. The ride was heavily supported and my thanks go out to the volunteers who made it such a great day.
It was another gorgeous morning for a century. It started a bit on the cold side and the beginning of the course would be mostly descents, so the majority of riders bundled up in arm and leg warmers. The ever-present sun took the edge off the cool start, and soon enough once we started spinning up steep hills, it felt warmer than ever.
I started out relatively fast, maybe too fast. There was a cutoff time of 2:00pm at mile 60 in order to complete the century. This averaged out to 12 miles per hour, which is hardly difficult even for a climbing course. Nevertheless, I made sure not to waste time at the early rest stops.
The beginning of the ride consisted of fast descents through a number of mountain resort towns like Sapphire Valley and Lake Toxaway, moving eastward towards the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The miles and miles of descents did not fool me, as I knew the tough climbs would be coming on the latter half of the course, as we made our way westward and back. I enjoyed the scenic downhills, which would often open up to luscious, green valleys.
Things started to turn upward around mile 35 through 44. There we had grunt hills followed by scary descents. Hills are not much of a problem, but these were surprisingly steep. It seemed like every time we went up a hill, it was a 12% grade, painful even in small doses. After the first big sets of climbs, my quads were already starting to feel sore. I could tell that this was a ride that I did not have my ‘A game.’
Mile 60 came with an hour to spare before the cutoff. I had recovered slightly, but still felt muscle fatigued. With that obstacle out of the way, I decided to slow down the pace and save energy for the steep climbs.
First up was Cullowhee Mountain and it was a killer. It was nearly four miles of nothing but 10-12% inclines. What made it worse was that the toughest sections were just straight, protracted climbs. When you turn a corner and see 500 yards of grueling work ahead of you, it takes a toll mentally. The picture does not do this grade justice. A number of these steep sections were not shaded as you can see. While it was only in the 70s when we hit the mountain, the sun was bright and punishing.
I alternated between standing up and slowly slogging along at a somewhat high gear, to slow spinning in the lowest gear. My heart rate was fine, staying around 160-170, but my legs were another story. About midway I experienced something I’ve been fortunate enough to mostly avoid thus far – cramps. My quads burned and I had to give them occasional breaks. I was properly hydrated and fed, so I think this was simply that the climbing was too much for me on that day. I made it up in one piece, but needed a longer-than-usual rest at the top.
After declining Cullowhee, we rode through relative flat lands for another 15 miles until we faced our next challenge. I rode with some friends for this stretch at a moderate pace and felt mostly recovered by the time the next climb arrived. The cramps seemed to have disappeared and I was ready to finish this exhausting ride.
The last climb, Walnut Creek Rd, was the one I had been warned about. From what people had told me, I expected it would be on par with White Oak Mountain. Fortunately, it did not live up to those expectations. It was about 5 miles to the top and most of it was not that steep, especially compared to the mountain I had just conquered. Much of the early going was around 6-8% and there were breaks where it would level off or even go downhill. The last couple miles were more challenging, with some sections in the 12% range and one that was 15% (ugh!). During that latter part my cramps came back, albeit not as badly as before. I rested and stretched them out again and was able to finally conquer the hill.
Phew. What a ride! It was over 10,000 feet of climbing. The consensus from the people I talked to was that this was easily a tougher challenge than Mitchell. While the total climbing data is comparable, Mitchell does not have anything as challenging as Cullowhee or Walnut Creek. Even though this was not my finest ride, it leaves me with some confidence. Mitchell will not be a problem.