Last year the forecast for Bridge to Bridge (now apparently called “The Bridge”) was for a cool day with a slight chance of rain. We ended up having dense fog until we reached Grandfather Mountain, where we escaped a massive cloud system into sunny skies. This time the weather was also worse than advertised.
We gathered on Main Street, Lenoir for a day’s worth of riding. I found a few guys from Vork Cycling Team, and decided to try and hang with them through the easier, early sections. They are a little stronger than I am, and have more experience finding good packs. That turned out to be a wise decision.
We left Lenoir a few minutes early, and the pack charged hard. I tried to keep up with them, but I am not an early starter. The pack glided up the first big climb, Poplar Street, which is a mile-long hill right outside of Lenoir. That’s when the pack first saw some separation. Unfortunately I was one of the riders that got separated. I lost sight of the Vork Cyclers, believing they were all ahead of me. So much for that.
At around the 4th mile, I heard a lot of clicking and yelling out. Everyone swerved, and I saw the remains of a crash with maybe four or five bikes down. Water bottles were rolling all over the place. At a glance, it looked like there was nothing serious, but I did not linger. I moved out of the way of the bikes, and got back on. Hopefully everyone was alright.
As it turned out, I was wrong about the Vork team being ahead of me. Brian from Vork showed up out of nowhere. A new pack formed after the crash, and we made steady progress. Brian moved to the front, and started his engines. I stayed on his wheel. We gradually increased our speed until we got sight of the big group. That spurred him on. He kept pushing, getting us ever so closer. Finally he ran out of gas, which left it to me. I continued in that vein, and was getting closer for a bit, but probably could not have bridged the gap. Fortunately another rider took the reins, and we sprinted to catch the pack.
Panting, I thanked Brian and the other guy for the pull. As we slowed down behind this massive group of 50-75 riders, we were able to rest. ‘This feels much better,’ I said to Brian. He nodded. ‘This is the payoff for all that work.’
The other Vork riders were in this pack, so we maneuvered our way around to ride with them. Gregg aka Tater is a tall rider, and stood out like a beacon with a giant blue skull. Chris aka McDiesel, a recent addition to the Haute Route team, was also there. I kept him in sight, so as not to get gapped and lose the group. I also met John, who rides with the Vork guys, but this was his first century ride. What a ride to choose! We kept speeds between 22-23 mph without much effort. We took it easy, and worked within the group while waiting to arrive at the climbs.
Those first 50 miles flew by. I was feeling great when the climb on Highway 181 began, but the mountain has a way of really telling how you’re doing. I realized almost instantly that I did not have it. I struggled immediately. Perhaps I didn’t eat enough during the first 50, or more likely, simply didn’t train enough in the preceding weeks. Hoping it was the former, I chowed down a Clif Bar, and made my merry way up. The Vork guys dropped me. Even John passed me about midway, along with everyone else and their mother. This was humbling, not my finest moment, and the climb went on for an eternity.
12-miles and 2,600 feet later, and I was almost spent. The climb fortunately stopped, but I had little momentum. All of a sudden a guy with an orange jersey blasted by me. I jumped onto his wheel, and he pulled me at least a couple miles. It was enough to get my mojo back. I later learned that his name was Mike. Thank you, Mike!
As Mike and I rolled along, another guy jumped on our wheel. We passed someone else, and they jumped on. I regained my strength, and took the front for a long pull. By the time we turned away from Linville, we had a regular old paceline again. All of a sudden John turned up. I must have passed him at some point without realizing it. He joined the party.
As we rolled down the long stretch on Hwy 105, the clouds became darker. Cloudiness turned to intermittent rain showers. We just dealt with it, kept trucking along. It wasn’t comfortable, but we were fine as long as there was no thunder and lightning. As we passed by the north end of Grandfather Mountain, I looked over and saw it enveloped in a gigantic cloud. Unless things changed, it would be an ugly finish. I was also pretty certain at that point that the Blue Ridge Parkway would be closed.
The paceline remained more or less intact until we turned onto Schull’s Mill Road, and began the climb back up to the Parkway. Some people went ahead of us, some stayed behind. I kept riding with John. Not only was this his first century, but it was his first real mountain ride. Schull’s Mill is a nice and scenic climb, but it is long. I told him just to buckle in, and try to keep from getting too tired. Save a little for Grandfather. We rode and talked. At some points he was getting tired, and I slowed down to let him keep up. At others, he tore ahead of me, and I had to pick up the pace. Most of the time we rode together.
We reached the top of the climb not a moment too soon. The fog was much thicker up here. We were directed onto the rolling hills of 221, and it immediately started raining harder. Now this was uncomfortable! We could already barely see five feet ahead of us. Now we had to deal with rain. There were a few small descents in the early going, which always make me nervous. I rode conservatively, not wanting to do anything stupid.
As expected, the Parkway was closed. No Linn Cove Viaduct again this year. Bummer. We continued on 221, completing the full circle around Grandfather Mountain. I told John that this was probably good, as the climb up Linn Cove Viaduct isn’t a cakewalk. There would be hills, but they were more up and down until we reached Grandfather.
The ride along 221 took forever. It was bittersweet to get to Grandfather. We were nearing the end, but still had to deal with one of the steepest mountains in the Southeast. Here goes nothing.
Last year we had climbed out of the sludge into the sun on Grandfather. Not this year. The entire climb was covered in fog, with a little bit of drizzle. To my surprise, it made it a little easier. Not being able to see the next steep pitch was psychologically soothing. We just had to grind out each hill, one at a time, then move onto the other one. Each steep hill hurt like madness. We just had to suck it up and try to keep pedaling.
I kept going, ever so slowly, just making my way closer to the top. John was pushing a bigger gear, so he would sometimes stand up and climb ahead of me. I stopped once along the way for a moment just to catch my breath. I believe John stopped a couple other times, but he did amazingly well for his first time. At the visitor center parking lot, I went on ahead, while he took his time. Everyone has to take this one at their own pace. He was fine.
Even though I couldn’t see them, I was relieved to arrive at the three switchbacks, because this meant the grade would temporarily lighten up to around 10%. What I forgot was what waited for me after that.
Last year I had turned a corner, looked to my left, and immediately stopped in shock at seeing a ramp left to climb. This year I could barely see two feet in front of my face, and forgot where it was. I turned that same corner, and kept climbing, then heard some cheering ahead as someone else finished. The road pitched up, and I realized this was it! The beastly, excruciatingly painful 20% ramp. I alternated standing up, sitting down, moving from side-to-side, doing everything I could to inch my way up that hill.
When I was almost to the finish line, I was able to make out the people. “You’re almost there!” someone yelled. They looked so close, yet they were still so far away. I stood up, and powered with every last bit of strength I had remaining. It wasn’t much and it hurt a ton, but I was done. Grandfather conquered again!
My final time was 6:45, better than last year. I was 145th overall. Even though this wasn’t my best day climbing, especially up 181, I was pleased with the result.
A huge hats off to all the organizers and volunteers. I cannot convey how great it feels to hear words of encouragement when climbing up the mountains. Whether that was at mile 50, 90, or 102, it was all appreciated. Thanks for keeping our hands full of bananas and water along the way, keeping us from having to stop. Thanks for spending your time on a crummy day supporting us and making this a great ride.
Strava GPS Link (elevation understated by Garmin errors)