Bridge to Bridge, 2012, Lenoir, NC

Déjà vu!

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.

No clear skies on Grandfather Mountain.

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)



Last year’s pictures

29 responses to “Bridge to Bridge, 2012, Lenoir, NC

  • Douglas Smith

    Good ride for you, glad you did as well as you did which was pretty darn good I think. I been there experience the same things as you did. I probablly would have caved in. By the way I not a younster so I doubt that i could have come close to accomplishing what you did.

    • aaronwest

      Appreciate that, Doug. It is a difficult ride, and I’m proud to have completed it two years in a row. I don’t know your age, but I saw on the results that many in their 60s, and one guy aged 74 completed the ride. It takes work, but it can be done. They also have the Valley ride, which is a 50-mile route.

    • Douglas Smith

      I saw in the results that you finish in a little quicker than you had in your post. Every mnute counts you know. I also saw that you live in West Columba SC not all that far from me. I live in Lancaster just a hop an skip away. By the way I am 70 years old and still love cycling.

      • aaronwest

        Hey, you’re right, they gave me a few minutes. Appreciate that. Yep, in Columbia, so just a little ways down I-77 from you. That’s amazing that you’re riding so strong at 70. I hope I can still push the pedals at that age.

  • Bryan Ream

    That was a nice group to be in, I was right there with you guys riding side by side with all of you. I finished right behind you with 6:47. Good job to everyone, I think everyones time might have been 10 to 15 min better if not for the rain!!

  • Robert Armstrong

    Great ride Aaron…I’m really impressed that you can race and take pictures all at the same time. Especially in the crappy weather. Appreciate you’re thinking of all your readers.

  • Gerry Patterson

    Great result, Aaron. Looks like you are getting some good miles in the legs for the HR next year. You’ve inspired me to get off my butt and go out into the fog this afternoon!

  • Nanc Johnson

    Thanks for posting the ride reports for B2B. It was very accurate and I re-read it at least 3 times before the ride. That big group swallowed me up on the first 50, ominous sight in my helmet mirror, I could hear theme from JAWS!! I still can’t decide if I’ll do this ride again, I have never prayed and cussed so much in one afternoon. I finished a few minutes behind you, I wore my bright neon See Me Wear jersey.

    • Bryan Ream

      We all say the same thing Nancy, but by the start of a new season we can’t wait for Sept and the Bridge ride. I think we have all had a few choice words during this ride and I think that is why we always want to come back and beat our time the next year, the challenge .. (you will do it again) No one can fully understad how beautiful the scenery is riding a bicycle to the top through all the mountains and waterfalls, unless you have done it!!

    • aaronwest

      Hey, Nanc. I remember you. I think you passed me on 181 when I was struggling. It is a difficult ride, but Bryan is right that it has an allure that brings you back. There is pride in suffering, knowing you can do something few others can.

  • suzecycling

    Great job and great report! Apparently mountains and fog go together frequently, or is it mountains inside clouds. You are a great cyclist and a fine rider to stick with someone slower … which will in turn make that person a stronger cyclist!

    Written by the one who is, almost anyway, always slower!

    • aaronwest

      Why thank you, Suze. Very kind words. At times John was not slower. He was a very strong rider, but just hadn’t done a lot of lengthy endurance rides. I look forward to one day riding alongside you, and I suspect you’ll be faster than advertised,

  • Jim Brennan

    love the pics, congrats!

  • fizzhogg

    Congrats. Great job again. And you make a great point — the volunteers for organized rides are the unsung heroes of cycling. Without these people giving up their time and putting in such effort rain or shine – with no payoff – there would be no rides anywhere.

    Someday I hope someone organizes an event where the cyclists support the volunteers doing something.

    They are truly special, special people.

    • aaronwest

      Thanks, Paul. Not a bad idea. Maybe we could be rickshaw-style bike taxis for volunteers on a weekend evening.

      I always appreciate volunteers, but the ones at B2B are really special.There are plenty of them for starters, and they really seem to enjoy supporting and cheering us on. It isn’t like that on all (most?) rides. The fact that they kept smiling on a miserable day was even more impressive.

  • bgddyjim

    Great post man, congratulations. You’re a horse!

  • Russ Weaver

    Aaron, love the write-up. I read it to my wife as it was so close to my experience of the day too. The early crash happened right behind me. I nearly flew off the road. I stuck with the leaders to 181 and then suffered my own path through the rain around Grandfather, through a true deluge up Shull’s Mill, rode alone along 221 in the eerie fog tunnel, and hit the park in near dark. I don’t think it’s possible to describe that experience accurately but you did an excellent job. Blessing in disguise not being able to see up. But the bells and cheers of the last ramp were like a magnet for me. I finished 5:45 in 41st on my first attempt. I was shattered. I immediately told my wife “never again”. But the allure even the next day was there. By the way, this was way harder than AOMM in my opinion. AOMM was like 181 times three. But nothing like the summit of Grandfather. Steep climb indeed.

    • aaronwest

      Russ, great comment. Thanks for sharing your experience. That’s an amazing time. Very well done.

      Oddly enough, I said never again to AOMM after the first time, yet I plan to try for my third next year.

      AOMM and B2B are close for sure. I still think that Mitchell is harder because the rolling hills to Marion can be hairy, and then there’s nearly continuous climbing until you reach the top. On the other hand, there are no individual climbs that compare with 181 or Grandfather, but you can relax and recover on 105 and 221. They are both very tough, just different.

      • Russ Weaver

        Aaron, true enough. I guess it’s the last impression of Grandfather that still dominates my memories. The descent on the backside of Grandfather was awesome. I hit 50mph. And after Shull’s mill, rolling along 221, I was able to collect myself for the final push. Mitchell was physically as well as mentally draining without relent. Like you said. Hard in a different way. Keep up the great posts and great rides.

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