This weekend I’ll return to Tryon, NC for the Tour de Leaves ride. It’s hard to believe this was my first organized event, just a couple years ago. Rather than preview the region, which most readers are probably familiar with anyway, this is a good opportunity to reflect on my unflattering first experience.
I signed up after hearing about it from the cycling club at work. Before realizing what I was getting into, I signed up for the shortest route — the Tour de Leaves ‘Lite.’ This was 31 miles, and did not go over the toughest climbs.
Having never been to Tryon before, I left super early to make sure I found the place. I was the first car to park at Harmon Field. Car after car arrived. Athletic beasts emerged with their expensive bikes. Many riders were from out of town. I marveled that these weekend warriors probably went from town to town just to ride their bikes, like I was doing that morning.
If I only knew what the future held.
After fumbling around with my bike, an inexpensive yet robust Specialized Allez, I scooted to the starting line. I was wearing bike shorts, an Under Armor T-shirt, and a brand new pair of arm warmers. No jersey meant no pockets, so my car keys and cell phone went in a big, brown fanny pack. That pack stayed with me for months, even to the Marquis de Sade ride next season (you can barely see it in the picture here), until I had endured enough chiding to throw it away. On this day, I was caught off guard by all the bright colored polyester. It was like being surrounded by aliens. Who were these people anyway?
The ‘Lite’ riders left together, and this was an easy going group. I rode most of the early going with a trio. We spoke a little, not much. If they snickered at my outfit, I didn’t hear. The course was hilly, but I was able to keep up with these folks.
The organizers had said to follow the fishes to know the route. What in the world? I kept looking for signs in the area, seeing nothing. I thought they would be elevated signs, posted to a fence or something. No fishes, nowhere. If I ended up in front of my little group, I had to stop at intersections, bewildered as to where to go. When I was behind them, they turned without hesitation. How in the world did they know where to go?
Eventually, as I expected, I got tired. The hills added up, and I simply wasn’t used to this type of riding. The other two riders in the trio sped past me. At that point I was worried I would get lost in the North Carolina country. I remember stopping at an intersection, fumbling through the cue sheet to figure out where I was. An older gentleman, who I later learned was over 70, sped on past pointing in the correct direction. How did he know?
I would finally wise up to the fish mystery at the very end of the ride, when I saw three fishes spray painted on the road pointing to the finish line. At first I wondered why someone would draw such a thing on the roads. I considered reporting the vandalism to the police, until finally making the connection. Doh!
At one point we reached a higher elevation. I have no idea how high it was, probably not more than a few hundred feet from the start, but it was enough to see a view of the colorful countryside. Despite being exhausted, at that very moment is when I became hooked. It was baffling that I had climbed to such heights under my own power, and was rewarded with a breathtaking view.
Towards the end of the ride, we went down a steep descent. Now that was awesome! After the road leveled out, there was amarking that said “Steep Grade, Use Lower Gear!”. This was New Market Road. It killed me! Not only did I not have the fitness, I didn’t have the gearing either. I would later learn (when I took my revenge) that this short hill is a 17-18% grade at its steepest. It was too much for my rookie legs. Maybe a quarter way up, I got off my Allez and slowly walked it to the top. That was humiliating, especially as I got passed by other riders who climbed without issue. I looked back and saw my senior citizen friend a few hundred feet back, also walking. At least I wasn’t completely alone.
New Market both disappointed and encouraged me. I couldn’t comprehend the tougher climbs on the ride, such as Green River Cove, which may have ended my cycling career right then had I tried it.
I didn’t forget Tour de Leaves. It was a great experience, however painful. I worked at improving my cycling fitness. A couple months later I would receive an email asking about training partners for the Assault on Mount Mitchell. Again, I agreed, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
The rest is history.