I was back in Tryon, NC, ready to tackle the foothills. After reflecting on my embarrassing first time, I was eager to come back a conqueror. Unfortunately, this would not be the day to tear up the course. I had been off the bike for three weeks due to injury, and my coach advised me to ride easy.
It was a chilly, gorgeous morning, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The foliage was almost perfect. There was enough to drape the mountains in vivid oranges and reds, but not too far along in the season for leaves to be showering or scattered across the road.
I met Matt Jaeggli at the starting line, a blog reader and overall good guy. We were going to try to ride together if possible. When in my prime of the season, I might have been a little faster than him. He joked that my injury and time off the bike would probably equalize us to the same pace. I laughed. He overestimated my fitness and underestimated my injury, but we would see.
The beginning part of the route is a big loop around the Tryon area. Most of this is rolling hills. We would pass some tough climbs like White Oak Mountain and Howard Gap, but would stick to the easier road. This was good for warming up.
Matt was strong. I felt myself struggling to keep up conversation simply because I was out of breath. The layoff had really taken a toll on my cardio ability. To make matters worse, the hip became a little sore early on. Matt would get ahead, then look back, see me falling behind, and slow pedal until I caught up. After stopping at the first rest stop, knowing that the toughest climb of the day was ahead of us, I relieved Matt from babysitting duties. I appreciated him waiting, but I needed to ease up. He sped off, and I found out later that he tore up the course, finishing at around four hours.
That left me to face Green River Cove road alone. I have climbed it a few times before, but never in the fall colors like this. The road pitched up, and I was ready. The climbing was starting. Green River is a difficult climb, one of the toughest in the area, with tight switchbacks, and several sections with steep grades. I put myself in a climbing frame of mind. I would stand up for the steeper parts, try to take the outside of the switchbacks, and spin easily up the handful of easier sections. It worked fine.
As expected, the colors were absolutely magnificent. I try to take a couple photos of every climb, but on this day, I was snapping photos left and right. After turning every corner, a gorgeous, picturesque scene was revealed. It was hypnotic, and it did make the climb seem easier.
I broke my rule and stopped twice on the climb, not for fitness, but for photo ops. The first time was for a tight switchback; the second for near the end of the climb, where the valley is revealed below. The picture doesn’t do justice to the view in person.
Green River got me warmed up. My lungs and legs were back, and the hip wasn’t an issue. I was ready for the second half of the ride.
We skirted Saluda, descended the Watershed halfway down, then took a right at the stop sign to head back up on the other side of Lake Summit, towards Zirconia and Flat Rock. This was new territory for me. I had descended this side, but never climbed. That would be the case for the majority of the remainder of the ride. I had experienced just about everything, but in the opposite direction.
This way up the Watershed turned out to be a little tougher. At first I was chewing up the 3-4% grades like candy. I even caught up with a couple riders. Then came the boom. The road pitched up to around 10% on one section. This took a toll on my out-of-shape legs. Fortunately the climb is not too long. Soon enough we would cross over Highway 25 for another loop.
We took a left onto Bob’s Creek Road. Again, this was new territory. This road was continually up or down, mostly up, and we gained only a couple hundred feet of elevation. I was trying to ride easily, but each hill hurt a little more.
We took Green River Rd, which was a little faster, and I was able to jump on a pace line for a few miles. They pulled off near some railroad tracks. I wondered what they knew. I kept going, then noticed that the road looked familiar. Oh yeah, I had been here in the other direction. It was a short climb and a fun descent. Gulp. I knew immediately that a big climb was coming up.
Hello, Mine Gap. I pushed forward, saw the road turn up, and hoped it was only temporary. This was in the 12%, but on my tired legs, it felt higher. I grunted, groaned and cussed my way up, relieved to see a rest stop. It was a short climb, but steep, and totally unexpected!
The hills of 176 were seriously annoying me, and I let out a sigh of relief after seeing the Saluda city limits sign. Now there were only a couple bumps, after which came the fun descent down the Saluda Grade. Those last few miles went by quickly. After the grade was over, it was either flat or slightly downhill the rest of the way. I slowly coasted in.
The long route of Tour de Leaves is tough, especially the second half. It is both a good challenge, and a great way to see the fall colors in person. Fortunately we had a fantastic day for riding, and however difficult, the ride was a blast.