Before I delve into the lengthy ride report, I’d like to talk a little about the timed format of this GFNCS. As I noted in the Preview post, the overall course is not timed. They only time four sections of varying distances, mostly climbs.
In short, I loved this format! And I didn’t realize why until I was on the road, experiencing the difference between this structure and the typical ‘cookie’ rides.
Here’s what I liked most about it:
1. Eliminates the knucklehead factor. Of course there are always going to be some knuckleheads (like the guy that forgot his helmet. Doh!), but this eliminates most of them. The big difference is you don’t get people who shoot out of the gates and make poor decisions in the interest of getting a better time.
2. Sociality. All rides are social, but this format allowed for more socializing than I would expect. Between the timed sections, people would ride easy and converse. To my surprise, I found myself chatting it up with a lot of people I’d never met before. The heavy breathing hammerfest would not start until we passed through the orange cones.
3. Control. This goes with #1. The organizers can place these timed sections at designated areas with low risk. This is the same notion as sprint zones in a group ride. You find an area with low traffic that allows riders to flex their muscles. For the Boone ride, these four sections were on hills. They were good spots with hardly any traffic, the perfect place to allow riders to try to prove themselves.
4. Fueling. The aid stations were situated between timed sections, so there was not a need for riders to weigh themselves down with fuel. Nobody had to carry 5 bottles in order to eliminate stops. Some of the guys only carried one bottle. They would just fuel up at the stops. Since everyone stopped and ate, it also reduced the chances of people bonking on the road.
Because of all this and more, 104 miles of riding and climbing was actually a blast. Thanks to the organizers and volunteers for making it such a treat. Even though the ride was hard, I’ll definitely be trying others in the series.
As for the ride, I’ll say just one word: Ouch! This was the real deal, a true challenging mountain century that throws everything it can at you.
After Reuben made the pre-ride announcements, we set out from downtown Boone. The start was mildly cool with a bit of wind. The roads were damp as an early morning storm had just passed through.
We could not get too comfortable, as the first timed section started right away — Russ Cornett Rd. This would not be the most challenging climb of the day, not even close, but it served as a wake-up call since it came so early. We dealt with some easy grades, occasional descents, and some false flats. The young bucks stretched their legs and attacked the climb, as they should. I rode my own pace, not wanting to blow up too early or hurt myself later.
Russ Cornett placed us at the middle of the Schull’s Mill Rd climb. This is one of my favorite climbs in the area, but I was grateful not to have to ride the whole thing. We skipped the Parkway and turned right onto Hwy 221.
The only times I have ridden 221 were on Bridge to Bridge when weather pulled us off the Parkway. This was the first time I could really see around me from 221. It was gorgeous. There were so many splendid views as we rolled through, up and down, gradually making our way up in elevation. The best part was when we could see the Linn Cove Viaduct straight up in the sky above. Seeing it from below made me appreciate the engineering brilliance even more.
Highway 221 was the second timed section. This time I was a little more warmed up and felt better, but reminded myself that I wasn’t racing. I started at a normal pace. A few people stood up to push harder, passing me instantly. I didn’t take the bait, but stills ended up catching a lot of those people. 221 is gradual enough that it fits my current style of riding, and of all the timed sections, this was probably my best.
We had to deal with some wind as we rolled through Linville and Banner Elk towards Newland. Since I’m recovering from a chest cold that I cannot seem to shed (which turned out to be a lower respiratory infection), and of course, a few injuries, I was tempted to take the shorter route. That temptation didn’t last long, as I found myself turning left on the wheel of Dave, the eventual winner of the Masters 55+ category.
At the next aid station, I met up with Stuart and Karen from Raleigh. We had chatted some on Schull’s Mill and 221, and seemed like a good fit for a riding trio. Stuart was a beast, very strong rider. He would attack the climbs and then wait at the top. Karen was also strong and would out-climb me, but was a slower descender. Another aspect I like about this format is that it allows two people with different paces to ride together. They were great riding companions, and courteously waited at the top of all the big climbs. Refer to item #2 above. We had a great time between the timed sections, as we suffered through a difficult course with a lot of laughs.
The next timed section was Beech Mountain Rd. This is not the same climb as the historic Beech Mtn Pkwy, but instead heads up the backside of the mountain. This climb was my favorite of the day. The grade was rarely punishing, and the scenery exquisite. The most alarming part was a large black snake who had positioned himself in the riding lane on the right side of the road. I was in a zone and almost ran right over him. Stuart almost did the same. The snake was not moving and could have been dead, but I suspect he was only sleeping in the sun.
Beech Mountain was the most rewarding because of the terrific downhill. The upper portion was perfect because it wound around without a very steep grade, the type of descending that makes all the climbing worthwhile. The lower portion was steeper and less curvy, so we bombed down and hit our top speed of 45 mph. It was a rush!
Stuart kicked it into high gear when the Beaver Dam Rd timed section began. I remained behind with Karen. This was a longer stretch, and the early false flat lulled us into a false sense of security. Karen and I rode together easily when the road turned up. She went on ahead while I fought my own battle.
It was a little steeper, but I could deal with the 6-8% grades. If only they would have lasted. As we approached the end of the climb, the road turned up — way up! It was in the 11-12% vicinity. No problem. I can muscle through this, right? I turned the corner, and there was yet another ramp, equally steep. They kept coming and coming for a good two miles. By the time I reached the top, I was a beaten man. Stuart and Karen were sitting down, and I collapsed beside them. Ugh! After a couple minutes to rest my back, we were back on the road. This time we had a gravelly descent, which would be followed by about 10 miles of easier riding.
I loaded up on food and drink at the last rest station, just to stave off any potential bonks. The big timed climbs were out of the way. We knew Mast Gap was ahead of us, but that’s more of a hill than a climb. We had this made!
Or did we?
Holy Mother of God! We did not know what waited for us!
After we rolled through Valle Crucis and the starting point for BSG, we turned left. ‘Where does this go?’ I wondered. The answer was up, straight up. Bam! The road was immediately at 13%. Fine, I can handle another steep hill or two. I inched my way up the first hill, turned a corner, and Bam!, there was more waiting for me. This continued around a few more curves. At one point the grade dropped down to a more manageable 8%, but as soon as I got comfortable, it was above double digits again. I watched the miles tick by, knowing that we were close to Boone, just waiting for the final downhill to the finish line.
A nice lady was watering her lawn and shouted, ‘You’re almost to the top.’ Apparently she had been telling a lot of struggling riders the same thing. After .2 of a mile, the top finally arrived, and a relaxing descent followed.
Was that it?
We turned right onto White Oak Road. Bam! The road turned up again, and kept going, and going, and going. This one was not as steep, but the 8% grades felt like 20% with all the mileage already on our legs. When it did turn up to double digits, it was sheer pain. I thought of stopping a number of times, but held onto the bike, inching upward. I kept grunting and grunting until I reached the top, until finally after a couple miles, I was there. I’ll just say that whoever created the Strava section for those two climbs had it right. That was a brutal finish!
But it wasn’t quite over for me. I had finished the climbing, and had a mile until completing the event. I heard a pop and a hiss, and knew instantly what happened. My rear tire flatted, and and it was a bad one. One mile from the finish line, and I couldn’t even coast in. I got a ride for that last mile, but I’m counting this. 103 miles with over 10,000 feet of climbing is a ride for the ages.
Congrats to the organizers for putting on a terrific inaugural event. I expect this one will be popular in the years to come.