At the last minute, I decided to give Hot Doggett another shot. It has been two years since my last attempt, but this is one of my favorite mountain centuries, and I had been longing to ride it again. Despite all the recent rain, the weather looked to be ideal for a ride of this caliber, in the 60s and 70s.
Personally, this would be quite the challenge. I have been trying to shake a nasty cold with little luck. I’ve also been off the bike more during last month, mostly due to vacations, and record setting weather. I wasn’t sure how the legs would feel, but muscle memory would help get me through the ride.
We rolled out at 7:30am, starting mostly downhill, but we couldn’t get comfortable too soon. The roads around Madison county are perpetually hilly. We were going up and down most of the time, and when going up, the grade would occasionally be steep. In the early going, we faced several short climbs of over a mile, and we knew the big ones would be up ahead. I could hear Jeff and John talking about their wattage, making sure to save something for later in the ride. That was the smart strategy, as someone could easily blow up by attacking the ride too early.
My legs were feeling alright in the early going. The bike was a different story. From the beginning, I noticed issues. When I would get into a certain gear, the chain would get close to dropping, and the derailleur would go crazy when I tried to catch it. This was happening during normal shifting, not where chains usually drop when people shift too late into a steep hill. To make matters worse, somehow the derailleur was getting bent into the spoke. After a couple miles, I had to stop to make an adjustment. Once back on the bike, I had to change gears carefully.
I was able to keep riding with only occasional issues. We rolled through Marshall, and I knew the first major climb of the day would be coming before long.
At mile 14.5, it became worse. I pulled over to adjust, got back on the bike, and it happened again. Something was seriously wrong. The entire pack passed me as I tried to get it working. A SAG vehicle stopped to try to help me, but he didn’t have much mechanical skill. He radioed to Tom, the ‘bike wrench,’ as he put it.
Tom was a lot of help. He put my bike up on the rack, and looked at the derailleur every which way. Something was out of whack. He would make an adjustment, and we would move through the gears to make sure it worked. Every time it hit that gear, the same problem would occur. He was baffled, and I have to give him a lot of credit for sticking with it. Over a long period of time, he got a working adjustment that was enough to get me back on the road. I got a quarter of a mile before it happened again. We put the bike back on the rack, and made another adjustment. This one would be enough to keep me going.
Tom offered to drive me back up to the other riders. I appreciated that, but alone or not, I wasn’t here for short cuts. I came here to ride the course, and that’s what I would do.
The bike was rideable, if not perfect. Some gears would work better than others, while others would act up. Fortunately, none threw the chain into a frenzy like before. It was enough to keep me going, but having stopped for an hour already, I was well behind the last rider. It would be a long ride ahead.
I plugged along to Doggett Gap, the first major climb of the day, and arguably the toughest. The first mile is not so bad, maybe in the 4-6% vicinity. The last three miles were rough, almost pure pain. The average was a 9% grade, but there were many prolonged sections in the 10-12% range.
It was an effort to get up the hill, and I could tell that I wasn’t at my best. I struggled to get to the top, but made it through force of will. The good news was that despite being off the road for nearly an hour, I had caught 4 riders by the top of Doggett. The bad news was that the bike was still giving me fits, and the gearing problems were taking a toll on my legs.
I’ve prided myself on never taking the SAG wagon. Every ride that I have started, I have finished, and that’s been a lot of rides. It was a tough decision to make, and I chewed over the pros and cons while riding up Doggett. Between the bike issues, my head cold, and tired legs, I decided to call it a day. Tony and Grady, some good local fellows who volunteered at the Doggett rest stop kindly drove me back to Mars Hill.
I have to give a huge shout to the organizers. A lot of my friends completed the ride. They were all thoroughly impressed with the challenging course, and overwhelmed by the efforts of the volunteers. I cannot imagine another ride where a SAG mechanic would have stayed with a faulty bike for so long. Thanks to Tom and all the others.
I’ll be back next year, and will exact my revenge on these mountains.