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Assault on the Carolinas, 2013, Brevard, NC

No turning back now.

After rolling through the outskirts of Brevard, we descended into a flat valley. There was a large farm on the left, a few cows scattered about, with lush green grass nearly as far as the eye could see. The sun was shining bright, highlighting the beautiful countryside. We pedaled together in a massive pack, the flatlands giving us a momentary reprieve from the punishment.

I recognized where we were, and knew instantly what was coming next. After pedaling through the flats for a couple miles, we reached the other end of the valley, and then turned right at Walnut Hollow Road. That would be the first challenge of the day, and the one that I had really been worried about.

As most readers of this blog know, I had been sidelined for months with a freak stress fracture in my hip region. The hip is still healing, and I have only been riding for approximately a month, gradually increasing the mileage and intensity. The Assault on the Carolinas would be my longest ride of the year, my first organized ride of the year, and my first time in North Carolina since December of 2012. Since I was still in the healing process, I was nervous how the day would go, yet still thrilled to be back on the bike.

Walnut Hollow comes early in the ride, about 8 miles in. While it is a tough climb, it did not give me too much trouble in 2011 or 2012. The road pitched up slightly, and I could see dozens of riders ahead of me fighting the steep grade. It gets steeper as you go. At it’s steepest, the grade is around 14-16% (depending who you ask).

There were a pack of locals on the side of the road, somewhere around the steepest section, one of whom had a trumpet and another had a baritone. They were hooting and hollering. I’m still not sure whether they were cheering us along or laughing at our struggles. I’ll pretend it was the former. The trumpet would just belt out a sharp tone repeatedly, while the other guy played the melody of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. It was an amusing distraction from the pain of the climb, but I most certainly did not feel like an Iron Man today.

These guys made Walnut Hollow even more memorable.

These guys made Walnut Hollow even more memorable.

This was tough. I simply don’t have a lot of climbing power at this stage of my recovery, and I’m careful not to ask too much of my hips and legs. I struggled on the climb, wobbling a little bit (sorry to the riders near me). After a lot of panting and a few grunts, I made my way to the top.

After the big descent, we turned onto East Fork Road, one of my favorite roads in the area. It follows a small stream where you can often see a number of fishermen in the water. It is just a relaxing and pleasant journey. We then turned onto Highway 178 to make our way toward the Continental Divide and SC state line.

Highway 178 is a gorgeous road, with a lot of short climbs and some exhilarating descents. While I still had a little trouble with the climbs, I was in prime form on the descents. I remember my first Assault and what a reluctant descender I was. It was even a little nerve-wracking because people would bomb past me. This time the tables were turned. I was the guy zooming down the hills, carefully navigating around the nervous, uncomfortable riders, politely telling them I was “on your left,” and thanking them after I passed by.

The first descent from the Continental Divide to Rocky Bottom, SC, was two miles. A couple short climbs followed, and then came the big 4-mile drop down past Jocassee Gorges, and into the foothills of South Carolina. If I ever make a list of my favorite descents, this will be somewhere near the top. It isn’t too steep. Some of the curves can be a little tight, but they are easy to maneuver through.

Fortunately I had some friends waiting for me at the next rest stop. This would become my longest ride of the year somewhere on Pumpkintown Rd, still with a big freakin’ mountain to climb, and I was starting to feel a little tired. They put together a nice pace-line. I was fortunate to be behind Ricky Soxl, one of the tallest cyclists I know. There wasn’t much wind behind his big frame. That was the only way I could keep their pace. As we got closer to Caesar’s Head, he backed off for some reason, and that was it for me. I dropped off, not wanting to punish myself further. We caught up at the rest stop, but I knew that I would be on my own for the climb.

Our Pumpkintown Rd paceline. Thanks Ricky for the draft.

Our Pumpkintown Rd paceline. Thanks Ricky for the draft.

Hello again, Caesar’s Head. I have ridden this climb quite a few times before, but never had it been as difficult as today. The sun was bright, and the temperature had creeped higher, which didn’t help matters. The most important thing was getting through the climb without hurting myself. I went very easy. People passed me constantly. I carefully watched my heart rate, trying to keep it between 165-175. Since I don’t have the best cardio fitness at this point, that meant I was not going very fast.

My goal was to not stop no matter what. Even though I may not be in peak shape, I still don’t consider myself to be a quitter. Part of getting better is maintaining the mental toughness required to persevere when things are tough. However difficult, I maintained my momentum, and kept turning the pedals until I reached the top. It was easily my slowest climb of Caesar’s Head ever, about 30 minutes slower than my fastest time. As slow as I was, I did not set my foot down.

I reached the top in a state of exhaustion. I was completely spent, but day was not over yet. There were still about 15 miles to ride back to Brevard.

A group passed me as I was struggling in the headwind on Highway 276. I hopped on, glad to have a reprieve from the wind. Pulling us along was a gentleman with an Asheville Racing jersey. We kept on passing people, and they would join the line. I expected him to back off to rest, but he kept on going, pulling us almost the entire way back to Brevard. I passed him on a descent, thinking I had lost the group, then he caught back up with me a few miles later. Whoever you are, sir, thank you for the pulling.

Phew. I finished. Because of my recovery, this may rank as one of the toughest rides I’ve done. I was not going for time, but happened to notice that I finished an hour slower than last year. No complaints there. Just finishing was a win for me.

Thanks to the Pisgah Rotary Club and the entire Brevard community for making this such an enjoyable ride. This is among my favorite rides, and I’m glad to see that it has grown so significantly over the years. See you guys again next year.

Strava GPS Link


Table Rock Weekend, 2012, The Rides

The weekend was foremost about the rides, and we had a lot to choose from. My goal was to ride and climb as much as possible. This would be my last big training weekend before buckling down and getting set for Mitchell. This was also my weekend to complete the Strava Climbing Challenge (which I did – woohoo!).

People arrived at different times on Friday, so the idea was to split up the group rides into short loops at different times of day. I arrived early enough for the first loop, which would head up Caesar’s Head Mountain. On the way back we stopped at Bald Rock, somewhere I had passed curiously multiple times without stopping. It was cool to finally see what the big deal was. This was a vast slab of rock that curves downward. A few of us took off our cleats and walked carefully in bare feet towards the rocky edge. The view was startling scary — almost straight down. It looked like streets below the rock, but it was just more rock. The entire slab had spray-paint graffiti everywhere. Wherever the eye traveled, it would learn about some young couple’s love for each other.

The Lumberton crew arrived in the afternoon. They wanted to ride Caesar’s Head, so we did it again. Why not, eh? I needed the climbing anyway. For the first loop I rode up casually. The second time I pushed a little more, talking about mountain adventures with Matt from Lumberton. We didn’t stop on the way down. When I noticed that Jim of CruzBike had a recumbent, I was at first nervous. Would that thing be able to climb, and more importantly, could it safely descend? He assured me not to worry, and I was surprised by how well he did. He was just behind me on the climb and the descent. I couldn’t help but notice how he powered over the rolling hills below the mountain, the same ones that stopped the rest of us in our tracks.

On day two I was off to Walhalla for Issaqueena’s Last Ride. The rest of them did a monster ride from Table Rock that went into Rosman, up 215 to the Blue Ridge Parkway, back down 276 to Brevard, and then back to Table Rock. It sounded glorious. I wish I had enough time and legs to do both. You can read John’s summary of that ride at his blog.

The group was not yet back after I returned from Issaqueena. As a coincidence, I saw Tom riding while I was entering the park. He was just swinging by to say hello. Since I wanted a little more riding, we did a little loop around the rolling hills up towards Caesar’s Head. He had to ride home to Greenville, so we parted ways about mid-way and I followed Highway 11 back to the park.

On all three loops to that point, I had taken the hard way back into Table Rock. From the lodge entrance are some tough climbs, some of which reach grades toward the high teens. They all hurt after riding up a mountain. Having not learned my lesson, I chose to take the hard way after my loop with Tom. It was excruciating and I swore not to do it again. The back entrance was far easier, with just a couple moderate climbs.

Sunday was another big loop. This one took us up Highway 178 into Rosman, along the gorgeous East Fork Road and then the backside of Caesar’s Head. Everyone was spent for this ride. We practically grunted and groaned our way up the 178 climbs. I was so committed to riding recovery pace that I didn’t even wear my heart rate monitor. I just took it easy the entire way, spinning at a comfortable and not too painful cadence.

At the Rosman store stop someone mentioned we were going to ride up something called ‘Big Hill.’ They asked if I had been there. I’ve been on lots of big hills, I joked. Which one were they talking about? As Neil put it, I would remember it had I been there. As always, Neil was right as rain.

We traveled down the scenic East Fork Road, which followed a river stream to our right. We encountered a number of fishermen along the way. There was one instance where John yelled “Road Kill!” real loud to alert us of a carcass in the road. Right as he said that, we passed a father and son, who immediately turned. I saw the poor kid’s face turn to fear, as he thought John was calling him road kill. It was sad and funny at the same time. Poor kid.

East Fork was a peaceful, flat ride. I could have sworn I had been on that road before. I still think I had, but clearly not to the very end. I had not been on big hill.

It started with a bang, probably around 16-18%. On my tired legs, that felt like 30%. I stood up and tried to power through it, using my upper body strength to pull on the handlebars and relieve pressure on my legs. It leveled off a little bit to a more manageable 6-8% grade. Phew. I could handle this. Right about the time I started to get comfortable, Neil looked at me and said “this is where it makes you think you’ve done something.” Uh oh. He was right. After we turned the corner, it pitched up again to the high teens and stayed there. I slowly tried to make my way up. In the last 50 feet there looked to be a docile dog on the left side of the road. As I got closer, he showed his fangs and started to chase, forcing me to pick up the pace. Oww. I gunned it and was at the top before I knew it. The dog didn’t chase.

When I got to the top, I saw why they call it ‘Big Hill.’ At the top is the entrance to the Big Hill subdivision.

As we climbed Caesar’s Head, the easy way (ha!), I just tried to keep a decent pace and get through it. John was behind me for part of that climb and he thought I was trying to drop him. Nope. I was just trying to hang on myself.

What a weekend. In total I rode 248 miles and climbed 22,000 feet in the three days. Thanks again Neil for putting it all together. We had a fantastic time.

Strava links:
Friday Caesar’s Head loops
Saturday evening Table Rock ride
Sunday Table Rock to Rosman Loop


Seizure’s Head Slog Fest, 2012, Travelers Rest, SC

caesars head from below

After spending some time in the flats of the lowcountry, it was time for me to return to the mountains. This weekend I joined the Greenville Spinners and AIDS/LifeCycle on their ‘slog’ up “Seizure’s” Head Mountain. This would be my second time climbing Caesar’s Head from this direction, and the last time was when I was still learning about my climbing ability, so this served as a great measuring stick of how far I’ve come in the last year.

After being spoiled by unseasonable warm temperatures all winter, especially the past week where the temperature peaked in the mid 80s (!), we returned to reality. The temperature would have been fine if not for the blistering wind that reached 20 mph with even stronger gusts. As a friend of mine put it, “this doesn’t just feel cold. It feels like a bitter cold.” Fortunately the sun was shining, so while we had to envelop our bodies in cold riding gear, the view outside was splendorous.

We left Traveler’s Rest and enjoyed rolling hills until we reached the mountains. This was more of an out and back route, with the mountain as the only major climb. Rather than take the traditional route up Geer Highway 276, they took us through Asbury Hill. This removed maybe a mile from the usual Caesar’s Head climb, but more than made up for it with the steeper route.

I had descended Asbury Hill via Lakemont road once, but did not realize what a steep road it was coming the other way. As we came closer to Highway 276, the route turned almost straight up. I gulped when I saw it, immediately switching to the smaller ring. There would be no muscling up this one. The climb started at around 10% and quickly hit grades in the upper teens. The highest I saw on my Garmin was 22% and it sure felt like it. This was indeed a ‘slog.’ I buckled in and climbed up, getting past the tough part with some difficulty. The grade then became more moderate and I picked up my pace a little bit, mostly wanting to conquer the hill and focus on the mountain ahead.

Hello again Caesar’s Head. The last time I attempted this mountain, my goal was simply to stay on the bike without stopping on the climb. This time I set my aim higher. I wanted to stay within a certain heart rate zone and climb comfortably and relatively quickly. To my surprise, I felt great. I got in my zone and stayed there. The only time my heart rate fluctuated was in the flat section in the middle and a couple of the steeper sections up top. The wind was not a factor. If anything, it helped a little bit as I felt a tailwind on a couple of occasions.

Rather than spend time with the sights at the top, I bulleted back down. I discovered recently that this descent is a blast — not too fast, not too technical and not too steep. There was a heavy crosswind that blew me around a bit, but nothing dangerous. For much of the descent I had a clear view of Table Rock mountain, which was really a beautiful sight to behold on this clear and gorgeous day.

Hats off to the Greenville Spinners and AIDS/LifeCycle for putting this together. It was supported and marked well. They were very hospitable and they even gave us some delicious vegetable soup after descending the freezing mountain. Trust me, it hit the spot.

Strava Link


Sassafras Mountain, Becky Mountain and More!

This weekend marked my last trip to the mountains for a little while. I attended one of Neil Turner’s legendary climbing rides and this one, which he named ‘Insanely Steep Climbs,’ would be extra special. The ride lived up to the name. The toughest climbs were Sassafras Mountain and Becky Mountain, both of which had 20% grades. There were other smaller climbs and difficult rolling hills, which paled in comparison. This would be a tough day. It would also be one of the more scenic days, as you can see from all the pictures in the gallery below.

We began just north of Pickens, SC at the intersection of Highways 11 and 178. We hardly had time to warm up before the climb began. We rode up Highway 178 to Rocky Bottom, SC. This was a moderate climb, enough to get the heart racing and the body warmed up. The real climb would begin momentarily. Sassafras Mountain is the highest point in South Carolina. Neil noted that most cyclists take 178 into Rosman, NC. When I hit the mountain, I understood why. To put it plainly, Sassafras Mountain is a beast of a climb, one of the toughest I have ever done.

We started out with a slight incline. Not bad, I thought, then it turned up. Straight up. The real climbing begins with long 20% grade, a real killer. I made it about halfway up this section before having to stop, the first time I have done so in nearly a year. This was just to get my heart rate down. Once somewhat rested, I found it impossible to clip back in and did the unthinkable by walking a little bit. It was brutal. Fortunately that was the only time I would stop on the climb.

After the initial grunt, the climb levels off with some easier grades, some flat sections, and even a couple slight descents. But when it turned up, it was usually in the 20% vicinity. Someone once told me that this inconsistency makes the climb more difficult because it takes you out of a rhythm. I found the opposite to be true. These reprieves allowed my legs and heart to rest before the next pitch. I welcomed them with open arms.

About 3/4 up the climb, the smooth pavement turns to rough pavement with potholes, gravel and tree limbs littering the way. We navigated these obstructions for the last mile or so until we finally reached the overlook. What a relief! From there it was a short hike up to the real summit.

While the climb was rough on the legs, the descent was rough on the hands. We bolted down the rough road, avoiding potholes and debris while trying to keep speed in control. That meant that I had to continually pump the brakes and occasionally ride them hard. By the time we got to the turn-off at Gladys Fork Road, my hands were on fire.

For awhile we had a break from the climbing. We cruised through Rosman and rode through the valleys between the hills, checking out the local farmland, including some Llamas and a Giraffe sign of all things. No explanation for that one.

The next major climb would be Becky Mountain. Not long before we reached the climb, Jay looked at me. “You know Howard Gap?” Unfortunately I did. “Becky is Howard’s Momma!” Great. That description was fitting. Becky is like a more difficult Howard Gap. It is a little shorter and a lot steeper. When Howard Gap is 15%, Becky Mountain is 20%. Howard is around 1.25 miles, whereas the initial climb up Becky is exactly one mile.

I braced myself and started to climb. Ouch! Jay wasn’t lying. This was a leg-crusher! I tried to spin my way up comfortably, but had the same experience as on Sassafras, my heart rate was getting way too high. I stopped again. I was able to clip in this time when I got back on, but had to stop again about midway through the climb. It was relentless. Once you thought it was about to let up, it would kick back up to 18-20%. Finally I reached the top and found a graveyard. How appropriate. The climb continued for a couple more miles, but in a more normal fashion. There were a couple of steeper sections, maybe 12% or so, but nothing like the monstrosity that I had just faced. We also climbed See Off Mountain, just after Becky. It was also in the 12-14% vicinity, but short and hardly noticeable after the nastiness behind us.

At this point the insane climbs were over. We climbed up the back side of Caesar’s Head, the easy way, and descended six miles to the bottom. That was my first time descending Caesar’s Head, which was a delight. Towards the end of the descent raindrops started and we would get a little drizzle from here until the end of the ride, but we were spared from any significant downpours.

We made our way through the rolling hills and took in the gorgeous vistas with Table Rock Mountain in the background. Even overcast with drizzling rain, this was a sight to behold. The rain shower yielded a double rainbow at the end of the ride. A nice way to end the day.

Strava Link