Tag Archives: mountains

Blue Ridge Breakaway, 2013, Lake Junaluska, NC

Scott, Spongebob and Captain America at the front.

Scott, Spongebob and Captain America at the front.

After making the decision to cancel my travel plans for Blue Ridge Breakaway, I was disappointed and bummed. This event was at the top of my priority list for the year, and with the nasty weather continuing to roll in through the weekend, it looked like a wash out weekend.

I had been emailing Cecil, the Ride Director, about the forecast. As I posted on Friday evening, there were some major systems coming through, and one of them was threatening the event. He noted that a lot of the heavy stuff was pushing into South Carolina, and despite the forecast, they had a surprisingly nice day on Friday. He was optimistic; I was a little pessimistic looking at the same info.

The last thing I emailed him was “I’m pulling for you to have a great day of riding, even if that means I’ll be kicking myself for not going.”

After getting to bed early, I awoke at 2am with some coughing spasms. I looked at the clock and groaned, but since I was awake, figured I would check the radar and see if I would be kicking myself.

What Cecil had observed yesterday was happening again today. The bad stuff was flowing into SC, while the Smokies were going to be unscathed for a lot longer. The chance of rain at the start had reduced to 0%, with gradually increasing chances as the day progressed.

I did some quick math, then bolted out of bed. It was a 3.5 hour drive. I could actually do this thing. Within 15 minutes, I had my bike bag ready, praying that I didn’t forget anything important. Soon enough I was on the road heading to Lake Junaluska. The drive down there was through an ugly monsoon until I reached the NC state line, where it then calmed down.

I arrived at the Visitor Center at exactly 6am. Cecil was behind the registration desk when I walked up. He looked at me curiously, recognizing me, but not believing his eyes. “Cecil, Aaron, I said.” We erupted in laughter and man-hugged. The look on his face was priceless.

I was there, but I was totally unprepared. I had eaten chicken and salad the night before, not the type of fuel for 105 miles of mountain riding. Fortunately with this ride, I pretty much just needed my bike, some gear, and a little sense. The ride is so well organized that there’s not much else to worry about. The only major concern was the afternoon weather, but I was relieved to hear about their comprehensive tracking center and communications. That would come into play later.

We saddled up and several hundred riders left the the Lake Junaluska Welcome Center. It was easy early riding, as we were escorted via police with silver medalist Lauren Tamayo leading us out.

We had to deal with just a small amount of rain within the first 20 miles or so. None of it was very bad, and I think a lot of it was coming up from the road. As we rolled around the mini-climbs, we started to see signs of the sun. Things were looking good.

The sun peered through the clouds as we rode on rainy roads.

The sun peered through the clouds as we rode on rainy roads.

Unlike a lot of mountain centuries, the pack breaks up pretty early. Most of the separation starts at Coleman Mountain, continues through Rush Fork, and then splinters at Hyder Mountain. It is easy to forget about the earlier bumps compared to the later climbs, but they were substantial. Many of these had steeper grades and, to me at least, took more of a toll on the legs. During these early climbs, we were riding with people on the shorter rides (“Trout”, “Panther”, “Rabbit”). The 105-mile century was called the “Hawk,” and we finally set out on our own course as we rode further south through Clyde.

On the south Highway 215 climb to the Parkway, I caught up with John from the Raleigh area. On a climb this long, it’s good to have a companion for some conversation. We chatted it up as we rolled through the mild grades. This climb is not the most challenging in the world, but it goes on forever, and gains over 2,000 elevation. I remember that last time the road had been chewed up, and had been repaved since. It didn’t seem that smooth, but it was certainly an improvement.

As we got near the top of the climb, we approached a heavy cloud cover. We climbed through the mist, into the clouds, and they remained with us most of the day. We had some remarkable views from the parkway, where we could see into the horizon under the clouds on the left side, while the right side was just vast, puffy whiteness.

The next climb would be up to Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Most of it is up and down, a few hundred feet at a time. The final climb was just about 500 feet at a mild parkway grade. Even though it counts as a climb, it felt like easy riding.

John and I stopped for a photo op at the high point.

The obligatory photo op!

The obligatory photo op!

The big descent followed. I’ve already talked about how much I love this descent, although I’ll admit, it loses a lot of its luster coming down through the clouds. After a lot of gliding, some pedaling for the little bumps, and before we knew it, we were through the dark tunnel and down to Balsam Gap.

The last climb of the day would be Waterrock Knob. Been there, done that, and wasn’t looking forward to it today. Again, it is a mild grade, but it goes on for awhile, about seven miles at a continuous incline. Having John around to chat helped matters, and then about midway through the climb we bumped into Kelly, a website reader who I had yet to meet in person. It was good company for this climb, and that took the bite out of it.

We climbed through a lot of clouds on the parkway.

We climbed through a lot of clouds on the parkway.

As we settled into the last rest stop, a gentleman volunteer said, “Look I don’t want to rush you, but I understand there is a storm system just south of us. You’ll be heading away from it towards Maggie Valley.”

He might as well have shot a gun in the air or yelled “start your engines,” as I was immediately back on the bike, descending to Soco Gap. Here it became real damp and misty, and the moisture was more apparent in the air. I’m not sure how close we were to the weather, but we escaped without issue.

Finally I reached Soco Gap and made the turn towards Maggie Valley. It would be mostly downhill from here. The drop here is steep and you have to deal with some traffic. I remember from the last Breakaway that the road is bumpy and chewed up. That wasn’t the case this year. It was quite smooth and a nice descent. Traffic also wasn’t an issue. They had a huge sign at the side of the road that said “Bike Race in progress. Bicycles sharing highway next 6 miles.” Thanks guys. All the motorists were respectable and kept a comfortable distance behind us.

John and some other guys caught up through the 5-mile sprint from Maggie Valley back to the start line. This section is mostly flat or slightly downhill at 1-2% grade, which was nice, easy riding to finish the route.

Cecil was right. The weather held off, and we were able to have a tremendous ride. I found out later that there were some close calls with storm pockets. They had weather alerts at all the rest stops, just like what I encountered at the last one. The showers got closer as the last riders rolled in, but fortunately the major weather missed us completely. There were no accidents, good riding weather, and the event was yet again a huge success.

Strava Link

IMAGE GALLERY

Hot Doggett 100, 2013, Mars Hill, NC

starting line

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.

A huge shout out to Hot Doggett's SAG support. They were terrific!

A huge shout out to Hot Doggett’s SAG support. They were terrific!

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.

Passed by 4 classic cars on Doggett Gap.

Passed by 4 classic cars on Doggett Gap.

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.

Strava link

IMAGE GALLERY

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

IMAGE GALLERY

2012 Rides of the Year

Last year I ranked my rides with two lists. One list was for the overall experience, while the other was for the most difficult. This year I’m going in a different direction. The most difficult list is being shelved, and doesn’t have to be on an annual basis. I’m also excising rides that were not new to me. That means that some of my favorites, such as Assault on Mount Mitchell, Assault on the Carolinas, Tour de Cashiers, and Bridge to Bridge are not present here.

The criteria here is not a judgement of each ride, but rather just my favorites based on the entire experience. Of course, the better the ride is organized, the better the experience for the rider.

It was still difficult to narrow these down to 10. Since my passion is riding, these were all fantastic experiences. Choosing between them is almost as ludicrous as choosing a favorite child, but here goes anyway …

10. Blue Ridge Brutal

Blue Ridge Brutal

Brutal is a fitting description. This ride had about as much climbing as the toughest centuries I rode, and then they had a bonus mountain at the very end. The roads were quiet and smooth. The volunteers and their yellow shirts seemed to be omnipresent. Handing out musettes on the parkway was a terrific idea. It was a difficult challenge, especially with Mount Jefferson tacked onto the end, but a memorable one.

9. Tour de Lure

Tour de Lure

What really set this ride apart was the scenery. Through Marion and over Stone Mountain wasn’t much to speak of, but when you turn towards Lake Lure and see the monolithic structures around you, it is breathtaking. The course was more of a challenge than I expected, and it was a good experience and benchmark for me to ride Mitchell several weeks later. This is among the better training ride options for others that are training for Mitchell.

8. Fletcher Flyer

Fletcher Flyer

It was flat, fast, and in the mountains. Who would have imagined? It was also a blast, as we traveled through the scenic valleys in the shadows of 6,000 foot monsters like Mount Pisgah. It was well attended enough that there were packs to ride with at nearly any pace. I settled in with a good group, and managed to finish far quicker than expected.

7. Fabulous 4th Bike Tour

Fabulous 4th Bike Tour

What better way to celebrate independence day than with riding a metric century in the mountains? Unfortunately, my experience at this year’s event was affected by an accident and injury to another rider. After helping out, I lost many of the riders. As a result, we had a comfortable, social ride through the North Greenville, Tryon and Saluda foothills. The best part was the food at the end, which I would rank near the top for any ride.

6. Six Gap Century

Six Gap Century

To nobody’s surprise, this was one of the more difficult rides I experienced. It didn’t help matters that I was riding with a broken hip (which was discovered much later). The starting line experience was among the best as they filtered 3,000 riders through the school parking lot, having riders shout out their hometown on the microphone as they ride by. Support was excellent. The timed climb of Hogpen Gap was a nice touch, not that I had any chance of being competitive.

5. Copper Triangle

Battle Mountain

This was the climax of my foray into Colorado, and what an experience it was! We climbed several passes, finishing with the epic climb up Vail Pass and rolling into Copper Triangle. The ride started in freezing temperatures, but we made the best of it. I rode with and met a lot of people from all over the place, enjoying the blueberry muffins at every stop. The coolest part was rolling into the heart of Copper Mountain resort for a picturesque finish.

4. Fort Jackson Awareness Ride

Fort Jackson Awareness Ride

There may be a little bias for this ride since I helped organize the event, but I feel comfortable including it here after hearing the post-ride feedback. Everyone had a fantastic time. Not everyone can ride on a military base, much less participate in a timed event there. The event exceeded our expectations for riders, and brought out the competitive spirit and camaraderie of the local cycling community. It could not have gone any better. Even though I participated, this was among the most fun experiences on my bike during the year.

3. Issaqueena’s Last Ride

Issaqueena's Last Ride

This was the most surprising entry. I had not heard much about Issaqueena, but was pleasantly surprised by the entire experience. The course was terrific, much of it in neighborhood roads with rolling hills, with the rest of it touching the foothills near the North Carolina border. This probably had the best markings I’ve seen on a road course, and they had tremendous pre and post-ride meals. My experience was bittersweet because a good friend became injured by a charging dog, but she has now recovered and is climbing better than ever.

2. Tour de Leaves

Tour de Leaves

Mother nature deserves some of the credit for this ride’s placement. I’ve ridden these hills quite often, but nothing compares to riding them in mid-fall. We were lucky with the leaf color, riding right around their peak color period for the year. I had previously Green River Cove Rd a few other times, but never had it looked this beautiful.

1. Blood, Sweat & Gears

Blood, Sweat & Gears

As much as I love mountain centuries, I rarely expect to call them ‘fun.’ Blood Sweat & Gears is a challenging ride, especially around mid-way when riders have to fight the snake. The Parkway, George’s Gap, and Schull’s Mill were all moderate and enjoyable climbs. I’m not sure why this was, but of all climbing events, this one was the most social. I met a lot of people and had a great time talking to them. The organizers and volunteers were terrific, meeting all of our needs throughout the ride. I was tired at the finish, but the atmosphere was festive, like a celebration. I look forward to riding it again.

Snake Mountain

Snake Mountain

Blood, Sweat & Gears

Blood, Sweat & Gears


2012 Climbs of the Year – Top 20 to 11

There were so many amazing climbs this year. Last year I divided them up by length and difficulty. This year that was a far more challenging task. Since the focus was exclusively on new and interesting climbs, there were just too many good candidates.

Instead, I am doing a straightforward top-20 list of climbs experienced for the first time in 2012. You could call these favorites, most impressive, most interesting, coolest, or whatever. There is no secret formula. These are just the ones that, in hindsight, I “enjoyed” the most.

Town Mountain

Town Mountain, Asheville, NC.

20. Town Mountain – It’s a thrill to start a climb just outside downtown Asheville, and end up at the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The climb is no cakewalk either, with a lot of kick especially on the lower half. When you get past the first initial climb, it is mostly rolling climbing until the parkway.

Seven Devils conquered!

Seven Devils conquered!

19. Seven Devils / Hawksnest – This is a hidden gem, right in between Banner Elk and Boone, NC, on the opposite side of Grandfather Mountain. The initial climb is up to the small community of Seven Devils. From there I made my way towards Hawksnest, a ski resort with a famous zipline, then up into the steep subdivision. It was a difficult climb, especially the morning after completing Blood Sweat & Gears.

Wolf Pen Gap.

Wolf Pen Gap.

18. Wolf Pen Gap – Of the gaps that I endured on Six Gap Century, this was among my favorites. It helped that the climb was not nearly as difficult as some of the others in the region. The peaceful, covered tree canopy didn’t hurt. Since I was nursing an injury, I was able to ride up slowly and enjoy the scenery.

Wiginton Overlook.

Wiginton Overlook.

17. Whitewater Falls / Wigington Overlook – This was the signature climb in Issaqueena’s Last Ride, which came about halfway through. It started by riding North, away from Walhalla, SC, up towards Whitewater Falls in NC. We didn’t quite reach the waterfall, but instead turned left on a brutally steep mile until reaching the summit. The reward was a spectacular view, which my iPhone camera unfortunately didn’t do justice.

Lookout Mountain.

Lookout Mountain.

16. Lookout Mountain – The first climb I attempted in Colorado was unlike many of the others. It begins in the heart of Golden, CO, not far from the Coors beer factory, and climbs a few miles up to Buffalo Bill’s gravesite. It is an arid, dry climb, with a lot of winding switchbacks. The view of the city below is spectacular and visible around just about every corner, hence the name. It was neat watching the buildings get smaller and smaller the higher I climbed.

View from Jefferson Mountain.

View from Jefferson Mountain.

15. Mount Jefferson – This was the optional, additional climb after completing the Blue Ridge Brutal, a century ride with nearly 10,000 feet in climbing. Needless to say, only the truly crazy (and stupid) attempted it. Even though it was a struggle, it was worth the punishment. It is only three miles, but it sits right in between Jefferson and West Jefferson, NC, and has a few gorgeous overlooks along the way.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock

14. Chimney Rock – There is only one opportunity all year to climb this popular gem in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. I entered the time trial race for this very purpose. The climb itself is not too difficult, and the views are mostly shaded forestry until you reach the very top. From there, it is simply breathtaking. After completing the ride, we did some hiking throughout the park to really appreciate the views. Even if you don’t (or can’t) ride up, I recommend visiting the park sometime.

Becky Mountain.

Becky Mountain.

13. Becky Mountain – Brutal, that’s the only word to describe Becky Mountain. Many in the area are familiar with the painful grind up Howard Gap. As Jay told me along the way to this monstrosity, “Becky is Howard’s Momma!”. That she was. The climb is short, but consistently uphill at a very steep grade. At the top is a graveyard, where I almost took up residence.

Mount Pisgah

Mount Pisgah

12. Mount Pisgah – We took the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville up to Mount Pisgah. This is the longer, easier way compared with 151, which I will probably try on my next visit. As always, the Parkway is pleasant, scenic climbing. While it may not lay the smack down as far as grade (although a couple sections are surprisingly steep), it makes up for it in length. The climb was about 15-miles long and travels through a number of tunnels along the way. Don’t forget the headlights if you attempt this one.

Vail Pass

Vail Pass

11. Vail Pass – Speaking of long climbs, Vail Pass is around 20-miles from first pitch as you pass by the Village of Vail. The best thing is that most of the climb is on a rec path, so traffic is never a worry. A lot of the grade is gradual, which is the case for a lot of the Colorado climbs in altitude, but there are some steep sections that catch you off guard. My only complaint about this climb is the lack of a payoff at the end. The summit is the highway rest area.

Coming soon .. the Top Ten.


Haleakala, Hawaii, Cycle to the Sun

This guest post is from Jonathan Musgrave, a reader who lives out in Colorado. This is an inspiring, truly epic ride, one for the bucket lists. I’m green with envy! You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at @orijonal. Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing this with us.

My journey to Haleakala began on a frigid early August climb up Fremont Pass near Copper Colorado. Somewhere along the climb, I met a chatty rider who had traveled to Colorado many times for this ride, the Copper Triangle, from his home state of Hawaii. I ignorantly joked that climbing the Rockies must be a big difference from the flat riding he was used to back home. He laughed politely, and began telling me about Haleakala.

Haleakala means “house of the sun.” It is a massive volcano that rises straight out of the Pacific Ocean to form 75% of the landmass of the Hawaiian island of Maui. The peak is 10,023 ft above sea level, with another 19,680 feet of mountain hidden beneath the ocean (at 29,703 total ft, Haleakala is 675 ft taller than Mt Everest). According to legend, the demigod Maui roped the sun and forced it to shine in this place longer than anywhere else on the island (research has confirmed that the mountain does enjoy an average 8 minutes more sunlight than the rest of the island). What makes this particular volcanic mountain different from others is the road to the summit. It is the longest, steepest paved road and the shortest distance from sea level to 10,000 ft on the planet. When Aaron registered the domain steepclimbs.com, he had to purchase the rights from the demigod Maui (fact checking is currently underway on this tidbit…).

It just so happened that this year marked my wonderful wife’s 30th birthday. In lieu of gifts, she prefers trips for her milestone birthdays, so the big ‘three-oh’ meant a return trip to her favorite destination, Maui. Having just scheduled the vacation weeks before the Copper Triangle, and only a matter of days before I announced the surprise to my wife, I knew during that climb up Fremont Pass that I would ride Haleakala on our trip in November.

The road to Haleakala’s summit starts in the sleepy beach town of Paea. Renowned for its close proximity to the 120 foot waves of Jaws, the town’s most famous resident Willie Nelson, and the “culture cloud” that follows Willie –- Paea is the Boulder, CO of Hawaii. I was fortunate enough to rent an Orbea Orca bike from Go Cycling Maui, a local shop owned by Donnie Arnoult, former Colorado resident and host of the annual Cycle To The Sun race up Haleakala.

Donnie felt like a friend before I ever shook his hand. Over the phone he helped me reserve a bike from his shop and gave me ample and accurate preparation info. In person, he was like an old college buddy talking about bike gear, and giving me fresh apple-bananas he picked for me that morning off the banana tree in his front yard. According to Donnie, it is not advised to attempt climbing Haleakala without eating at least one apple-banana (named because they “contain the deliciousness of both an apple and a banana in one wrapper”).

I made a conscious decision to ride this at a purposefully casual pace. For one, I was attempting a bigger climb than I had ever done before. I also had only one shot at this climb –- if I blew up half-way through the ride, there was not the luxury of attempting it another day. More than anything else though, I was doing the ride unsupported –- I was on my own for hydration, nutrition and tech, so I carried everything I would need. Because I tend to ride hardest when I ride by myself, executing this deliberate pace would take some discipline. Before the ride, I completely removed speed from my Garmin’s display. The only screen I had to look at contained elevation, average pace, distance and grade.

House of the Sun. The name implies constant rays of sunshine. Having completed the ascent up Haleakala, I feel like “House of the rain, clouds, fog, vog, and some sun” would be a more accurate handle (though it just doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way, and I would hate to anger a demigod). Names aside, the climb is a veritable tour of ecosystems featuring beaches, sugar cane filled plains, rainforests, hardwood forests, dry high plains, and lunar-like volcanic wasteland.

“It’ll feel like you have a midget standing on your handlebars blowing delicious oxygen directly into your mouth.” They were the words of wisdom my cousin Mark begat to me as he described the difference between riding at a mile-high vs. riding at sea-level. He was right. The first seven miles were very constant 4-5% grades that felt just like riding in the Rockies, and that midget was firmly affixed to my handlebars. The oxygen was delicious. My heart-rate was low, legs had full power, and I was feeling great. Here, the road was like riding through a green tunnel with 12-foot walls of sugar cane on each side. I had to consciously avoid staring at their mesmerizing rhythm, swaying and bending in the trade winds. Along the way, Velominati had stamped their emblazoned cog in the bike lane with elevation milestones every 500 to 1,000 ft – each one of these was occasion for a mini party in my head. These intermittent reminders to keep breathing, drinking and eating, made me feel like a coach was riding along with me.

Keepers of the cog!

“Right at the rodeo.” I repeated these simple instructions from Donnie a thousand times until I reached the only right turn on the route. The consequences of missing the turn are an agonizing 1,700 ft of additional climbing. After passing through the town of Makawao (mack-a-wow), I easily spotted the sign for the rodeo and made the turn. For the next 7 miles I continued my journey through the various ecosystems of the mountain and arrived at the town of Kula, my only scheduled stop. A fresh Camel-bak of water, 2 bottles of electrolyte drink, a few photos later and I was off.

Immediately after leaving Kula, I took final turn into the Haleakala State Park. A 10% constant grade up a relentless series of switchbacks was waiting to welcome me to the park. My time on the trainer was paying off, my legs felt great, and I powered up the hills at a brisk pace. Soon I broke out of the last wooded forest of the climb, and I realized the profundity of the name “house of the sun.” The rapid switchbacks finally ended, and I enjoyed 5% grades in a long straightish traverse across the NW face of the mountain.

Throughout the whole ride, I watched packs of visitors on bikes coming down the mountain. Think your dad, his dad, and a swarm of 20-30 tourists ranging from the Deep South to south-east Asia on full suspension mountain bikes simultaneously grabbing two fist-fulls each of squeaky mechanical disks. They didn’t seem to understand why I was riding up the mountain. I could see the compassion in their faces as they looked at me, and assumed I was separated from my group and going the wrong way. Velo infractions aside, they were a welcome source entertainment and even passed on the occasional cheer of encouragement.

Just past 6,500 ft, the ride took on an entirely different character. I passed through the toll gate for the park and paid my $5 fee. Immediately I began a new series of broader, steeper switchbacks and started pedaling into a cloud of vog. Donnie had warned me about this stuff; it’s a fog created by the sulfer dioxide issuing out of active volcanos on the big island. Trade winds carry the stuff north-west for the other islands to enjoy. Though normally affecting only the kona (southernly aspect) of the other islands, Donnie’s vog tracking iPhone app indicated that the wind direction today would create a vog problem on the climb – potentially decreasing the breathable oxygen by 35%.

Vog is nasty stuff to cycle through – think being downwind at a bonfire meeting an army of commercial-grade humidifiers ganging up on you. The high altitude was familiar to me, but the added oxygen loss from the vog zapped the power from each stroke I took. By 7,500 feet, I was through the vog, and both breathing and muscle strength was restored. The temperature had fallen from 80 degrees in Paea to around 60 degrees here.

From 8,000 feet to the summit, I was enthralled in the otherworldly views of my surroundings. Looking down on the vog and cloud layer gave me an ethereal feeling I couldn’t shake, and on every side I saw a landscape forged in volcanic ruins. It really felt like being on another planet. There were very few cars up this high, and the road had just been repaved –- like the ice right after the Zamboni at intermission. There’s no question that 8,000 to 10,000 feet was the most challenging portion of the ride. Grades are usually steepest at the tops of mountains, and this was certainly no exception.

The signs for 9,000 feet and 2-miles to go came in such close proximity that it startled me. Thankfully the 9k sign was out of place, and the 2 mile sign was correct. Nonetheless the torture of the last 500 feet and 2 miles was intense. The very summit of the mountain is concealed until the last turn with .6 miles to go, but if you haven’t been up the road before, you’ll probably assume the space-station-looking observatory visible from the 2-mile sign is the top. I had aspirations of cranking out those last few miles, and even making a challenge out of the “last brutal effort” Strava segment at the end of the road, but instead I was I was more focused on just completing the climb than I was setting a land-speed record.

The view from the summit was humbling. To the East, you can see for the first time, a wasteland of brown and orange cone shaped mini volcanoes protruding from the volcano’s crater. To every other side you can see the expanse of the Pacific Ocean beneath a ring of clouds. Further to the South the two highest peaks from the big island are visible – each is over 13,000 feet. My wife who had enjoyed a well-deserved day at a nearby spa met me at the top for a small lunch and to enjoy the beautiful view.

The descent was a once in a lifetime experience – 36 miles of carving switchbacks and beautiful views. More than anything else, I was warmed with a sense of accomplishment and pride as I ate up every vertical foot I had just recently conquered. Back in the shop, I was welcomed with backslapping hugs and cheers from Donnie and about five of his surfer dude friends. It was like coming home! Most of the major rides I have done in Colorado have been part of an event, and the event jersey felt like an award I had earned. This could be no different, and Donnie helped me find a jersey from this year’s Cycle to the Sun ride to take home as a souvenir. I’ve only been cycling for 7 months, but I know that this ride is one that will always have a special place on my mental trophy shelf.

The summit!

Strava GPS Link

IMAGE GALLERY

Hincapie Gran Fondo Recap

 
The Hincapie ride could not have come at a worse time of year for me. I was recovering from a long season, recovering from a nagging injury, and trying to re-boot my training for another long season that would end in France. There were also some logistical and pocketbook issues, so I didn’t ride.

Fortunately through my own past experiences in the area, and from friends, readers, and other bloggers, I’m able to get a pretty good feel for how the day went. So this is a first (and probably a last). I am recapping an event where I was not present.

Riders waiting to start.

The general consensus from everyone I know who rode (which was a lot of people), was that it was a painful, grueling, quad-busting, yet exhilarating experience.

A number of pros showed up, including Tejay Van Garderen, Cadel Evans, who were #5 and #7 respectively in the 2012 Tour de France. There were plenty of others, including Christian Vande Velde, and of course, Big George himself. From what I hear, the riders were extremely pleasant, mixed in with the crowd, took pictures before and after, and helped create a festive atmosphere. According to the results, they finished with a large crowd at around the 4:53 mark.

As for the course, it was every bit as brutal as expected. Jonathan at Low Cadence claimed to have been ‘fondoed,’ likening himself to a melting pot of cheese. He hung on with a big crowd, took it easy on the Skyuka Mountain Road climb, and then struggled mightily on Howard Gap. After recovering and improving over Green River, he experienced some cramps at the very end. It was a tough day for him, as it was for a lot of people.

I corresponded with Wade, a friend and blog reader. He sent me many of the pictures in this entry. To my surprise, he found Howard Gap a lot tougher than Skyuka Mountain. Skyuka may not be as steep (although it isn’t far behind), but it is longer. Howard Gap may be a lengthy slog to the top, but it is short. He actually enjoyed the switchbacks of Skyuka, yet loathed Howard because it kept going and going. It certainly has a way of getting inside one’s head.

The start of the Skyuka/White Oak climb.

One thing that probably makes Howard Gap a lot tougher is that it comes right after Skyuka. Jonathan, and probably many others, suffered because they had not yet recovered from the first major climb. I have not ridden them back-to-back (yet), but they are close in proximity to each other, which doesn’t give much of a rest.

Kevin from Ram Cycling found the same. He conquered Skyuka without incident, then could not muster enough energy to keep pedaling all the way up Howard Gap. He stopped, could not re-mount on the climb, and had to walk a little bit. It is humbling, but a lot of people walked up part of Howard Gap. There’s no shame in that.

Top of Howard Gap Road.

Green River Cove is just a beautiful climb this time year. Jonathan noted that he was able to recover by riding easy and enjoying the sights. I had a similar experience a couple weeks ago. Usually Green River is considered to be a difficult climb, but coming after the two behemoths beforehand, I heard no complaints.

And of course, everyone loves descending the Watershed. Not only is a nice, gradual descent, but it also meant that the majority of the climbing was finished. There were only a few bumps left along the way to La Bastide, the starting and celebration point.

Even though I enjoyed my alternative ride, I have some regrets for not spending the day with George and the 1,000+ riders. Wait for me, George. I’ll be there next year.

Strava Link (Alex Bernstein)

Thanks to Mike, the other Mike, Wade, Alex, Steve, Wes, Jonathan, Kevin, and everyone else who shared their experiences with me.

View from the top of Skyuka/White Oak Mountain.