I’ve just about recovered enough from my first attempt at the Six-Gap Century to talk about it.
Please note that I did say attempt. I completed 4 of the 6 climbs, getting off the bike at about 67 miles of the 104-mile ride.
I approached Six-Gap with a pretty realistic idea, so I figured. I have ridden some in the area around Dahlonega, Georgia, and knew that some of the hills were pretty steep. “Heck, I’ve even ridden a time-trial up Brasstown Bald,” I figured, “how bad could it be?” I rode the local Havana Hills loop a few times, with some 8-percent grades (about as steep as it gets around Tallahassee). I rode plenty all summer long, even throwing in a few centuries for the distance. My legs felt good, I’d lost some weight, and even with a bit of the crud a week before, I figured the good base I had would pull be through the ride, no matter how much it hurt. I rolled into Dahlonega expecting about a ride time of 8:00 to 8:30. No sweat.
We rolled out Sunday morning, with no rain forecast at all. The temperatures were in the 60s, and even a forecast high of 80 degrees left the valleys much cooler. It was good to be wearing arm-warmers, which many of us were. The crowd was big. 2500 cyclists packed the lot at the high school. We were at the back of the pack, having spent a large amount of time with our mouths flapping (why we ride in the first place, as near as I can ascertain). Rolling out, Jamie, Cisco, and I passed the clock at 3 minutes-and-change behind before we even left the start. Jamie had received his left-behind HRM from another rider (also named Jamie), to which Cisco commented, in what was to be the quote of the day, “You KNOW it’s going to suck. Why do you need to MEASURE suckiness?”
Jamie and Cisco at the start. Jamie is preparing to measure and log all suckiness with his new HRM. I am relying on my Garmin 705 to cross-reference my suckiness measurements with his. Cisco, being old-school, prefers to rely on Perceived-Rate-of-Suckiness (PRS).
The crowd of cyclists offered an interesting exercise in pack riding. A few take off from the front, but the stringing-out really doesn’t start until you enter the hills. It was a big group of mixed-capabilities riders, and I’m happy to say I didn’t see any crashes or take-downs.
The first climbs, even before Neels Gap, were steep and long. I started passing riders, which boosted my confidence greatly. I hadn’t really studied the course very well, and although I knew essentially where everything was, I hadn’t internalized it to the point I could use it for motivation. Thus, actually starting on Neels Gap took me a little by surprise. Neels was damnably steep, and I passed many who seemed surprised at the requirements of such a climb. One triathlete-type, climbing out of the saddle on his aero-barred Scattante, was audibly grunting, keeping time with the horrid creaking emanating from his bottom bracket. I never saw him again, though everyone I talked to had seen (and heard) him.
The rest area at the top was a welcome relief. Bigfoot was there, and we all gathered together for photos and silliness. I was pleased with myself. My first real test, and I hadn’t stopped or walked or resorted to anything drastic during the climb. I was eating and drinking well–something I experimented with throughout the year, finally overcoming a long-term duel with nausea during races and strenuous rides. I figured that I’d be able to finish the ride, no problem.
The descent from Neels found me again near a triathlete, this one using his aero-bars for the descent. As always, Jamie and my strategy of Fat-Guys-with-Good-Wheels paid off, and we passed him like he was standing still.
Jacks went by in a blur, with Jamie, Cisco and I riding together. The sun had really started peeking through the gaps, and a little fog in the cooler valleys lent the scenery a misty, otherworldly air. I found myself wishing I lived in Dahlonega.
Unicoi has mostly escaped my mind. I rode well for the most part, but found my back beginning to hurt a bit about 1/2 mile from the summit. This was the first point that I began to suspect something bad was going to happen. I stopped 5 times within that last half-mile, just to stand for a moment and relax my back. I refused to let myself walk, but just stood and soaked in the environment. Although the leaves were not yet beginning to turn, the forest was definitely beginning to show signs of autumn. Acorns were everywhere, and the squirrels were obviously intent on gathering what they could.
The summit of Unicoi Gap was a relief. The nice ladies at the rest stop offered liquid refreshment and really cool free water bottles–flourescent green and blue. I couldn’t figure out a way to carry the extra bottles (I hate that in my pockets), so unfortunately, I didn’t get the swag. Here, Jamie and Cisco were waiting for me, but I began to feel some pressure about the time. We made the cutoff time to Jack’s with no problems, but the climb up Unicoi really made a mess of my 8-hour intentions. Now, at 5 hours into the ride with about 50 miles done, I began to realize this ride was not going to be short and fun. Finally, hearing someone mention closing up the rest stop motivated me to roll out.
The descent from Unicoi Gap was, in a word, exhilarating. FGWGW was in full-force during this long, sweeping descent, reaching a top speed of 54.8 mph. I must give full credit to my old team captain, Kent Lofton, for the criterium cornering drills we used to run in the Albany Mall parking lot; my descent was fast, fun, and little-slowed by the hairpins and traffic. The only trouble we saw was a rode-hogging plumber’s van who could neither 1) hold a line, nor 2) get out of the way. We followed him for miles before finding a place to semi-safely pass. If someone would build a ski-lift for cyclists on Unicoi, I’d gladly run the place without payment, just to ride down for free. At the bottom, all the fun had given me a second wind. I could finish this thing.
Then there was Hog Pen.
The roll along the valley outside Helen, Georgia is beautiful and easy. You start wondering when you’re going to get to the “Big One.” Finally, a turn and a sign announces that you have arrived. And the road simply changes.
I really must credit Atlanta’s Free Flite Cyclery for their signs. I’m unsure if the nature of the mountain is really all that, or if it’s simply the insidious taunting the road signs provide that make it so. “Only 7 miles to go,” is not something you wish to see on a climb like Hog Pen. Even worse, there’s “Only 3.1 miles to go” after climbing for an hour.
The first half of the climb was torture. My back was absolutely killing me, and I found myself stopping every 1/4 mile or so to stand and gasp, stretching my back and getting my bearings. I didn’t yet walk. I told myself, “If I’m going to walk, I’m going to quit. I came here to ride.” Still, so much standing really cuts your time goals to shreds. Finally, I rolled into the first rest stop to find Jamie and Cisco faithfully waiting for me.
An aside: I should thank them again for waiting, as it really showed their friendship. Later, when I waited for them to return to the parking lot, they were ridiculously effusive in their thanks. They probably don’t realize how much MORE it took from them to wait for me on the side of that damned mountain that it took for me to sit around, eat spaghetti, and talk while waiting for them. Thanks, guys. You’re the best.
At the rest stop, I got off my bike and simply lay down. On the ground. I didn’t look for food, water, or companionship. I looked for the ground. Of course, Jamie and Cisco were there with funny stories and encouragement (from Cisco, this was the guy telling me I was going to ride away and leave him when we started!). Cisco said, “If you need to puke, cry, whatever…it’s all cool, man.” I responded blearily, “Gotta….lie here….”
After 20 minutes of this, I came to long enough to tell them to go on. The ride had turned ugly, and I was going to have to get back on my bike and make it 3.1 miles (according to the sign) to the top of this thing. I lay on the ground while they rode off. After a couple more minutes, I wandered around and was approached by another Tallahassee rider. Tom was pretty darn enthusiastic about riding, and was eager to tell me about his triple cranks, his mountain-bike gearing, and his “just make it in before dark” ride schedule. (With apologies, you drove me nuts, Tom.) With great disgust for riding and a strong desire to get away from everyone, I remounted my bike and started up what seemed the steepest segment yet.
I made it 200 yards out of the rest stop before stopping. I looked back to see my fellow laggers struggling up the hill. I winced, climbed off the bike, and started to walk.
On the climb, I was passed by emergency vehicles: a sherrif’s car, a paramedic van, then a fire truck and another police car. “Oh shit. Someone’s down,” I shook my head. Finally, the short descent and rollers brought me in earshot of a helicopter. Rounding a bend, I found the road blocked by the emergency vehicles and the helicopter being loaded. I stopped and asked a ride worker to confirm my fears–someone was down, and down bad.
The rider, Daniella Izquierdo of Miami, crashed on the descent from Hog Pen. Her bike was said to have a broken fork, though no one seems sure if the failure caused the crash or was caused by the crash. Although it seemed she was recovering from the accident, I’m deeply saddened to say Daniella died this week as the result of her injuries. Her home club, Everglades Bicycle Club, has a memorial to her.
A bit more sober, and very introspective now, I continued the climb.
I found the summit and the ride workers closing the rest stop. At this point, I had walked more than half of the final 3.1 miles, and I was ready to get off the bike. I found a ride with a friend, also stricken with back spasms, and we endured a welcome, if terrifying, high-speed descent from Hog Pen Gap in a Subaru Outback wagon.
So, 8 hours after leaving the parking lot, I arrived back in Dahlonega. The spaghetti, although watery, was The Best Spaghetti I Have Ever Eaten. I had covered 4 gaps and 67 or so miles. I hadn’t done badly, for a first time.
Jamie and Cisco rolled in after 11:30 on the bike–far longer than I’ve ridden a bike, ever. The crazy-guy-with-the-PA didn’t announce their return. They didn’t even get spaghetti or a massage. They seemed tired, but not insane. They smiled and quipped and commiserated with me for my ills. I don’t think I told them how absolutely insane their ride was. Sure, others had done the ride faster, but Jamie and Cisco stayed on the bike longer than almost everyone. They had the HARD ride, the Bataan Death March to complete, but they kept getting back on the bike and pressing forward. Man, I owe them beer–much beer–for that sort of courage and commitment. That was amazing.
What have I learned?
- I learned that Tallahassee riding will not train me for Six Gap. A 100 -yard climb at 8 percent is not equivalent to 7 miles at 12-14. My legs felt good, but the sheer volume of climbing puts a strain on my back and abs that only weight training and hill repeats in large gears can duplicate. I will not make this mistake twice.
- I learned that I have learned to eat correctly on the bike. For me, I used water and Power Bar gels solely for the ride. A pre-race breakfast of Power Bars helped, too. For me, lighter is better, and things that don’t cause a lot of intestinal gas (belching and worse) is key to prevent nausea. This is exciting to me, as it offers some hope for a resolution to a very difficult problem faced in my cycling past.
So, I’m not furious with myself for failing. I learned what I do well and what needs work. Still, it does gnaw at me a bit. I’m going back, and I’ll be ready next time.