Sorry this is so LATE. It’s been sitting in the queue, and I’ve got other things I really need to post.
The Cheaha Challenge was everything I thought it would be, and a bit more. Cheaha Mountain is the highest point in Alabama, and unlike Brasstown Bald, the road to the summit is a comparatively easy climb that goes right over the top and down the other side. When you’re 230 pounds, however, “comparatively easy” is the funny part of the last sentence.
The ride started with the threat of impending storms. A slow front stretched from Texas to the East Coast, and the Anniston and Piedmont areas were right in the middle of the good stuff. When I awoke, I didn’t really see how it was possible we were going to ride for more than an hour or two before the storms arrived. And, as the Weather Channel warned, these storms carried a “strong possibility of large hail and tornadoes.” Not exactly perfect riding weather. Still, we went to Piedmont for breakfast and found that, thought wet, the course was clear. So, a bit of yogurt and cereal, and off we went.
The ride out was uneventful, discounting the inevitable multi-sport athletes and their insidious insistence on riding aero bars in the middle of a large group. There’s nothing like finding yourself surrounded by them and having to sprint away just to keep their cooties from dragging you to the pavement. This occurred on more than a couple of occurrences, and our little group soon found itself separated as the ride split into smaller and smaller packs, split by the intervening no-man’s-land of triathletes and their lane-clearing ways.
We rolled out quickly, at 18 to 20 mph or so, and passed the first rest station. The terrain was rolling and pleasant, with no surprises or difficult hills. It was fun to see the variation in jerseys and body types as we rolled. My favorite was a particularly attractive young woman, Annette, who must have had the aerobic capacity of Armstrong; she seemed to be happiest when talking as quickly and as loudly as she could, and she received a LOT of attention from those around her. I was to ride near her for a good part of the ride, and although I never actually spoke to her, I felt as though we were life-long friends by the time she dropped away. I knew so MUCH about her, it was difficult to see her go.
The first climb, just short of the second rest stop, was surprising. A long, curving climb of 5 to 6 percent quickly separated the newbies from those riding compact and triple gearing. For the first time in my life, I was riding a triple in a century and I was sure happy to be able to spin easily up the hill to conserve energy for the climbs to come. We regrouped a bit at the rest stop. I really must applaud Mike Poe and the ride organizers; the rest stops were insanely well-stocked. Each station had porta-potties, citrus, drinks, fruit, sandwiches, cookies…and who knows what all else. It’s a shame that I confine myself to gels, Powerbars, and water on these rides to keep my stomach at bay; I really must go back to Cheaha with the intention of eating my way through the ride. I never saw a rest stop run low, and everyone seemed happy to gorge themselves. A good feed, to say the least.
Rest stop 3 was at the top of Horseblock Gap, one of the steepest climbs on the route at 8.84 percent on the outbound and 10 percent coming back. This was the first climb I really felt, and I dropped all the way to the granny gear to get to the top without a struggle. The last couple hundred yards were a real bear, too. Only the sight of the devil, leaping up and down at the summit, goading riders to harder efforts with his pitchfork and red tail, made it possible for me to stand, drop a couple of gears and power to the top. The rest stop at the top was a Tour de France victory celebration, too. Podium girls and yellow jerseys and really cute berets with sunflowers. At this point, however, I was just not in the mood for the celebration; I had a long way to go, and a short time to get there (Put the hammer down and watch ol’ Bandit run?), and my bike was just NOT shifting properly. I leaned over the bike and started fiddling with the derailleurs. Once a proper head-rush had been achieved from said leaning-over, I went and smoothly conned Sandi into resisting the urge to turn around on the metric route and press ahead to Cheaha.
The next ten miles were an absolute nightmare. Where Six Gap is six difficult climbs, the ten miles to the summit of Cheaha Mountain is a relentless series of short, 8 to 10 percent climbs. I don’t care who you are; this sort of interval training sucks the life out of you. The leaders (on the full 102 mile ride, no less) passed us in this section, their carbon wheels and stern faces betraying them as “hard men” as they blew past the pale, sticky, Cinnabon-kind-of-men on the still-outbound side. We saw Sandi’s son, Mait, in the top ten and cheered. I surreptitiously waited for Sandi at the top of a couple of climbs (out of the goodness of my heart…right), and we pressed on to the foot of Cheaha together. At this point, I lost her.
Cheaha proper is a three mile climb of 5 to 7 percent. It really wasn’t so bad, compared to the treacherous rollers we’d just left. But, on Cheaha, the number of riders choosing to dismount and walk became a distraction. As is the case in so many of these rides, I picked up a leapfrog–that guy who figures he should be outclimbing you, so he powers past out of sight around the next bend, only to be overtaken and passed again, with a mournful expression as he stands roadside. This generally repeats several times. My leapfrog was in a talking mood. “Tough one, eh?” “Gonna just get worse.” “Hehe.” That’s right, just a chuckle was getting under my skin. I hated seeing this guy. He’s probably great in person, but MAN, he was driving me nuts! The next time he passed, I stopped for a break and just stood roadside, straddling my bike and watching the descenders coming down the mountain.
I got into a rhythm in my granny gear. People were bailing out on the side of the road and each one was giving me fits, smiling sheepishly as I passed, and distracting me from the task at hand. I kept pedaling, just spinning the pedals until finally, there was the rest station. I pulled in and immediately got off the bike to get water. One old fellow had the right idea, and was asleep under a tree, his bike lying beside him. Talk seemed to revolve around the weather. A large group was considering turning back because of approaching storms, but in general, people seemed convinced the weather would hold off and allow a full finish. My friends Tim and Betsy decided to continue on to Andy’s Gap, about 6 miles down the road. I sat, unsure and pretty darn happy to just be resting for a bit.
Soon, Sandy and her SAG friend pulled in, having driven all the way to Andy’s Gap and back. She asked if I wanted to go with her to the second rest stop and ride in from there, a distance of about 25 miles, giving us about 70 miles for the day. I shook my head, then thought better of it. The hills between Cheaha and Horseblock were the toughest of the ride, and I did not relish climbing them under the pressure of an approaching storm. We piled into a small Subaru and took off.
I was amazed at the number of riders still FAR back on the course, still outbound. We passed Juan, a Tallahassee rider, still puttering along on his Surly touring bike (rigged for touring, too, no less). He had just passed Horseblock and seemed content. Other riders were in obvious trouble, struggling mightily with the relentless steep, short climbs. As at Six-Gap last year, I was astounded that these riders continued on, into the heat of the day, with what seemed to me an almost insurmountable task of returning to Piedmont before dark, much less before the impending storms broke. Later, I am sure these same riders were those stuck in homes, stores, and other makeshift shelters when Emergency Management pulled them off the course.
We arrived at the second rest stop in high spirits. After a quick drink and a toilet break, Sandi and I took off at a good clip, passing a single rider on the last steep downhill. Once on the flats, I got my second wind, and was able to keep a steady pace between 20-22 mph, which really brightened my ride considerably. I was happy to find a rhythm again and be useful in some manner. Sandi and our new compatriot hung on, and I pulled steadily to the first rest stop. Another quick break, and we were off again, this time picking up several new riders. Again, I did what I could to find a steady pace and to pull as hard as possible back to Piedmont.
We pulled into Piedmont and got our combined time of 7 hours (including off the bike times). This sucked, but I didn’t hurt and generally felt pretty good with my ride. As I took my bike to the car, the tornado alert sirens went off. Looking around, we asked, “Is this a drill?” A woman with a walkie talkie smiled and said, “No way! There’s been a touchdown Southeast of here. We need to get inside.”
Great. I’ve always wanted to SEE a tornado, but I’ve never desired to be a part of a news story along the lines of “Cyclists hit by tornado. Hundreds killed.” We meandered toward the community center as I pulled up the NOAA site on my cell phone. Piedmont was at the very end of the projected path, some thirty minutes along. It was unlikely that we’d see a funnel, but there was definitely some stormy weather about to hit. Anniston, and my hotel, was actually CLOSER to the storm than Piedmont, so staying for the spaghetti and dying with a full stomach became the order of the day.
Luckily, an hour inside–a few moments of which were spend in the basement in a janitor’s closet with a plate of spaghetti–and the all-clear sounded. Members of our Tallahassee group were still unaccounted for, but were soon located in various locales around the course. Thus, all safe and accounted for, I left for the motel. First stop however, was Krystal for burgers. The evening was spent with burgers, television, and much-needed sleep.
Overall, I was pretty happy with my ride. I never walked. I made it up the mountains I desired to climb and actually felt reasonably good afterwards. My final miles of strong pulling were VERY good. I am disappointed that I did not complete the entire ride, end-to-end. The Cheaha Challenge is an excellent ride, and while not in the realm of torture occupied by Six Gap, still presents a sizable challenge. The climbs are short, steep, and very numerous. The organizers of Cheaha really took care of us, with some of the best aid stations that I’ve ever experienced. The out-and-back format makes the ride accessible to the novice, who can choose the challenge best suited to him, and gives the advanced rider the benefit of excellent support that isn’t about to pack up and leave due to time constraints. I have rarely seen better support or more numerous options on a ride.
Overall: My ride, B. Cheaha Challenge, a solid A.