biking blue ridge (4/28 & 4/29)
It started as an innocuous conversation about my birthday...
[Amazing, lovely, awesome, etc.] Girlfriend: so what do you want to do for your birthday?
Me: I want to ride my bike in the mountains.
And the plan was hatched. Kind of. Initially I was thinking that I would ride Pine Mountain. Pine Mountain, located just outside of Columbus, GA, is a short 3 hour trip from Tallahassee and features a few moderate climbs. I discovered Pine Mountain during the now defunct Wheels O' Fire century. And I immediately fell in love. The climbs aren't particularly long or particularly challenging (with the longest topping out at approximately 1.5 miles and with a 5-7% gradient) but the ride itself is incredible. You ride for miles and miles along the spine of the mountain and are treated to amazing views, fun rollers, and ultimately a really peaceful experience.
On top of just loving the ride, Pine Mountain was appealing due to the distance from Tallahassee. My girlfriend and I could reasonably work full days on Friday, take our time getting out of town, and still make it to Pine Mountain relatively early in the evening. It was also appealing due to my familiarity with the bike rides in the area. I've ridden Pine Mountain enough that I know where I'm going and know that I won't get into too much trouble. Additionally, given my point in my training Pine Mountain made tons of sense. I've just started back on the bike and haven't hardly ridden at any distance or with any elevation. Easier climbs (that's an oxymoron if I've ever seen one) align perfectly with my fitness right now.
Perfect. Pine Mountain makes all the sense in the world.
Let's go to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For years I had heard about how good the cycling was in North Georgia, and then I started researching. In my research, I stumbled upon this little fellow known as Brasstown Bald.
"7th hardest climb in the U.S."
"Highest point in Georgia"
"...a portion of the climb known as 'The Wall', with gradients exceeding 20%"
I must meet this fellow.
And this is one of my reasons for blogging about my journey - to encourage you to do something crazy, seemingly impossible, or incredibly challenging routinely. Riding on roads in North Georgia that I've never even seen is crazy. Driving 6 hours after work to do so is crazy. The climb itself is impossible given my level of fitness coming into the weekend. Screw it. What do I have to lose from trying?
So off we went. To the Appalachians.
So the plan for Saturday, my birthday, was to get a longer ride in with tons of climbing. Check and check. I pulled up a cue sheet titled "Ride Around Brasstown" put out by a local cycling group. I had no intentions of following the cue sheet except to get from where I parked my car to Brasstown Bald. I'll be damned if I'm riding around Brasstown Bald. Nah. I'm riding up Brasstown.
Brimming with exuberance and false confidence I point my bike in the direction of Brasstown Bald. I record a video highlighting the days plan and encouraging everyone to donate of course. Said video is having difficulty uploading to this site, but may go up on my Facebook page.
At the time that I record the video I believe that I'm already on the Brasstown Bald climb. Little did I know that I was actually on the climb leading up to the climb. Ummm. What? I'm from Florida. We don't have climbs leading up to climbs. Hell, we barely have climbs. What is this nonsense?
I know that Brasstown Bald is a 3ish mile climb, but outside of that I don't really know where it starts. So when I'm suffering and when I've been climbing for about 15 minutes I'm thinking that I'm in good shape. Working hard but I can hold this pace until the end of the climb.
No problem. I reach the visitor center thinking that I've maybe got another mile or so of climbing. Sweet. Then I see this...
Problem. Big freaking problem.
At this point I realize that I haven't even started Brasstown Bald yet. I've climbed about 2 miles to get to the start of Brasstown.
I unclip and take a quick rest because I've got the perfect combination of having worked too hard too early, complete frustration at myself, and being fearful of the remainder of this ride.
But I'm still having fun. Onward.
Ok. Not having as much fun anymore. Wow. Within feet of starting the climb, the gradient has pitched up to 13%. I'm huffing and puffing within seconds. Quad sucking. Soul sucking. Welcome to Brasstown.
I plug on for maybe half a mile, which translates to about 5 minutes of climbing, before I just can't do it anymore. Patience. Take a little break, slow the heartrate down, and keep ticking off the miles. I take a few photos on my breaks (posted under Day 2).
Onward part II. Ass kicking part II. Brutal. Brasstown Bald is unrelenting. When climbing, even the slightest little bit of flattening-out goes along way. Even 15 feet at 3-4% gradient would do the trick. Let me recover. Please.
Brasstown Bald ain't having that. Unrelenting. Every turn brings a seemingly more challenging section than the last. I grind through a couple more sections with 13 and 14% gradient. And I'm done...again. Another break.
Keep plugging along, Jason. Bit by bit. One pedal stroke at a time.
Onward 3.0. 13% gradient 3.0. I make it through another tough, tough section and I'm starting to feel really close to the top. The trees are thinning out. There aren't many more points in Georgia that are taller than me right now. I've got this.
Then...The Wall. Again, I still have no idea that this is actually The Wall or where The Wall was going to come in the climb. But it comes at about the 2 mile mark, after 20 minutes of climbing. Which, given my nice preamble to the actual climb, means that it comes after about 4 miles and 40 minutes of climbing.
I see The Wall and I know I can't make it up. I don't even know if I could walk up it at this point.
I waive the white flag. That's the end of Brasstown Bald for me. Time to get some mileage in.
I start exploring and stumble onto a climb that just doesn't seem to stop ever. It's at about 6% gradient for nearly 5 miles, so I'm loving it. I ride that climb very well and, feeling mostly proud of my day, start to head back to the car.
I hit the car at 61 miles for the day and over 6,000 feet of climbing. Solid day.
The plan for day two is to get about an hour of climbing in. As I said in one of the videos, simulating the topography of France is difficult, so I need to get climbing time in. That said, I know that I worked really hard yesterday and that I don't have a ton of juice left. Oh yeah...I also need to get back home at a reasonable hour so that I can study for my last MBA exam ever, and ya know, get ready for the work week.
As I'm loading up I'm feeling the effort of yesterday. But just being in the mountains is so fun and so energizing that I'm looking forward to my ride.
Today my girlfriend makes the trek over to Hiawassee with me. Because of its great view, and because I simply can't properly describe Brasstown Bald to her, we actually drive up Brasstown before starting my ride. I show her The Wall and explain how I don't even think I have the right climbing gears on my bike to make it up the climb.
I drop her off at a coffee shop and head towards the mountains again. I'm debating on whether or not I even want to try Brasstown Bald again, or to take on one of the longer, but less challenging climbs that I discovered yesterday.
How often will I get the chance to climb Brasstown Bald? Done. Bike pointed toward the highest point in Georgia for the second day in a row.
I set out towards Brasstown Bald and it only takes one hill to remind me that my legs are trashed. The combo of trashed legs, plus riding Brasstown the day before, plus driving it this morning add up perfectly though.
Being fatigued forces me to be extremely conscious of my energy expenditure. Unlike the day before, I don't let the exuberance get the best of me. Patience.
Being familiar with the climb allows me to set landmarks, to compare how I'm feeling on Day 2 to how I was feeling on Day 1 at the same point, and to generally understand how to attack the climb.
Being a psycho leads to me making the decision to tackle the climb before Brasstown Bald plus Brasstown. I take the climb from the opposite direction as yesterday, which makes the climb a little longer but also a little more gradual. I now know this climb as Jacks Gap - a 4 mile slog at an average gradient of just under 7%.
I take Jacks Gap at a reasonable pace, placing an emphasis on not ever working too hard. My legs feel like I'm working too hard, but my breathing isn't labored, so I know that I'm not making the same mistake I made the day before.
Jacks Gap takes a lot out of me though and as Brasstown Bald comes into sight again, with its "Steep Grades Next 3 Miles" sign taunting me, I have serious doubts about my ability to even make it up the first 13% section. I tell myself that I'll just go as far as I can and turn back around.
Something weird happens though. I start the climb and all of the sudden I'm feeling great. Within 10 pedal strokes I make the decision that I'm making it to the top of this damn mountain. Today.
As opposed to yesterday, my breathing is under control. My legs aren't screaming in quite the same way. Don't get me wrong - every pedal stroke is work, and every one hurts, but not the way it did yesterday. Weird. But awesome.
I realize that I'm ready to suffer today. I knew today was going to be a suffer fest from the first pedal stroke, just due to the level of fatigue. So I've settled into that mindset. And when you settle into that mindset, man, you can move mountains...or...climb them.
Instead of trying so hard to block out all the pain and the noise and the doubt, I embrace it. Ya this is hard. Really freaking hard. But guess what? I'm just a little bit harder.
That's my mindset as I slowly but surely snake my way up the mountain. As I reach the second 13% gradient section I'm feeling the effort but I'm also feeling like I've got just enough juice to reach the top. After about 5 more minutes of climbing I hit the third 13% gradient, which happens to be right before The Wall.
The Wall. Aka the end of my climb yesterday. I prepare myself for The Wall by talking through how much it's going to suck. I want to manage my expectations. It's going to suck and it's going to take everything you've got. You're going to have to work hard as hell to get up The Wall. Is that what you're prepared to do?
And I'm glad that I prepared myself in that manner. You've already been climbing for 50 minutes. Now, empty the tank.
I've been alternating between climbing in the seated position and getting out of the saddle for the really difficult parts. As I approach The Wall I preemptively get out of the saddle. Each pedal stroke becomes harder and harder as the gradient goes from 17% to 18%. 19%. I almost tip over.
Empty the tank. I try to speed up my cadence because not doing so means I'll be tipping over. Doing so means that I'll be working harder than I already am.
20%. My breathing has become so labored that it hurts my core. I feel this deep burning pain in my lungs, my core, and of course my legs. Sweat pours out of my helmet and down my glasses. I've been on The Wall for 60 seconds already. How much longer can this last?
21%. Every pedal stroke is happening in slow motion. Everything hurts. How much longer can I sustain this?
22%. I'm not even looking up at this point. Head down and try to keep the bike moving forward. So when I hit the 22% section of the climb, I don't even realize that I've only got maybe 50 more meters of The Wall. When I do glance up and see the end in sight I start to celebrate. The pain is still there but it's washed away. I'm freaking doing this.
After 1:40 on The Wall, the climb levels out. And levels out by Brasstown Bald standards means gradients at 10%. Still really, really hard. But at this point it doesn't matter. From driving the climb that morning, I know that I only have maybe a quarter of a mile before I've done it.
So I take the last quarter of a mile to reflect on the accomplishment, to take in the sights of the Appalachians, and to remind myself of the value of taking on something impossible routinely.
After 6 miles of climbing and just under an hour, I've freaking done it!
What a moment.
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.