Monday, September 28, 2009

Gaps Without Goals

I've started the Six Gaps century six times -- every year since 2004. One year (2006, I think) it was raining so hard going up Neel's Gap (the first of the six) that we wimped out and just did the Three Gap Fifty. We still enjoyed the ride, but I felt really dumb when I found out later that it never rained on the pack after that.

You see, I always have a goal on Six Gaps. It's arguably the toughest road century in the southeastern United States, and you could probably make the argument that it's the toughest road century anywhere. It's hard to beat 11,000 feet of climbing in just over 100 miles, particularly with some of it having long stretches of 15% or more.

The first year, my goal was to finish. The second year, it was to finish in under seven hours, then six (the rain-out year), and then six again. I came close that year (6:10) and could have worked a little harder and made it.

Last year was RandoGirl's first time, and my goal was to get her thru it. This year, her goal was to finish again, but a little faster. I knew that she could do it -- and she did -- so I was mostly just along for the ride.

No goals.

There's a wonderful lack of pressure that comes when you have no goals. Add to that the thoroughly excellent weather that enjoyed this past Sunday, and you get the kind of bike ride that should be everyone's goal.

A good day to be riding in the mountains

We set the tone early by getting to the ride late. While this may not sound logical (and it wasn't), it meant that we avoided the jostling around at the starting line watching the clock. Instead, we had to park up the hill from the high school parking lot, bike down, and head inside to get our numbers and stuff. While we were doing that, the gun went off and the crowds outside thinned. By the time we had pinned on numbers and strapped on transponders, it was a calmer world.

Of course, this didn't mean that there wasn't a heck of a lot of riders out there. We were soon into the madding crowd again, surrounded by the mating call of the migrating Fred ("on your left ... slowing ... on your left") festooned in faux Astana finery, spinning the furious 100+ cadence that they read about in Bicycling magazine -- crazy legs beneath uber-taut shoulders and locked straight elbows that you just knew would wear them to a frazzle by the top of Jack's Gap.

Six Gaps is very popular with riders from Florida, as well it should be. I lived and rode in the Tampa area for four years, and the prospect of a ride with a view beyond the local cypress swamp and more than a five-second descent is very alluring. Most of the Floridians climb well, too, and many are excellent riders.

However (and you knew this was coming), their descending skills do not get much practice. If you find yourself starting down from a gap behind a pack of riders with alligators on their back, either get ready to pass or sit up and prepare to ride your brakes.

RandoGirl way out in front on the way up Neel's Gap

Ordinarily, my friends Jeff Bauer and Fredia Barry do this ride on a tandem, but this year Jeff is doing the Endless Mountains 1240K in Pennsylvania. I was very pleased to see another tandem in their place, however. This couple was riding strong up every gap, and looked great here climbing Wolfpen.

Even without Jeff and Fredia this year, there was a tandem on the century

I talked with them a little bit on the approach to Neel's Gap, and advised that next year they should bring a little bell. The rolling nature of these first 20 miles had them passing a lot of groups, and I could tell that they were tired of having to swing out almost into the other lane.

Although it never rained on us, the roads were still wet from the heavy rains that had plagued Georgia for the previous two weeks. There was also a bit of wind from the high-pressure cell that was finally pushing all of this rain out, which tended to shake some of the water down from the trees. Fortunately, the roads were dry enough for good traction ... just wet enough to get gunk on you and your ride.

RandoGirl nears the top of a damp gap

After Neel's the roads dried out, the sun broke through, and the world turned about damned near perfect. I was having so much fun that I had to stop at the Sunrise market and get pictures of the huge pumpkins they had. I wanted to go inside and get a fried pie (Sunrise is a regular control on brevets hosted by Audax Atlanta) but RandoGirl told me to get a move on.

Field of pumpkins for sale next to Sunrise Country Store (one of my favorite controls)

Soon we were at Jack's Gap, refueling and watching some crazy riders turn off to climb Brasstown Bald. I would have envied them, but I had already climbed that a few weeks ago. Besides, the prospect of doing it again on a bike with just a compact crankset and 11-23 cassette was a little too painful.

Coming down from Jack's I remembered a small waterfall that we had ridden past on the way to Brasstown earlier this month. It's something you don't usually notice doing Six Gaps because this is a long gentle descent, but if you're going the other way you can hear the water. I stopped and took this picture Sunday because, again, I had the time.

Hidden waterfall between Jack's Gap and Unicoi Gap

I stopped again at the top of Unicoi, but caught up with RandoGirl at the turn-off near Helen. Her back was hurting, so I gave her a quick massage before we started back up. We had decided earlier that we would each do Hogpen at our own pace, and I left her after the turn onto Hwy 348 and rode as hard as I could to the top.

While waiting for RandoGirl to come up, I saw Larry Lewis come over. Larry is a strong rider, a fellow Harpeth Bicycle Club member, and was a team-mate of RandoGirl on her Super 80 race team.

Fellow Harpeth Bike Club member Larry Lewis crests Hogpen

A little bit earlier, fellow randonneur Steve Phillips had just come over on his fixed gear bike. He rode every mile, with no walking, due to lots of training and careful research. He said he finally settled on a gear mix that would let him get up the steepest stuff without shredding his knees, but would let him descend without his legs flying off his hips or his brake pads bursting into flames. He was still walking at the finish line, although I smelled burning rubber a little later going down Hogpen myself.

Steve Phillips gets to the top of Hogpen on his fixie

When RandoGirl came up, we took another short break. The weather by now was almost cold on top of the gap, with the wind blowing in a perfectly clear blue sky, so we soon hit the trail again. RandoGirl needed another massage before Wolfpen, but this got her over with no more stops. We took our final break at the "unofficial" rest stop in Suches -- run by fellow randonneur Tom Cross to benefit the Suches volunteer fire department -- then enjoyed the last easy climb up to the final gap: Woody's.

They changed the ending of Six Gaps last year, so that it is now 104 miles rather than 98. While the way that they now bring us in to Dahlonega is light on traffic and very pretty, by this time we were ready to be done. A loud sigh went up when we finally pulled into the high school parking lot.

So, like I said, a fun ride with no goals. Well, except for the one where I wanted to put in a good time-trial up Hogpen. From the turn onto 348 to the top (the county line) was 43:07. Not bad for a fat old man fighting a head cold.

It took me 27 seconds to get out of the road and stop the clock

1 comment:

  1. Love the photos! It looks like it was just beautiful. . .