Yes, I am a freaking genius.
This was my third time doing this ride. The first time, my plan was painful. The second time, my plan was conservative. Saturday, the non-plan worked about as well as either of the first two. There was not as much pain as the first time. I was faster than the first time, but slower than the second. And, unlike every other time, I did not have to walk any of Brasstown Bald.
Again this year I drove down to Dahlonega, GA, Friday evening with friends. Last year it was Jeff Bauer, Alan Gosart, Vida Greer, and Peter Lee. This year, it was Jeff again, and we were joined by Larry Lewis.
Saturday morning we rolled out of the WalMart parking lot as the sun was coming up, just after 7. We were soon climbing the first of the 10 gaps, Woody's, where I stayed up front until Joseph Fritz and Julie Gazmararian rode up. We chatted for a bit -- Joe lives down near our Florida house, and Julie teaches at my alma mater, Emory University. When a couple of cars came along I went back to the front and sped up a bit. I wanted at least one KOM victory, and managed to be the first rider over that gap. I stopped then to use the facilities there as half a dozen other riders started down ahead of me.
I rode easier through Suches and on towards Wolfpen Gap, mostly listening to my iPod and enjoying the scenery. Robert Newcomer rode up with me as we started the climb, and we went over Wolfpen mostly together and then enjoyed the snakey descent.
At the first control, Robert and I caught up with the lead riders. I took my time enjoying a Diet Coke and a fried apple pie, then topped off my bottles. Jeff came in, quickly cleared the control, and I rode out with him. He had decided early to do the ride at his own pace, and so I did not try to ride with him up Hogpen Gap.
Joe passed us, followed by a large group of other riders, as we came to the base of the climb. We saw more cyclists than motorcyclists all day, as many riders were preparing for the Six Gap Century in two weeks. We would often ride along with these folks, who you could easily tell from the randonneurs by their minimalist carbon fiber rigs.
I started Hogpen hard, but soon backed off, knowing that it was still very early in this 200K. Larry passed me, looking strong for such a new randonneur.
Watching Larry climb, I remembered the last time that I had gone up this mountain. Jeff and Peter were ahead of me last year, and I was working hard to catch up with them before the top (I failed). It made me think of Peter, who was in the midst of his own struggle back in Nashville.
Regular readers of this blog know Peter as a good friend and strong rider. He came to cycling over five years ago. He had just survived cancer, and was trying to get fit again following the debilitating cure for that insidious disease. He got healthy and strong -- probably beyond even his own expectations -- and found a passion that got him through Paris-Brest-Paris 2007 and the Gold Rush Randonnee in 2009.
Peter was very strong last fall when he did Bundrick's Revenge. He and Jeff rode a tandem at Crazy George's Ride to the Sky -- a century in Cookeville, TN -- and were the first 100-mile riders to finish. Near the end of the year, though, he started to feel ill. By spring, he got the diagnosis: His cancer was back.
In April, Peter went through some very difficult surgery where they removed one of his kidneys. He was in the Intensive Care Unit at Vanderbilt for a month, lost a lot of weight, and was still having trouble when they sent him home. They were not able to get all of the cancer, and he is now going through chemotherapy.
Thinking of Peter on this tough climb Saturday reminded me just what a thin line we all walk. My legs hurt, but I reveled in the pain, knowing that I was living life to its fullest right then, climbing a beautiful mountain on an almost-perfect morning. I also though about the fact that it was 9/11, and what that meant to me as an American. At that moment, it meant that I was free enough to go where I wanted to, and thus climb this mountain. It meant that I was lucky enough to live in a country where I could have a job that allowed me to pay for such an expensive bicycle. It meant that I did not need to be afraid of being harassed by anybody else while I climbed this mountain, just because I was of a particular ethnicity or worshiped any religion.
I was lucky to be alive, healthy, and an American. In spite of how much my knees ached, I was truly blessed.
Randy McKinnon, Tom Trinidad, and I crested Hogpen together more or less, and stayed grouped on the fast descent. We picked up Larry along the way to the Robertson control, where I topped off my bottles again. I also filled my Camelback as Jeff rolled in, and we then left together again. We stayed together over Unicoi and Jack's Gaps to the base of Brasstown Bald, where I turned on the iPod again and started climbing.
Staying in my lowest gear, it seemed easier this year. I spun fairly easily up to The Wall, and then stood for this short, steep section. Then it was done, and I was rolling easily up the last bit and in to the parking lot.
As I pulled into the lot, however, a cramp hit my right abductor, so I coasted down to the awning where the control was and rested. Bethany Davidson and Gregory Somerville were there, taking care of the riders coming in. Greg even helped Larry change what turned out to be the first of many flats.
Bethany fixed me a sandwich, which I thoroughly enjoyed with a couple of Diet Dr. Peppers. We had met years ago when I rode her Caesar's Head/Rosman Loop permanent the day before the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, and we laughed at how stupid I had been to put those two back-to-back.
Jeff came in, ate his sandwich, and rolled out. I bade him farewell, but forgot to mention my earlier cramp. As I ate my sandwich, I decided that it would be best to ride the next two gaps easier to (hopefully) avoid any recurring issues. I should have given Jeff the keys to the van, since he would end up finishing over an hour ahead of me.
Feeling refreshed, I started back down Brasstown Bald. If you've never done this, it requires constant vigilance, scrubbing speed using your brakes, while trying to keep your tire rims from overheating. It is not the most fun descent, but I know of at least one cyclist who has let his speed get too high and paid the ultimate sacrifice as a result.
At the bottom, I found that my rear brake was now rubbing as a result of the constant contraction, so I opened it up and headed on. The descent on Jack's is always fun, and soon I was turning towards Helen to start the climb back over Unicoi. I continued to take it easy on this busy stretch, and got passed by a group of riders as we went over the top.
Soon after cresting, it began to rain. This, of course, ruined what is normally a fun downhill, as we braked through ever turn and avoided every painted line. When we finally got to the bottom, we kept the pace high on the level stretch, riding out of the rain just before the Robertson control.
Here, I was able to effect a plan that had formed on the top of Brasstown. I purchased what I consider the perfect cramp-recovery meal:
The Gatorade is critical because it tastes good, and you need to rehydrate the depleted cells. The roll of Tums (in front) replaces the calcium and potassium that you've probably leached. But it's the pickle juice that is really important, as I had found earlier this year on the 300K in Kentucky. The New York Times even says it.
So, I drank all of the juice from the jar of dill pickles, and a few of the other riders at the control ate a few of the pickles. They had also suffered some cramping, and so we consumed the entire roll of Tums. I refilled my Camelback and bottles, and we rolled out.
As I had planned, I started up Hogpen very conservatively. Many riders passed me on this stretch, including Tom and and Larry, and it started to rain. I just turned on the iPod again and spun as easily as I could up this last, tough climb.
Lightning had begun by the time I reached the top, and I was a little nervous up there with all of that exposed rock.
As I reached the top, I looked over at the small covered display in the parking lot, and there was Larry fixing another flat. He was having trouble, so I helped him try to determine what was puncturing his inner tubes. We couldn't find anything in the heavy rain, however, so he put his last fresh tube in and we pumped the tire up well, thinking maybe he was pinch-flatting. It was still raining as we started down, ruining what is normally a roaring descent.
As usual, the valley was dry, and I was soon at the control. I drank another Diet Coke and topped off my bottles before Larry rolled in, stating that his tire was going flat again. This time, we were able to inflate his punctured tube and find where the hole was, and then found where a small piece of glass was embedded in his tire. I gave him one of my tubes, and we inserted a makeshift boot from a candy bar wrapper (just in case we had not gotten all of the glass). Tom was at the control and was also out of spare tubes, so I loaned him one to carry. Having all of that gear may make for a heavier bike, but it also makes me feel a little safer.
I stayed with Larry on the climb up Wolfpen to make sure that his tire was holding. We descended the mostly dry road towards Suches, and I then took my pace up. It was going to take some work to finish the ride by 7 pm, and my legs were now feeling fine. I zipped over the last gap, Woody's, and had a blast on the final downhill towards Dahlonega. As I rolled into the parking lot, the clock rolled over to 7:02.
Larry came in soon afterwards, and he, Jeff, and I quickly got into dry street clothes, loaded up, and headed over to Moe's Southwest Grill for dinner. Just after 8 pm, we were on the road towards home. The tire-pressure warning light came on in the RAAMinator, however, so we had to stop to put air in a leaking tire. (The tire would eventually go completely flat on I-24, forcing us to change it and limp home on the spare.) We were further held up when Hwy 52 was closed for an hour for an accident, although this gave me a chance to call RandoGirl.
She told me about the ride she had done that day, the Hope on Wheels 100. They had wind and heat, but no rain. She, too, had been thinking about Peter. Since the HOW 100 is a charity ride for cancer research, she and many of the members of the Harpeth Bike Club had done it for Peter and a lady named Monica Summers. This is the sign that RandoGirl wore on her back.
We finally reached Dalton and the interstate about 11 pm when Jeff's phone rang. It was Peter, calling to see how the ride had gone. We all called out "Heys" to him. Jeff asked how his weight was doing, finding that Peter was down another five pounds. He kept suggesting things that Peter could eat to get his weight back up.
Then Peter told us that his doctors had given him the results from another test this week, and that the chemotherapy seems to be having an effect. There were fewer cancer cells in his body in this last test -- a very hopeful sign.
In the last few minutes of 9/11/2010, Peter gave all of us another thing to rejoice about, and another reason to remember this special day.