Since Tennessee is the Volunteer state, I feel it is my duty to volunteer support for at least one long brevet every year. In 2009, it was the 600K -- which goes from McMinnville to Tellico Plains, does a loop that includes climbs over the Tail of the Dragon and the Cherohala Skyway, and then heads back to McMinnville. In 2010, I spent three days running up and down the Natchez Trace to support our 1000K. And this past weekend, Jeff Bauer and I provided support for the new middle-Tennessee 400K out of Cookeville.
This weekend was probably the most fun of the three, even though it was possibly the toughest ... at least, in terms of hard work and sleep deprivation.
Not that the riders we supported were hard work -- in fact, they were easy. No, the hard work part of it was because Jeff Bauer and I rode a big chunk of the first 150 miles after we saw the 400K riders off.
The sleep deprivation part started early. I had another commitment Friday night, so I did not get to the hotel in Cookeville until after midnight. The 3-4 hours of quality sleep I then managed to get in set a pattern for the remainder of the weekend.
We had planned for two groups of starters: One at 5 am and another at 6 am. Both groups would still get 27 hours to do the ride, but the 6 am starters would not need lights or reflective gear as long as they made it back to the hotel (at mile 152) before nightfall. Since Jeff and I only planned to ride about 130 miles -- much of this a permanent named "Honest Abe" that I plan to apply for in the coming weeks -- we would "ride light" (or is that "ride light-less?") with the 6 am group.
Jeff knew how late I had gotten in, so he handled most of the work getting the 5 am riders out. I got up just before they left, waved them a bleary "bon route," then took a hot shower, drank some crappy coffee, and got ready to roll out with Jeff and the 6 am crowd.
Except, Jeff and I were the 6 am crowd. Maybe it was my description of the route last week, or Jeff's description of the bottom part of the route last week, but something scared away a lot of the riders. It certainly wasn't the weather, which was almost perfect. Whatever the cause, rather than the 14 cyclists who had registered we had only the seven cyclists who departed at 5 am.
Although it would have been nice to have a big pack pull us into the wind later that day, I must admit that it was more fun just doing the ride with Jeff. We enjoyed the quiet ride out of town, the descent down Hwy 135, and the early morning beauty as we rolled past the river there towards Gainesboro.
The fog was just lifting over the Cumberland River as we crossed it, and temperatures were still cool enough that I needed my arm- and knee-warmers and vest.
The other benefit of it just being Jeff and me was that it gave us the flexibility to get off the route when we wanted. Thus, about 35 miles in, when I suggested we follow a different set of road markings (from the Avery Trace bicycle race route), Jeff said, "Whatever."
Although the "official" roads are very nice, the route that we took was just as pretty. For one thing, it got us to the climb out of the Cumberland River Valley a little earlier, on yet another shady, rock-lined lane.
At the top, the road gently rolled through forest, some of which had obviously been damaged by the tornadoes and storms that passed through here Wednesday.
I knew that this road eventually rejoined the route just before Red Boiling Springs. What I didn't know was just how much it north before angling back down south and west. Thus, when we finally turned right and got back on the official route on Hwy 151, we had picked up an extra eight miles.
But at least they were pretty miles.
We quickly passed through Red Boiling Springs and started up towards Kentucky. Just before the state line, we went by a farm where the tin roof had been blown off their barn during the storms. Sheets of metal were rattling up against the barbed wire fence.
Amidst the devastation, spring was in full bloom. The morning air was rife with the smell of honeysuckle, and lillies were resplendent in almost every yard.
We stopped at the last store in Gamaliel (pronounced "Guh-mail-e-yuh," according to one of our riders, Doug McLarren, who has family in the area). Jeff got a sandwich and I ate a candy bar as we filled our bottles. Then we crossed back into Tennessee to take Hwy 52 through Moss, TN -- the home of Honest Abe Log Homes, and thus the source of the permanent's name -- and on to Celina. We were just passing the first store there when something punctured my rear tire, so we pulled in to change the tube and buy water. We then began working into the wind on sunny Hwy 56, going slowly back to Gainesboro.
We made a quick lunch stop at the Dairy Queen there, then tackled the tough climb up out of town on Hwy 53. The wind was still against us as we fought towards Granville. On the way, we passed Clipper's in Flynn's Lick, where the "Food, Hair, and Fun" sign always gives me pause.
Just past this, a funeral procession passed us. Jeff and I pulled over, removed our helmets and hats, and watched the cars move somberly up the hill to a family cemetery with a great view.
In Granville, we finally ran in to one of our 400K riders, Jon Pasch. He was buying drinks at the store, and told us that he thought that George Hiscox and Tom Trinidad were ahead of him. We watched as he continued down Hwy 53 towards Chestnut Mound, and felt a little guilty as we got on the much nicer TN-96.
Whereas the climb up Hwy 53 is fairly open, TN-96 meanders in the shade along a quiet creek before pitching up for the last couple of miles.
I was pretty tired after this, so Jeff pulled me along down Hwy 70 to Baxter, and then down Buffalo Valley Road and back to the hotel. We had ridden 138 miles, and just barely managed to get in before any of the 400K riders. We quickly cleaned up and ordered pizzas to feed them with, refilling our own hungry bellies as we awaited their arrival.
Pasch came by the room first. Hiscox and Trinidad came in, but went by the office (instead of the hotel room) to get their cards signed. We were a little concerned when they didn't come by the room, particularly as other riders continued to come in, grab some food, change clothes, rest a bit, and then head out. This concern stayed with Jeff and me until I finally caught up with those riders later that night.
I grabbed a brief nap as riders entered and left, and thus felt decent when Dave Harris came in about 7:30 pm. He was the last rider at this point, so I loaded up the Watzzwagen with food and drink, and started driving the route to check on riders.
McLarren had just left, so I soon passed him. Doug Morgan and Steve Phillips came next, just before Sparta. Heading out into the very dark countryside, I was soon climbing the dreaded Yates Mountain Road, where my headlights -- even on the "high beam" setting -- showed a wall of pavement. At the top, I passed Hiscox and Trinidad, and I stopped at the control in Spencer to talk briefly to them. They were concerned about the reported confusion on the road out of town, so they followed me from the control to Hwy 30A.
I caught up with the lead rider, Pasch, on Bone Cave Road. Apparently, Van Buren County had decided to finally put signs on some un-marked roads recently, and taken the opportunity to change the names of those roads. This was causing Jon some confusion, but we were able to straighten things out and get him on route in to Rock Island Park.
Finding a good spot in the park, I parked and waited for the remaining riders. Between their visits, I climbed into the back seat for short, fitful naps. About 2:30 am, I got a very broken call on my cell phone from Harris, so I backtracked the route again to Bone Cave Road to find him. He was tired, but still riding, so I topped off his water and gave him a little food, then started driving back to the hotel. This was a harrowing trip, as I repeatedly slapped my face to stay awake, but I eventually made it. I stumbled into the room just after Pasch came in, then tumbled in to bed for another three broken hours of semi-sleep.
Just after dawn, Phillips, Morgan, and McLarren came in, and we all sat around re-capping our adventures. The sky was looking threatening as we grabbed some "food" from the hotel's "Continental Breakfast." Hiscox, who had finished about 5 am with Trinidad, started to tell Jeff and I a story about a magazine article he had recently read, but between his exhaustion and ours we could not follow the topic.
Harris came in less than an hour after the rain started. All seven of our starters had finished, but none of them too quickly -- a statistic that I interpret as meaning that the route was just challenging enough. The riders all had praise for how pretty most of the roads were, and damnation for how cruel the climb up to Spencer on Yates Mountain Road had been. I took copious notes regarding corrections and clarifications on the directions, and thought about these as I began driving home to Nashville. I also thought about the Honest Abe permanent, and how we could also have an alternate "Dishonest Abe" version. I would need to update the route sheet before submitting either of them.
But first, sleep.