Monday, September 19, 2011

Ten ... er, Seven Gaps, 2011

Early in the season, most cyclists begin planning their training based on this year's goals. For most randonneurs this year, it was ultimately Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), with a few intermediate things along the way.

When 2011 began, PBP was my goal, too. Then, I crashed and injured my hip, although I didn't realize that it would keep me away from France until spring came. So, plans changed and I decided to race some. Then, we decided to move to Naples, Florida, which meant getting our house on the market and finding a house down there ... so, plans changed.

One thing that I really wanted to do, however, was Ten Gaps. Also known as Bundrick's Revenge, this is a 200K in the North Georgia mountains that has anywhere from 17,000 to 23,000 (depending upon who's computer or software you are using) feet of climbing. Basically, for most of the 127 miles, you're either going up or you're going down ... hopefully on a road.

In 2008, this ride kicked my butt. In 2009, I rode it strong, but still had to walk part of Brasstown Bald. In 2010, I rode it easy, stayed on the bike, and had fun.

So, what was my goal for Ten Gaps in 2011? I dunno. Go. Ride, I guess. Look at the mountains. Enjoy the cool weather. See old friends.

You see, life has just been kind of a roller coaster lately. My fitness is decent, but my weight is above what I like it to be for these tough mountain rides. And I have not been my usual diligent self with my bicycle maintenance.

But, I had the weekend off, and needed to get out of town in case some buyer wanted to look at the house, and I had promised friends that I would drive them down, so I went. We got a late start, and got to the hotel even later, but we made it to the ride start just fine and I felt great as we rolled out of the parking lot. I even pulled most of the first few miles, up to where the real climbing begins at Woody's Gap. Then I decided that I was too warm, and so I pulled over to peel off my arm-warmers, knee-warmers, and vest, while the rest of the lead group headed up.

Ah, well, I thought. I didn't have any goals for this ride this year, so I might as well just ride my ride. I got back on the bike and rolled solo to the top, and then stopped to take a picture.

The sun was up in the valley, but it was still pretty chilly up on top of the mountain. I didn't want to put all of my stuff back on, so I quickly headed down toward Suches. As I started through the rollers there, I began to notice a funny click coming from my bike's drive train -- a little "tick" when the right crankarm hit about the 1 o'clock position. As I focused on it, I began to notice that I could "feel" the tick, too.

This is not a good thing to notice 27 miles in on a 127-mile ride, particularly when you have some really, really tough climbs ahead. As I started up Wolf Pen, I began to think "bottom-bracket failure," and backed off the pace a bit to baby it.

The weather was still incredible -- cool enough to be comfortable, with barely any wind and not even a hint of rain. The swoopy descent down Wolf Pen was a blast as usual, and I began to think how sad it would be not to have such a fun downhill in our new home state.

Other than the troublesome ticking drivetrain, I felt great as I hit the first control. I topped off my bottles and bought a homemade fried apple pie, and then rolled on towards Hog Pen. I finished the pie on the rollers heading to this steep climb, then downshifted to the small chainring to keep the pressure off going up.

Unlike previous times, I played with my bike computer on the way up by seeing just how long I could maintain a very low speed. My record was 30 seconds at 3.5 mph -- very easy on the legs, but tricky on the steering skills.

The roads were full of cyclists, either out training for the upcoming Six Gap Century or riding an organized Gran Fondo with the Georgia Cup series. As I came over the top of Hog Pen, a group of them was approaching from the other side. One of them yelled out, "You're going in the wrong direction," and I yelled back, "The climb is shorter that way."

I saw a lot of other riders struggling up Hog Pen as I zipped my way down, and then turned left towards Helen and the control. Two of our riders were there, and I would have stayed and chatted with them but I was not very tired -- one advantage of soft-pedaling a tough ride like this. I filled my bottles again, bought a candy bar, and headed back out.

Climbing the fourth gap, Unicoi, was the usual slog. It's not a very pretty gap, and the fast motorcycles love to race up and down on it. One fellow on a red and white crotch rocket came within inches of me as he cut inside on a corner on the climb. Three minutes later, he was zooming back down. All told, I saw him eight times as I slowly worked my way up.

At the top, I ran into Gary Carter, visiting from Europe. He had been on our RAAM crew for the Gran Fondo Fixies in 2008, and it was good to chat with him for a minute. We started down the other side together, but he stopped to check on Don Mayne, who was also on our RAAM crew. I was still worried about my drivetrain, where the click had turned into a clunk, so I continued on.

Jack's Gap is the easiest of the 10 gaps on this ride, but I had decided to use this climb to test the bike and see if it would be okay for Brasstown Bald. I could feel the clunk now, and it was starting to hurt my knee, so although I really wanted to go up the 20+ percent grades to the turnaround, I decided it was more important to get back to Dahlonega on my own power.

Jeff Bauer, who had ridden down to Dahlonega with me, was just coming down as I hit the turn. He was on his way to his fastest Ten Gaps ever. I told him what was going on, and that I was going to take the short way back and abandon the ride. He headed left to climb back over Unicoi and Hog Pen gaps, while I continued straight to skip re-climbing those and Brasstown Bald.

Now that I knew where Jeff was on his ride, I decided to slow down and enjoy the beautiful day. I stopped at the store on Hwy 19 and laid down on a bench in the sun to take a little nap. Then I filled my bottles again and rolled on towards Vogel State Park, where the climb back over Hog Pen awaited.

Since I was now going the official Six Gaps way, I was passed by a number of cyclists on this climb. Most of them called out "Good afternoon" and "How's it going" as they passed. I also was passed three times by a sheriff's deputy who was looking for speeders on this twisty road, and thought about telling him that he was wasting his time. He was probably just enjoying the shady quiet woods, because if he'd really wanted to write tickets he would have driven over to Unicoi Gap.

Soon, I was over Wolf Pen, through the rolling woods around Lake Winfield Scott, past Suches again, and climbing the short stretch to the top of Woody. The sun was up when I posed my bike at the top again.

The long easy road down from Woody was a pleasure as always, and I was back at the start about 3:30 pm. I had changed clothes and loaded up the bike when the first of our riders came in, frantically looking for someone to log his time. He had finished in under nine hours -- 8:50 to be exact -- so he had reason to be proud about winning the brevet.

I envied him that -- although I would not have been willing to ride that hard for that long. He had a goal, and he probably had trained hard to turn in a super-fast time on this ride. I didn't mind all that much when my drivetrain fouled up and forced me to DNF on this ride, but I probably should have. Although I enjoyed the ride, with extraordinary weather and gorgeous scenery, something was missing.

We tell ourselves that life is about the journey -- not the destination. But goals are the milestones along the way, and we are goal-oriented animals. It's like shooting a gun when you don't have a target to aim at -- all you're doing is making noise.


  1. Very nice, Rando. I've never napped on a long ride, but maybe I will try it now that you have given me the idea. I like to stop at 50 miles or so to slowly sip a big cold beer, eat some honey roasted peanuts and let the motor cool down.

    I had a similar mechanical last week that turned out to be pedal bearings. Nothing a quick flush and repack wouldn't fix.

    My perspective is that an organized ride would cause me to be more concerned about time and finish: But your DNF sounds far more enviable than any fast time one might achieve.

    I'm new here but I will be back. Welcome to Florida. TJ

  2. Tim: I'll have to check those bearings. The shop found that I had some chain stretch and a bent derailleur hanger, and didn't pull the bottom bracket. The tick persists, however.