Sunday, March 31, 2013

Gloom and Doom

Let me tell you about The Perfect Storm.

No, not the movie ... although it's kind of close. And, well, you know, the more that I think about it ... yeah, let's talk about the movie, The Perfect Storm.

There's the crew. From left is George Clooney (it's my blog, so I get to be George Clooney, dammit!), Jeff Bauer is Mark Wahlberg (you're welcome, Jeff), Alan Gosart is John Hawkes (because he's lovable), and Bill Glass is John C. Reilly (because he's funny).

Sametta Glass is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the captain of the other boat who goes out in search of the doomed crew.

RandoGirl is Diane Lane, the loving wife who stays behind and gets to have angst. Yeah, she's married to Marky Mark in the movie while RandoGirl is married to George Clooney ... or, um, me -- remember? Just go with it.

Not pictured is Jeff Sammons, who was originally part of the crew but had to pull out last week because of a nagging knee injury.

So, in our version of the movie, the five crew were going to bike from my house in Franklin down to Chattanooga this past weekend. We were doing a 24-hour randonneuring event called a fleche -- which is French for "arrow." The goal is for teams of 3-5 cyclists to converge in a single location, with everybody starting at the same time from places all over, riding separate routes, and meeting at more-or-less the same time. We then go eat a big meal somewhere that doesn't mind having very dirty, smelly, sleepy cyclists.

Of course, we ended up being the only team doing the Alabama fleche, but were nonetheless excited. These were all guys with which I've ridden many events -- some fleches, and some just brevets. I told you before about scouting the route, and we all worked hard to get ourselves and our bikes ready to go. As the event got closer, we all started watching the weather reports ... and our excitement waned a bit.

Meanwhile, we made some changes to the plan when Jeff Sammons withdrew from the team. Originally, RandoGirl was also going to drive down in a separate car with Sametta, all of us meeting for dinner in Pikeville and then staying in a hotel in Chattanooga. We would finish at the Aquarium there, then go to their hotel to get cleaned up, eat breakfast, and the ladies would drive us back. With Jeff not going, we only needed one car, so RandoGirl did not have to drive down, too.

Everyone showed up at our house before dawn Saturday morning. RandoGirl and I had fixed a big breakfast, and we all ate and got ready to head out. A little past 7 am, we rolled down the driveway ... and Bill's saddle rails broke.

Fortunately, I had a spare saddle that was exactly the same. Bill tried to put it on, but the Moots seat-post on his bike needed a special tool. He and Sametta drove home to get it, and we contacted the fleche organizer -- Steve Phillips -- to get his approval to start at 9 am instead. He agreed, and the rest of us went back inside to eat more breakfast.

Alan was getting over a cold and had a terrible cough, and as we watched the day's dire weather report on television I first thought that this was a bad idea. Rain was due where we were going about sunset, and it would be cold at night. Alan said that he was doing better, however, and when Bill was able to get the seat fixed and return quickly, we rolled down the driveway again exactly at 9 am.

Which was when we realized that Jeff Bauer's bike was messed up. He could get into the small chainring, but if he stood it would skip terribly. Bill tried to fix it a couple of times, but there was something wrong with the derailleur hanger and Jeff said that he would just suffer through it.

Again, I thought, "This seems like a bad idea."

We continued on in the gloomy morning mist, making fairly good time on roads that were still surprisingly quiet.

The first 50 miles to Bell Buckle passed quite pleasantly. We got a quick hamburger, and then headed on into the quiet countryside.

The sun was out enough that the copper-top house on Fairfield Pike was all shiny.

Getting to Clyde Greaves Road, where the bridge was out when I had driven the route, I was pleased to see that the work was almost finished. The bridge was open to traffic, although not quite yet paved, and we continued towards McMinnville.

Noah Road gave us our first long climb, but Jeff muscled over it just fine -- even without the option to get into the small chainring and stand.

Unlike what we have had for most of this spring, the winds were mostly light. There were a few spots when it was even almost behind us.

We passed through the community of Pocahontas and others, on mostly level roads with light car traffic. The sun would almost come out briefly, and the temperatures rose into the low 60s.

On this route, you know you're getting close to McMinnville when you can see the ridge off on the southern horizon. We knew that we would have to climb over that eventually.

In McMinnville we grabbed another hamburger, updating Sametta on when we expected to reach Pikeville for dinner. Our route had us on nice quiet roads going through town, and when we hit the main drag on the far side we topped off our bottles and quickly got on the road towards Spencer.

Which was when it started to rain.

I turned on my lights, which had been working fine when we rode in the morning mist, but they wouldn't come on now. I stopped and fiddled with the wires to no avail, and Jeff loaned me his spare headlight. The bad feelings were starting to come back, but a mile later the light suddenly turned on.

We started up Baker Mountain Road, slowly climbing amidst the rocks and rain.

At the top, I put on my night gear and some more clothes. We were now riding more into the wind, and the temperature had dropped precipitously on this plateau.

As we rolled along the very empty roads up there in the rainy gloom, I kept getting colder and colder. I would ride hard in an effort to generate heat, usually leaving my loyal crew behind, and then stop at the next turn to wait for them and keep them from getting lost. We were about 10 miles from Pikeville when they caught up to me at the end of one particularly desolate road, and I found that I had trouble talking.

As RandoGirl later joked, I was "fleche frozen."

Bill loaned me another jacket, and I put liners on under my gloves. My fingers felt thick, and it took seemingly forever for me to labor my fingers into the light wool liners. I had to get Bill's help to put chemical warmers in the gloves, and Alan's help to zip up the jacket.

The only thing that would really warm me up, however, was to ride again. We quickly rode on to the descent into the Sequatchie Valley, where the fog was now so thick that I had to creep along at about 4 mph, riding the center line, shaking in the cold as I held tight onto the brakes. We finally reached the bottom, and once everyone was together again on the road to the control I headed off once more, riding as hard as I could trying to warm up.

My lights quit again a couple of miles from Pikeville, but I still had the Vis 180 light on my helmet. Half a mile later, the lights came back; I would have rejoiced, but lacked the energy. Soon I was in downtown Pikeville, where I huddled under the awning in front of a bank until everyone else came into town. We rolled more or less together into McDonald's at almost 10:30 pm -- 13.5 hours down with almost 100 miles and one bodacious climb ahead -- to find Sametta waiting for us.

There was a quick discussion while I tried to warm up using the hand dryer in the men's bathroom, and when I came out a decision had been made: We were abandoning here. I put up only a faux token resistance, knowing that it might be dangerous for me to go on. It also seemed very likely at this point that we might not make the finish in time, since the weather was supposed to get even worse and fog on top of the next plateau would probably force us to creep along there on some very bad roads.

Someone got my bag from Sametta's car, and I quickly changed into dry clothes. The McDonald's was about to close, but they very kindly fixed us all more burgers and hot chocolate, and I began to feel human again. Soon, we had the bikes, gear, and people loaded into the car and we were driving back towards Franklin.

Maybe if I had brought another jersey and jacket and heavy gloves in my bag and worn tights, we would have made it. Maybe if we had left at 7 am and had less time in the dark and rain on the plateau, we would have made it. Maybe if everyone and their bikes had been 100%, we would have made it.

It's a lot of "maybe's." You could say it was all for nothing, but I'd rather think that the four of us spent most of the day riding in decent weather on some excellent roads -- at least, for the first 120 miles or so -- just as the crew in The Perfect Storm caught all of those swordfish when they got out to the far banks.

And, unlike that crew, none of us died.


  1. Often, the road-by-road, incident-by-incident, pedal-stroke-by-pedal-stroke reports get quite tedious (and I've contributed my share of those). This incident-by-incident report, however, was an interesting read the whole length.

    1. Thanks! I've been writing too much tedious stuff lately.