This past weekend marked the fifth year that I've done a 200K either the weekend before or after my birthday. This is either going to be the last time that I do this, or I am going to move my birthday to May.
There were years when this ride seemed easy. Maybe the weather was better, or I had goals that better aligned with a January 200K in spite of the conditions. Maybe a year in south Florida spoiled me.
Maybe I'm just getting old.
But back around Christmas when RandoGirl and the RandoDaughter and I discussed getting together in Chattanooga for the Sunday before my birthday, I thought this would be a great opportunity to spend a Saturday riding my bike to get there. I put together a route -- mostly using some of the standard roads and a few hidden gems from previous fleches, capping it with pieces of classic routes that the bike club down there runs. It was 150 miles, but if the weather was good and I started early that would be okay.
But the weather forecast turned dire, and a pre-dawn start began looking treacherous. Riding 150 miles over a couple of big mountains is hard enough -- add the fact that you're carrying an extra 15 pounds of clothing and toiletries and gear, the drag of a Dyna-Hub, and wanting to get into the downtown of a busy city before nightfall and it gets dismal. When Friday's rain became Friday evening's snow, I decided to drive to College Grove and ride on from there. It would not be as epic as biking the whole way, but it would still give me 130 miles and thus meet my birthday-ride requirements.
I could tell on the drive down that the more quiet roads still had plenty of icy spots. The last of the clouds were scudding away, and the sun kept trying to break through but it just yielded unwanted glare as I carefully picked my line through some sections of slush.
By the time I passed through Rockvale and Versailles the sun had risen and the wind was starting up. Frankly, if not for the forecasted wind out of the northwest I would have cancelled, hoping instead for better weather next weekend. But the tailwind held steady and true for most of the day, giving me enough of a push to mitigate the other weather issues.
Another benefit of riding a bike on a day like this is that cars are more scarce, and the few that do venture forth are more kind as they pass. Maybe it's our natural forbearance for idiots ... or the way that we tend to walk widely around raving lunatics.
I stopped briefly in Bell Buckle for a bacon biscuit, swapping weather updates with a group of eight hunters sitting in the little cafe next to the store. They were still in camouflage clothing, with their faces painted in green and black stripes. When I asked them how they had done, one answered, "Great! We got 36!" I have no idea if that meant that they shot 36 of something, or if there was another method of scoring, but I had to admire their stamina in getting out so early on such a cold wet morning just to shoot at something.
After Bell Buckle I took a road that's been on a couple of my fleche routes, passing under I-24 through farmland virtually free of cars. Then I turned onto a road that I had often seen from that interstate but never ridden via bike, climbing through fields and into the forest up towards Manchester. Once again I was on a road for miles with no cars before coming around a bend right at the entrance to the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel.
I turned briefly north for a mile here, immediately realizing that the wind had indeed been in my favor for the past couple of hours. But the effort allowed me to get on some less-used lanes away from I-24, and I pretty much avoided the busy life of downtown Manchester.
At one point I realized that I was riding along the back side of the field where they hold the Bonnaroo Music Festival. In the middle of winter like this, it just looks like an empty field criss-crossed with roads that don't seem to have a logical purpose. I could see a couple of the stages way in the distance, and then I went by a road that led to at least an acre full of Port-a-Potties.
By now, I was pretty much south of where the previous night's snow had fallen. There were scant patches in some shady areas, but I definitely didn't have to worry any more about ice on the road. I blissfully cruised down the gentle slide south towards the ridge with a steady tailwind, barely turning the cranks as I zipped at 20 mph.
But that ridge kept looming as I went on, and with a ridge you never just get to ride down to it and go over. My route forced me north again for a bit, working my way into the wind to get over to TN-108 before heading south and up the long climb. Halfway, I found that the snow had apparently made it to the shady spots on that ridge, too.
The top here is rolling country, and even with my tailwind I had to work hard to get over some of the more serious lumps. When I finally got to Altamont, I was starving. I stopped at the convenience store there for a big sandwich, chips, and a cream soda. As I ate, I stripped off a couple of layers of clothing, but as soon as I left the store I realized that it was still very cold outside -- or I was still very energy-depleted -- and I put it all back on.
Although it wasn't the busiest road on which I've ridden, TN-108 was a little hectic on this stretch, and some of the cars did not pass me with as much space as they should have. I still had my tailwind, for the most part, but the road had more pain to give at the end, with two more miles of tough climbing before finally yielding a gentle six-mile descent into the Sequatchie Valley.
With just over two hours of daylight left, I crossed the valley to Powell's Crossroads and began the long climb up Suck Creek Mountain. Although the valley had been free of snow, once again the shadier portions of the mountain had some.
I took off one jacket and the outer gloves at the base of the climb, and didn't pause to put them back on before beginning the long descent. The cold didn't seem too bad, however, since I knew that once at the bottom I just had to ride towards town along the river before entering the city. The wind stayed friendly for that part of the route as well, and after hassling with some of the more hectic thoroughfares of suburban Chattanooga I was soon crossing the Market Street bridge into the city center.
Again, I was starving by now, so I stopped at Mellow Mushroom for a calzone and to try to warm up. Everyone was very impressed by how far I had ridden that day, and I began to think that maybe doing this kind of thing was worthwhile after all, and maybe I wasn't that old.
It was dark when I finally left the restaurant, and it took me a couple of U-turns to finally find my hotel, the Read House. As I checked in, there was a wedding reception in full swing.
But I didn't want to put on my dancing shoes so much as I wanted to get out of my stinky bike clothes.
They had upgraded my room, putting me in the older part of the hotel. I even had a bathtub, where I was able to soak for a half-hour while I called RandoGirl to regale her with my travelogue.
The next day, I biked a little more around chilly Chattanooga before going to the Tennessee Aquarium with RandoGirl, the RandoDaughter, and her boyfriend.
It was worth the ride.