Kelly and I wanted a bit of a “last hurrah” before the baby came in July, so early in the spring I reserved a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The weather was so-so with rain often, but enough sunlight and wonderfully cool temperatures to make it all very spring-y. We didn’t have any serious plans early on, save for relaxing and making pancakes and looking for bears. Soon after I made the reservation, Doug suggested that I try riding from the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park to the tip-top of Clingman’s Dome – some 5,000 feet of climbing in a single 20-mile bike ride. This was initially met coolly by Kelly, but after a few heart-to-heart discussions, she agreed to let it go off.
Upon arriving on Friday, we decided to reconnoiter the ride. We started from the Sugarlands Visitors center, just a few miles from downtown Gatlinburg, but feeling already deep into the woods. Immediately the road starts up at a grade that would not be unusual in some hillier sections of Kentucky… over short distances… and with a nice descent on the other side. It felt steep in the car. And then it got worse. And then I started to laugh uncomfortably. By the time we reached mile 13 and the lookout and Newfound Gap, I was either loopy from altitude (just shy of a mile high) or I was seriously freaking out and reconsidering the whole endeavor.
And whereas we had originally discussed Kelly having a “spa day” while I attempted the 2+ hour ride, Kelly decided that after seeing the first 13 miles of my ride that she’d really feel better driving the team car. And I gotta tell ya I felt better knowing she’d be there too.
That night I was served up the largest single plate of pasta I’ve ever seen at the Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta in Gatlinburg. I ate what I could and took the other 3/4 of the plate back to the cabin.
The morning of the ride (Saturday), and it’s 60 degrees outside and spitting rain. I am dressed in my standard TwinSpires cycling team uniform. I strap on my red, reflective ankle RoadID, and my PlanetBike SuperFlash taillight for safety. It gets foggy up yonder and there are a couple of hairy tunnels on curves – the more visibility the better. Knowing it might rain, I also slather some Winston’s Knickers embrocation on the legs. What’s embrocation? you ask. Imagine… waterproof IcyHot for the legs that smells like mint. It has a bit of an ardent following among some in the cycling world. I figured this would be a good test of Winston and his liquid Knickers. By the way, Winston’s Knickers is a local Louisville concoction, and you can pick it up at the Mountain Bike Depot.
I’m riding my main “road” ride – a 2007? LeMond Reno with a triple chainring in the front. I do most of my “serious” riding and racing on this bike – and you don’t see a whole lot of triples in the races I do. I had flirted with the notion of changing over to a double. I am glad on this day that I did not do that. More on that later.
Starting out of Sugarlands is a relatively flat area, and wanting to warm up a bit I’m already in my 2nd (middle) chainring. I’m topping out at 13 or 14 mph, wanting to get nice and warm for the really steep areas and also not wanting to ruin mine and Kelly’s vacation by hobbling myself for the following 2 days.
That shallow area lasted approximately 1/2 a mile.
See that bit between miles 2 and 4? That says “Welcome to the Mountains, Flatlander” without words.
It was a struggle, and one I kept intentionally slow, to savor perhaps. I thought a lot about all of those classic cycling moments – Lance Armstrong “dancing immodestly” on his pedals crushing the field on a mountainside in France, and thought about what a fantastic thing the human body is.
But at some point it became a psychological tussle. Not a fight or a battle, but just a tussle. A quick back and forth. My legs begin to ache and I look down to see that I am in my lowest, smallest gear in the front. A little further back down the road sits my rear wheel, and the chain is resting on the biggest gear back there. “I better keep going as I don’t have any gears left” is my thought, and I do.
Rounding one of the many corners at the bottom, the valley opens wide and I look skyward into the fog and see my quarry. It looms. But that looming is majestic and beautiful and distracts me with a calm that is beyond calm. I do not notice the rain that is falling off and on.
Kelly stops for me every few miles. Most miles I crawl past her. It is a relief to know that I am going onward and up.
It is about halfway up that I recognize that it is beginning to rain very heavily at times. I don’t really notice all that much – it’s in the low 60s and I’m (very) warmed up. I pause for a moment with Kelly near a stunning overlook and drink some fluids and eat a half of a PowerBar. My muscles begin to tell me to get going. It is steep here and getting back moving on the bike is tougher than normal.
Rounding one of the last corners before Newfound Gap (an overlook with a parking lot), I have the opportunity to see from whence I came. It is far away now and the cars are quite tiny. I look up to see one of the steepest grades of the journey shrouded in mist. There stands Newfound Gap.
Rolling into Newfound Gap, I am 13 miles away from and some 3,500 feet above my starting point. I have seen one cyclist so far, and he was on his way down on a mountain bike. I gather he is just descending that day.
A man approaches me while at Newfound Gap and we make smalltalk about cycling. It’s clear he’s been away from the sport for a while, and it’s clear he misses it. He talks about meeting the great Greg LeMond and Phil Liggett, the “voice” of the Tour de France to many. Meanwhile, my hamstrings being making smalltalk as well. In the foggy, dense chill at Newfound Gap, my hamstrings have begun to cramp and there is a feeling like pulling a single string out of band of elastic. I bid this man, Russ, adieu and continue on up, hamstrings already paining from a continued and out-of-character climb.
There are two roads from Newfound Gap, one leading south into North Carolina and one leading up to Clingman’s Dome. I take the latter. There are only 7 miles left in my journey, but this leg seems much more solitary. Fewer cars make the march to Clingmans, especially on this increasingly foggy and wet day. There are fewer pull-overs and hence, fewer places for Kelly to sit and “sag wagon” for me.
Extended stretches of time pass where the only sound is the rain. My breath. My wheels. It is lonely, but I crave that solitude some times.
My bliss is momentarily broken as I realize that I am here alone, tired and turning the pedals slowly, and I am in bear country. The exclamation flashes across my mind, all one word: “ohshitbears”.
I could not, I rationed, outsprint a bear up this hill. I could not, I rationed, retreat from this endeavor. It would be I and bear, mano y claw. There would be no venue for failure.
Eventually that moment passes, and for a short stint, so does the incline. All of the sudden I am hurtling at 30 MPH along a wet and rainy stretch, around tight rock-bared corners. I am cold. My hands chilled on the brakes – I want to get my glasses out of my pocket, but at what risk?! Tears stream from my face as I think of the old timers stuffing newspapers under their jerseys after having mounted similar peaks as this one. It is good company.
This fast stretch raises my average speed to 9 miles per hour. Nine.
The road once again rises to meet me and I am climbing again. I have not seen this part of the course and I never know what is around the next corner. Should I push harder? I know I’m almost there. Perhaps my computer lies and I am farther out. I am also hungry again.
But up above I see a horizon through the trees. I am near the top. One final push. The horizon opens and… it is surrounded by fog. It is raining heavily. There are no crowds. There are no banners. I see Kelly’s car and she is smartly inside, with heat.
I laugh, uncontrollably. This is it. I take a lap through the lot, but I am very cold. Kelly snaps a photo of me through the window of the car.
I did it.
It was stunning and awe-inspiring and I loved that mountain for what it put in front of me.
On the ride up I thought a lot about what Kelly went through with the Ironman, what she was going through with pregnancy and how our lives had changed and would change after we became three. This was not some grand good-bye or some swan song, but a fitting cap to a year of both of our lives in which we saw and made some great things happen. I explained this to the mountain and the mountain listened. In short, I worked some shit out.
A few months later, Kelly and I would have our first child.
Shortly after, Kelly would say she was glad that I got a chance to do this – and I am glad that I married and had our baby girl with a woman who understands my silly needs. It’s pretty awesome.
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