"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer


Asheville, Part 1 - The Drive, Mt. Mitchell

Asheville, NC. Sparta Camp. Except Spartans didn't eat peaches on their french toast. Or french toast, period. Especially in a bed & breakfast camp.

But the riding this weekend would've broke them off far worse than the Persians did.


Randy finally arrived late Wednesday afternoon at my Old Irving apartment, and after a stop at Active Trans (formerly the BikeFed) we were off in our 15 foot van, loaded down with bikes and wheels. We planned to stay the night in Nashville at my old friend Jessica's condo there, before making the final leg to Asheville on Thursday. Once there, we'd check into the Oakland Cottage Bed & Breakfast, unload, and head to Charlotte to pick up the rest of the guys, who were flying in from Chicago.

We made great time, stopping for a quick dinner at Wendy's at some Godforsaken rest stop, and again for gas only once. A huge tank on the van ensured steady driving, which ensured I got to know Randy quite a bit more than I already have. As the hours ticked off, I picked his brain on motivation, tactics, his career, and listened to him help a pro acquaintance of mine - a client of his - negotiate a spot on the Pan Am Games women's team over the phone. I also learned he is quite a good classical guitar player and actually minored in music in college. We were never at a loss for words.

Jessica was waiting for us outside when we pulled up just before midnight. After 7 and a half hours of driving, we just wanted to hit the sack, but the trip was all so surreal, all three of us stayed up a bit talking. Jessica was my senior prom date in high school - yes, in Alaska - and had actually just been to Chicago two weekends before, for a Morrissey show at the Aragon. Before facebook we'd not talked in over 15 years, and now a year later, we'd seen each other three times over the course of various random travels.

After a quick recovery ride in the morning through a beautiful neighborhood on the outskirts of some university campus, Randy and I were on the final leg to Asheville. One truth I've learned about road trips: McDonald's only tastes good on the interstate.

That night, after a long drive back from the airport, complaining and starving the whole way, then a lagging (separate checks) and huge, heavy dinner at Texas Roadhouse, just outside of Biltmore Village in Asheville, we joked and unpacked in our rooms, and were then briefed about the weekend's riding. Like last year, we decided to move Mt. Mitchell to Friday from Sunday, due to some thunderstorms in the forecast that day.

Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi, and at 6,500 feet is tall enough to cause it's own weather, and make whatever is rolling over it a lot worse. So on Friday morning, a beautiful and sunny, yet brisk day, we rolled out after breakfast at 9am to take on one of the most epic climbs a cyclist can ride anywhere in the world.

Our planned route was 125 miles, from Asheville to the town of Marion, and then up Highway 80 to the junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway, which would lead to the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park. We fooled around for most of the first 50 miles, wagging our tongues at any toughguy pulls, warning about the hardship ahead. As the base of the real climbing started, however, so did the hammering, and at mile 60, we started to break up amongst the trees and the sound of the creek below the quickening switchbacks.

I hung on as long as I could, pushing steadily over 350 watts to try and stay on with JT, Jacques, Randy, Peter, and Chris. But no sooner would I close the nascent gap when I'd be falling off again. Chris was gapping in front of me as well and soon fell behind me. I was going anaerobic and realizing I'd need water and a piss soon anyways, and let off the pace to gather my wits and give myself a chance to climb strongly over the remaining 25 miles and over 10,000 feet.

Chris, Grant, Ken, and Jeremy all passed me as I pulled over. I took my time. It was a long climb. I shook off, took a sip, and got humpin' again.

Soon, those four were back behind me and Peter was now my mark. His style on these huge training climbs to hang on as long as possible, no matter the cost...but that cost is the big CRACK. It seems to work however - the man gets results. I prefer - as I stated earlier - to dial it back, and let myself get the most out of the entire climb.

I passed Peter just a few switchbacks below the Blue Ridge Junction, and then once on the Parkway, settled in for the long, lonely battle. The views were beautiful, and the weather stayed clear and sunny. It was warm and calm, and I softly sang and talked to myself over my breathing rhythm, running steady just below or at my tempo heart rate of 165 beat a minute.

The turn off to the state park entrance came much sooner than I expected. I find that odd about repeat rides - that the second time around seems much shorter. Regardless of the fact that I did in fact do this climb 10 minutes quicker, the opposite would seem to the be the case...that it would seem longer, and more drudging, now that the newness was gone. Added was the fact that my right foot had gone from an irritating ache, through a steady throbbing, to excruciating agony from the almost 2 hours of constant pressure on the ball of it. Round and round..pound, pound, pound.

As I passed the "3.9 miles to summit" sign I began to worry whether I'd be able to pedal all the way up, and thanked God I wasn't racing. Every five minutes I'd unclip it and single-leg it, which immediately alleviated the pain, but that wasn't sustainable on the steady 5-8% grade. While the first 22 miles flew by, the last four were interminable. I wanted off my bike. Now.

The three at the top were surprised to see me arrive only 9 minutes behind. But, I know that for a guy my size - high 170s - I am a decent climber. Long training climbs like this are obviously not realistic for me to "win" but they give perspective and they clarify, as well as imbue power and form for climbs I can do well on - short intense efforts, ala Snake Alley, or Fox River Grove.

It was glorious up there, looking out on top of the world. The sun shone down on us with warmth in our time to relax, waiting for the others; a reward for our effort. We ate. Clif, fruit, candy, sandwiches. Anything we brought we put it in our mouths. We watched what few people were up there with us prattle around, before asking one of them to take our picture.

We'd descend directly down to Asheville this time, instead of back to Marion and the shuttle bus as we did last year. The Parkway was closed that side of the ridge, but cyclists generally weren't hassled about it and Randy was upbeat about the route. Within 5 seconds of working my past the barrier, however, I dropped my chain and sucked it into my bottom bracket, where it stayed, wedged it tight. I could see chunks of clearcoat gouged out, and it was obvious I wasn't going that way back to Asheville.

Still able to coast, I floated back to the park entrance and flagged down a service vehicle. I was joined by Chris, who'd just flatted minutes before, and we hitched a ride back to Marion. My cell service was just enough to get a hold of Andy in the SAG wagon and tell him where we would be. On the way into town, just out of the last decent we passed Greg, who I last saw flying off the front of the group. He must have loaded the wrong Garmin file and turned left instead of right.

No matter, it all came together in the end. Except of course for the ice cream shop being closed. They'd provided the us the "Greatest Milkshake Ever" after last year's ride. I saw someone working inside, who told me, with a straight face after my knocking on the window, that their first day was tomorrow.

Greg rolled up just as Andy did, and when we got in, there were three ice cold cokes and three creamy Lil Debbie oatmeal cream pies waiting for each of us.

Tomorrow - Part 2: Back to the Blue Ridge, Mt. Pisgah and Devil's Courthouse

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