As I put finger to keyboard on the “day after”, I’m trying to sort out my emotions on having finally topped Rush Fork. I’ve written about this journey of mine previously. (See March post #1 and March post #2) Yesterday was shaping up to be a solo ride as my usual cohorts all had other work duties to address. I had heard from everyone except the “Wood-man” and I know that he likes to ride earlier in the day so I was plotting out a solo journey for my Tuesday night ride.
My phone rang and I was happy to see the “Wood-man” calling. He asked if anyone was riding with me and I informed him “no”. He quickly stated, “well, it’s a good day to get up Rush Fork.” Not wanting to wimp out and knowing that this has been my nemesis this summer, I quickly and without thought said “Sure. Let’s do it!” We made arrangements to meet post work and make the ride.
The climb to Rush Fork begins about 13 miles from my office. This distance used to do me in all by itself but I’m pleased to be able to say, “hey, my legs are getting warm now.” We had an easy ride under cloudy skies as we left Lake Junaluska and headed north on US 209. The workday traffic was relatively heavy as we rode the gutter past the Truck Stop and the overpass for I-40. One fellow must have saved a full 10 seconds as he rocketed around us in his diesel truck only to turn left less than a quarter mile in front of us.
I was riding easy on “Wood-man’s” rear wheel and we were carrying on a nice conversation as the miles passed under our wheels. We finally came around the last curve and topped a short roller just past the G.C. Palmer Dairy Farm, home of the infamous Da Girlz in my prior post. I became aware of the first feelings of edginess as I viewed the beginning of the climb.
There are actually two climbs to topping Rush Fork. The first is long and straight and lays it all out there for you to see. There are no curves to let your mind begin to think “oh, there will be a nice little level grade just around this corner.” Nope, it’s just one straight forward climb and one that I’ve only topped once before yesterday. My goal was to get to the top of it and catch my breath. Little did I know…
I was mostly confident that I’d make this part of the climb and sure enough we spun our way up getting passed by the occasional vehicle along the way. I was within about 25 yards when I announced to “Wood-man” that I needed to stop and catch my breath at the top. To this he simply and quietly announced “No you don’t…” He provided me some coaching tips on resting as we descended a short drop to the beginning of the second climb on Rush Fork.
This starts with a left hand turn and an immediate jump in grade to about 8% or 9%. There is no buffer on the right hand side of the road and the roadbed is right on the drop off. Only the guard rail and its sharp edges are there to hopefully throw you back into the lane of travel if you wobble off course. I was on “Wood-man’s” wheel and trying to following his advice of taking my time and letting the climb come to me. I was also thinking of my “Lance Spot” and when I was going to have to go to that mystical place in my head. (See previous post for a description of the “Lance Spot.” )
I was aware that I was doing O.K. and surviving the initial stages of the climb. I didn’t want to look up because that would have made me aware of how much further there was to go. About a third of the way into the climb, I began losing “Wood-man’s” wheel and distance was growing between us. Workers heading home would come around the first curve fast and then slow down when they saw the two of us climbing the mountain. My legs were beginning to burn as I alternated between getting out of the saddle to try and mash my way up and sitting in the saddle trying to find another position to spin my way up. I was still holding my own with the “Wood-man” not losing too much distance but definitely not on his wheel anymore. I began to measure progress by telephone poles. My goal became to get to the next one.
Two thirds of the way up, my legs were burning but, more importantly, I was beginning to run out of oxygen. My heart was trying to pound its way out of my chest and I was getting dizzy. It was time to go my “Lance spot”. As much as the climb was a matter of physically maintaining my balance and keeping the wheels turning, it was also about overcoming the anxiety creeping into my mind. I began to mark spots where I “might” be able to get out of the clips before I fell over on the guardrail or into the road. I caught myself though and refocused on the climb and tried to bring fresh effort to getting oxygen into my system.
I was only two phone poles away from the crest when I looked up. The “Wood-man” had not only maintained his steady climb and increased the distance between us but, I quickly realized, he was SPRINTING for the top. He was going all out as he crested the mountain and cruised through the gap. I couldn’t believe it!
I was within one telephone pole of the top and I was damned if I wasn’t going to make it now. I couldn’t sprint but, like the turtle, I could keep a relatively slow steady pace and I knew I’d get there. It turns out Rush Fork had one more cruel joke left to throw at me.
As I was beginning to congratulate myself that I was going to actually crest the mountain, “she” threw a full fledged head wind in my face. I was still under the lip of the crest when the wind came howling at me as if to blow me back down the narrow strip of road. I feared I would lose all my momentum this close to the top. I could still see the “Wood-man” as he was turning around and beginning his descent of the mountain. I dug down a little deeper and the winds died down enough for me to pedal into the gap amid fluttering autumn leaves under a dark heavy sky. I had made it. Rush Fork was mine…
Still, today I’m not so sure she was mine. I’m sure I didn’t tame her. I can’t say that I conquered her because I really don’t feel the “thrill of victory”. I think somewhat more accurately, she appreciated my effort and rewarded me with a moment or two of mutual respect. I know that my fear of her has been replaced with more respect for having reached her summit.
Oh yeah, “Wood-man” says for our next trip we’re gonna climb her again, drop down to the other side, and climb her in reverse. Boy, I hope my “Lance Spot” has a never ending supply of power…