Tuesday, August 24, 2010

BLUE RIDGE BREAKAWAY, PART III

 

Blue Ridge Breakaway, Part 2
Blue Ridge Breakaway, Part 1

 

(At the end of Part 2, I said my goodbyes to the Navigator and left the 3rd Aid Station at the Church of God on NC 110 headed for Lake Logan. I apologize now for the lack of images to go with the posting. I was too busy riding to take pictures and I haven’t received any from other sources as yet.)

My previous “hosts”, who had pulled me along with them for a short distance on NC 110 were a fading memory as they had pulled steadily away from me. I was back to solo status along Love Joy Road as I headed south. It was along this 3 mile stretch that my interactions were acknowledgments of and greetings to my fellow metric century riders, who had already made the turn and were headed back. I had approximately 5 miles to go before I would reach that same turn around spot. I began to get a sense of where I was positioned with the riders in front of me but, of course, had no idea how many were behind me on the route and whether they were century riders or metric century riders.

There was a steady stream of riders on their return trip and I observed that groups of 3 and 4 helping each other pull were quite common. After leaving Love Joy for Lake Logan Road, I began to struggle in keeping my pace. I could feel the weariness of my legs and an increasing pain in my knees with each pedal stroke. My mind began to drift to thoughts of whether I would be able to climb Stamey Cove again on this day. It was either climb it or accept DNF status. I sensed my hopeful attitude beginning to dissipate.

I came upon the final climb up to Lake Logan. To this point, Lake Logan Road is a very slight grade increase over a couple of miles. Looking at it, you would almost think it was level. After passing the Lake Logan Volunteer Fire Department, the slight grade bumps up against the mountain and you have a rapid sharp increase in gradient as you climb above Lake Logan and its dam. This is a climb of approximately three quarter miles with a grade increase to around 9% and a false flat in the middle that fools you into thinking the climb is over.

Riders making the return route for the metric century were enjoying their descent of this climb as I pedaled my way up the mountain. I caught up with and passed a couple of fellow cyclists as they made their way to the top. Upon reaching the top of the climb, it is a nice tree shaded descent to the causeway across the upper end of the lake. The 4th aid station was now in sight and it looked busy.

While at this station, I had the opportunity to hear the ham radio operator assigned to this station. Cell phone service in this area is, at best, poor and generally non-existent. Each of the aid stations had ham radio operators assigned and they kept ride officials aware of the various circumstances along the courses. At this point in the day, first word came in from the operators on the Blue Ridge Parkway that it had started to rain at the higher elevations. This was not a good omen!

There continued to be century riders stopping at the station before beginning the 10 mile ascent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I spotted the Unicyclist as he made his way to the station and turned around to begin the last leg home. After consuming some bananas and more Gatorade, I said my goodbyes to the folks at the site and began my own trek to the finish line.

The pain in my knees had mostly subsided and I was only left with the burning sensation of overworked thigh muscles and stiffness in my lower back beginning to set in. I too enjoyed my descent down Lake Logan Road and tried to give out cheerful greetings to those still making their way to the top. The pain on many faces was evidence of their hard work. There were still numerous riders heading toward Lake Logan as I rejoined Love Joy Road. I hoped none of them were century riders because I didn’t see any way that they could make the time cut-off set by the Blue Ridge Parkway officials. It would have been a shame to make it that far and get turned back.

After a very brief stop at the Navigator’s aid station, I was headed toward my second climb of the day of Stamey Cove. This had been the big question in my mind as to whether I would be able to survive two crossings of Stamey Cove in the same day. I had two cyclists, who were clearly riding together, in my view as I began the climb. This side of the Stamey Cove climb is a steady and long increase in gradient until you get to the final approach of the gap. At that point, it jumps way up in grade to approximately 11%.

The rain from the Parkway had now reached the valley and we were being treated to a nice cooling mist as the climb started. The mist became light rain as I got closer to the top. The young couple in front of me had pulled to the side of the road and dismounted about 1/3rd of the way into the steep grade near the top. A vehicle was stopped talking to them and I was hoping that it would move on before I reached their point as I didn’t want to stop and lose my momentum. Somewhere along this ascent, my knees had quit hurting and I was actually feeling pretty good again.

The vehicle moved on and, as I passed the young couple, they called out that the vehicle was warning them of a crash just on the other side of the gap. I made some kind of audible sound acknowledging their information, kept my head down, and kept mashing. I can’t say there was much spin left in me at this point.

A truck came around me on the left and stopped in my lane of travel ahead. One of the ride officials jumped out to warn me to take it slow on the descent because of the crash and because the rain had now increased in intensity and bringing up the oils on the surface of the road. The race official headed on over the gap, which was now in my sight.

I was determined that I was going to go through the gap on my terms so I tried to find the energy to attack, or at least my version of an attack, as I topped the mountain. I rose out of the saddle and began pumping as hard as I could and actually managed to pick up some speed as I approached the crest. When I felt the momentum shift forward and saw my wheels pass through the gap,  I heard a loud scream from nearby. Turns out it was me celebrating my second topping of the mountain on this day.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to celebrate because what goes up, must go down after all and I was picking up speed on a wet winding road. I started working my brakes bleeding off speed as I negotiated my way down the mountain and into the hairpin turn where the crash had occurred. As it turns out, it was a one person crash and the scene had already been cleared.

We would come to know that this single bike crash was very serious. Details are yet unclear as to what happened. What is clear is that this rider was taken directly to Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville with major head trauma. He was in a coma when he arrived at the hospital and surgery was performed to reduce pressure on his brain. His injuries were on the left side of his body and included broken pelvis, collapsed lung, broken nose, and collapsed left eye socket. His family reported that he was an avid cyclist in the Charlotte, NC area and was preparing for a MS 150 race in the near future. (Note: As of this writing, he remains in intensive care. He has begun responding to stimuli and moving his limbs. The family and doctors are hopeful for his recovery although he remains in critical but stable condition.)

My ride down the mountain was thankfully non-eventful and after one more brief climb, I was in Clyde and turning for “home” on the Old Clyde Highway. The rain was steady and moderately heavy at this point and I was ready to be finished.  As I was making my way out of Clyde along the Pigeon, I came upon the Unicyclist again. I pulled alongside and we started up what would become short conversational interludes as we passed and re-passed each other going into Lake Junaluska. He would drop me on the short ascents and I would pass him on the descents. Of course, we were both soaked from the rain at this point. He was riding only in bibbed shorts and I thought he must be getting cool.

We finally made it to Lake Junaluska and South Lake Shore Drive. Along this way, the Unicyclist and I rode side-by-side and actually had a conversation that lasted more than 10 words at a time. It turns out he was from nearby Fairview, NC and was riding Haywood County roads for the first time. I gathered from him that his longest ride on the unicycle was 96 miles in late December when he rode from Anniston, Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia. He explained the workings of the unicycle to me and informed me that it was actually harder on him going downhill than uphill. I had noted that his pedal stroke was very short without any leg extension. He shared with me that he had almost done a “face plant” when he took his eyes off the road earlier and hit a slight depression in the road throwing his body weight forward over the wheel. I can only imagine what outstanding core condition this fellow must have!

We finally reached the end of South Lake Shore Dr. and approached the juncture with US 19. The rain was heavy and auto traffic was clearly ignoring the well marked signs of bicyclists in the road. The Unicyclist and I went our separate ways at this point and I was closing out my first metric century riding solo as I had most of the day. The rain was very heavy at this point and it was difficult to see with both sides of my glasses being wet. The fast moving traffic to my left was throwing up considerable spray adding to the riding difficulty. I recall the feeling that each of my feet had its own hot tub except there was not “hot” in hot tub! The finish was in sight and I did my best to “sprint in.” The Wood-man had cautioned me not to leave anything on the course so I did my best to meet that condition. As I crossed the finish line, the volunteer sitting under her nice umbrella, called out a hearty “Great job! 5 hours and 9 seconds!

I was pleased with the time and the effort and also knew that my actual ride time would be less than 5 hours. My goal had been to maintain a 12 mph average and I knew that I was either right on it or had exceeded it. I was glad to know that I had left nothing on the course. I was soaked, tired, and worn out. It felt wonderful!

THE WEATHER TURNS NASTY…

After getting into my vehicle and removing some of the wet clothing I was wearing, I called the Navigator to report my whereabouts and the fact that I was finished and safely back. She informed me that the Blue Ridge Parkway officials had shut down the Parkway segment of the century route and had turned away any more cyclists from continuing along the route. She also said that a number of participants were stranded on the Parkway.

I immediately contacted the ride officials and offered to go pick up riders in my truck. I was told to go back to Lake Logan and that I would be dispatched by radio from there. I had to go back to the Navigator’s location to get the truck as I had her Escape and she was driving my truck for the day. On the way, I drove over the course making my 3rd crossing of Stamey Cove. (This one was MUCH easier!)  I noted the riders remaining on the course and called their location back in to the ride officials giving rider numbers when I could. There were only 4 riders still on the course between Clyde and aid station #3.

After a quick exchange of vehicles, I made my way back up to the Lake Logan aid station and joined up with Cross Country Stan and Jennifer, both fellow BicycleHaywoodNC council member. We took 3 vehicles to the Parkway to pick up what we were told were 6 or more stranded riders. The intensity of the rain increased steadily as we drove the remaining mileage to the top. I was running my wipers on full speed trying to keep a clear window. Waterfalls were sprouting up along the sides of the roads as the heavy rain made its way to the valley.

Upon arriving at the Blue Ridge Parkway, we pulled into the aid station and discovered that the stranded riders were all safely ensconced in other vehicles and headed off the mountain. The aid station volunteers were doing their best to pack up in the heavy rains and winds that were blowing across the crest of the mountain. Jennifer and I headed back down to Lake Logan to pick up any remaining riders.

I later found out that Dr. Jim, yet another BicycleHaywoodNC council member, was riding the century route and was on the Parkway before it was shut down but after the rain had started. He came upon a rider, who was going in the wrong direction. When Dr. Jim addressed him, the rider did not acknowledge him at all so Dr. Jim turned and pulled the cyclist to the side. He quickly determined this fellow was already hypothermic. With the assistance of the Water Rock Knob volunteers, the cyclist was warmed and transported to Haywood County Hospital for further assessment and treatment.

The decision by Parkway officials to shut down the ride was well justified. This was one of the hardest rains I’ve seen around here in awhile and with temperatures dropping to the very low 60’s and perhaps upper 50’s, the chance for serious injury was high. I was later advised that a large number of the century riders completed the full course before the heavy rains played havoc on the ride.

For my part, I didn’t end up having to rescue any riders but did get to help transport the Lake Logan supplies back to Lake Junaluska. The hour of post ride adrenaline rush from the weather related activities soon wore off. I was beyond pleased to finally get home and soak in a hot tub of water for awhile!

(Next up: perhaps some final thoughts/observations and hey, it’s time to get back on the bike!)

Until later,

- Zeke

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