issaqueena's last ride
Schedules go out the window, and the plan to go ride some version or another of the Vidalia Sweet Onion century went with it. I still wanted to do a ride, though, and I rememb
ered that Ainsley had mentioned he would be riding Issaqueena's Last Ride. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I made arrangements to meet him for the ride.
I did a quick bit of research and somehow came away with the idea that the metric missed out on the worst of the climbing involved. I knew it was a somewhat hillier ride than I had been planning on , but I figured I could manage it, if I took it easy. All I wanted was to finish, right?
I woke at 5:30, ate a bowl of oatmeal with added protein powder and loaded Belle into the truck and drove to Walhalla, where I met up with Ainsley and his cousin Matt. I got registered and prepped the bike. Minutes later, we were all lined up and heading out of town.
I realized just how much craggier the terrain was on the first descent when I looked down and saw the cycle computer registering 32 mph just leaving town. We regrouped, watching the fast guys stream on up the road. It was strange for me to find myself pulling a bunch of riders as Matt, Ainsley and I swapped places over the next couple of miles. The terrain was still rolling, though I got another taste of the steep hills the first time I found myself dropping down a descent and actually using my brakes on a straightaway. I had never ridden Belle at 44 mph before.
Jumping Branch Road was a revelation, but I was able to stay on the large chainring. I had a good feeling about the ride, and I remember thinking, "this is a lot like the Fred ride the other week." We rode past a bunch of lakeside vacation cottages, hopping up and down along the a road cut into a hillside. The last hill of the road, right before we got to the first rest stop, was the steepest yet. Ainsley and I joked about it's being a "stitch-test." Little did we know.
We turned onto Little River Road and headed up. The only canine pursuit of the day happened there, an abortive chase that almost ended in tragedy when a Chihuahua mix came ch
arging onto the road from our left, coming within inches of being run over - only fast braking by the driver and an abrupt reversal by the dog saved him.
As I said, we headed up. I told Ainsley and Matt I'd see them further up the hill, shifted down to the 38x26, and churned along. I rounded the last curve and saw them approaching a stop sign where other riders had paused. I could see the road we were to turn onto going rather shockingly up.
One of the sag drivers drove up and was chatting with other riders, and I got the impression that we had a couple of miles of steep, a little flatter climbing, and then it got steeper. Hmm. I looked at Ainsley's rig, with a 39x25 low gear. I looked at Cousin Matt's Fuji, with what looked like a 34x25. I thought back to how I'd pondered replacing my cranks with a compact double. I looked up the hill, which I was only now realizing wasn't a hill, but a mountain, and suddenly I was grateful I'd fitted a triple crankset back in 2001.
We agreed to regroup at the top. I took a deep breath and set off. Almost immediately I was shifting down onto the triple, fidgeting around and settling in on the 26T ring and putting the chain on the 19T cog. A minute or two later I shifted down to the 21 ... then the 23 ... then, with a grim finality the chain went onto the 26T.
I had another six miles or so of it to the top.
I settled into a rhythm, cranking along, one revolution of my wheels for ever revolution of my cranks. I hugged the right side of the road and learned not to flinch w
hen the motorcyclists came by going down the mountain on their shockingly loud Harleys. Occasionally I would shift back onto the 23, then go back to the 26, and I could hear nothing but backfiring and rumbling. I had enough brainpower to wonder if I was going deaf from their racket, and to suspect the helmetless motorcyclists were probably stone deaf - and then it was back to the 26 and hoping I wasn't about to put a derailleur into the spokes.
Whoever laid out the road had thoughtfully put in little pullouts, with signs suggesting slower vehicles pull into them to let faster ones pass. I noticed them, but I wasn't ready. Not yet, anyway.
There was a pause in the motorcycles, then I heard voices and tires behind me. I looked back and saw the lead elements of the 100 mile group overtaking me, done with their first detour and charging up the mountain. I hugged the white line as they came by astride Merlins and Litespeeds and Treks and Bianchis, all titanium and carbon fibre and aluminum with lots of parts that go clicky-clack. Some went past within an inch of my elbow, and while I was vaguely honored they thought that much of my bike-handling skills, I worried because I could feel the beginnings of wobble as I ground my way up. I could glance over and see they were running doubles, either compact cranks with 34s or standard 39T chainrings. Some had labored breathing, some were totally stoic, but all went past and left me to watch their receding backs and rear wheels.
I pulled into the next pullout and rolled into the shade. I hung my forearms on my brake lever hoods and leaned on my elbows, breathing and letting my heart rate tach back down. I watched the clock, and at two minutes it was time to move on. A couple of turns later and I saw two riders waiting in another pullout. One was Cousin Matt, who waited on me and let me catch my breath again. Two more minutes of rest, then we went on.
Matt tried to reassure me that there was only one more really rough section, but I didn't quite comprehend what he was saying. I'd been hearing conflicting reports, and what I really wanted to believe was that I was through the worst of it. When the grade leveled off slightly, I felt better, and when we had a gentle descent, life looked better still. I shifted up onto the big ring again and turned 50x19 for a moment.
Then I realized we had a left turn to make onto Wigington Road. Rapidly I went through the 38 to the 26T ring, as Matt warned me it got rough from here. To remind me of that, some thoughtful soul had painted on the road that I should be ready for a really tough mile.
I was back in rock bottom gear and crawling now. Everything went away except the climb, the brutal climb. A couple of lean racer types came by, but much, much slower now, looking like they had their doubts about the matter. I went steadily inward, feeling a wave of sadness come over me. I wanted to weep, but just slogged on, ever slower and more painfully. Somewhere along that road I found myself nose to nose with every fear of inadequacy I've ever had in my life. I went up the mountain weighed down by doubt and worthlessness.
But I was going up. Matt was just a little ahead of me now, and he was suddenly pulling off and dismounting, unable to turn 34x25 anymore and walking in his Look cleats. I mumbled something like, "See you in a bit," and passed him. I didn't get far, though. Maybe 50 yards past him, I dismounted and started walking, too. I might not be able to ride up it all the way, but I'd get up the mountain under my own steam, I decided. The old cycling manuals had actually recommended getting off and walking every so often while touring, right? Sure, I could walk. There was supposed to be a rest stop near the top, and there were bound to be SAG wagons. I'd reach the summit and then I could let myself be driven back in, and still call it a moral victory.
Walking wasn't much better than riding, and after about 100 yards, I stopped for a moment near where water was running over an exposed rock face. I hauled out the little pencam to take a couple of shots. When I looked through the viewfinder I was suddenly 14, almost 15, and riding up Route 602 near Callaway, Virginia on a bike loaded with camping gear. We'd stopped that day, too, and I'd taken photos of water pouring from rocks just like this on our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
What happened along the way? Where did that skinny kid with the clunky Batavus go? How was it that shrimp-like me had been able to tackle mountains all those years ago, but now I couldn't? Had I always gotten off to rest along the way?
A lean young guy on a Trek passed me slowly, then he, too, dismounted and started hoofing it. I walked past him, then looked back as a moment later he mounted up and struggled on. I watched him go, and then I turned just enough of the corner to see
the rest stop. I stopped in my tracks and looked at the parking lot with cars and cyclists at the overlook. I looked down at my gloved hands on the drops of my handlebars.
I mounted up and rode in the last 100 yards, realizing that I hadn't walked much more than 200 yards. As I slowed and put a foot down, Ainsley called out, "You look like I felt coming in." I don't think I could do much more than nod.
I leaned Belle against the marker and refilled bottles and ate rest stop food. For a ride as well attended as this one was, the food at the stops left something to be desired - it was pretty much packaged candies and cookies, no bananas or bread or peanut butter. I wondered if I would have done better had I brought my own food, concluded I would have, and thought no more about it for a while.
Matt showed up a few minutes later, just as glad as we were to have reached the top. I took some pictures, once again lamenting the loss of the photos I took in July 1976 when I'd ridden the Parkway with Steve and Dave and Lester. The views were the same, and just like 30 years ago, the camera couldn't capture the view from the overlook. I took pictures anyway, including a vain attempt to capture th
e Peregrine Falcon that flew over our heads.
Ainsley was talking to a bearded younger guy whose name I didn't catch. It emerged that he was another fixed-gear list member. Later, Ainsley would comment on how surreal it was to have three members of that list together in South Carolina, and none of us be on fixed-gears. We talked fixies, and I was amused when I introduced myself and his first response was, "My God, you're alive!" He mock bowed at me and told me the photo of my old Falcon on the fixed-gear gallery made me one of the old ones. We wished him luck and he set off while we prepared to leave ourselves.
"Four hundred yards more and you're at the top," one of the rest stop workers said. I wilted.
"Ainsley," I said, "I don't know if I can make it up another 400 yards of this. That's like half a k."
"This is the worst of it. We have one more sharp little climb they call the Wall, but it's supposed to be really short."
I wasn't sure, but okay, I thought. We set off, and immediately I was hurting again. I pulled onto a little pullout and said, "I'm gonna go back in a sag."
"We're almost there," Ainsley said.
I thought, "We've only gone about 100 yards," but I went up after him - and he was right. It was sloping down
, the road was actually going down, and I shifted up to the middle ring, then from the 26 to the 19, then up onto the 50, and for the first time in ages I was descending.
I wasn't out of the woods yet. Looking back, I needed better food in me, but I recognize the mountain had taken a lot out of me. On climbs that I would have zoomed up on the big ring a few hours ago, I crawled and felt pleased to stay in the middle at the summit. Several times I looked back at oncoming cars hoping they would be SAGs. No such luck.
We had a great long descent for a while there, passing above the fishery and giving me a chance to practice going downhill fast while staying in control. It had been a long time, and I don't take the chances now I did when I was a teenager, but I got down okay. Somewhere along the line we came to what I think was the Wall, and I was grateful we stopped at the top to catch our breath. Curt Sexton from the Aiken club passed us as we rested and commented, "THAT was special." We muttered our agreement and mounted up and headed on.
We got onto Highway 28, aka the Highlands Highway, and ground along. There was a long, steady, gentle climb, and I fell off the back behind Ainsley and Matt. I looked again, in vain, for a SAG. No dice. I caught up to the guys at a funky little roadside store advertising boiled peanuts. Matt suggested taking a shortcut in, and while Ainsley and I discussed it, he went into the store for some water. When he emerged, the lady running the place came to the door.
"It's all downhill from here, almost," she said.
Right, I thought. Still, there were no SAGs in sight, so why not? We took off, Ainsley, then Matt, then me at the back.
The woman at the store was right. The next couple of miles flew by as we went down a long, steady incline, and I tucked in and let Belle roll. Some guy on a tri-bike went past me and I let him, content to coast. Down near the bottom I saw where Ainsley had turned left and Matt was waiting, so I made the turn - I would have missed it otherwise - and we were on Playground Road. Completing my feeling of turning back time 30 years, it looked and felt just like roads around Ferrum I'd ridden i
n the 70s.
When I crossed Main Street near the church, I went straight to the truck and loaded up Belle. There was food in the fellowship hall but I couldn't eat much - some soup, some noodles, and a sandwich - and then I was calling Ana to tell her I was on my way home.
When I got home I looked at the computer. I had 61.73 miles - and I'd gotten over the mountain.
Next time I'll ride it all the way up and wipe out the 200 yards of walking.