April 10, Sunday: Cheaha Challenge (102 mi, 7400′) / B+Event / COMPLETE: Doug and I rode the Cheaha Challenge and also joined a coworker of mine who is building for a Birmnigham-to-Atlanta ride. Absolutely beautiful day, although unseasonably hot. It was very high 80s, approaching 90, and it took it’s toll on the field. We jumped in the lead pack from the get go and kept the state troopers in sight until we hit I-20. We then settled into a comfortable climbing pace for the remainder of the ride. We finished in 6:40+/- with rest stops which wasn’t too bad considering we were having fun. I spent a lot of time playing with the HD cameras and ended up with some pretty good footage. Still exploring ideas to capture both Mt Mitchell as well as Fool’s Gold 100. Videos posted up on Vimeo.com under my stage name “Hacksaw” 🙂
Cheaha Challenge is a pretty popular race in Alabama. Haven’t heard so much about it in Georgia. I’m guessing that the Dahlonega / Helen area climbs kinda overshadow the climbing available to the West. Anyway, I put it on the calendar, thinking it would be a nice addition to the climbing repertoire, especially being about a month out from Mt Mitchell. Diesel and I decided to ride over together, morning of the event. It starts in Piedmont, Alabama and races southward into the Talladega National Forest, climbing up and over Cheaha (the highest point in Alabama) before a turnaround on an adjacent mountain, and then retraces itself back to Piedmont. Pretty simple route and not the extreme climbing of North GA, so I figured we’d try to race this one pretty hard. We left PTC pretty early that morning to drive over, maybe 4:00 or 4:15 am if I recall correctly. The drive went much faster than I had planned and we ended up at the start about an hour and a half before race time. Better early than late I thought. We got lined up, fairly close to the front, as we didn’t want to get tangled up in slower moving traffic.
Another rider from our area, RS, easily identified by his 7 foot tall stature, was also riding the event. About 5 minutes prior to the start, I see RS arrive. I point him out to Diesel, wondering if he’ll be late to the start since he was just rolling up. With under a minute to go, I see RS ride up to the front, put the bike into reverse, and back that mutha up into the front line. I whispered to Diesel how I thought the conversation was going up front. “Hey, what the hell are you doing dude” is what I imagined some cocky young racer might question to RS. “Shut your piehole sweetie. You won’t see me for long after I drop you’re a$$” is what I chuckled RS would reply. I’m guessing this probably wasn’t far from how that introduction played out. Diesel and I chuckled. RS was a retired police officer, really didn’t take much crap from anyone, and he could ride pretty freakin’ hard, so I assumed he would probably deliver on this “make believe” convo.
I was also on the lookout for a coworker of mine from Birmingham whom I knew would be over to ride. He was building, for an attempt to ride from Birmingham to Atlanta, in celebration of his 40th birthday. We had chatted over the phone and via email a bit, prior to the ride, as I had made a similar trip in 2010, except mine was from Peachtree City and intended to go all the way to Tuscaloosa. I ended up collapsing short in Birmingham after fighting headwinds all day between 10 and 20 mph. I got out to nearly 140 miles with a heavily loaded bike (being self-supported out in total isolation) but ran aground in Birmingham, totally exhausted. It had been my first experience really trying to get out long. I learned a lot that day which I hoped to build upon this year, specifically in the Solstice Sufferfest this summer. Anyway, I knew the jersey to look for from this coworker, it was pretty unique. I told him to be on the lookout for my Hammer kit but knew that would be a little tougher since many folks don the same kit at these events. We’d hook up within the first 5 miles or so, before we really even got out of Piedmont.
So we raced Southward. I kept the State Trooper who was escorting the lead peloton in sight as I wanted to be with that lead pack and try to keep decent time. RS, of course, was up in probably the top 10. In fact, I believe he was trying to finish in top 10 at this event this year, and I had no doubt he could do it. The lead pelo held pretty tight and stayed at about 75 or so riders. That is until the first climbs really started, once we turned onto a section of road called Cheaha Roubaix, so named for its extremely rough surface. And by rough, I don’t mean just a little bumpy, I mean it shook the bike computer pickup off my fork, rattled my teeth and eyes until I couldn’t see, and made my hands numb. I stood for long periods of time, even on the flat and downhill section, just trying to give my bones a break from the pummeling. This had the great effect of virtually exploding the field. I wasn’t in the front pack, but wasn’t too far behind. I pushed on hard.
Dougie, er Diesel, had fallen off. I wasn’t worried though, its just his riding style. I don’t call him Diesel for no reason. It took me nearly a year to come up with the appropriate name for him, but this one nails it I think. Diesel takes a while to warm up on rides, maybe 50 or 60 miles on a typical hundred miler, so the fact that he wasn’t on my wheel at the time doesn’t mean we won’t cross the line together, ‘cause we usually do. We understand each other’s style, strengths and weaknesses, and adjust accordingly. We also know that when we’re racing or riding hard, not to hold up for each other. So I hammered on, knowing I’d see Dougie probably up on top of Cheaha soon. Turns out it would be a little sooner.
Things were really heating up, both in my intensity as I chased the lead pack, and with the weather. In fact, it was getting really smokin’ hot. The forecast was for record setting highs today. Post-race data revealed temps at the road of over 100. I could feel it, cooking me slowly from above by the sun, and from below by the asphalt. I was sucking down water pretty hard to prevent or delay cramping. I had stopped at the second rest stop, just before the Roubaix, to top off the bottles. We were nearing the next rest stop, the only one before the summit of Cheaha. I looked down to assess how much I had and whether I could blow this stop and summit Cheaha with what I had left. Dammit, I was gonna have to stop. About a mile out from the stop, I caught a glimpse of the lead pack up ahead. I could make out RS, head sticking up above everyone else around. I could also identify him from the CamelBak he was sporting which lets him extend out time between stops for water. I wanted to catch up to him before we got to that next rest stop, pull up beside him, and just say “hey”. Figured it’d surprise him. RS watched me learn to really ride, starting on a hybrid bike. I know he didn’t think much of me on that bike but I managed to barely hang onto the “A” shop group sometimes with that thing. I’ve since gotten an actual road bike, granted it’s pretty low end, but that doesn’t matter. It at least has the right geometry and gearing to hang onto pretty much any ride, as long as you have the fitness. RS is a faster rider than I. I thought it would be cool to catch him for once, not that he couldn’t pull away or anything, but just to try to hang on with him for a bit. Once I saw him up front, and knowing I had now less than a mile to work with, I started carving up the roadway to catch him. I caught the tail end of the lead group of maybe 20 at the base of a pretty good climb and started pushing hard. Out of the saddle, I started picking folks off. I was maybe 40-50 yards back as we crested the top, RS being just up ahead. Then I see the tops of the tents which shelter the next rest stop from the unrelenting sun. I wasn’t gonna catch him, not just yet at least. I thought about yelling up to him but paused, thinking that would seem a bit weird, not that chasing him, uphill, in nearly 100 degree weather wasn’t weird enough as is. I wheeled in and watched the lead group journey on. I figured I’d wait here for a bit, check on the coworker from Birmingham and possibly Diesel. We all rejoined, refueled and left together to summit Cheaha.
Cheaha is actually a fun climb. At only maybe 2 or 2.5 miles long, and not crazy steep, it just takes some work and you are up and over. We made pretty quick work of it and went down the other side, headed for the turnaround. We met the lead group as they were coming back in, I couldn’t make RS out but knew he was in there somewhere. At the turnaround, I took and distributed plenty of electrolytes. It was really, really hot now so more important than ever to stay on top of things.
We headed back to the Cheaha summit and got prepared for the descent and the long road back up to Piedmont. Cheaha has one of the fastest descents around. Sure, you technically could hit a higher speed on Brasstown or Hogpen up in North GA, but you’re also really running a serious risk of getting maimed or killed. Those are both killer descents, literally. Don’t know the death toll, but the risks are appreciable. While any descents at speed are dangerous, Cheaha’s are at least the most friendly. You can see far ahead and there’s generally plenty of runout room to the sides of the pavement, should a bike or wheel destruction start taking place. So anytime I descend Cheaha, I try to set a new speed PR (personal record). The fastest I had been prior was surprisingly on that hybrid, my first real bike. I hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 55-56 mph on it one cool Fall day. I was gonna try to crack 60 today, gonna get my freewheel burning. I didn’t have aerobars on though, so knew this would be tough to do, I’d have to really get in tight. The aerobars for those unfamiliar (and I’m talking about road bike clip-ons, not a true TT or Tri bike) are a second set of handlebars which attach to the primary set and let you pull your arms in and body down so that you make yourself as small as possible. At speed, wind is by far the single biggest resistance to biking (unless you’re going uphill and then its your mass) so anything you can do to minimize this is huge. I started down, quickly dumping gears until I was in my 50×11 (I was running a compact for all the climbing) and picking up speed. I sat back on the saddle to keep the shakes and vibration down, the last thing you want is to pick up a speed wobble, especially at anything over 40 mph. I hunkered down on the drops, trying to get small. It tough to check down at the computer once the speeds get fast. You’ve really gotta keep your eyes on the road ahead, looking for little pebbles, a stick lined up in your direction of travel, even an errant groove from some piece of machinery, it doesn’t take much to throw a 23mm wide tire in a place you don’t want it. At the fastest section, I peered down quickly, I was at nearly 54 mph. Close, but no cigar. I guess I just couldn’t get small enough. That and possibly since I had lost a little weight and the this bike was lighter than the hybrid, maybe I just didn’t have the momentum anymore. Still a fun descent, but not record setting.
The three of us eventually rejoined as we soldiered back to Piedmont. At the rest stop where I lost RS on the way out earlier in the day, I finally caught back up to him. He obviously was no longer in the lead group, in fact, he wasn’t even on the bike. He was in a pickup truck, bike in the back, being SAG’d back to the start. “What the hey?” I asked. He was disappointed, his rear derailleur had fractured. I don’t mean malfunctioned, I mean broke in half. Looked like a casting flaw. He said the lead group was going really strong. I bet RS was likely well on his way to a top 10. Glad I wasn’t in the bike shop when he brought that one in for repair.