Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Beech Mountain climb (Memorial Day 2006)

As best I can remember, I read Lance Armstrong’s famous (or infamous depending on your opinion of Lance) book “It’s Not About the Bike” nearly two years ago. At the time, I wasn’t particularly interested in cycling other than watching the Tour de France, didn’t even own a road bike, and was about 60 pounds overweight. But the book was keenly interesting to me because it describes an event during Lance’s post-cancer training on the climb to Beech Mountain, NC where I used to own a rental cabin. Even without a personal interest in cycling, I got goose bumps while reading about Lance’s epiphany as he rode to the top of Beech Mountain. I was familiar with those three miles of insanely steep switchbacks and even as an overweight couch potato I could picture myself one day making that ascent on a bicycle.

A year later (by mid summer 2005) I had lost those 60 pounds and had just begun cycling in earnest but I did not attempt the Beech Mountain climb for two reasons: (1) having sold the rental cabin I had little excuse to make the four hour drive west and (2) my neighbor Mike who was in pretty darn good cycling shape had failed miserably at an attempt to make the climb earlier in the year. Yet I still dreamt of one day making the climb, and the thought of it provided added motivation to get out on the bike 3-4 times per week during the winter (outside when possible, on the trainer when the weather was bad).

After completing the Assault on Mount Mitchell on May 20th 2006, I finally felt like I was ready to attempt the Beech Mountain climb so my neighbor Mike and I planned out a Memorial Day weekend ride that would start east of Boone, head up the Blue Ridge Parkway past Grandfather Mountain, spill down into Linville, and culminate in a climb to the top of Beech Mountain. On the morning of the ride I was pretty excited but still a bit apprehensive. After all, even though the Beech climb is only 3 miles long it would be much steeper than anything in the Raleigh area and represent a more difficult sustained grade than anything in the murderous Assault on Mount Mitchell. Mike’s wife was kind enough to stay on yellow alert during our ride so that if the numerous climbs along the way got to be too much for us we could call her and bail out—but I knew that failing to reach the top would be extremely disappointing.

The weather was excellent as we started our ride: cool but not cold, with little or no wind. The temperature at 7:00am was just warm enough to wear a short-sleeved jersey, which was fantastic because I knew that trying to make the final climb in the heat of the day in a long-sleeved jersey would be miserable. I had taken my typically obsessive-compulsive approach to eating/drinking before the ride (relatively big meal at least an hour before the ride, lots to drink, plenty of high-carb snacks, two water bottles, and money to buy more grub along the way). In short, it wasn’t going to get any better than this.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a fabulous cycling destination. I can’t believe I had never ridden any of it on a bicycle but I will confess that my recollection from driving it in a car was that it is mostly flat with an occasional hill. Turns out it’s just the opposite: all hill with almost no flats. In fact, within a few miles of the start of our ride, I felt really stupid for having left the clip-on aero bars on my bike. They added a pound or two of dead weight but served no other purpose the entire day.

The scenery was gorgeous, we were in absolutely no hurry, and I made sure I kept my heart rate below the 85% mark at all times during the early climbs, but by the time we reached Linville I could tell Mike was getting tired. He trains almost exclusively for Sprint Triathlons so he was not accustomed to three hour training rides even on flat terrain. My legs were feeling fine but I’ll admit to feeling increasingly apprehensive about the impending final climb. The average grade over the three mile ascent up the front of Beech Mountain is 9% but there are several short stretches that reach well into the mid teens. What if I ran out of gearing and toppled over into traffic? What if I ran out of gas halfway up the mountain? Would the altitude (topping out at well over 5000 feet) take its toll? I’ll admit I was making a mountain out of a—well, out of a mountain.

When we got to the base of Beech Mountain, Mike began to cramp up and was momentarily overcome by a fit of wise and prudent judgment: he pulled over to call his wife. I waved him goodbye, and began plodding my way up the switchbacks, confident that dying on the mountain would be better than the humility of not even making the attempt. As was my experience during the Assault on Mount Mitchell, I was once again surprised by how quiet everything becomes on a bike when you’re only going eight miles an hour. All I could hear was the sound of my breathing and the throbbing echo of my heart beating at 96% of its maximum. And all I could smell was the pungent odor of overheated brake pads as oncoming cars tried to keep their speed reasonably close to the posted downhill speed limit of 15 miles per hour. Or maybe it was just the smell of my quads exploding as I went long stretches where I had to stand on the pedals to keep my cadence high enough to maintain my balance, I couldn’t be sure.

Around every corner I kept expecting to see a rising switchback I could not scale but the mythical mother-of-all switchbacks that had plagued my nightmares never materialized. I rounded the last corner, the road leveled out, and I saw the Beech Mountain Township ahead. I had made it. A bit slower than my buddy Lance, but I had made it nonetheless.

You would think that I would revel in having finally conquered the mountain that for the last two years had filled my dreams, and I’ll admit to feeling pretty proud of myself as I sat—still shaking from exertion—in the back of Mike’s wife’s car on the drive down the backside of Beech Mountain to the cabin where we were staying. But it was then that I realized, much to my dismay, that the road on the backside of the mountain is much steeper and more challenging than the climb I had just made up the front. So, at least for now, Beech Mountain still remains unconquered (the backside at least), a goal for another day, the stuff of dreams. I can’t wait.


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