We rolled out of the Manchester Wal Mart parking lot on a FINE morning in April. The weather was terrific, compared to the past few weekends of deluges, and especially compared to Manchester’s weather of just over 12 hours earlier (severe thunderstorms, tornadoes). The strong boys set a brisk pace which was only to become more brisk. We pedaled through beautiful farmland, and spotted a herd of 8-12 deer bounding through a meadow. I hung on for as long as I could (15 miles), checked to make sure I wasn’t holding anyone up behind me, and watched the wheel in front of me gradually disappear into the distance. There I was, in my own pedaling universe, too slow for the big boys and ahead of the others. And there I was to remain, for the next 242 miles: me, myself, and my bike.
This is when the serious conversations with myself began. “You know, I could just ride to McMinnville and ask some friends to drive me back to Manchester. It would be nice to visit them.” Or, “I could just turn around at 50 miles and still get a century in.” That last one remained an option for awhile.
I warmed up sufficiently to shed some layers before the Beersheba Springs climb. A nice, civilized 3-4 mile climb, 4-6% grade. For some reason, the severe weather of the night prior attracted a lot of frogs to the road, where they ultimately met their demise. There were big ones, little ones, bright green ones, brown ones, all smushed flat on the road, reminiscent of ninth grade biology class dissections.
Our first control was a general store in Beersheba Springs, TN. The proprietor was working on a project of some sorts, which he set aside to ring up my bottled water. I asked what he was making, and he pointed to a shelf full of lovely carved miniature canoes. Sadly, there’s no room for souvenirs in my saddlebag at this early stage.
The next of the reported 7 sizeable climbs was on Clouse Hill Road. This was a lot-of-bang-for-your-buck climb. Sustained grades which I would estimate reached double-digits frequently. There were a couple guys walking by the side of the road wearing camo and carrying shovels (I didn’t ask—it’s generally best not to) who remarked that I needed a motorcycle. I grunted something about preferring a bulldozer.
I reached the control in Summerfield, TN where the cashier did not seem at all pleased with cyclists parading in and out of his store all day long. Oh well. . . As I left the control, some others arrived. Nice to know I wasn’t totally alone out on the roads.
Departing Summerfield on Hwys 41 and 41A, conscientiously trying to stay on the white line or even to the right of it (the drivers were apparently kin to the convenience store clerk and not pleased to share the road), I was suddenly caught in one of those blasted rumble-strip type situations, where they’ve cut the pavement to alert drifting motorists that they’ve left their lane. And these weren’t mild rumble strips—they were major cuts/cups in the pavement. Thankfully, I came to a driveway or crossroad quickly, ending the jackhammer treatment and allowing me the chance to take command of the lane of traffic. Time to educate this part of TN as to the rights of cyclists. Yikes—mercifully, I turned off that road shortly thereafter.
The wind had begun to pick up prior to reaching Summerfield, but now it was really asserting its authority. I found myself on a long stretch (24 miles) of unending rollers, which grew larger and larger as the road progressed. The downs got bigger (yippee!), but what goes down must come up, and the ups got bigger, too (the party’s over).
Next was a glorious descent towards South Pittsburg, TN and the Tennessee River. Cruised into the next control at the South Pittsburg Foodland, and filled up both bottles and my Camelbak. The wind was whipping fiercely.
Immediately following this control was a memorable crossing of the Tennessee River on an expansive bridge, sun dancing off the water. Soon I was in Alabama. Almost immediately, the road went straight up—where did THIS come from? More deer watching me from beside the road; I started to think about night riding in an area with an apparently robust deer population, and then made myself stop thinking about it.
Next state: Georgia. Another glorious descent, this time into Trenton, GA. THIS descent had a dark side. Although this 400k route was primarily a big loop, there was also a section off the middle of the loop that was an out-and-back—the ol’ lollipop handle. Reality: I was going to have to ride back up this glorious descent, in the near future. I tried to shove that thought out the back of my head and just enjoy the ride.
Trenton was hopping, as it should be, on a Saturday afternoon. These folks didn’t seem thrilled to have a cyclist in their midst, either. Now, had I studied the cue sheet and a MAP closer prior to this adventure, I would have realized that I was about to climb Lookout Mountain. Not only climb it, but descend the other side, and then promptly turn around (the pivot point of the out-and-back) and climb it from the OTHER side. This was where I REALLY started running through the potential bail-out plans in my head. My dear friend, Denise, lives in Birmingham, AL. How far am I from there, and is she busy this evening? There was also a person I could call and pay $50 to come pick me up—did I remember to bring that phone # with me? And the drivers of these vehicles passing me as I charge up Lookout Mountain—some of them look friendly—wouldn’t they enjoy a trip to Manchester, TN with me and my bike in the back? One seems to slow as they pass me, and they’re looking in the rear-view mirror—maybe they’re going to rescue me! No, maybe not.
So . . . I get to the top, withstand yet more rollers, and then—cringe—the descent. I REALLY wish there wasn’t a control at the bottom of this descent—I would turn around now. And why didn’t the route-planner just put the control at the top? There was a convenience store, and the route has surplus miles, anyway. I met the fast guys, who were climbing as I was descending. At least I’m not SO far behind, at this point.
There was a friendly local-boy truck driver hanging out at the control in Cooper Heights, GA, who was intrigued by this long-distance bicycle stuff. Now I vocalized my ponderings—“how much for you to drive me and my bike back to Manchester?” Thankfully, this was a very thoughtful, wise man. He told me to get back on my bike and ride back up the mountain. If I decided I still needed a ride home, come back down, and he’d check back later to see if I needed help. This was one of many signs to just stop whining and persevere. So, back up and down Lookout Mountain—best descent of the day! Screaming straightaways, sweeping turns. The only downside were strong winds; had to use some caution as I never knew which way I was going to get blasted around each corner.
And then the brutal climb up and out of Trenton, eventually back into Alabama. I managed to negotiate this span w/o pissing off too many drivers, thanks to a few slow lanes and wide shoulders. Shortly after reaching the top of this, I pulled over to don my night gear. Lights, reflective gear, clear lens glasses, and WARMER clothes. As night fell, so did the temperature. Wish I could say the same about the wind speed.
As anyone who has done any night riding knows, things slow WAY down after sunset. I couldn’t decide which I liked better: the busier roads which brought more traffic whizzing by and shining their brights at me, or the quieter roads in the middle of nowhere, where the hounds from __ll rush out of the darkness, straight at me. As I approached the next control at Stevenson, AL, the cue sheet directed me to turn right onto US-72, indicating that this was a busy road. No kidding—I found myself on an entrance ramp, for crying out loud. It was a divided highway, but one with traffic lights and wide shoulders. And no dogs.
I made many more friends at the Stevenson Discount Food Mart, all of whom were concerned for my safety and sanity. I was shivering and drowsy by this point. No official spot for sitting in this place, but, shuffling up and down the aisles, I found some storage crates (they were stocking the shelves tonight) to rest upon. The clerk graciously looked the other way; she would’ve offered me a pillow, if she had one. From my resting spot, I assisted the shoppers in finding the appropriate Goody’s powder for their respective aches and pains. I’ll take one of each. I found something new at this place—not only did they have a brew of coffee labeled “extreme caffeine,” but they also had little shots of extra caffeine (like the tubs of half & half or those dreadful coffee flavors) to dump into your cup of coffee. Bring it on! I mixed up a concoction sure to open the eyelids of a corpse, at least for awhile. Oh, and give me one of those bottles of 5-hour Energy, too, please. Up to this point, I was very faithful about drinking my secret potion all day—one bottle per hour—but didn’t take on much more. Half a Coke here and there was about it. I find it more difficult to keep up with nutrition in the dark, and I was probably feeling the effects of this now, with the sleepiness and fatigue. Mercifully, the power coffee didn’t turn my stomach. Used the bathroom to change into my warmest clothes, and I was off, back into the night.
Shortly after Stevenson, the route delivered just what I needed. I first passed one of those curves-in-the road signs which had come to signify a sizeable climb. OK, OK, here we go again . . . But wait, why is my helmet light picking up another road sign in the TREES? Ohmigosh. That’s where the road is going to BE in the next few feet. Riders cannot see the full extent of climbs after dark, which can be either a curse or a blessing. Had I been able to SEE this climb, I would’ve unclipped and happily walked, probably at a faster pace than one could climb it on a bike. However, by the time the seriousness of the situation registered in my feeble mind, it was too late. Had I tried to unclip, I would’ve gone down, and I didn’t feel like falling. The road hurts. So up I went; this had to be 18-20%. Gasping, weaving, lifting the front wheel off the pavement—hey , at least I’m awake! Great—I just changed into my warm DRY clothes, and now I’m soaking them with sweat on this climb. And it was PITCH DARK. Wooded enough to keep the moonlight out, and no houses (at least not ones with lights on).
After more of this ridiculousness, along with the ho-hum 8-10% part of the climb, I landed on a ridge. A barren, unprotected ridge, for the next 30 miles. The temperature continued to drop, and the wind whipped across this godforsaken portion of the earth. Despite all the excitement, I grew really SLEEPY again, weaving across the yellow line, mind in stream-of-consciousness mode, hallucinations. Why do I do this? I need to find a bodyguard rider. If I could just find a church or bank lobby, I’d pull out my space blanket and have a nice nap. . . but there was NOTHING. The ditch is looking nicer and nicer. But then I start hearing critters running in the ditch beside me—there are those deer I tried not to think about. They were undoubtedly frightened by the lurching, oddly-lit figure in the road, and made a beeline for the woods. The dogs continued to assault me from the darkness. By now I was so tired, I just pedaled as hard as I could and ignored them. Maybe if I don’t holler or react, they’ll think I’m a ghost.
I started to glimpse the lights of a town WAY down in a valley, off to my right. After what seemed an eternity, I came to a sign announcing an 11% descent. I did a double-check of the road number; don’t want to commit to a descent that I might need to later climb because of a missed turn. I was on the right road, so away I went, shivering uncontrollably, barely able to operate the brakes.
I rolled into the BP Speedway Market in Winchester, TN. They had the heat AND a big, flat-screen TV both on full blast. I sat at a booth in a stupor, drinking my hot chocolate and changing the batteries in my light. I think I watched an entire episode of that sitcom with the twins that Lance now dates; I had never viewed it during its heyday, but I was transfixed now.
OK, back to the present. Just 20-some miles left, I can do this. Pedaled through the town of Winchester, where they were apparently enjoying a street fair this weekend (during “normal” hours). I maneuvered through the blocked streets, over many power cords, past 3 manned police cars. One officer was kind enough to roll down his window and inquire about my wellbeing. I assured him I was fine. I was determined to stick to the prescribed route, closed streets and all. At this point, a bank sign said 38 degrees, and it was a lot warmer here than it had been up on windswept ridge.
I happily pedaled the final leg of the journey, straight into the lobby of the Manchester Wal Mart (those ramps and automatic doors are CONVENIENT!). The clerks were fascinated by my control card and cheered me as I rode out of the store.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
2008 Middle Tenn. 400K Ride Report
Our good friend Caroline Atkins sent in this ride report. This event sounded tough -- physically and mentally. Enjoy!