Monday, June 29, 2009

Audax Atlanta Summer Solstice 300km Brevet, June 20, 2009

From cauldron to fire, riding-buddy Lin and I slipped down from Raleigh to within a stone’s throw of steamy Hotlanta two weekends ago to join up with what proved to be a wonderful group of fun folks on a great “celebratory ride,” as local RBA, Andy Akard, termed it. He was right.

From the very first moment I saw the Summer Solstice 300km posting on the NC Randonneuring listserv, I was intrigued. The brevet would be historical: the first on a closed course utilizing the longest paved rails-to-trails route in the US. The concrete Silver Comet Trail stretches westward from Smyrna, GA (near Atlanta), to the Georgia-Alabama line where it joins the asphalt Chief Ladiga Trail, stretching southwest to its terminus in Anniston, AL. The combined length of the two trails is about a hundred miles, sufficiently long for a 300km out-and-back.
The ride began near the midway point of the combined trails in Cedartown, GA, at the historical train depot. The route first headed east toward Atlanta to the turn-around control at a trail-side bike shop before heading back to the Cedartown train depot. Riders then headed west on a second out-and-back to Anniston, AL, where they briefly left the trail for the turn-around control.

After a pre-ride briefing that included safety tips immanent to the trail, a baker’s dozen 13 riders began heading out a few minutes after 06:00. We threaded our way through town on a clearly marked trail. Once we were out of town, the trail straightened. It was still cool, if you think 70 degrees F is cool.
Enjoying the morning sunrise, we approached the steep hills just east of Cedartown, an obvious deviation from the original railroad bed. As we climbed, so did the temperature with each pedal stroke. The lazy, cool air remained in the valley. Now riding along a ridgeline, we were in full view of the morning sun.

This was the slowest part of the ride. It wasn’t that the hills were too onerous. It was hard to maintain any sort of momentum. The steep descents included sharp turns and often culminated at controlled intersections. I was hoping to average at least a modest 12 mph in order to finish the brevet before dark. After the first hour, with the hills behind me, I’d averaged less than 12 mph.

The trail is extremely well marked with small communities popping up every 8 to 10 miles. Lin and I were amused at the periodic trail sign informing users that the next 10 miles was a “Remote Area.” The signs are actually comforting to randonneurs, who think: “Only 10 miles to the next town!”

The first “next” town was Rockmart with hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops. The trail wound through the middle of town past a park along a stream.

On the next leg of the journey, Lin and I made good time as we crossed the rolling hills west of Atlanta on a former railroad bed—cut through wooded hillsides, including a tunnel—resembling a parkway. By now, my average speed had increased above 12 mph.
At mile 29, just eighteen miles to the turn-around, a group of randonneurs that started a few minutes after us caught us. Lin and I joined their paceline. Our timing was impeccable, since . . .

. . . after just a few minutes, the paceline pulls over for a rest stop, water-bottle refill, and photo-op.
Nearing Smyrna, trail use increased. Already we’d seen a number of pacelines headed toward us. The multi-use trail is intended for walkers, joggers, skaters, and the likes. Dogs on leashes were well healed so as not to interfere with other types of traffic. Even though everyone else seemed accustomed to this type of navigation, I was still learning. Several times I got pinched off from our paceline when I felt I could not safely pass a trail user in my lane with oncoming traffic.

At the control, Lin and I got our cards timed and initialed, purchased some water, hit the restroom, and chatted a few minutes with nearby cyclists. We informed our paceline partners that we would be heading back ahead of them, but “soft pedaling” so that they would catch us. When they caught us, we were accused of anything but “soft pedaling.” Subsequently, soft pedaling became one of the themes of banter for the day.
Our small group remained intact and in good spirits all the way back to Rockmart. A couple of folks, including Lin, went off the front chasing each other up the hills.

Back at Rockmart, three members of our group decided to eat lunch. Lin and I opted out, however. The hills east of Cedartown lay just ahead. We found a small café and ordered bottled water. Upon overhearing the details of our plans we shared with other cyclists in the place, the proprietor offered to fill our Camelbacks with ice, gratis! We tipped him. After a few minutes in air-conditioning and a couple of swigs of endurance drink, Lin and I headed for the hills that separated us from lunch back in Cedartown.

The hills were steeper in this direction. Lin and I witnessed an occasional cyclist, feet on the ground, escorting a bicycle uphill. No shame in that. On the contrary, judging by the diversity of people and the diverse types of cycles we saw, I’m betting the Silver Comet Trail will prove to be a significant incubator for the sport of cycling and the development of local cyclists.

After getting our cards signed and wolfing down turkey and cheese sandwiches awaiting us in the cooler, Lin and I ducked off to a local convenient store. It was there the clerk informed us that the temperature outside was a hundred. We filled our camelbacks with ice, guzzled down a cold drink, and made our way one block to the Silver Comet Trail to head toward Alabama.
When we arrived at the Georgia-Alabama state line, we agreed to the obligatory photograph as an excuse for a rest break.

An hour or so later, Lin and I found ourselves poking along at 12 mph on level terrain in the punishing afternoon heat. We found some shade alongside the trail and rested for a few minutes. After getting back on our bikes, we were overtaken by a reshuffled group of randonneurs, given that three sane riders had opted out at Cedartown.

We regrouped and rode together through the Tallegeda National Forest, which was one of my favorite parts of the ride, given the occasional clear water stream we passed over and the close-up, trail-side greenery.

Later, we found a lemonade stand and stopped for a refreshing break . . .

. . . enjoying ourselves in the shade . . .

. . . in full view of Tallegeda National Forest.

We then pushed on to the turn-around at Anniston, where we decided to escape the heat inside Zaxby’s and enjoy a quick meal before tackling the remaining 47 miles.

Before reentering the Tallegeda Forest, we stopped in Piedmont, AL, to catch the sunset and don reflective gear. Lin noted that the town had come to life, judging from the number of people now enjoying the trail that had been hiding from the heat when we passed earlier in the day.
What a day, seeing the sun both rise and set while on the bike! I enjoyed this stretch of the ride with Tom, here.

Aspects of the last 90 minutes of the ride seemed surreal, if not alien, riding through Tallegeda National Forest and, later, in Georgia, passing ponds each inhabited by a different species of frog. The almost-deafening frog choruses were nothing I’d heard before. Lin noted another spectacle: fireflies congregating in pine tops, their glow illuminating the needles.

By now, you’ve realized that I didn’t manage 12 mph and therefore didn’t make it back to Cedartown by dark.

It is a mistake to overestimate the “easiness” of a closed course. Our hosts reminded us that there is no such thing as an easy 187-mile brevet. If you add a little headwind, raise the temperature to 100 degrees, simmer at high humidity, then you have yourself a nice challenge! This was in fact my slowest 300km.

But I was anything but disappointed. I was excited to learn that there are plans for another Summer Solstice 300km brevet next year!
Congratulations to RBA Andy Akard, pictured here, Richard Beck, Audax Atlanta Randonneurs, and all the riders for a successful and unique Summer Solstice brevet! Thank you for hosting this truly fun, celebratory event. We enjoyed your company.

Andy’s bike agrees. It still has that post-brevet glow.


bullcitybiker said...

Way to go, fellas. Félicitations et chapeau! And a very nice ride report, as usual, to boot. Thanks for sharing.

Doctor on a bike said...

What an interesting ride. I may have to pencil it in for next year. Great report.