Thursday, September 13, 2012

Taste of Carolina

I hate pre-ride jitters, but who doesn’t? After being in this sport for going on 7 years now, you might think I’d know enough about how to prepare for big rides that I could approach them with the confidence of a veteran instead of a raw rookie. But as always, the nights leading up to the Taste of Carolina made for some fitful sleep and strange dreams; too strange to share here or with anyone except for maybe Sigmund Freud.
Catherine Shenk from Denver Colorado with
Geof Simons minutes before the start.

I arrived in Greensboro on the Tuesday night before the ride to enjoy the pre-ride party atmosphere. I was well trained, with a good plan, and several pounds lighter than at PBP 2011—probably as light as I’ve been in almost 10 years. I was concerned about all the climbing in the first day, and how I would respond on the second, third, and maybe the fourth days although I was hoping to finish early Saturday morning.

A good sized crowd of folks from all around the US were in attendance. I made new friends and renewed some old friendships and listened to everyone talk about how out of shape they were and that they’d be lucky to finish, and blah, blah, blah. I filed those comments away in the “under promise and over-perform” category. My plan was to survive Day 1, make it back to Greensboro (251 miles) in less than 22 hours, get a little sleep, ride to Sunset Beach (472 miles) on Day 2, and then decide to take a short overnight in Laurinburg or ride straight back to Greensboro. It seemed like a reasonable plan and a popular one among the other 47 riders.

Wednesday I got out of bed at 0245—notice I didn’t say that I woke up at 0245. Showered, dressed, had some breakfast, looked at the weather with Geof Simons, and got outside for the 0400 start. There were a mixture of smiles, game faces, and looks of trepidation--all from me. Everyone else seemed a little nervous too, but that has to be expected. We rolled together as a group for about 30 miles until a roadside rest-stop staffed by a volunteer. I moved on quickly and rejoined a good group including Catherine Shenk from Colorado to the first control in Salem Fork at mile 62. I didn’t see Catherine again until the end of the ride, meaning she left me in her proverbial dust.

Soon after, the climbing began in earnest. I was familiar with many of the roads and knew that as soon as we passed through Low Gap we would have a long steady climb up NC 89 to the left turn on 18 that led to an entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Eastern Continental Divide, and down the road to Sparta. I had a hint on that climb that my training had paid off, but we still had a long way to go. The second intermediate control in Twin Oaks came pretty fast and breakfast number two paid dividends afterwards on the way to Independence and Fries on roads that I was familiar with from family visits to Sparta and the area.

The rest of that day settled into a rhythm of riding with Geof, stopping at controls, eating a ton, cursing  ATT for their lousy coverage in Southern VA, greeting riders and volunteers, and several sightings of Tony G. Geof and I made a good team—he descends like a rock(et) and pulled away by hundreds of yards on every hill, but somehow I caught him on the uphills. The climbs although tough, were rewarding with spectacular views. But the best sight of the day was the sign that read “Truckers check your brakes—9% grade for the next 6 miles” that was just northwest of Stuart, VA. The second best sight was the neon sign for a Mexican restaurant in Stuart that Geof spotted a block off the course on Jackson Street. Oh man was that good!

Overlook northwest of Stuart, VA
Our fenders and raincoats did their jobs and
kept the rain away for 1200 km.
Photo by Geof Simons
From Stuart back to Greensboro was a long 55-mile slog for me as the sleep demons started to circle. I used every trick in the book to keep them at bay short of loud off key singing, and made it back to Greensboro just before 0100. So mission accomplished on the first goal—get back to Greensboro within 22 hours!

As we were arriving, we saw Bob Bingham getting out of a van. His ride was obviously over after tangling with a pot hole at high speed. A hard crash had opened a small head wound and banged him up pretty bad, but I am happy to report that there were no broken bones. Bob will be as good as new soon.

Food, shower, and sleep ensued with an agreement to roll around 5 am and this time I did sleep. Geof and I got out of the parking lot about 0520 with Ed Boltz from South Carolina. Miles passed and as we made our way up Caraway Mountain Road we started seeing other bikes ahead; just the carrot we needed to increase the pace a little. We happened upon a large group from Florida who were riding the event pretty much audax style. Ian came into a store as we were about to leave, but he caught up with us pretty quickly.

Next came the Uwharries and lots of roads the NC crowd know upside down from riding Al’s 400. Those hills always seem more difficult than they should be, but at least this time I had the excuse of an additional 175 miles in my legs. Somewhere along this stretch Ian noticed Geof’s rear wheel was out of true—a broken spoke was the culprit. Geof simply pulled it out of the non-drive side of the hub, and trued around it. You have to love high spoke count wheels—the wheel would stay true the rest of the ride, and it was our only mechanical incident. Also somewhere along this stretch of the road, the 12-year boys in all of us started making appearances. Things were said that aren’t fit to print here, but we entertained each other and made the miles go by.

The control in Troy came at mile 315 and we saw lots of folks here getting ready for the run to Ellerbe less than 30 miles away.  Those turned out to be some hard miles for me. I guess I just wasn’t mentally prepared for the hills, although I’ve ridden that stretch several times. Needless to say I was happy the little café in Ellerbe come into view, but I was mistaken in my assumption that it marked the end of the lumpy bits for the day. The Sand Hills region came next, and they also proved harder than I remembered. Finally after following the signs for the Rockingham Speedway for what seemed like a week, we arrived at US 1 and the route started to flatten out a little. Pretty soon our foursome came across Dick Rupp from Angola, IN. He seemed content to ride alone which he did for most of the 1200km.

Laurinburg came into view not quite soon enough for my liking. This marked the half-way point and I celebrated with a shower and some food. People always kid me about the way I look on these rides--dressed just so—hair in place, but I’ll tell you, if I see myself in a mirror and I look like I’m doing OK, it helps my mood. If I look like s___, well you can guess how I feel. It’s part of the mental game I play to keep the pedals turning.

From here we had just under a century to get to our next overnight at Sunset Beach for a total of 472 miles. Ed and I rolled out of Laurinburg through the St. Andrews College campus a little faster than Ian and Geof, but they soon caught us along with the train from Florida, which included a couple of riders from Arizona and Colorado and led by the Southern Florida RBA, John Preston. We joined up and life was sweet for the next 90 or so miles. Trading half- to one-mile pulls with a group of 14 experienced riders on a flat course, well it felt like cheating! And those miles flew by with us arriving at the beach before 2300. We were met there by Maria Parker and Lee Ann Musselwhite. Maria is a new RUSA member, but no stranger to endurance cycling owning the women’s record at Sebring with 475 miles in 24 hours. She finished the TOC pre-ride in 67 hours which told me I’ll pretty much never be riding with her. The pair took good care of us and had plenty of food. I was hungry enough to eat a horse, which is always a good sign for me. We set a departure time of 5 AM again so I was off to shower and sleep. Pretty simple life this randonneuring—ride, eat, shower, sleep or something like that. Goal number 2 in the books.

Slept well again and was up in plenty of time to eat, dress and meet the gang to start the retour. Even though we were well over half-way, I knew we had some tough miles ahead. But shortly after rolling, I knew it was going to be a good day. I seemed to have power anytime I wanted it—obviously rolling with the Florida Freight Train was good for me and I hope equally good for them. Tabor City was our first control—well actually just across the state line into South Carolina, which gave me an opportunity to school Geof yet again on a county/state line. I think we were about equal for the “Green Jersey” but I claim double points for taking the state line twice!

From Tabor City the retour diverted from the route down to the beach. We added about 50 miles by taking a northeasterly tack to Hope Mills on some roads that were swelling with early Labor Day weekend traffic. And the temperature was swelling too--to this point we’d had very nice weather, with morning fog and pleasant day and night time temperatures, however, the afternoon 40 miler from Hope Mills to Laurinburg was pretty unpleasant with high temperatures (“a thousand degrees” according to Mark Thomas), high humidity, and as Geof said, every road seemed to have its own “personal headwind.” That stretch had no services and folks were running out of water. We were lucky to spot a spigot on the tiny Spring Hill Community Center where I filled my bottles, drank one almost dry and filled it again for the final 15 miles to Laurinburg. That’s about the time that several in the train became unhitched and we splintered into smaller groups.

I arrived in Laurinburg with Keith Sherrick from Winter Garden, FL and Ruth D’Aiuto from Winter Springs—there’s great irony in the names of their towns, because we felt pretty far from “Winter Anywhere” at that point. Geof and Ian came in soon after. The three of us hatched a plan to start the 125 mile trip back to Greensboro after a two hour break. Keith and Ruth left in the company of Tom Trinidad a couple of hours before us. Thanks to Phil Creel who was working the Laurinburg control with Paul Smith and Terry Schleede, we reserved a room at a small hotel in Troy just off the route and about 60 miles from the finish where we thought we might want a short break. Another shower, food, and a quick nap ensued and we rolled at 2030.
Gang of three about to leave Laurinburg--200km to go!

The trip back to Ellerbe seemed a lot easier in the northwest direction—hard to imagine after almost 660 miles. We lucked out and found a gas station open with cold drinks and ice cream. Geof, Ian, and I took a short break then headed towards Troy thinking we only had about 35 miles to the hotel. Again the return route took a diversion and we climbed the eastern side of the Uwharries. I don’t know if it was my unfamiliarity with this side of the range or if the miles were finally catching up with me, but the hills seemed a lot worse. My riding companions and others I talked with afterwards didn’t agree.  Geof was absolutely dancing up the hills, Ian was taking a slower but steady pace, and I was just struggling—period. About half-way between Ellerbe and Troy, I decided that if I had anything left in the tank when we rolled into Troy, I was just going to push on to Seagrove and then on to the finish in Greensboro. And it’s a good thing, because when we hit the center of town, we couldn’t find the hotel. Mind you, we didn’t look very hard for it, but we couldn’t find the road, which is right in the center of town according to this wonderful Google map I’m looking at now and that I couldn’t bring up with my (insert appropriate expletive here) ATT-based phone! No matter—there was no stopping us now!

Just a few miles from Seagrove I started smelling the barn and pulled away from Ian and Geof on the last few rollers up to the control. I think it was about 0200 when Tony passed in the van and he stopped at the control to sign our cards. Fortunately the convenience store is open 24/7 and we were able to refuel for the final 50 miles. We rolled after about 30 minutes but after less than 20 miles the sleep demons were attacking all of us, so we stopped for a short rest at the Back Creek Friends Church. In another case of irony that didn’t escape my addled brain, finally I had a signal strong enough for a Facebook post, only to fall asleep in the middle of writing it. And of course, when I awoke, the phone’s battery was dead. Damn I just love technology?

Soon the sun brightened the sky and we started making pretty good time again. And with about 12 miles to go on Groometown Road, we were met by the small group riding Tony’s 300km brevet that began at 0600. We had wanted to time our arrival to coincide with their start at the Best Western, but that wasn’t meant to be. Anyway, we got a big boost by seeing them and were spurred down the road by their hurried words of encouragement with a few “Bon Routes” thrown in. Thankfully, Saturday morning traffic on the south side of Greensboro was light and we made easy work of the last miles to the finish arriving at the end of the 754 mile journey in 75 hours and 50 minutes—a new 1200km PR for all three of us.

Mark Thomas at the finish of his 5th 1200km
randonnee this year!  Amazing!
 He had surgery the following week--
brain transplant we're guessing.
The end of the ride wasn’t much different than the middle only the sequence changed a bit to shower, eat, sleep, and drive and we were no longer wearing lycra. We had a great breakfast with Catherine and David Thompson who finished about five hours before us. The fastest riders, George Hiscox and Anthony Parsells came in just before midnight about eight hours faster than our trio. Mike Dayton and John Ende, who were in the gang on the 300, kindly left the key to their room on the tire of John’s van so Geof and I had a quiet place to bed town until the hotel cleaning staff kicked us out at 11.

The ride was tough, scenic, fun, and rewarding in many ways--everything anybody could ask for in a 1200km randonnee. And the full fenders and raincoat I carried for the entire trip did their jobs—they kept the rain away. Not a drop fell on me for the entire distance—a first for me on a 1200.


skiffrun said...

A nice read, Jerry. In the main, it seemed well-paced. Kept my attention, anyway. Thanks!

BTW, I looked up some results -- Mondial & RUSA Cup earned during or upon completion of ToC. Wow!


(Now I'm wondering how many attempts it will take to prove I'm a human -- I can't even read the number half of the first "code sequence".)

MG said...

Congrats on your ride, Jerry. I followed your Facebook progress so it's fun to see the ride as a piece rather than little little updates! Your writeup gave me a good sense of the ride as well as terrain. Also, "There were a mixture of smiles, game faces, and looks of trepidation--all from me." Great image!!!

Paul Smith said...

Excellent story!!! I remember well and lived every moment with your writings. Great ride! Thanks for sharing.

Vance Ricks said...

Felicitations to you all!!