Monday 20 April 2009

Tour de Appalachians Day 4: It’s Not About the Bike

With the Banner Elk elk

The final day of our training camp began, sadly, with the departure of the Badger, who had to return to Washington on a family matter. But it was another beautiful morning and after a leisurely breakfast the remaining Lost Boys set out on the road one more time. This course was one that would not even come close to challenging our traditional Bad Navigation Practices, since it merely was a ride down to Banner Elk, where we would turn left and ride up Beech Mountain. At the summit we would just turn around and retrace our steps before packing up and heading out of North Carolina on the long trip home.

Beech Mountain has a special place in the lore of American racing because it was here, on a route previously included in the Tour DuPont, that Lance Armstrong, in his first year back on the bike after his bout with cancer but considering quitting, got back his motivation to race. He was joined by his coach Chris Carmichael and racing buddy Bob Roll for his own training camp. Here is the excerpt from his 2000 book, It’s Not About the Bike.

From then on, all we did was eat, sleep, and ride bikes. Spring had just begun moving up into the mountains, creating a constant fog and drizzle that seemed to muffle the piney woods....Toward the end of the camp, we decided to ride Beech Mountain, Chris knew exactly what he was doing when he suggested it, because there was a time when I owned that mountain. It was a strenuous 5,000 foot climb with a snowcapped summit, and it had been the crucial stage in my two Tour DuPont victories...

We rode and rode through a steady rain, for four hours and then five. By the time we got to the foot of Beech, I’d been on the bike for six hours, drenched. But I lifted myself up out of the saddle and propelled the bike up the incline, leaving Bob Roll behind...I continued upward, and the mountain grew steeper. I hammered down on the pedals, working hard, and felt a small bloom of sweat and satisfaction, a heat under my skin almost like a liquor blush. My body reacted instinctively to the climb. Mindlessly, I rose out of my seat and picked up the pace. Suddenly, Chris pulled up behind me in the follow car, rolled down his window and began driving me on. “Go, go, go!” he yelled. I glanced back at him.. “Allez, Lance, allez, allez!” he yelled. I mashed down on the pedals, heard my breath grow shorter, and I accelerated....That ascent triggered something in me... I was meant for a long, hard climb.

I passed the rest of the trip in a state of near-reverence for those beautiful, peaceful, soulful mountains. The rides were demanding and quiet, and I rode with a pure love of the bike, until Boone began to feel like the Holy Land to me, a place I had come on a pilgrimage. If I ever have serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer. I got my life back on those rides.
We did not expect any epiphanies of our own on this beautiful Spring day, a decade later, but we were excited about the prospect of riding the same roads. We quickly passed down into Banner Elk and discovered we were on the course of a Sunday road race, with cyclists from regional colleges competing. At the traffic light, the policeman wanted to wave us to the right to stay on the course but we laughed and told him we weren’t competing. Although I did tell him, as I rode by, that although we were not racing we were looking very, very good.

Soon after the 3 mile climb to the top of Beech Mountain began. We passed a Baptist church where the congregation was coming out the door. They waved to us, and Duck called out “Pray for us!” which, since he has ridden Beech Mountain before, should have meant something.

Young Jeff humiliates the guy with the compact crankset
photo by Duck

Although we were neither riding in pouring cold rain nor had been on the road for six hours, the Beech Mountain climb is quite brutal. It was far more difficult that the park road up Mt. Mitchell. I was riding with Young Jeff and our progress was glacial as we rode through the switchbacks, grinding upwards, ever upwards. The valley below us opened up as we kept our pace steady, a difficult task given that there must have been sections of the road with gradients approaching 15%. Eventually we came to the top and in the last little flat stretch we saw Duck with his camera and a there was a big sprint finish, easily won by Young Jeff who had come back to life, fuelled by competition apparently.

Happy to have made it up here
photo by Duck

There is not much to look at on Beech Mountain, altitude 5506 feet (1678 m) which has that same dismal air of most North American ski resorts when it isn’t ski season. The place has a year-round population of only 350, but in winter this swells to 10,000. There are 1,800 residential units, so it is the definition of a resort town. Development had started at Beech Mountain in the mid-1960s, but after building roads, sewers and a lot of houses, the developers went broke in 1974. Property owners took over and eventually the utilities were transferred to public authorities and in 1981 the Town of Beech Mountain was incorporated There was a “Realtor on Duty” sign at one development, in case you wanted to make an impulse purchase. Beech Mountain is the highest town in the United States east of the Mississippi and of course we needed photos with the sign, but we soon turned around and headed back to Banner Elk.

College racers (Lees-McCrae College won the team time trial)

The descent was marvellous, needless to say, and the crawling, eternal climb on the way up was replaced by the kind of high-speed two-wheeled rocket flight that makes you smile for the rest of the day. In the blink of an eye we were past the Baptist Church, and then in downtown Banner Elk. We stopped to take pictures in front of the Banner Elk elk statue, and chatted with some of the college students as they watched the racers go by and cheered them on. Soon, too soon, we made the final climb back up Sugar Mountain. Riding past the golf course I could still see some snow on the ski runs.

Not for flatlanders

The Sugar Mountain to Beech Mountain and Back trip was only 31 km (19.2 miles) , or about what I do on two circuits of my time trial course in Ottawa. But I sure don’t put in nearly 1000 m (970 m, or 3182 feet) of climbing in that distance at home! A worthy challenge, even for an Armstrong.

The greens might be green, but there is still white stuff in the hills

We packed up our stuff, which took lots of time, and helped Duck organize the condo. Soon we were in our cars, headed in different directions. Duck was off to Raleigh, while Tim the Tornado, Young Jeff and I extended our trip together by stopping in Staunton for celebratory burritos and beers at the Baja Bean Company, followed by a brief walk around town. Then they headed to DC, while I was back on Interstate 81, headed northwards. It was a beautiful day, and I drove all the way to Chambersburg with the sunroof open and the Beethoven playing loudly. And thus ended the first Lost Boys Tour de Appalachians Spring Training Camp. There were a few mechanical issues, and some less-than-optimal weather, but it's not really about the bike: with the great company, Duck’s hospitality and a few beers it was all an unqualified success. We all rode well and I for one am motivated to raise my riding to another level higher so that I can take names and kick butt, as they say in North Carolina, next Spring.

Duck and the "Allez, Papa!" sign made by his son


Pedalman said...

Wow! Knowing that you rode a piece of cycling history is icing on the cake. That is some pretty crazy gradient you guys contented with.
Great end to a great couple of days. Thanks for taking us along with 'The Lost Boys'

Sprocketboy said...

And I am grateful for such faithful readers as you, Pedalman! It really was a great trip and doing something so challenging with friends is a great experience.

Will said...

congrats on a clearly great set of rides.

I was of course particularly pleased to see photos next to high altitude signs.

Well done

Sprocketboy said...

Of course nobody can simply ride by an altitude sign, O Master Will!