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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Little Switzerland 400K Brevet

That 12" diameter chocolate chip cookie in the picture is a giant version of one of the cookies my wife made for some earlier brevets. Don't worry, though, I didn't/couldn't eat it all by myself. The rest of the office staff was glad to partake. I still needed a 400K to complete my first SR series, and I began making plans about a month ago to ride one of the brevets that RBA Tony Goodnight organizes in the western half of NC. Tony had a whole set of brevets - 200, 300, 400, and 600 - available on the July 4 weekend (take your choice - they run concurrently), and thankfully a welcome break from the high temperatures came just in time.

I decided to do some reworking of the gear system on one of my bikes, since I have never really liked that big jump in the front chainrings (compact 34/50), and I was ready to switch out the brifters for some bar end shifters. This enabled me to go from a 10 speed cassette to a 9 speed, and drop the useless (for me) 12T cog, while also making it possible to use a 30T large cog. Another case of "less is more" as I now have more usable gears. Part of the changeover was to go with a 46T outer ring, giving me a range of 30 to 93 gear inches. Perfectly suited for a mid 50s randonneur more interested in finishing than suffering knee pain.

Enough gearhead rambling. This is supposed to be a ride report. Believing that getting a good night's rest was important, I drove to Salisbury Friday after work and spent the night in a motel. Saturday a.m. I arrived at Windsong Bicycle Shop around 5:30 to sign in and take care of the usual final preparations. Oh, and to throw in some more controversial material, I mixed up some Infinit nutrition powder (custom blend that just came last week). Hammer fans, take heed (pun intended). There were still some Hammer bars and Endurolytes in my food stash, as it's not good to make a major change in nutrition on a big ride. Never did use the Endurolytes, however.

Weather was perfect (the last time I started a brevet from Salisbury the temperature was in the mid 20s), and there was a good turnout. Nine of us were going for 400K, with maybe half a dozen tackling the 600K (including Wes Johnson, Woody Graham, Tom Florian, and Phil Creel). Another Tom from Virginia was riding the 300K to Erwin TN. We all gathered to receive Tony's final instructions and have our group picture taken. Everyone just kind of straddled their bikes, looking at each other, until Jerry announced "Somebody's got to start this thing" and took off. The first 47 miles to the control at Taylorsville were virtually flat, but as is normal, small groups soon formed. I lost the main group at 11 miles when the route turned left onto US 70. When I arrived at Taylorsville, Woody was just about ready to leave the control. I would see him only one more time, at the next control in Lenoir. The 400K and 600K routes divide a few miles past Collettsville, with the longer route turning north to grind up 181. Tony didn't cut the 400K riders any slack, though. I took his advice and refueled/rehydrated at the Colletsville store, as it was another 30 miles to Marion and there was plenty of climbing (Adako Rd, Fish Hatchery Rd, and Lake James Rd). While plodding up Lake James Rd. I caught up with the tandem of Lowell and Cheryl Grubbs from Virginia (DC Randonneurs). They had DNF'd a previous 400K due to mechanical issues (broken rear hub axle), but now had an all new wheel with a bullet proof Phil hub. We weren't sure about the right turn on to Hankins Rd (mile 111.8) as there wasn't a sign and our computers both read a few tenths less. We went about half a mile further and then decided to go back and ask some people who were selling some food at the corner. They confirmed that it was Hankins Rd and it wasn't long before we were at the Marion control. Unfortunately, Cheryl misplaced her sunglasses while in the store and ended up purchasing another pair. Thankfully the sunglasses have been recovered and will be returned to Cheryl shortly.

Marion was probably the hottest part of the ride. We left there about 3:30 pm and had some rolling terrain along a four lane (NC 221/226) for a few miles. Traffic wasn't bad and there is a decent shoulder. NC 226 turns left at a light and becomes a two lane road without much of a shoulder. Slightly more than a mile later, NC 226A begins and the traffic quickly dwindles, as most vehicles take the shorter, but MUCH steeper climb up 226 to the Parkway. However (see warning sign to truckers), 226A is still a challenging climb. It may not be as steep as NC 80 (further west and arguably the toughest section on Assault on Mt Mitchell), but it is several miles long and relentless. There was an abundance of shade from the leafy trees, but I still pulled off 3 or 4 times to rest and refuel. Lowell and Cheryl must have a low gear around 20 inches, as they were spinning but just managing about 3 or 4 mph. We regrouped at the information control - a couple of dogs came out but I applied the "Vance anti-dog venom" - just rang my bell furiously. It worked! We recorded the date from the sign, hydrated, and then clicked back in for the final 5 miles of climbing to Little Switzerland. I arrived at Switzerland Cafe in time to join Neil Fleming (Audax Atlanta) for an early dinner, and Cheryl and Lowell trooped in maybe 10 minutes later.

Neil and I proceeded up a short climb and then a sweet exhilarating downhill to the Big Lynn Lodge, where Tony had a room reserved. It was good to get some water, clean up a little, and reorganize our stuff for the next section. There was still about 90 minutes of daylight left, but it was cooling down. On came arm warmers. Neil rode away from me on the first climb on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I wouldn't see him again until Collettsville. It was on the longest of 3 climbs (I think about 5 or 6 miles in length) on the BRP that I felt like screaming "When is this bloody hill going to end???!!!" Frustration, not exhaustion. Well, obviously it did come to an end, and there was another fantastic downhill that was a nice reward. I had reviewed the route earlier, and knew that a good portion of it followed NC Bike Route 2, so that was helpful when it came time to exit the Parkway and find NC 183. This was a good point for me to pull off, don a reflective vest, and set up my lights. I had recently purchased a Dinotte taillight (after being so impressed with the one Ron used on the Morrisville 300K and 400K), and put it in "slow flash" mode to conserve the battery pack. That light, along with a couple of other Cateye taillights served me in good stead coming down 181 in the dark. Cars and trucks gave me a wide berth. I could only think (just a little, as I was having too much fun) of poor Maria and other 600K riders grinding up 181 in the heat of the day.

Being careful to make the left turn from 181 on to Brown Mountain Beach Rd (Adako Rd), I was maybe a quarter mile down the road when a couple of state troopers slowly drove past me and then pulled a U turn 100 yards ahead. Uh oh, I thought. However, they proceeded back toward 181 without stopping. Neil told me later that the troopers had set up a DUI checkpoint. As I got into Collettsville, there was a massive amount of traffic trying to exit what looked like the end of some fireworks display. I happened to be stuck behind an old Mazda van in bad need of a tuneup. After my lungs had taken all of the unburned hydrocarbons and associated filth they could stand, I maneuvered past the van and waited my turn in line. No sooner had I turned right onto Collettsville Rd than one of the troopers directing traffic started yelling at me to stop. I pulled into the store parking area and he came up all flustered, obviously trying to control himself. "You will stay here until I tell you to go!" He claimed two other bikers had almost caused a wreck further down on Abington Rd. Okay, no problem. The store was just closing, but had a Coke machine outside and a nice wide set of steps to take a break. The arm warmers had to come off, as they were soaked. I was so glad I had put in a light jacket, as that was just the ticket right now. I would keep it on for the rest of the ride. By now the time was about 10:30 pm. I had been there maybe 5 or 10 minutes when Neil was similarly pulled over and instructed to stop. I thought he was ahead of me but we had crossed paths at the top of 181. It wasn't too long (another 10 minutes), before the traffic had thinned out and the troopers gave us the go-ahead. I was surprised they didn't at least ask what we were doing out riding at that time of night, but they were cool and just said to be safe.

Neil and I pretty much stayed together the rest of the ride, so it was good to share those pre-dawn hours together as we hit the Lenoir, Taylorsville, and Troutman control points. I was really hungry when we got to Lenoir (about 11:30 pm), so we went to a Wendy's after having our control cards signed. It had to be one of the slowest Wendy's I have been to. The restaurant (inside seating) was closed, so we had to go through the drive through line and eat outside. Neil discovered his rear tire was flat as we were about to leave (better there than out on the road), so he got a new tube in and we were off. We rode a little with John O. and Tim, regrouping at the controls. John and Tim had stopped at Sonic in Lenoir, which was probably a better choice. The name "Old Mountain Road" sounded intimidating (between Taylorsville and Troutman), but the 17 miles were among the most pleasant of the ride. Very quiet and gentle terrain, as we rolled along in the comfortable darkness of early morning. Before long we had left the penultimate control at Troutman and had the final 25 miles into Salisbury. As we watched the sun breaking through and a few cars beginning to appear, I was thinking the drivers probably thought we were just starting out on an early morning ride, not realizing we had been up all night and were returning from the mountains.

I would like to express my thanks to Tony for organizing and supporting the ride, and for the volunteers. Your help is much appreciated.