Sunday, June 6, 2010

Smokin' the Ride-ies

Today was Bump'n'Grind day. The one cross-country race that I have only missed twice since 1999. The only cross country race that I make a point of being at. I love the park, I love the trail, and sometimes I get to see old friends from Baton Rouge there. In previous years, family commitments or illness had kept me away. This year, I had a different deck stacked against me. Thanks to the TNGA, my mountain bike shoes are busted and my rear wheel is in the shop. I've also been fighting a cold all week and haven't ridden, except with the kids for two weeks. With all that, still riding, goes under the category of "forcing a ride". The best a forced ride can go is: I did the ride and it wasn't fun. Generally though, a forced ride includes further component failure. Sometimes injury. As such, with a heavy heart, I bailed on the B'n'G.

What to do though?

A few months ago, my buddy Kirk and I hiked all over the Mount LeConte area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. He called it "Smokin' the Hikies" because we kept mispronouncing "Hiking the Smokies." Getting there and getting home involved multiple drives through the park on Hwy 441. At that time, it occurred to me that riding a road bike from Cherokee NC to Gatlinburg TN and back could be scenic, challenging, and with 15 mile descents in both directions, a lot of fun. I even had a name for it "Smokin' the Ride-ies". Clever? You know it is. The idea lingered for about a month before getting relegated to the list of "stuff to do one day" in the very back of my mind. Then, last week, my cousin Chris and his family went on vacation to Gatlinburg and hearing about all the fun they had dredged the idea back up. Yes, I would do that.

I hoped maybe my cousin might still actually be in Gatlinburg, but no luck there. Somehow I convinced Travis to go with me.

On the way up I made another nobody-should-trust-me-with-a-gps-let-alone-a-compass navigation errors by driving up 85 instead of 985 and only realizing the error when we crossed into South Carolina. "Hey, that should be North, not South..." Woohoo. Fortunately it only added about 20 minutes to the trip, and before long we were back on track.

We parked at the Visitors Center north of Cherokee.


And started spinning up 441. The weather was less than ideal; foggy (smoky) and raining, though not hard. The traffic was also less than ideal. Back in the winter, there was zero traffic. Now, it's peak visitor time. Grrrr. Around mile 10, I couldn't spin any more, just crush the pedals, in my smallest gear. My theory that the pitch was somewhere between Woody's and Neals was failing in the direction of Neals. On the upside, the rain had stopped.

By mile 13 or so, my lower back was killing me and my knees hurt from the crushination. But, all the hiking I've been doing has given me bionic knees. They hurt, but they weren't being damaged. We pressed on.

Eventually, the steady climb gave way to rollers and we roller-ed over to Newfound Gap. It was hard, very hard, but well short of torture. I didn't get much of a look at the scenery, and with the traffic, I didn't dare take photos, lest I wander out into it.

We didn't even stop at Newfound. It was incredibly foggy. I'd expected to get some rest on the descent, but there was none to be had. The road was wet and slippery. I drifted on every turn. Travis was railing them and I couldn't catch up until it straightened out and he eased up. What I had figured for a fun, relaxing descent turned into a completely spun out, nervewracker. I have never been spun out for that long in my life. I have no idea how fast we were going, but I was glad I didn't have a computer.

We pulled into the Sugarlands Visitor Center and hit the bathroom. It was sunny down there.

 Sugarlands Visitor Center

We kept rolling, made a little run through Gatlinburg, saw the sights...


...and turned right around. Even in Gatlinburg, I was climbing. No spinning, just more crushing. It was going to be a long day.

But, the weather had become nice. Mount LeConte (I think) was shrouded though.

 Mt LeConte

Travis was feeling good and pulled up front. It was all I could do to keep up, even with him easing up for me from time to time.

The traffic was waaaay worse than coming up the other side. Before, there were breaks between the cars of minutes or more. Not any more. It was steady, commuter style traffic. No break lasted for more than 20 seconds, max.

We stopped a couple of times. Every muscle below my ribcage hurt. I needed a few seconds rest. And we'd press on.

The Chimney Tops.

 Chimney Tops

We went through several tunnels. People love honking in tunnels.

Eventually Travis wasn't feeling so good either, but he rallied just before the top. I did not. The last mile was terrible. I just had to will myself into it.

The top. Thank god.

 Newfound Gap

On the way up, a few people coming the other way had indicated their approval of our effort. Two people took photos of us, I imagine thinking "what the heck?" as they did. At the top, some dude congratulated Travis and indicated that he'd climbed it too. I wondered if he climbed both sides though.

The descent down the back side was longer than it seemed like it should be. Again, there was no rest to be had. The road had dried up, for the most part, so I could keep up, but all the way down, we'd spin out until we were burnt and switch. It was a day of many firsts. I've never turned that high a cadence for that long before. Like burn-outs in the weight room.

My legs hurt really bad. Just standing in the bathroom at the gas station was hard to do. It took a while to get straight. And I was tiiiiired. On the way home, I talked Travis' ear right off, which I unconsciously do when I'm really tired, because talking to somebody is the best way to stay awake while driving. I caught myself doing it like 4 times, but I was powerless against it. Sorry bro :)

Well, I'm checking this one off of the list, but I'm not sure I'd call it a "good time". Way harder than I'd imagined. Definitely one of those things that I'm not doing again without some big leap in fitness. Maybe some time of year with less traffic.

One of the things me and Travis talked about was how strange varieties of Mac and Cheese are all popular at restaurants. That led me to eat strange Mac and Cheese at this restaurant Parma on the way home. I'm not cool enough to eat there; the waiters and greeters looked at me over and over, but never came over to seat me, the waiter never refilled my drink. I might not be cool enough, but I busted through their system, ate their food and it was awesome, and I'll go back and stink up their joint again and it'll be awesome again, so who really wins there Parma? Yeah, that's what I thought. Ha ha.

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