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Road Show.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

 

Discover Adventures

Tom McManners’ phone is ringing. It isn’t ringing like yours and mine, it is ringing constantly. Between information about his new business- Discover Adventures, his two sick children and being caught between houses in the middle of moving, his phone rings with relentless punctuation to our attempt at conversation.

There is a manhunt going on. A guy went postal here a few hours ago, gunned down a judge and two cops in a courthouse, carjacked three cars and is now at large. The signs on the freeway flash “RED HONDA ACCORD CALL 911” with the license plate number. Traffic is stopped. They haven’t found him yet.

Twenty minutes ago I was napping in first class and chatting with a 9-time Tour de France finisher and OLN broadcaster, but now we are stuck in traffic while the cops look for the bad guy. This is Atlanta, Georgia. And in Georgia, you don’t get away with that. Not here.

I’m here with Frankie Andreu. Frankie has ridden the Tour de France 9 times in a row and finished every one. Now he is the guy who brings us the interviews and the technical features for the OLN telecast of the Tour de France and other major bike races. We’ve just met Tom McManners of Discover Adventures for the first time. We’re working for him this week at his P.R.O. Series Cycling Camp. We have 15 clients joining us for a week of cycling on roads that are used for the Tour of Georgia professional stage race. Our clients are here to learn the finer points of cycling, and we’re teaching them.

Tom used to sell surgical equipment but changed careers three and a half years ago to embrace his passion for cycling and adventure travel. He started Discover Adventures and now his Blue Tooth headset is permanently affixed to his ear as clients call to make reservations.

The adventure travel industry is booming, the sport of cycling is booming and last week the world found out Lance Armstrong is coming back to the Tour of Georgia. Tom’s company is the exclusive tour provider for the Tour of Georgia so this is the hottest ticket in the cycling world right now, perhaps one of the final chances to see Lance Armstrong in a smaller race (Well, smaller than the Tour de France) before he rides off into the sunset. Almost every person who dials Tom’s number is asking the same thing; “Will we get to see Lance?” Over 145 guests will join Tom and Discover Adventures at the Tour of Georgia.

Frankie’s got a headache after not eating all day and, come to think of it, I’ve slept two hours in the last 50 and eaten once. Andreu flew into Michigan from Florida late yesterday and into Florida a few days ago from the Island nation of Guadalupe where he was at another cycling camp. It’s springtime in the cycling industry. Starting now and running through November it will be constant movement, work, travel, racing, training, bike building, bike fitting, bike talking, bike everything. For people who wonder what a retired top professional cyclist and a bike shop owner do, well, this is part of it.

We drive north and the traffic lets up. Loaded with our bike cases, computers, luggage and cycling gear we ride in the Discover Adventures Ford Excursion up to Unicoi State Park where we will be based this week. Dinner is at a quaint little Alpine theme restaurant in Helen, Georgia just up the road. We dig into plates of pork chops and potatoes while reviewing the dossiers of our incoming clients.

They are bike shop owners, doctors (two of them), engineering managers, executives and a woman who manages hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital and shuttles between offices in a custom Gulfstream G2 business jet. And, of course, she is beautiful and intelligent.

The town of Helen, Georgia is what happens when you cross yodeling with a rebel yell. It is a transplanted Bavarian village filled with gift shops that sell, among other trinkets, Confederate flag license plates. This contradiction between European motif architecture and Dukes of Hazard-ish merchandising is odd, but you warm up to it quickly. The people are delightfully friendly and the primary industry seems to be fun. Just outside of town a huge complex advertises “Tubing” on numerous billboards alongside gigantic cages of big pink inner tubes that look like bloated intestines. For $3 you rent a tube and float down the bubbly, transparent river that runs through the mountain forest and get picked up by one of the company’s festively painted school buses with a big trailer on the back for all the giant pink inner tubes, kind of like the Partridge Family with all their entrails dragging behind them. It’s a trifle crisp out for stripping down to bathing uniforms and floating along the creek right now. But in the height of summer it is easy to imagine this place as party central with a parking lot full of General Lee reproductions and a bevy of modern day Daisy Dukes lazing down the crystal water clad in diminutive “Girls Gone Wild” bikini tops and tight truncated trousers tattered up high on the toosh.

In the morning Tom, Frankie and I load up the Discover Adventures Ford Excursion and drive some of the routes we’ll be riding with the clients this week. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is one of the finest cycling venues anywhere in the world. I’ve ridden on five continents; in the Maritime Alps, the roads of Laguna Phuket, New Zealand, Vietnam, the French Riviera, the Caribbean coastline and on the Big Island in Hawaii. This place tops nearly every one of them. If a cyclist could conjure the perfect setting for a bike camp in their head, it would be this place, right down to our beautiful hotel setting at Unicoi Lodge in the center of the State Park. The pavement here isn’t good, it’s pristine. The roads weave and twist and dive like a plate of spaghetti dropped over the Georgia Mountains. The motorists wave and flash thumbs up after waiting patiently behind you to navigate a tight technical section. There are bright green road signs that say “Share The Road” with a cycling icon on them. After only a few hours on the roads and in the restaurants you can’t help but melt from the Southern charm.

Since Tom McManners has about five balls in the air and only two hands and a hands-free phone he heads back into Atlanta leaving Frankie and I to do a reconnaissance ride of the surrounding area.

I’ve known Frankie for years and he is one of the finest cyclists in the world as a Tour veteran and two time Olympian, so I let him pick the route for our ride today.

Huge mistake.

First off, Frankie and I approach ride preparation differently. I think I’ve inherited the late, great Michael R. Rabe’s penchant for dragging ass when preparing for a ride. I like to take my time, get my bike built and tuned up, a short test spin to confirm everything is ship shape, then a few minutes of careful consideration for my cycling ensemble contingent on the weather and maybe a light snack before throwing a leg over.

Frankie, on the other hand, is a professional. His unspoken standard is 15 minutes from flight case to clipped in and on the saddle. There is no time for fiddling around. You throw your bike together, hope everything is tight and adjusted, pull on what is at the top of you suitcase and chase him down the road.

About ten minutes into the ride, while I am trying to pull up my arm warmers, fasten my gloves, pull my hat out from under my helmet since I dressed too warm, start my heart monitor and hope I remembered to tighten my stem, Frankie says, “Turn right here, it’s a seven mile climb.”

He can’t be serious. I have no war-up and haven’t been on the bike for two days. But as sure as General Lee had a beard the South rises again, this time up a vicious seven miles of brand new asphalt to a place called Hog Pen Gap, somewhat appropriately, since I’m tempted to squeal like a pig in the first mile of the ascent. This is one of those places with 60 foot high ice walls at the top of the pass and a sign that tells you the elevation above sea level (3650 feet). I’m (ill)equipped with a 39/23 tooth low gear and shorter cranks than usual.

Ooops.

The enormity of my mistake is emphasized for the next 50+ minutes as I heave, wobble and labor while gasping like a moonshine still up this ceaseless gradient. It is one of those climbs that simply never goes away. It only becomes more ominous when we start to roll over signs painted on the pavement that say “GO LANCE!” and “POSTAL BOYS RULE!”. Uh oh, this is the real deal. And while guys who race the Tour de France for a living, like the one I am riding with today, can get up this at almost 20 mph in a 39/23 I am now going 8 mph while my heart rate monitor (unfortunately I got it started) says “187”. The number on it has been flashing for the last 30 minutes. When it flashes, that is kind of like a physiological redline. It means slow down. The only thing slower than what I am doing now is called stopping, and we aren’t doing that- at least Frankie isn’t.

I’m maintaining absolute minimal progress and it isn’t pretty. I’m all over the bike. This is the antithesis of Richard Virenque dancing up an alpine slope as if exempt from gravity. This is more like the Michelin Man having a grand mal seizure at 3 mph while weaving all over the road on his way to a place named after a pig pen. It’s pretty ugly. Any pretense of maintaining a ruse of fitness for Frankie is long gone. It’s just get to the top any way I can.

Frankie, on the other hand, is largely unaffected by the seven mile mountain. Never mind that he just flew from Guadeloupe to Florida to Michigan and back to Georgia. Never mind that he has only been back on the bike for a month or two; never mind that he just spent days chaperoning his three kids at Disney World. He just rides up the mountain in a straight, elegant line with little effort.

Toward the top of the summit my absurd version of climbing embarrassed Frankie (and me) so severely that he decided to give me a push the final 200 meters to the top. This is the ultimate indignation. I have never been pushed to the top of a climb before. But when your boss for the week and a 9 Time Tour Finisher offers you assistance on a climb because you are struggling, you don’t say no.

Once over the top I let Frankie go. I don’t like descending, despise it in fact, and remember the part where I told you abut not being able to check my bike over? Now we are on a narrow, winding 45+ mph descend much steeper than the gradient up this mountain and it is strewn with gravel. After two switchbacks Frankie is gone. Good, now I can really slow down. At the bottom we traverse a few miles over to, what else- another climb. This one is a scant 2.5 miles. Unlike the previous climb which pitched and heaved this one is wide open and a very constant gradient. I can find a rhythm here and get up this one much better. I am also starting to warm up now and I’m finding my legs, so this climb is actually a joy.

After three hours on the road we arrive back at Unicoi Lodge and enjoy an excellent dinner in the lodge dining room. Thirty minutes after dinner I’m unconscious in my bed.

It’s been another long work day that unfolded over 72 hours, covered half the country and wound up with a great ride in a beautiful place. It’s another day in the traveling road show of the cycling industry at the beginning of another long season.

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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