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
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
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
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
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
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
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.