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Epic.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

 

Rider in rain.

Epic rides are defined by distance, weather, speed, difficulty, exaggeration or other adversities. Epics are the rides you always remember. They grow in difficulty and desperation with time over countless retellings of the details and difficulties.

Today was a bona-fide epic, defined by miles, the players involved, adverse weather and brutal terrain.

We did the Georgia Three Gap ride today. This ride crosses three mountain passes used in the Dodge Tour of Georgia and is made famous by Mario Cipollini, Tyler Hamilton and Lance Armstrong during that race. The passes are called Neel’s Gap, Wolf Pen and Woody’s Gap in that order. The first two top out at a rather average 3500+ feet and the final one is smaller still. In the scheme of Tour de France style Alpine or Pyrenean giants that top out at nearly 7000 feet these climbs are medium sized. What made today’s ride particularly epic was the weather.

It is 37 degrees and raining. The temperature is dropping fast. Clouds hang like gaudy cotton Christmas trim around the tops of the surrounding mountains. The sky isn’t above us, it’s around us. Anyone who knows about cold weather survival will tell you this is the most dangerous weather for the cold weather killer; hypothermia. People at the Unicoi State Park Lodge here in Georgia duck quickly from building to building the weather is so nasty. We’re headed out on a four hour bike ride up in these clouds that hide the mountain tops. If the weather is nasty down here at the lodge, it is even worse up in the mountains, colder and wetter inside the clouds.

We are joined by two pros from the Jittery Joe’s Cycling Team, Craig Wilcox and Christian Foster. They will be our VIP guests on the ride today and it’s exciting to be able to ride with them. They are the same guys who will be slugging it out with the top pro teams on these mountains in a couple weeks during the Tour of Georgia stage race. Tom McManners of Discover Adventures hands Frankie, Amy and I the little pocket radios to communicate with the team cars and distributes the small laminated pocket maps that shows our course for the day, just like in the Tour de France.

A group will ride from the lodge with the Jittery Joe’s men and Frankie Andreu 16 miles out to the three gap loop which begins near a place called Turner’s Café. The remainder of our clients will drive the 16 miles out to the loop in the Discover Adventures Ford Excursion and in Ms. Amy Dedafoe’s, (our massage therapist) Subaru wagon. This second group will begin their ride there at Turner’s Café. Frankie is the ride leader of the first group. I am the ride leader of the second group.

The apprehension among the clients is pretty heavy with the weather and terrain as ominous as they are, but this is an excellent group. I am impressed with everyone’s determination and it seems they take the weather as a challenge. There isn’t a single complaint, just a number of questions about how to best deal with impossible conditions. Frankie’s crew heads out on the road and we load up the vehicles for the drive to the start point.

It’s freezing out, bone-chilling. This is penetrating, damp coldness that feels like having ice water sprayed directly on your skin. No clothing is right for riding in this weather. The vicious contradiction our clothing selection must resolve is that, on the steep, long climbs we get warm from working so hard but only going between 3 mph and 10 mph laboring up hill. On the descents we gather speed quickly over 30 mph with the attendant blast of cold water from rain, mist and fog while trying to stay on the gravel strewn wet mountain roads. You overheat on the way up; you freeze on the way down.

Once we reach our jumping off point at Turner’s Café our mechanic, Vince Gee of the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, pulls the bikes down off the roof rack and we try our best to make reasonable clothing adjustments, even though it’s a waste of time in this weather- we’ll be alternately too hot and too cold for the first part of the day, then downright freezing and soaked to the bone in the final hours on the last mountain pass.

The first climb, Neel’s Gap, starts right out of the parking lot so we ride up the road the opposite way a distance for a warm up. It’s a waste of time. At 15 mph I am freezing already. I’m wearing the same clothes I wear on a 25 degree ride in Michigan but the dampness penetrates the high tech fabrics like a sharp icicle. The only way to get warm is to start climbing.

We U-turn and head up the mountain pass. To my displeasure there is a brief spell of downhill before the pass kicks upward for the next 7 miles. I’m even colder now. A huge logging truck searching for the right gear passes me, drenching me with freezing road spray.

The epic has begun. We’re on one of the toughest mountain circuits in the U.S. in terrible weather with some of the finest professional cyclists the U.S. as they prepare for one of the largest stage races. To add to the experience, we have the incredible support of Discover Adventures. This is the experience our clients paid for: An epic.

When I arrived in Georgia I was well prepared with clothing but not with appropriate gearing for the mountains. These are big climbs that would fit right in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. I showed up with a 39/23 low gear. Not good. One phone call to my good friends at J&B Imports in Fort Wayne, Indiana and my problems are solved. J&B is a wholesale distributor Bikesport, Inc. does a lot of business with and Larry, their “go-to” guy, took care of me instantly. I arranged for them to Fedex me an FSA compact crankset and a new 12-25 Campagnolo 10 speed cogset. It arrives in the nick of time and the same guy who tunes Lance’s bike, Vince Gee, installs the new gearing, customizes my cogset from a 12-25 to an 11-25 and I am ship-shape for the mountains with lower gearing.

This is day four for me at the Discover Adventures P.R.O. Series Training Camp so I am just starting to find my legs. I can tell I’ve lost some weight already. That training combined with Larry’s help from J&B and Vince’s handiwork and I am dancing up the first climb.

The weather sucks and I’m not in my best shape yet but this is still a huge experience: Climbing some of the toughest climbs in the U.S. on the same roads as the top pros under full conditions. My heart rate comes up and my jacket zipper comes down. Windstopper gloves go in my back pocket. Not completely unlike the guys in the Tour I am rocketing up the climb, standing on the steep sections, sitting the steady sections. I can hold 13 mph on this climb. On one switchback I look down the mountain and see two riders from my group. By the next switchback I am all alone. These guys aren’t really chasing me; one of them has climbed Mt. Washington three times and has excellent fitness. Half the clients on this trip could probably drop me in the mountains in a second and almost all of them have more experience riding here, but for the first time I am off the front on my own. Amy pulls up next to me in her car and Vince leans out to snap a photo of me on the climb. I strike a Richard Virenque pose and spin my new, light gearing up the grade.

This climb is a beauty. The pavement is perfect, the roads wide open and almost no traffic today. In no time I am on the summit where Tom is waiting with the Discover Adventures Ford Excursion. I stop for a moment to zip my jacket, button up, pull out my clear plastic rain cape and re-don my gloves for the descent. As the two riders behind me reach the summit I am setting off down the mountain. On a clear day this is a scenic overlook with panoramic vistas of Northern Georgia spread out before you. Today it is socked in.

There is no word strong enough for my disdain of going down mountains when they are wet, slippery, randomly strewn with ball-bearing like gravel and the wind chill will be in the low teens at best. As a result, I know I will get passed on the descent and I am dreading this. Something else happens though.

The roads are wide and I am, for the moment, alone. Vince checked my bike over so I know it is perfect. How many times do you get Lance’s mechanic to tune your bike before a ride? It has been raining up here for nearly a day so most of the debris on the road has been washed off. As a result, traction is excellent. I let the bike run. These beautiful roads on Neel’s Gap are masterfully crafted through the mountains with perfectly cambered, constant radius turns that are wide and visible for a long way up the descent. I set up for the turns early, scrub off a few miles per hour on soaked brake pads and dive into each switchback. Toward the bottom the switchbacks come to an end and it becomes a sinewy sequence of “S” bends stretched through the Georgia pines in front of me. I straighten them out going from white line to yellow as my bikes collects gravity and speed and I find I actually want to go faster. On my 50/11 top gear I am spun out, but the speed continues to build in proportion to the contraction of my frontal area. I try to mimic the aerodynamic downhill crouch of a Franz Klammer on the slopes at Kitz Buhl. In minutes I am off the first climb and pull out my little laminated course map, just like the top pro riders have, to see where I enter the next col. It took nearly 50 minutes to get to the top, about 10 to get down.

The descent is freezing but the $15 clear plastic rain cape is a simple miracle of cycling clothing that has stood the test of time. These are the cheap plastic capes you see riders like Merckx and Coppi pull on at the summit of the Col d’ Aspin or the Stelvio. The Tifosi crowd around their heroes on the summits of the grand tours to help pull on a sleeve and the men make there way down through the icy chill with nothing but a layer of clear plastic and newspaper under their jersey to buffer the cold of the mountains. Today I do the same, like a Merckx or a Coppi, unloading off the mountain as fast as I dare at the head of the field through ice water fog. This, my friends, is the stuff of epics.

The flat transit to Wolf Pen is quick and I am on the lower flanks of The Wolf clawing my way up its hide. Compared to Neel’s Gap, The Wolf is untamed. These roads are older and not nearly as orderly or manicured. They are rarely traveled. Narrow, wildly twisting as if deranged by rabies and twice as steep in places as our first climb this ascent is a devil. The pavement is festooned with graffiti from fans intended to encourage the best riders in the world. When I see it, it isn’t the chill air that raises the hair on my arms. My heart rate and speed both tick up a few notches in this cathedral of pain. This is where it happens: The big races, the big attacks, the big dramas. Have you ever driven on the Daytona Motor Speedway or thrown a pass in a Superbowl Stadium? Today, that is what I am doing, playing on the field of the very best in our sport.

Wolf Pen bites hard. There is no shaking its teeth from my legs. The camber in the switchbacks is wild and I veer across the pavement to try to ride the shallow line, like Pantani on the L’Alpe d’Huez. Conditions close in on Wolf Pen as a thick, frosty fog makes it seem like riding up a stair case in a Slurpie. Snow flakes drift on gusty breezes through the fog. There is no traffic on this road, I’m sure cars avoid it. I’m out of the saddle now, running on top of my easiest 34/25 gear. This is the lowest gear I have ever ridden in the mountains. On the Col de Vence in France I made do nicely with a 34/23 compact. Here, in these conditions on the haunches of The Wolf riding with only a 34/23 would be like an hour with a skilled torturer. After a wild and random sequence of switchbacks I summit Wolf Pen and pull my plastic cape back on for the epilogue. The descent is a quick one as we do not lose all of our elevation gain between the second and third climbs of the day. We traverse down into an elevated canyon still over 1000 feet of elevation, then begin the third and final kick upward on our last climb, Woody’s Gap.

Conditions continue to degrade on the ridge between Wolf Pen and Woody’s. I leave my cape on as I transit the flats between the climbs. The mist is even denser in this saddle between peaks. I can scarcely see twenty feet in front of me and at 25 mph, which is creepy. I smell smoke from a fireplace but see no cabin. Headlights approach on the opposite side from a car I know will never even see I am on the road.

Without seeing or hearing it Amy’s car pulls alongside. They tell me Frankie wants me to return to the main group. I’ve been on a lark over the first two climbs, selfishly relishing the challenge; the terrain, the solitude and the safety of riding these roads alone without the concern of having another rider take you down on a descent. I quickly do a U-turn and can manage only 20-22 mph headed back toward Frankie’s group. The wind has actually picked up but done nothing to blow off the thick, frozen fog. Around a corner and up through the chill a few of the other riders appear as dark silhouettes. I recognize Frankie’s pedaling style but can’t make out his face in the dark of the overcast we are riding in the middle of. It is mid afternoon but as dark as twilight. I turn around to catch Frankie and he asks me how I am doing. Two of the Jittery Joe’s pros, Christian and Craig, are in this group. We band together against the upcoming final climb and elements while forming a mini-peloton for the final 18 miles. It is a thrill to ride with the Jittery Joe’s guys and Frankie. When I was younger I didn’t realize how much difference there is between the top pros and us mortal cyclists. These guys are 40 pounds lighter than most of us. They ride more by Wednesday than I ride in two weeks. Their bodies are adapted and at home on the bike. Like Karl Walenda said about walking the tight rope, “Everything else is waiting” for these guys- they are evolved only to pedal. They seem encumbered by normal clothing but look normal in Lycra cycling attire. I look like a sausage in a too-tight casing.

When I made my redirection back toward the group after soloing the first two cols I passed Adrienne and Casey going the opposite way. They are two of the more capable climbers of our group. They were between Frankie’s group and my position at the Tete de la Course’ or head of the ride. My return to the Andreu group meant that Adrienne and Casey were now at the head of affairs on the road. In reaction to this Frankie suggested we ride tempo to catch them. The tooth marks in my legs from the Wolf Pen weren’t completely healed yet but when the boss tells you to ride, you ride. So I went to the front and did my best turn. Frankie comes through after I spend only a minute on the front. He holds about 25 mph. He takes over and administers an effortless 25 mph over the rolling approach to Woody’s gap. Curiously, we never see Adrienne and Casey. We should have caught them by now. My concern for their navigation in the mist begins. At a key intersection I turn left with one of the Jittery Joe’s men, Craig, who has the build of a climber. The entire girth of his hips is the same as one of my buttocks. Frankie stays at the corner to direct others on the correct route in the confusing fog. I have kept my rain cape on this entire time to ward off the chill but now my hands are numb from the cold.

Craig of Jittery Joe’s is aware of the discrepancy in accounting for Adrienne and Casey. He sets a pro’s tempo up the first slope of Woody’s Gap in search of them. He can easily ride 17 mph on a gradient where 12 mph is my limit. This is one of the many mathematical differences between pro and recreational cyclist. I try for all I am worth to match Craig on the climb for as long as I can. Incredibly, I do match him for about 40 precious seconds. I am just about to re-write my own concept of my abilities when I crack like a bullet piercing dry air. My heart rate monitor reads 188 and Craig seems to suddenly vault ahead as I fumble my shift lever for two larger cogs on my cassette. Giant puffs of breath fog my glasses and I notice, just before he vanishes into the mist up the climb, that when Craig breaths there is not even a puff of vapor from his mouth. And like that, he is gone up the climb. I am climbing alone once again.

The solitude lasts over Woody’s Gap, a tough climb but nothing like the ascent of Neel’s with its wide, manicured pavement or Wolf Pen with its narrow, vicious gradient and rabid switchbacks. This has been a real “sampler’s pack” of climbing with three climbs of distinctly different character. It is an opulent exposure to riding your bike in the mountains.

Craig comes back the opposite direction down the climb on his way back to Frankie’s group behind me. He motions that he did not see Adrienne and Casey.

When I passed the two riders going the opposite way back toward Frankie’s group after Amy’s car turned me around they couldn’t have been more than 40-60 seconds in front of Frankie’s group. After the combined chase before Woody’s at a sporting tempo and the determined ascent of Woody’s by Craig of Jittery Joe’s the math didn’t add up that Adrienne and Casey were up the road. They had to have made a wrong turn, likely at the main intersection. The map on the cue sheets clearly depicted all left turns describing an enormous loop through the mountains but any interpretation of the directions is possible. I start to get worried about Adrienne and Casey. Both are excellent riders in fine condition. Adrienne is lean and Latin in complexion, light and fast on the climbs. Casey is an elite level mountain bike competitor and no stranger to this area. She is also in top condition with a build that suggests an aptitude for altitude.

Over the summit of the climb I descend to another key corner and am joined by Brian. Brian was an aviation electrician on three different aircraft carriers during his time in the Navy. He serviced electronic components on the FA-18 Hornet and kept a bike on board the carrier where he rode rollers in the maintenance bay and made sojourns into the mountains during liberty in Southern Europe along the Mediterranean. He is a bull of a rider, incredibly strong and oddly soft spoken for a man of his fitness on the bike.

He and I descend together for the remainder of the trip off Woody’s Gap. Not surprisingly, he is the better descender so he leads our trip off the mountain. We are less than 10 miles from the conclusion of our circuit. There is still no sign of Adrienne or Casey.

After riding hard over the final miles Brian and I spot Turner’s Café and see the big red Discover Adventures Ford Excursion team van. I packed dry clothing in my backpack on the van so I decide to get in the van and put on dry, warm clothes as opposed to riding the 16 miles from the mountain circuit back to Unicoi State Park Lodge.

Brian and I climb off, report that Adrienne and Casey are still somewhere on the road and get into the warm truck. There are fresh bottles and Kalahari Fruit bars inside while we change into dry clothes. Over the next 30 minutes more riders show up and the truck gets full. After nearly four hours in the freezing, wet cold no one wants to make the ride back to Unicoi except, of course, the two Jittery Joe’s guys who take a moment to put on dry jackets and then head for the lodge.

As it turns out, Adrienne and Casey went right on the circuit when they should have continued left. They were quickly recovered by Amy in her Subaru.

On the way back to Unicoi in Tom’s big truck the stories of the climbs and the descents began to pour out. Debbie, an excellent racer from Malibu, California where conditions like this are non-existent did an incredible job over the three mountain passes but was blue with cold when she got back to the truck. It took the entire drive back before she began to feel her hands she said.

The Three Gap Ride in Georgia is truly a gem of a mountain circuit, one of the very finest in the U.S. and the world. On a bright, sunny summer day it would be a playground for road cyclists hungry for wild descents and leg-searing climbs. But on a late winter day with terrible weather the Three Gaps are the crucible where epics are forged, epics that will be told and retold, like today.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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