'98 Bridge to Bridge Incredible Challenge

Ride summary by David Cole

bicycle chain

The final two miles up the spur road to the top of Grandfather Mountain are gruellingly steep. The final few hundred yards are particularly cruel [photo] , so much so that it's not uncommon to see cyclists simply fall over, unable to turn their cranks. Other cyclists walk and push their bikes up the final climb, in some cases overtaking the cyclists who are still riding.

Once at the top, there's a euphoric release, a balance of both exhaustion and exuberation. This is true of riders who finish in under five hours, and those who take over twice as long to ride the 103.8 mile route up from Lenoir. It's enticing to stay at the top of the mountain, enjoying the cameraderie of the riders, and enthusiastically cheering those who are making the final climb to the finish line.

This was the tenth year of the Bridge to Bridge Incredible Challenge. I've ridden all but the first two years in '89 and '90, and in many respects this year's ride was similar to years past: a fantastic route, beautiful scenery, challenging hills, outstanding support, and much, much more. In this respect Bridge to Bridge is almost more an event than it is simply a bike ride, more an experience than just exercise.

Our group had started out the day before, driving to Lenoir to pick up the registration packets and hang out with the other cyclists there [photo]. Traveling together were Ed Downing, David Racine, Stella Sable, and myself [photo]. We each would finish the ride, but have somewhat different stories to tell. Ed, at age 63, is a personal inspiration. He lives for cycling, and genuinely loves the sport. He's also a strong rider, and can outride cyclists under half his age. Stella only started cycling back in April, and this was to be her first solo century (she'd ridden a couple earlier on a tandem [photo]). Stella's enthusiasm is contagious; she was very excited about the ride and eager to discuss strategies. This was David Racine's first climb up Grandfather too, although David has been riding for several years and has distinguished himself as a strong rider and very strong climber.

As for myself, I was unsure of what to expect. In years past I've built up to this ride with a series of centuries, including the Blue Ridge Brutal in late August and Tour de Moore on Labor day. This year I had missed both rides, and had also been sick earlier in the week. I concluded I'd start the ride, see how I felt, and go as fast as I could but still finish the ride without cramping, which seems to be my own personal cross to bear.

We were staying at my mother's house in Statesville, and returned there for a nice warm-up and equipment-check ride through northern Iredell County. This was where I grew up, so I routed us through some scenic dairy land and good hills. We took in a brief stop at the area's historical claim to fame, Fort Dobbs, where Stella exclaimed, "You're right - it really is a hole in the ground." [photo].

After the fifteen-mile ride we headed over to the local pizza buffet for some carbo loading. We did some damage. I've also come to believe that an increased salt intake is important in ride preparation too, especially if conditions will be warm. Upon returning to the house we readied our equipment for the next morning and hit the sack early.

It seems inevitable then I sleep poorly before big rides, this time 'round was no exception. Nonetheless, we were up and eating a pancake breakfast by 5:30 and on the road back to Lenoir by 6:00, as planned. It was nice to have our registration packets so we didn't have to fool with getting our rider numbers and such before the ride.

At the starting point we quickly assembled our bikes and gear, then made our way over to the starting point [photo]. It was noticeably warmer than it had been in years past, and I was surprised to see folks wearing arm warmers and jackets. Just after 7:30 a police car turned on its flashing lights and lead the cyclists out, except instead of heading out onto the road they made a complete loop of the Lenoir Mall. This had an immediate effect of stringing out the riders, which perhaps was the desired effect. We nonetheless looped around and started the ride.

This is the second year the ride has started from Lenior. The event is sponsored by the Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce, but it seems that when the ride was starting in Hickory (on the bridge over Lake Hickory, the beginning bridge in the "Bridge to Bridge") Catawba county ended up getting the bulk of the commercial benefit. One consequence of the new route is that it starts out with a long, gradual hill, which likewise strings out the riders into smaller groups [photo].

As soon as you start the ride you begin to appreciate the scope of the support on the ride. Not only is there a police escort, but police are posted at every single intersection. Moreover, motorcycles patrol the route with radios and are very quick to come to the aid of cyclists who have stopped. Even more impressive are the sag stops. Because the ride is sponsored by a chamber of commerce, businesses man each of the 14 sag stops and actually compete with one another in the process [photo]. At any given stop you may find as many as twenty folks handing out water and fruit and filling bottles. It is actually easy to do the ride non-stop, as you can pick up so much food as you ride by.

In my mind I divide the ride up into six legs: the starting 30-mile loop south and back into Lenoir, the rolling hills between Lenoir and 181, the 12-mile climb up 181 to the Parkway, the Parkway itself up to 221 just west of Blowing Rock, Highway 221 back to Grandfather, then the final spur road up Grandfather Mountain to the finish line. (Actually, once I get to the spur road I reset and consider each switchback a new leg and simply try and make it from one to the next.) I knew from experience that you want to hang with a group through the first two legs - it's faster and easier than if you get caught riding solo.

There's a wide spectrum in the experience of a 100 mile bike ride. On the rare days when all the cycling planets line up, you can feel like you have unlimited energy, you ride strong with a pack, and set a new personal record. At the other extreme, you can bonk or cramp, and if you finish at all, it's with considerable pain, suffering, and gnashing of teeth. I could tell almost immediately after the start that today was not going to be a new personal record type of day. I quickly concluded that I'd try and hang with a group until the climbing started, then simply ride from one sag stop to the next at a slow and sustainable pace. It wouldn't be fast, but it would still make for an enjoyable ride.

On the first leg of the ride you quickly recognize another unusual element. There are people lined up alongside the roads cheering you on. Not just friends and family of the riders, but actual spectators. In some cases you'll hear clapping and cheering, and look to see families sitting on their porches watching the cyclists ride by. It's wonderfully encouraging, and helps build a "You can do it!" type of confidence.

The group I was in was large but seemed well organized [photo]. From what I could tell, there were at least two or three larger groups ahead of us. We made the 52 miles to the base of 181 averaging 22.9 mph, which I felt was respectable. Meanwhile, David Racine was riding with the lead group, which included George Hincapie of the US Postal Team, he of US Pro and Tour de France fame. The lead group averaged an incredible 25.9 mph to the base, and didn't slow down that much from there! I found it also helps to be familiar with the route. At about mile 48 there's a turn and then a very steep but rather short climb. Two years ago a rider at the very front of the lead group dropped his chain toward the top of the climb. Everyone behind him suddenly stopped and, since most were caught in too big a gear, fell over. It was the darndest thing I had ever seen.

The climb up 181 is not all that steep, but it is plenty long. It typically takes me about 90 minutes to complete the climb, even on good days. After a stop and a stretch at the big sag stop at the start of the climb, I got back in the saddle, parked the derailleur in my lowest (38x28) gear, and started spinning my way up. The next sag stop, just a couple miles up, had a big poster of the cumulative elevation of the ride, with a big "You are here" arrow near the base of the slope. It was a sobering realization - no matter how tired you were, your work had just begun!

The climb up 181 usually takes its toll, either in time or pain. In years past I had been crippled by back pain, knee pain, or cramps by the time I reached the Parkway. This time I made it still in decent working order. I may not be going fast, but at least I was still enjoying the ride! Once on the parkway the grades are milder. Usually by this time the riders are so strung out that it's more difficult to form a group. That's not all that much of a problem, as drafting doesn't help you as much when you're climbing, anyway.

The scenery along the Parkway is beautiful and almost makes the ride worthwhile in and of itself. There are points where you can catch glimpses of Grandfather towering ahead of you, and get a sense of anticipation (dread?) of what awaits [photo]. Just beyond is the Linn Cove Viaduct [photo], and beyond that a screaming 5-mile descent. Ed and I had warned Stella about the need to bunny-hop over the steel plates as you cross the bridges on the descent. They have a noticeable lip and could easily cause a pinch flat if you hit them head-on at 40+ mph.

While I was riding mostly solo, I was stopping at each sag stop along the way. Consequently, I kept passing the same group of riders, which included Ed, rider number 15, some guy with a big stuffed pig on his helmet, and a number of women riders. The stretch on 221 is perhaps my most favorite road in the state, and the section up to the Avery County line had just been resurfaced. It's a wonderful, scenic route that include good downhills, climbs, and lots of hairpin turns [photo].

You hit the entrance to Grandfather already having ridden more than 100 miles. Now you have the real challenge of the ride. At this point I completely reset my mental calibration, and work to get from one tenth of a mile to the next. The first time I rode Bridge to Bridge in '91 I was in complete oxygen debt at this point and was stopping for many minutes at a time just to try and catch my breath. There were riders in similar predicaments today. One women was wondering out loud why it seemed so much harder than last year, and I suggested the heat may be making quite a difference. I worked my way from switch back to switch back, taking plenty of time so as to hold off cramps. Ed passed me at this point, completing the entire ride with only two stops.

I paused again at the base of the final climb [photo], and readied myself for the final stretch. There's no way you can climb this if you're cramping, and I really wanted to finish on my bike. As I worked my way toward the top I could hear Ed, David and others cheering me on. As the crowd at the top hears a name they pick up the cheer and collectively urge you on [photo]. My legs were screaming. I knew I was almost there, but it took every ounce of energy I had to get to the top. And once there - what relief! Shortly after I finished I saw two riders come across the finish line, throw down their bikes, and fall flat on their backs.

So does this sound like fun? It's not so much fun as it is satisfying. Bridge to Bridge is a difficult ride, and completing it is an accomplishment any cyclist should be proud of. Moreover, the organizers go to great lengths to make the ride an enjoyable event, even passing out "blankets" to keep the riders warm at the top of the mountain [photo].

At the top I discovered David Racine had finished in an incredible 5:08, fast enough to have placed first in some years. Ed finished in just under 7 hours and seemed visibly pleased to have beat me to the top by several minutes. Stella arrived sometime thereafter [photo] and was nothing less than ecstatic in finishing in 8:40. Ed and I recounted that our first mountain centuries were in the 9-10 hour range, and that Stella was doing phenomenally well for only having been cycling for 6 months.

So we all finished without any physical or mechanical problems - two of my indicators of a good ride [photo]. Like most the Bridge to Bridge riders, we're already looking forward to next year. Ed perhaps summed it up best, when he said afterwards (more or less), "With this route and this scenery, this support and all these great riders, I don't understand why everybody doesn't want to do this ride!" I agree.

Page maintained by David L. Cole and last revised on Friday, October 2, 1998.
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