Well doesn’t every story I write start like this, “how in the heck did I let myself get talked into this”. Once again, it sounded good months before the event, but as soon as I got out there on the course I wasn’t so sure I made the right decision. So this is how the story goes, my friends John and Mike rode the 3 States 3 Mountains Century last year and they enjoyed it so much, that John talked me into doing it. I mean it was the same weekend as the Vino Fondo and I hate the hills in the Fondo, so why not try something as easy as riding up 3 mountains instead. Yep, so I was in, I tried my hardest to get my teammate Chuck to join, but he had some kind of family excuse, I think he may have been thinking I was crazy and just found a way out before he was sucked into the vortex with me.
The group from Edwardsville was John, Mike, Shawn and myself, we carpooled to Chattanooga and we met Sal and Grant, who came from Chicago, there. The trip was pretty uneventful, but the entire way there I was wondering how I would ever be able to ride up 3 mountains. As we discussed the difficultly of the terrain, I found out that it’s not just 3 mountains, it’s more like 13. See the mountains were Class 2 and Class 3 mountains, but there were an additional 10 class 5 climbs. Oh so now I was really worried, there was no way on earth, I could do this. After hearing the troubling news about the climbs I just decided it was too late to turn back, so I was going to make the best of it. Once in Chattanooga, we checked into the hotel then picked up our packet and shirt at race headquarters. I also ran into Dan a friend from Edwardsville that I ride with most Saturdays, he is a great rider and even better climber, which just meant there was one more guy for me to chase. We headed out for some pasta, John and Mike had a beer, which come to find out may have been the secret to a perfect ride. More on that later.
Everyone got up early on Saturday and went to the restaurant in the hotel for breakfast, except me, I slept late and when I got up, I ate Teaddy Grahams and juice that I had in my cooler for breakfast. We put on some sunscreen and loaded our pockets with all the necessities, like food, phone, camera, chapstick, then headed for the starting line, it was only a 3 block ride from the hotel. As we were riding up to the start, I see a guy in a St Louis Cycling Club kit, oh and I know him, it was Wayne, I ride up to him to say hi.
As we are chatting, we notice that Wayne has 32 gearing on his bike, I glance down, I’m riding 25, so now I’m really thinking I’m in trouble, I mean, he is a much stronger rider than I am and he is riding a 32, everyone else in the group is riding a 28 except for myself and Sal, we both have 25’s. At this point I was starting to feel sick, but again, it was way too late to back out.
As I looked toward the starting line there were bikes as far as I could see and looking back there was double the amount of bikes that were in front of me. If you have done the Tour de Donut, think the Donut starting like times 2. The gun went off and we rolled out, at least it wasn’t the mad dash start that you get at the donut, it was an easy roll out onto the road. John was upfront and the rest of us were hanging back keeping an eye on him. I was really working not to take off too fast. It was only about 2 miles into the ride and we started to hit the climbs, my legs need way more than two miles to warm up, so this was not good.
I quickly fell off the pace and people were passing me like crazy, even a guy on a single speed mountain bike passed me. I was now really starting to feel like I had made a mistake taking this ride on. A guy rode up next to me and asked how I was doing, I lied and said, “I’m good”, he chatted with me for a long time then let me ride his wheel, after some miles of climbing I asked him when we would hit the first mountain, which was Aenta Mountain, he said, “oh, you just did it, we are on top now”. Oh I felt so much better, I had done a class 3 mountain and survived, all the while I was thinking it was a class 5 climb and if it was a class 5, I would never be able to do a Class 3. I came around a corner heading for the decent, ahead of me I could see rain and there on the side of the road was Mike taking a picture, I know I looked like death, I tried to smile, but it was a hard task. Mike jumped on his bike and we started the decent on some really narrow winding roads every turn had an emergency vehicle stationed on it, which scared me, because that meant it must be dangerous. The thunderstorm hit as we were descending, it was raining so hard I could hardly see, I had my brakes on as tight as I could pull the levers and I wasn’t slowing down. I was really worried as we came up on a truck moving very slow down the mountain and at one point, I was sure I was going to run right into the back of it. Lucky for me we hit the bottom of the mountain and the truck accelerated just in time. Oh and as I looked up there, just in front of me was the first rest stop of the day. We were soaking wet, I took off my glasses and to let them un-fog and dry.
We got the group back together at the rest area and I told everyone to leave me if I fell off the back, but you know these guys they have to go and be real friends and refuse to do that. Sal’s friend Grant had it right, before we even started we knew that he planned to enjoy himself and that he was in no hurry to finish so he hung back the entire day and had fun, spending time stopping to take photos and not worrying about hanging with the group. I think I should have planned to hang with Grant. Heading to the second Cat 3 mountain, the weather was still looking ominous, but although it looked like we were riding into a storm, Mike was in good spirits, snapping pictures, I’m thinking he was just trying to get a good photo of me to use at my funeral, you know the last hours before my death.
We hit the second mountain, Sand Mountain, at about the 27 mile mark, I think it was also about the same time that we crossed over into Alabama. Sand Mountain was shorter than Aetna, but it was a much steeper grade, hanging at about 8-10%. The good thing was, my legs were now warmed up and the 2.5 mile climb didn’t seem that bad. Once again Mike was hanging out taking photos of us as we climbed the mountain.
At the top we checked out the scenic overlook, it was crazy how high we were, when I looked down and realized how far I had climbed, I think my cheeks puffed out like a rooster and I was strutting around feeling like the king of the hill. It might have come too soon though, there was still that one Cat 2 climb coming, but for just those few minutes, I really thought I was the Mountain Princess.
Just before we headed out, John went to the edge of the woods, I think he might have been checking for poison ivy or something, I took a photo, but since he said I better not, I won’t put it in this post. See John, I do take direction well, sometimes. We saw Grant crest the top of the mountain and pointed him to the overlook. Now we rode on with many miles of rolling cat 5 climbs before we would get to Lookout Mountain, the hardest climb of the day. Mike kept telling me, once you get over Lookout mountain, it’s all downhill for the next 10 miles right to the finish line, so I made that my happy thought for the day. We grinded through the rolling climbs, riding up on Dan who we ran into at check-in, from that time on, we would trade places with Dan many times before the end of the century.
Sal and I were together a lot during the 40 or so miles on the top of the ridge and we always went into the climbs together, but he would always end up stomping me on the climb.
No matter how fast we made it to the top of the climb as soon as we headed downhill, Shawn was running us down, she bombed the down hills, I’m really not sure how she is still alive, I was riding my brakes and she didn’t seem to ever use her brakes, let’s just say she is much braver than I.
At the next rest stop we loaded up on food and sports drink and chatted with Dan and the group he was riding with. It seemed that our groups were on the same pace. I guess that is about the norm though, since Dan, Mike and I ride together almost every Saturday, for most of the year.
We were back on the road following our fearless leader, that’s John, it was a long ride about 30 miles to the next rest area, by the time we got there I felt like a piece of toast, the storm had passed and the sun was out, Sal’s computer said it was 92 degrees, I’m sure it was accurate. I found some sunscreen at the rest area and both Mike and I used it. The last thing I wanted was to have a sunburn on top of being dead tired when we finished. As we pulled out of the rest area, Mike and John discussed how far it was to the next mountain, we rolled through a couple climbs and then hit a really big decent, at the same point our 100 mile ride met with the metric century group, so it was really getting crowded with riders. I think we descended about 4 miles when we came to the turn for the century course. That is where things got hairy, the 90 mile riders went straight, while the century riders turned right. Everyone was rolling at top speed and trying to navigate the turn while not cutting anyone off. John and I both had to do some maneuvering to make that turn without ending up in a crash, but we both made it through unscathed. If I had to bring John’s lifeless body home, Peggy would kill me, and if John had to bring my lifeless body home, Peggy would kill him, therefore we needed to make that a clean and uneventful turn. Soon we arrived at the final rest stop at the bottom of Lookout Mountain, a Cat 2 climb lasting nearly 3 miles.
There was a sprinkler running at the rest stop and I stood under it for a while, then I grabbed some food and stood in line with the gang for water. Well most of us were getting water, John was pouring his water on his head and leaving only a small sip of water in his bottle, he was carrying as little as possible up the mountain. Mike offered to carry his shirt and John got this look on his face, like good idea, but then after a minute he finally said “no, I will wear it up”. We headed up the mountain, Mike was leading, then John, then Sal, then Shawn, then me. I was riding, but slowly, it was an 18% grade at the top with a little less of a grade lower, but not much. As I rode up, I thought that the people walking their bikes were moving faster than I was, but I soon started to pass them. I saw Shawn on the side of the road and she cheered me on, every person I passed cheered me on, and believe me I appreciated it. I had lost sight of the guys, but then I looked up and saw Sal, he was walking, and just as I thought I might catch him, I looked up again and he was back on his bike. I kept riding, but at about 200 meters from the top with the finish banner in sight, I got a cramp in my quad, at that point it was either get off the bike or fall over. I hopped off the bike, but once I worked the cramp out, I couldn’t get started again, I needed a push, but there was no one around to give me one. So I walked up, thinking “I really wanted to make it to the top”. This is the point where if I would have had that 28 gearing instead of 25, I might have made it. The same thing goes for Sal, he was also riding 25. At the top, the guys were cheering me in and really after looking at my climb time, I still finished in the top 25% of the women for the climb, so it wasn’t so awful.
Of course Mike and John both killed it, with Mike finishing 18th out of all the men on the climb, which is pretty darn amazing. My hat is off to John, he rocked the climb and flew under the finish banner, I should have followed his instructions. First, drink a beer the night before, second, carry as little as possible on the climb, if that means giving Mike my shirt, so be it.
Sal had a very good hill time also and the fact that he was able to remount his bike on that climb and get going is incredible, I wish I could have done that. Sal and I are definitely considering changing our gearing to a 28. Next in was Shawn, oh my gosh, her face was so red, I was a little concerned, but after some water she was ready to go. This is where we were all happy, because Mike had told us multiple times that it was all downhill after the Lookout mountain climb. Ok, this is the point where Mike was being silently cursed. As we headed for the finish, with only about 13 miles to go, we rode up a climb and then another climb and another, all of these climbs were very tough, probably tougher than any of the other cat 5 climbs we had done all day. At one point I just yelled “you have got to be kidding me”, I was ready to start cursing out loud, but since as a child I would get my mouth washed out with dish soap when we cursed, I still have an issue with cursing out loud. In my head though, I was cursing up a storm, “sorry mom”. Finally with about 5 miles to go, it was downhill and a crazy fast zig zagging downhill, right into town where we rode 2 miles of flat road into the finish. The whole group finished within a couple minutes of each other, then we all lay on the ground trying to recover enough to get up go find food.
The problem was by the time we got to the food it was all gone, so the guys had a few beers, while Shawn and I drank a soda. We were actually in pretty good spirits for as tired as we were.
Grant made it to the finish, smiling, he had a great time and took tons of pictures, plus, get this, he and a guy he was riding with had a police escort through the finish line, with sirens and all. I’m jealous, I want one of those. So I know you are wondering, since John talked me into this, are we still friends, absolutely!
AND…… Will I do this again, “you better believe it”, it ranked up there in my top 3 most beautiful places I have ever cycled in. The volunteers and ride support was the best I have ever seen. Plus, I have to come back with a 28th gear and beat Lookout mountain, I was so close, I know I can do it. Oh and one last thing, how do you celebrate riding up 3 mountains in 3 states in one day, especially when it is on Cinco de Mayo, like this:
Use your imagination as to what was in this glass. Thanks to Peggy for the cool keepsake.