Six Gap Success

9:20 Total Time, Short of the Sub 9:00 Goal but a Personal Record Nonetheless

2014-Six-Gap-JWT-top-of-Hogpen-by-FelixThe last few years I have put the Six Gap Century ride in Dahlonega, GA on the top of my “to-do” list for cycling rides.

It is at the same time the most satisfying and most stressful ride to complete.

This year was my fourth trip to Dahlonega to attempt this ride. That’s right, “attempt.” Finishing is not a given on a challenging ride like this. The ride crosses several mountain passes (“gaps”) on it’s way through the north Georgia spur of the Appalachian Mountain range. The passes in order are: Stonepile Gap, Neel’s Gap, Jack’s Gap, Unicoi Gap, Hogpen Gap, Wolfpen Gap and Woody Gap. If you counted there you might have noticed there are actually seven gaps, although Stonepile is not considered as challenging as the other six.

I mentioned this was my fourth attempt. In 2011 I had just gotten back to cycling and was not realistically thinking of doing the entire ride anyway. There is a Three Gap option which fitted better in to my training level at that time.

In 2012 I was at my lowest weight in recent years (around 215) and completed the ride without mishap, although I considered my 9 hours and 28 minutes total time to be very slow. I spent over an hour in the rest stops (“SAGs”) recovering from the long, fairly steep climbs.

2013 I was doing OK when I had a spoke break at mile 70. I limped along for 7 miles but there was no way I would be able to manage one of those long descents, so I abandoned the ride and got picked up by a support vehicle.

This year I had done a little more training and had taken off a few pounds, so I felt nervous, but confident I could finish the ride, and aimed to do so in less than 9 hours. I also had a new road bike with disc brakes, which would take a lot of the stress out of the steep, curvy (technical) descents.

I was pleased to travel to and from the event with Carter Lane, another East Orlando cyclist. We got along very well and it reduced the stress quite a bit to have someone to share driving, lodging and meals with. Thank you Carter, it was very easy to travel with you.

The Course and Venue

The ride is put on by the Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce. It starts and ends in the parking lot of the county high school, just outside the village of Dahlonega, GA. It’s approximately 104 miles in length, and advertises 11,280 feet of vertical ascent over the mountains. The weather is usually brisk, in the 50s in the morning and up to high 70s mid afternoon. Most of the roads are in pretty good shape but there are no bike lanes on the course, so you are sharing the road with Georgia “country gentlemen” in F-150 pick up trucks with loud horns and bad attitudes. Gets a little scary at times.

Parking is a problem. The event is so well attended that the High School parking lot is not sufficient. Combine this with “reserved spaces for dignitaries”, such as the Lt. Governor, there is a lot of overflow. We were sent out in to the field behind the school which was a minor inconvenience.

This Year’s Weather

There was no rain forecast for the course until well after 5pm. Initial temperatures were low 60s. Start temperature was 61 degrees. Expected high was 73 degrees. My Garmin shows a high temperature was reached of 84 degrees at 1:45 pm, near Wolfpen Gap.

The “Event”

For insurance purposes this is called a “timed event” and not a race. Seems fair enough as there are no awards for finishing first, although there are two “King of the Mountain” (KOM) contests for the climbs, one on Hogpen and one on Wolfpen.

The horn went off at 7:30 and the 2200+ riders began filing through the narrow starting gate, to cross the sensors and trigger the transponder timing. I crossed the line at 7:37 am, well in the back. May not have been the best move, as I was blocked several times on early descents by slower riders riding three or four abreast on the road, even after having been told at the start to ride single file if possible. Oh well, nothing to be done about that.

After maneuvering through traffic we started to climb Stonepile Gap, which is relatively short by Georgia standards but a mile and a half climb at 7% is no picnic for a Florida Flatlander. I managed to maintain 6 to 7 mph going up it. The descent after was nice, in the mid 30 mph range.

I skipped the Turner’s Crossing rest stop and proceeded straight to Neel’s Gap. This is a fairly long climb, a total of 9 miles but the steady climb part is the last 4 miles, averaging just under 7%. It’s not the steepest climb but it does wear away resolve. I passed Turner’s at 8:45 am and didn’t pass the top of Neel’s until 9:45 am. Not sure why it took me that long, I have done that segment in 45 minutes before. I certainly didn’t feel like I was dogging it. Still, it gave me plenty of time to make the first cutoff time: Bottom of Neel’s descent by 10:30.

My legs were slightly rubbery as I climbed up the next one, Jack’s Gap. It starts out slowly and increases to 10% at the end. This is the first of the “hard” climbs. This is also the next cutoff time: Top of Jack’s by 11 am. I pulled in at 10:45. It was good to see Ched Wells pull in right after me on his mountain bike. He truly is a cycling star.

I took a break at Jack’s to eat some food and relieve my bladder. Back out on to the road I went, intending to make my next stop at the top of Hogpen. I climbed Unicoi, rode past the rest stop, since that climb felt a little better on my legs than Jack’s.

I turned on to the Hogpen climb. It is by far the worst climb of the ride. It is long, almost 7 miles, and steep, reaching 15% during a 2 mile mid section that is just really, really hard. I was unable to make it up the hill without walking, and I stopped at the mid-point rest stop to refill water bottles. Most experts say to skip that stop and finish the climb. I walked one more time and made it to the top around 1:30pm. I had been hoping to be there by 1. So I was behind on my goal, which was to finish the entire ride in under 9 hours.

However, the hard part was over. The most stressful part of the ride for me by far, was the Hogpen climb. I had been fretting over it for months. Now it was time to finish the ride. The descent was the best I’ve had yet, and I credit all to having disc brakes. They made the descent so much more controllable.

I was tired when I reached Wolfpen Gap but I plodded ahead and managed to climb the entire thing without stopping. I rode past the rest stop and continued on to Woody Gap.

I reached there around 4:05pm, which worried me. I definitely wanted to finish before 5 pm, which would still be a PR for me. I kept the stop fairly short and took off down the descent. The last 16.5 miles are mostly downhill, but there are some steep climb sections which would ruin my over the ground average speed.

I left the rest stop at 4:08 and made it to the high school right at 4:58. That’s 50 minutes for 16.5 miles. Almost 20 mph average, which I was happy with. And, to settle a dare from my friend and running coach Brock Brinkerhoff, I went out and ran a mile and a half after putting my bike away. It was painful but I did it.

It wasn’t a goal setting ride, but it was my fastest Six Gap yet. I have to count it a success.

The Training Peaks analysis of my Six Gap ride

The Training Peaks analysis of my Six Gap ride

FAIL. Lesson Learned (again).

John Tenney at Blue Ridge BreakawayOn Saturday August 16th I rode in the Blue Ridge Breakaway (hereafter referred to as “BRB”), a 105.7 mile ride through the Blue Ridge Mountains with over 10,000 feet of vertical elevation change.

I did not have a great event. In fact you could say it was an EPIC FAIL. And it was my own fault for making mistakes I knew better not to make.

It all started when I found out on Thursday, that the event was Saturday (and not Sunday like I believed.) I noticed my friends posting on Facebook that they were on their way to Waynesville, NC. “Why are they leaving today?” I thought. “I’m leaving tomorrow so I can relax Saturday and have a good ride Sunday.” When I checked the BRB website and discovered my error.

Quickly I began packing up the van. I called the hotel and they were very nice and said yes, you can come in a day early and we won’t charge you for an extra day if you leave Sunday. That was nice. Still, I didn’t get out of the house and on the road till 3:30 in the afternoon.

So that leads to:
Lesson One: Get the Proper Event Information and Scheduling.

Holiday Inn Express Orangeburg, SCAround 11:30 pm I was only 400 miles in to a 610 mile drive. I decided to stop at the Holiday Inn Express in Orangeburg, SC for the night (a very nice place by the way and not too expensive) and get some sleep. This was actually a good move.

The next morning I went to the breakfast lobby and had some coffee and some “prefab pancakes.” Not the most nutritious meal but I wanted to get on the road. I got going and had to stop almost immediately at a rest stop to “vent some coffee.”

Oak-Park-InnI didn’t get to the Oak Park Inn (another very nice place) in Waynesville until noon. All I had eaten in the last 24 hours was a Subway BMT sub, some pancakes and a food bar. I was frazzled and stressed so I did not go right out to eat but laid down for a short nap. Around 3pm I got up and rode my bike up to the venue, hoping to pick up my packet and possibly stop for some food on the way home.

I was two hours early for registration. I took a ride around the lake (very pretty) but that only killed about 45 minutes.

The volunteers were very nice but they didn’t have the timing chips yet, could I wait till 5? So I stayed around and helped them set up, move chairs, carry boxes, etc. All in all not a bad thing to do but I still had not eaten. I rode back to the hotel and got my van so I could eat with “the gang.”

Well, “the gang” I was hoping to ride with were all staying at a cabin, and had already made plans for dinner. When I left registration at 6pm I was quite hungry but did not relish going in to a restaurant in a strange, country town by myself to eat dinner alone (hear those banjos?) so I went to a Hardees and picked up a fast food meal. Which leads to:
Lesson Two: Don’t Travel to Major Events Alone.
I need the peer pressure from a “travel buddy” to make me eat correctly. Fast food and a couple of food bars is not enough nutrition the day before a very challenging 106 mile mountain ride.

The next morning I was up sufficiently early to wolf down some pop-tarts, drink a bottle of water and wait for nature to take its course. Cyclists understand that you want to get all your “business” done before starting a hundred mile ride. Fortunately for me, my digestive system agreed with me and all was well.

At the event they were offering donuts, pastries and coffee. I took half a cup of coffee. I have no idea why I didn’t eat at least one donut or a pastry. I certainly did not have enough carbs in my system to fuel me for the whole ride.

Still, the first 30 miles or so I felt great. I was riding fast, climbing well, and the disc brakes on my new bike (Giant Defy Advanced 1) really made the descents enjoyable. I felt so good I skipped the first two SAG stops, which leads to:
Lesson Three: Don’t Make A Problem Worse By Ignoring It.
I should have stopped and at least grabbed some cookies, peanuts, bananas, or something.

At mile 42 I stopped because I realized I was having a problem. I wasn’t flying up the hills anymore. I was getting shaky. I still didn’t feel hungry but I should know by now I can’t trust that feeling. I stopped and ate some peanuts. Then one of my buddies came in and left quickly. I didn’t want him to get too far ahead so I hurried up and followed him. Which is mistake #4:
Lesson Four: Don’t Race Other People, Race the Course
The right thing to do would have been to stay and eat something. Instead I was determined to “be that guy” who was going to perform. Another rookie move.

I got to the mile 52 SAG and saw a lot of contemporaries relaxing, eating, drinking, etc. I only needed a little water (or so I thought), grabbed a cookie and got back on my bike. Big Mistake. Big. HUGE. What I had failed to do was study the course. If I had, I would have realized that the next 13 or so miles were all uphill at an average gradient of 7 – 8%. This was “the stop before the big one.” Not a good time to skip a rest and recovery period.
Lesson Five: Know The Course!
The first three or four miles were fine. I was just riding along, saying to myself “wow this is a long hill” and it finally came to me, this is the big one.

It was very beautiful. I enjoyed the view. What I did not enjoy was how my body was running out of gas. I was bonking. I had depleted my reserves and my body had switched to fat burning mode. In this mode it is impossible for me to climb up a 7 to 8% grade. I started shaking. I had to stop and rest. People started riding by me. I knew the next stop was at mile 63, some 5 or 6 miles ahead, and they were all uphill. I started walking. This was really the end of my ride, as the next 30 miles I finished were just survival.

I made it to the Blue Ridge Parkway rest stop and guess what, they were out of water and almost out of food. It had taken me two hours to get to the top of that hill and I was at the tail end of field now. Everybody had gone by.

The smart thing to do would have been to wait for supplies. I didn’t. I followed one of my contemporaries out (see lesson four), thinking that I only had a little climb left (wrong. Had a big one left, see lesson five.)

I was looking forward to the infamous tunnel, since I had my trusty USB light mounted on my bike. Hah. At mile 80 I went in to a hole in the side of the mountain that was pitch black, and no dinky little 25 lumen light is going to help me. Next time I will bring a BIGGER light.
Lesson Six: Bring the Right Equipment
I made it through the tunnel without dying but it was mortifying. Well, see the video below. Realize also that the Go Pro adapts to lower light much quicker than my eyes. I never saw the reflectors or the white line to the right. If it weren’t for the car coming the other way I probably would have smashed in to the wall.

I made it to mile 85, halfway up the last big hill (7 mile climb at 8%) when I had to be sagged in, because I would not make the requirement of being off the Blue Ridge Parkway before 5pm. It was frustrating, knowing that I was only 3 miles from a 17 mile descent to the finish, but rules are rules, and I wasn’t going to argue with the BRB staff. I endured the embarrassment of being sagged off the course, and lived, so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

I suppose there is a lesson seven in all this too, since I don’t want to end with six. That would be to plan my trips better, and further in advance. I am working with my coach (who was NOT part of my BRB planning – another mistake) now to get ready for the next mountain ride: Six Gap, a 100 mile ride in Dahlonega, GA which traverses six mountain passes (gaps) on September 28th.

Pray for me.