The timer reached zero, and after a few seconds we were off. The pace was strong, but overall solid. The first hour was rather uneventful, as the terrain was relatively flat and the groups remained pretty calm. The fog created a little bit of an issue, as everyone had to figure out how to adjust to the moisture. I had to remove my glasses, as the condensation made it hard to see. Several folks were fighting with the condensation actually dripping into their faces off the front of their helmets as well.
After about 75 minutes, a large peleton had formed on the road, enveloping the smaller group that I was in. This group reportedly had somewhere around 400 riders in it. The danger of a group this large is that it ends up having a mind of it's own, and you end up having a large amount of speed changes. These speed changes can drain you of energy unless you can absorb them. I ended up at the front more often than I wanted, as I knew that taking turns pulling would take a lot of energy that I needed to save for the climb to the summit. I did attempt to pull a few times, as I wanted to do my part if I ended up there. My wife had kept our two younger girls out of school today, and the goal was for them to drive to the spectator spots and try to view me riding through. As we reached the first of the spectator spots, I didn't notice my family as we rode through. I figured that we had just missed the timing.
The first real challenge of the ride was going to come near the 45 mile mark, as we got near to the climb called Bill's Hill. This is where I expected any group that I was in to break up, and I'd have to be careful about finding a good pace to keep going. There is a slight climb, then a descent, before heading into Bill's Hill. Once we reached the climb it was obvious that the massive group that we had been in was going to break up. Many folks decided to make a stop at either of the rest areas around Bill's Hill prior to making it into Marion. I had mentally decided that I didn't want to stop until at least the campgrounds in Marion, much to my own detriment as I learned later int he ride. I managed to stay with various folks until around Marion. When I got to the Campgrounds I had decided to stop to say hi to the wife and kids if I saw them, but I didn't feel like I really needed to stop. I was still riding strong, had water in my bottles and food in my packs. I didn't see them again, so I kept on riding. Looking back on it I wish I had stopped for 5 minutes, as we probably would have met up and the rest would have done me a lot of good.
I pushed on towards the Blue Ridge, knowing that there was a good place to stop and rest before the real climb on Highway 80 kicked up. On the way I witnessed someone working with a personal SAG vehicle. We were warned to not have people following us, and just watching this interaction really showed how dangerous it could be on this ride. This rider put himself, me, every other rider in the field, and other drivers on the road at risk just for the sake of having snacks when he wanted them without stopping. I wanted a good time on this ride, but not at that cost. I took a moment to mention that if the ride officials saw him that his day would be ended prematurely, and left it at that. My next stop was the rest area.
After getting a rest, I moved on to the top of Highway 80. I have read that this area isknown as Devil's Whip, named for how dangerous this area is to navigate. There is a photographer up here that takes photos of the cars and cyclists as they ride by. This section really put me to the test. As I reached it, most of my resolve started to wane. My foot started to really ache, and I was completely drained of energy. As I look back I wonder if I had taken more breaks and made sure that I was properly fueled and rested that I would have felt a little better after this section. I struggled to the top, and took a break at the rest area. By break I mean I got off the bike, laid down on the grass, took off my right shoe, and admired the view for a while. I had gotten my shoe too tight, and didn't recognize the symptoms until way too late. My foot ached as I let it rest, along with letting my heart rate drop.
Once I felt strong enough to try to keep going, I got back on the bike and started to ride on the Parkway. This is one of my favorite stretches of road, as the views are incredible. Even with the wonderful views, at this point every mile felt like it took an hour, and it was a struggle to just keep my pedals moving. I started to take rests at the overlooks to keep my heart under control. I was determined to finish, so I just kept taking it one step at a time. I got to the rest area on the Parkway, and took some extra time to just rest. This particular stop has a view of Mitchell, and I could seethat the summit was still covered in clouds. The forecast had called for a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon, and I had worried about having to finish in the rain. At this point it looked like that could be a real possibility.
After the rest stop there is a wonderful downhill section that lasts for a few miles that felt incredible, giving me a bit more energy. From there I struggled the next few miles to the water stop at the turn off of the parkway towards Mitchell, and got off the bike again to let my foot (and the rest of me) relax. At this point I had wished that I had taken a bio break a the previous rest stop. It was only 3 miles at this point to the entrance to the park, and I figured I could take another full break there. I ended up having to stop at each of the pull over areas again to catch my breath. At this point there started to be a cool breeze pushing me forward. I thanked God for the encouragement, and I worked my way slowly up to the top. I knew the 8 hour mark was out of reach but my main goal was finishing, not getting any particular time.
I reached the entrance to the park, and took another good break. I used the facilities,
After I made it through the chute, I handed off my bike and got my patch. I was instructed up the stairs where my dry bag waited. I got some tomato soup and took off my cycling shoes, finding a cool spot to sit. After a few minutes my wife and girls found me, and we celebrated the end of the ride. I put on some street clothes, and we made it to the bus back to Marion. At the bottom we got some BBQ to eat, and I reclaimed my bike.
I have a lot of take aways from this adventure, most of them in how I need to prepare for events like this. My personality is such that once I get on the bike, stopping is a challenge. I did better with eating and drinking than I had in other long events, but I think I can do better. I have no doubt that I will want a rematch on the course at some point, as I think I can improve as I get stronger on the bike. I hope that when I tackle it again I can enjoy it more and spend more time riding with friends along the route.