By Mike DeLong
A string of funny and wierd things have happened to me since I was diagnosed with bladder cancer last fall. And judging from last week, the string is not yet over.
Prologue: The Atlanta 400km was held on April 28th. I am the local RBA and this is a new 400km course that I laid out this past winter. The course has 17,000 feet of climbing. We had 16 starters and 15 finishers. I wrote the following for our local email list and thought perhaps some of you will be entertained by it.
I sat down one evening and penned an email to Jennifer Wise wondering out loud whether an RBA who has ridden a 200, 300, & 600 might be allowed enter BMB. Before I pressed the "SEND" button, I thought of Scott and Melinda Dura. Last year Scott fell and broke his clavicle on our 200km. When he approached Jennifer about qualifying for BMB, she was adamant that he must ride all of the qualifying brevets. I don't know how Jennifer would have responded to my request, but there's no way I could ask for special treatment knowing of Scott's experience. So I downloaded the Spartanburg 400km entry form and filled it out, stuck it in a stamped envelope and took it with me when I went out to shop for groceries but for some reason I skipped mailing it with the intention of mailing it the next morning. Then on Thursday morning I woke up to a phone message and email from, of all people, Scott and Melinda volunteering to sag the 400km if I'd ride it. I guess the timing of these events is just coinci- dence but I knew darn well that I better ride Saturday's 400km.
Mike Rachelson and I test rode the first 100 miles the Saturday prior to the brevet. Golly it was tough. I don't know whether I'm just much weaker than I was before my surgery or if the course is that tough. Then I rode the outer 57 miles which included both ascents of Deep Gap. What a difficult day that was, riding just 57 miles of a 257 mile course.
Penny claims everyone looked nervous at the start. I know I was extremely fearful for I knew what was ahead and I had serious doubts about what my body could handle. Though I've not needed one for months, I packed a catheter and a small tube of K-Y jelly. I had to prepare for the worst. The pace was pretty quick for the first 25 miles, much quicker than what Mike and I rode the previous Saturday. I didn't want to back off too much because just barely finishing the 400km would not be the satisfaction I needed. I needed to ride a strong 400km.
Still as we moved into the steep hills and up Burnt Mountain I used my lowest gears. The goal all day was to preserve my legs for the return trip back over Burnt Mtn. I left the previous Control with Andy Akard but we got separated climbing BM. We paired up again leaving the Yukon store. Andy is such a smooth pedaller and he was opening small gaps on me over the hills in this section. But the hills got steeper after Cartequay and my lighter body weight was an advantage. We separated for good. I was on my own. However as I arrived at the Deep Gap control I found Alan and Bill. They are laid-back, friendly guys and encouraged me to head back out with them. Easier said than done, by the time we'd descended Deep Gap they were almost out of sight.
The outer loop was the most difficult for me. I was in a lightweight long-sleeved jersey and suffered in the mid-afternoon heat. I went into a store to make one of my long pit stops. When I exit the bathroom there's Bill filling his Camelbak with some free ice donated by the proprietor. Bill then explains about his accidental side trip to the Lake Blue Ridge Marina. I still can't figure out how he made such an error. I don't know if it was the cold Coke I drank at the store or Bill's company but I perked up considerably for the trip over Skeenah Gap and up highway 60. I laugh thinking that Alan may be chasing down his friend who is actually trailing him.
We come upon Alan waiting at the Morganton store. I left the store before them knowing I'm the weakest of the three and that they'll probably catch me before the 150 mile control. Sure enough Alan comes flying by me again a couple of miles before the control however Bill is beginning to lose ground on the climbs. Scott & Melinda probably don't realize how we randonneurs were dreaming of seeing them miles before we ever arrived at their control. I dismounted my bike and Scott points out that my left pedal is lying on the ground. It has become unscrewed from the axle. My first reaction is that I'm out of the brevet, with a bit a relief. That's how tough a randonneur I am. However there are no bearings scattered in the dirt so I simply screw the pedal back onto the axle.
At the control Melinda advises us to pair up for the night riding and the friendly twosome from Tennes- see have no problem with me joining their party. I did enjoy the downhill out of the Deep Gap control but when I checked my pedal after a few miles I notice that it's loosening up. Bill's slower climbing allows me to stop occasionally to tighten my pedal without slowing our train. Alan is continuing to blister the hills. He climbs over hills like he's eating potato chips - what a strong cyclist. The sun is beginning to set as we ride and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. I know that the cooler temperatures are going to help me out.
Mike R. drives up while we're resting at the Cartequay store. I know that he'll be able to fix my pedal. He's fixed my bike on several occasions in the past. The guy only needs a paper clip and a zip tie to fix anything. Nightime arrives while we're at the store so we leave with our lights on. I'm using my new Schmidt hub paired with a lithium-powered Cateye HL1500 helmet light. I OWN the road. What a great combination. I sometimes light the road from the back of our pace line just to impress the guys.
As we reach the base of Burnt Mountain we see some taillights starting up the mountain. We take a short break and begin our own climb. Climbing Burnt Mountain in the dark, particularly on the milder grades was pure pleasure. Hardly any traffic. I watch Alan's taillight eventually totally disappear up the road. Bill is somewhere behind me. I keep rolling and later to my surprise come upon Alan stopped in the turnout. The climb has gotten plenty steep and not knowing where the summit is, he's pulled over to regroup. I know that I must be close, so I keep climbing, out of the saddle. This is the first chink in Alan's armor that I've seen all day. I reach a lit driveway after the summit and pull over to wait. Alan's not far back. We sit and wait. A brisk breeze is cooling us off and I'm reminded of my old backpacking days, spending the night on top of a mountain. We mount our bikes for the descent. I move to the rear because I know I'm a slow descender. What fun. This surpasses the ascent as we go winding down this smooth pavement at high speed. The string of taillights before me is surreal and this normally skittish downhiller is having the time of his life.
Once we hit the hills I move up to Alan' shoulder and then pass him to lead. Alan's NEVER let me lead up a hill all day. I don't "race" but I keep the pace up, all the way up to the top of the Big Canoe hill. Just as we crest the hill a cyclist moves up on my left and I naturely assume that only Alan's stayed with me. Guess again. Jay moves easily past me and leads Ian, Alan and me rest of the way into the control.
It's great to see Mike R. at the last control and to "regroup" though too many Cokes or something has my stomach "threatening". Lee and Mitch roll in later and it's my guess that Lee's going to bail. Not only that but Scott & Melinda drive up in a second sag wagon while we're there. Lee can catch a direct flight home to the Kroger's if he wishes. I don't know what thoughts went thru Lee's head but he decided to tough it out. Perhaps the best story of the weekend - here's to you, Lee. It's easy to ride these things when you feel good. It takes alot of pride and stubbornness to finish them when you don't.
I leave the last control with Alan, Bill, Ian and Jay. Jay starts pushing the pace right from the start. I figure that he's a little hyped and will settle down after a while. As I go off the back, I realize that I figured wrong. Bill gets dropped next and then Alan comes back to us. Jay and Ian's lights begin to disappear up the road. We still had slight glimpse of them as we pulled off. We sit for a short period but I can't stay since I feel worse off the bike than on. Bill and Alan are agreeable to heading on.
The last 15-20 miles were non-descript. My body had become so accustomed to climbing that the flatter miles were almost disappointing. Completing this 400km in my mind marks my total recovery from cancer surgery. It's very satifying and my confidence has received a tremendous boost. Oh yes it was a tough course but finishing anything less wouldn't have meant the same to me. Thank you volunteers: Scott, Melinda, Mike and Bill for giving me this opportunity.
As for the course, I've ridden so many tough Spartanburg courses and BMB that this one didn't seem much different. I realized going into to it that I had to gear down and ride every hill like it was a mountain. I rode conservatively all day until the 2nd ascent of Burnt Mtn and finshed feeling no worse than after any other 400km. Riders from BMB and the Boston Series 600km last year returned talking about how steep the climbs were. Well you're not going to see anything steeper than was on our 400km route.
I hope all the finishers realize what great rides they had. As John Bryan was fond of saying of the Spartanburg brevets, if you can finish these brevets then you can finish BMB!