It was brisk when we woke up on Saturday. Some were stirring quicker than others. I debated several times on what to wear for the ride. I knew it would warm up throughout the day but presently it was in the high 30’s. I decided on the full gamut – arm skins, leg skins, a skullcap plus a sleeveless compression shirt base layer. I did leave the lobster claw gloves behind.
The seven of us headed out. Most were in good spirits, Raland was under the weather. Later this would prove to be food poisoning or some such aliment. It was to last for several days.
We headed out towards the mountain. It was a measured pace, not blisteringly fast. A minor wind blew against us and I was glad that I was fully dressed. This year I was amazed at how quick we arrived at shin bone. This is a gas station about 10 miles out from Lineville. We stopped to hit the facilities and I grabbed some fuel. Knowing that the ride would consist of climbs, I jettisoned most of my usual provisions pre-ride; I did not want to carry them up the mountain. I did keep a few gels; just in case, but the normal amount of gear (I tend to pack too much) was left behind.
Straight out of Shin Bone, the first climb comes quickly. If fact I would wager that, this short climb is the steepest of the trip. My memory of the last time immediately flashed in front of my eyes. You just had to power up it without using too many matches. This hill would be faster to walk up. The climb was short and steep. However, the day was young and the real climbs were up ahead.
We cruised through the first of the obstacles and continued forth. At the intersection of 281 and 49 we pulled to the side of the road to regroup. This is the entrance into Cheaha State Park. This is the climb up to the highest point in Alabama. Quite ominous, a funeral procession, hearse and all with a half dozen followers passed us. They were climbing the mountain as well. I am glad that we were not on the climb when they came upon us. That could have been difficult for everyone involved.
We hesitated for a moment deciding who would lead us out. I removed the skull cap and removed the arm skins. It had gotten warm. Raland, not feeling well, got a head start and led the group out. Dennis and Brooks, the youngest guys in the group, jump behind and followed. From the intersection to the top of the mountain it is just over 3 miles. However, there is a downward dip to start the climb. It is just a dip before the true climb. Once the road turned skyward, we all bunched up. The pacing was moderately hard for the first few minutes. Off his game, the group quickly engulfed Raland. Lance jumped on the front and pushed harder. I am not sure why or how but I got on front. I lasted just a minute or two before I fell back into line. The front traded places a couple of times. Brooks pushed hard for a while and then succumbed. Next was Robin. He pushed the pace for most of the climb. Actually, he battled with Dennis most of the climb swapping places several times. Keith and I were left in the wake struggling in third and fourth. We kept dropping back 10 or 15 yards and then having to double our effort just to catch their wheels again. There was not much of a draft at 6 MPH but mentally it was much easier to hold a wheel then to be out in no man’s land. We past the first rest stop with no hesitation. The last time I rode the mountain I pulled off and waited for the others. At least that is what I told them; actually, I pulled off to catch my breath.
Passing the rest stop, the climb immediately turned steeper. Our vision was tinted red with effort. It was like a veil of pain. We pushed further. I had forgotten the route and how little remained of the climb. There was a 90-degree turn to the left and the peak came into view. It was only a few hundred yards to the finish. I stood on the pedals and powered for one last push. The leaders were out of reach. I had dropped back a little bit to try to get out of the red but this left too little to close the gap. Dennis had powered past Robin in the last stretch and I had powered past Keith. The results for the east to west Cheaha KOM climb were Dennis, Robin, James and Keith in the lead pack. It was only a few seconds before the rest of the group came through.
We recuperated at the top. I was hurting. I grabbed some more fuel. From the cool, dry air and the hard efforts, I came down with a temporary case of sprinters cough. The lungs were crackly. Raland decided to stay at the top of the mountain while the rest of the group ventured further into the park. We knew that we had a long decent in front of us and another climb at the other end. We also knew from years past that we would have to turn around and climb Cheaha once again.
We screamed down the mountain reaching speeds near 50 MPH. I think I topped out at 44.X but I was not leading this charge. We were in the sunshine. I had made sure that I had donned my full gear again. However, with damp a jersey and the high speeds, I was freezing again. After a few minutes, we bottomed out in the valley and started the winding climb to the south side of Cheaha State Park. This is a wonderful highway to nowhere. It allows access to a series of hiking trails. There is very little traffic. In fact, most of the other vehicles were motorcycles enjoying the varied terrain and sharp switchbacks.
This climb out to Cheaha south probably does not count as a KOM but it was Brooks and I at the sharp end of the group. Keith had dropped his chain halfway up the climb. He did not make it to the top with the group. He was few minutes off the pace.
We started back into the valley. Dennis, Brooks and I were leading out. To be honest, I was in the wake of Brooks and Dennis for much of the ride, all day in fact.
Photo from 2009
At the bottom of the valley, the road once again started to rise. The effort turned high. Brooks and I traded places a couple of times. Dennis was on bonk and fell back a few hundred yards. The difference for me in this climb was that I was able to ride my own pace. I was on that very hard effort edge. I was not getting into the red. I was not burning matches. Sure, it was hard, very hard in fact, but it was manageable. It was a steady very hard effort, but not too hard. Brooks slowed just a bit once or twice and I surged ahead. He was right on my wheel. He was working hard. With a half mile to go to the top, I put in a final attack. It was everything that I had. I climbed out of the saddle and stood on the pedals. It was all or nothing. I got a gap. I was charging full speed. Brooks was unable to respond. I won the second Cheaha KOM.
Once again, I pulled into the peak and nearly collapsed. I arrived just in time to see Raland continuing to struggle. I sat down on the stairs of the visitor’s center. Brooks was just behind me followed shortly after by Dennis.
Photo from 2009
We regrouped at the top again before we made out decent. This time it would be down the mountain, west to east. This is a much more technical decent. Raland took off first followed by the group. Dennis quickly separated himself with his superior downhill capabilities. He literally walked away from us. Later he said that the sweeping turns were wide enough that he did not think you would need brakes at all. Well, I needed brakes. I needed brakes early and often.
We regrouped again and headed for home, Lineville. The return trip was at a more sedated pace.
We arrived back at the vehicles with 50+ miles on the odometer. Fun was had by all (well, most).
Our times were so much faster this year. We had all improved so much in the past two years. However, looking back I was impressed with how well we had managed the previous trip. This was out of our comfort zones. We really did well.