You know I like climbing. I happen to do it fairly well for a guy who could stand to lose a few pounds. I actively seek out fun climbing routes and constantly measure myself against the mountains (and yes, having a serious competitive streak, against the other riders).
Saturday the 10th was an incredible opportunity for me to participate in an event that combined my love of climbing with the cause for which I raised money last fall - and rode to Austin with my Polka Dot team-mates. Of course, the cause I'm talking about is raising money for the Palmetto Peleton Project.
A few weeks ago, our Ride Captain Ron forwarded a message to the P3 crew regarding the '2nd annual Climb to Conquer Cancer'. The ride was organized by one of the most productive fund-raisers for P3. John Cash was active in the inception of the Challenge to Conquer Cancer ride to Austin and has been an active fundraiser for P3 for several years. The 'Climb to Conquer Cancer' consisted of repeated ascents of the Saluda Grade from Tryon to Saluda.
In John's brochure, he states "I am going to attempt 10 trips up and down the Saluda Grade...". I didn't know John well when I read that statement, but I knew of his riding skill. I also know myself, and this sounded like a great challenge.
I only knew of one person who was planning on participating - my friend Bo had mentioned it the week prior while we were enjoying Easter Dinner at Robin and Scott's. I was looking forward to the ride, and Bo and I helped each other find the starting place - The Tryon Youth Center.
John said a few words before we started out, and about 30(ish) folks lined up in the road to begin the challenge. I stationed myself near the front and I took some opportunity to chat with John as we headed out. Shortly after we started, I saw a number of other folks I know come down the hill to turn around and join our peleton.
The first two miles of the climb are up a relatively easy grade. John controlled the pace for this portion of the ride. It was cool to have the peleton riding together for this section.
As we approached the Pearsons Falls road intersection (where the grade increases significantly), John asked the folks up front if we were ready to kick up the pace a little. It was a nice warm-up, but now the work was about to begin in earnest!
We climbed together for a while before one of the ladies pulled out from the peleton and started building a gap. John mentioned she was only out for one repeat, and I told him "as far as I'm concerned John, you're the king of the mountain and all I have to do is hold your wheel!". She continued to pull away slowly but surely.
It wasn't long before my friend Will broke from the peleton. I was really tempted to give chase, but held back for a while. John and I continued to chat as the road twisted up the mountain. Perhaps 3/4 mile from the crest, the grade steepens a little more. I decided to catch up to Will and ask him about his collarbone which had recently been broken in a mt biking accident. He said he was feeling pretty well and that he had been back on the bike several times before coming out for this ride.
As we twisted through the curves, I began to really get my legs under me, and I started to find my groove. My pace was a little stronger than those around me, and I found myself reeling in the woman who made the early break. I caught her just before the crest, and began my descent.
The descent of the grade has to be as much fun as the ascent! The curves are mostly constant radius with slight banking in most of them. You can really fly down the hill if you put your mind to it. The competitive part of me sent me down the hill pushing my biggest gears. I was trying to pull a larger gap on the field.
I have to admit though, it wasn't just my competitive streak that was pushing me down that hill, I was well hydrated and needed to visit the little boys room at the youth center! I exited the building just as the pack was coming in to the parking lot to turn around.
I joined them for the second lap, and again found myself cresting the top with a small gap. I was determined to push my pace as long as I could. In all honesty, part of it was my competitive streak, but the other part was because I was using this as a training ride for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. I hope to trim a bunch of time from my last year's result, so I need to work on climbing strong and fast.
I continued my pace down, then up again and again. Each time I passed other riders, I yelled out encouragement - especially when I saw John and his slowly diminishing peleton. He called out right back to me each time.
As I made ascent number 6, I came up behind two riders who when I first saw them I thought I recognized. Sure enough, as I got closer, I recognized April and Jessica! When I was close enough for them to clearly hear me, I sang out "Peanut Butta Jelly....". Jess was funny - she called out "The love of my life" - of course it was really about making her smile at that particular moment - we were well into the steep part of the climb, AND, she had gone down on the descent of Mine Mountain road. She was hurting a little, and as it had with another good friend, my rendition of the Peanut Butter Jelly Time Song brought that smile to her face. Even if it was just for a few moments.
As I rode with them for a few minutes, my friend Kip was making his descent from Saluda. He turned around to join me for the climb and we continued up. We passed two other friends - Kari and Alicia who were riding with April and Jess. Kip and I chatted on the way up - I was definitely feeling the effects of my efforts. My pace had slowed down significantly.
We made # 6 descent and Kip paced me for #7 ascent. I was feeling pretty good, but my pace had slowed. I was confident I could do the 10 repeats - however, I had to do them one at a time. Thankfully, I had found my zone and was living in it.
Somewhere on the steep part of the grade, Patrick, who I met recently on the tuesday at SCTAC (formerly Donaldson) rides passed us. He rode with us for a while and I told him what I was up to. He helped pace me to the top before he and Kip continued on to Saluda. I turned around to go back for another.
On the way down, I again saw John on his way up. This time was different from the previous - he was now alone. In fact, he and I were the only ones heading back for lap number 8. We had lapped a number of riders who were still out there challenging themselves. I continued to offer encouragement as I passed them on my descent.
I made the decision that I would rather ride with John for the last 3 laps than by myself. At the bottom, I removed a layer, filled my bottles and grabbed more gel packs. About the time I pulled up to the road, John was in sight and ready to turn around for number 8. He briefly stopped to grab a fresh bottle and off we went.
Number 8 was hard, but part of that was because my left inner thigh started to cramp a little on the easier (read faster) grade near the bottom. I was able to work it out, but it slowed me down for a short time. We held pace together all the way to the top. John and I chatting about various subjects.
When I turned around at the bottom, John came riding up with another rider - Dave. Dave had come out to join John for the last two laps. For number 9, he was pretty fresh and strong despite the fact he hadn't been riding lately. He had to slow up for us several times as we fought the mental demons trying to take root in our psyche.
On the descent, I slowed my pace and we rode in together before starting number 10. John was quite funny saying 'We can smell the barn now". We were both a little psyched up as there was no longer any doubt whether we would make the 10th ascent and as a bonus, we were going to beat the 6 hour ride time goal that John had set for himself.
Once again, on the flatter and faster section down low my left inner thigh began cramping. This time was worse than previous times, and John had to ask Dave to slow up a little. I was doing my best to control the cramps by resurrecting my little dance from last year's Assault. It wasn't long before I was back on John's wheel and Dave was pulling us along.
As we approached Pearsons Falls Road intersection, both John and I had found a new groove and our pace had picked up. Somewhere along the way, Dave dropped back a little while John and I drove towards the summit that one last time. John had said at the bottom that the last one was for his son Justin who had passed recently. I could see the determination in John as we came to a steeper section about 3/4 mile from the top. He was setting the pace, and I was letting him. It wasn't about me at that point. He was riding with his son, or his son was riding with him - whichever way it was, John was motivated.
We came around the Atkins apple stand and our enthusiasm grew. As we came through the final left hand curve, and the crest came into view, I held out my hand and said "Good Job John". He took my hand for a shake, and I felt a strong sense of brotherhood at that moment. I said "All the way to the top". We rode that way, side by side to the crest. At the top, we raised our hands in victory.
It was an incredible feeling. Last year he had done the 10 repeats. For the first annual, he was the only one to complete all 10. This year, while there was a number of folks who did 5, 6, maybe even 7 or 8, he and I were the only ones to do all 10. I'm glad I was able to share that with him.
We rode in to the youth center side by side by side. Me, John and Dave riding in to a small welcoming committee consisting of John's friends and family. As has happened to me so many times in the last 10 months (or so) since I met these incredible people associated with the Palmetto Peleton Project, there were many hugs to be shared. John and I, along with several of the other riders posed for photos before enjoying some fresh home-made pizza.
Like the ride to Austin, this small celebration gave me a great sense of peace and happiness. With all the bad things that happen in life, all it takes is a small group of people with a purpose to really make a difference. John later posted that he raised $5000 that day. I'm proud to be a small part of that effort.
Pausing to remember a cyclist
11 months ago