Saturday, April 23, 2005

2005 Tour de Georgia - Stage 5 Ride Report

Today's stage, culminating at the highest point in Georgia, the peak of Brasstown Bald, is expected to be decisive. We woke to a very brisk morning, with lots of clouds, and windy - 20 steady gusting to 35 mph - it felt cold, but it would get positiviely frigid by mid afternoon on Brastown Bald. The drive to Blairsville was more leisurely on the four-lane from Blue Ridge, then we continued on to the intersection just west of Choestoe and parked with some other cars, all cyclists. From here we rode south down the Gainesville Highway to Vogel State Park and turned up Wolf Pen Gap Road. This is the backside of Wolfpen Gap, and is a tad easier than coming from the other direction as we did yesterday. It's also a lot nicer ride - the scenery is really nice, and the road smooth and with much less traffic than the day before. As before, I arrived at the top of Wolfpen only after being greeted by the boys flying downhill. I talked with a coulpe of other cyclists on top who came from the Suches, then returned the way I came, saying goodbye to a hunter who had just appeared with a shotgun. The ride down was terrific, and I had taken enough time at the top to allow the cabin group to start another ascent, who then double-backed behind and passed me on the return.

At Vogel State Park we discussed our options, one of which was a ride up Hogpen Gap. In the end we decided to make our way to Jack's Gap, at the base of Brasstown Bald. This was a long mostly uphill slog for me (about 8 miles), but the weather was chilly enough to stay motivated. Naturally Rob, Ric, Peter, John and Cary, with plenty of winter conditioning, led the way and soon I was dropped as the terrain became more hilly - the rollers to Brasstown. Ric later reported that Peter led the initial charge with Robert along the flat sections (i.e., tops of hills), and battled with Cary and Ric on the climbs. We all had planty of company. There was a steady flow of cars heading to Brasstown Bald, and lots of cyclists as well. So many that it had the feel of very large organized ride, sans rest stops and refreshments, of course. Nearing Jack's Gap there were even more cars parked on the side of the road, tents, canopies, grills, and the road was painted in places with chalk, aimed at the Tour de Georgia, but plenty encouraging for me; then Rabid Chihuahua appears, "it's not far - you're almost there". I'm the slow one on this trip, but having a fantastic time, especially with encouragement like that. Robert descended back down and met me before I reached the base of Brasstown Bald. He said that he, Peter, Ric and Cary were returning to the car for supplies and what did I need, he asked. "New legs?", I thought. They sailed away on a freshening breeze, and I continued on to Jack's Gap where I met with John. We chatted awhile, resting and watching the craziness of walkers and cyclists, young and old, team cars, shuttles and buses starting for the summit. Police and fire, ambulances, and assorted race organizers with lights and funny, squonky horns.

No one knew what was going on in today's stage - the status of the race. Race radio was reserved for tour organizers and the like, and except for someone calling a friend for updates on the Internet, there would be no way to find out. Yet mobile telephone service was unavailable, along with food, water, and warm shelter. It was cold and windy - heavy, winter clouds. I had on an long-sleeve underlayer that I picked up at the cycle shop in Blue Ridge that morning, my short sleeve jersey, and a wind breaker that had had given up its claim to repelling water. John and I decided to ride a little ways up Brasstown Bald and see if we could find a good vantage to watch the race. I tried to stay with him, but the road was very steep starting out and soon he was far away, around a corner, and vanished. I felt pretty good, and rode on, finally stopping above the 5 km to-go mark. The vantage looked good here, it was mostly protected from the wind, which was blowing madly now and colder. There were also enough large trees off the road to provide a little shelter should it have started raining. No one there, among the thousands of people (somone said there 100,000 on Brasstown) was dressed for the weather - the storm that blew through the previous afternoon brought tempestuous skies, temeratures descending through the day, and gale-force winds. I waited around for about an hour, and then in an effort to generate some heat rode up a few hundred meters, stopped and rested, then a few hundred more meters, and stopped again. About 100 meters above the 4 km sign, and breathless I stopped again, thinking how epic this ride is for me, and how impressive it is for the pros to ride at the level they do. Yesterday I had accomplished Cat.2 and Cat. 3 climbs, but Brasstown is considered Hors Categorie, or "Beyond Category", more difficult than even a Cat. 1, yet I was still far from the top, and planned on going on not much farther, or no farther at all. Half an hour went by, and I was sure John had made it to the top and I was glad for him, because it had to be substantial effort. The crowds along the road applauded whenever a rider came by, or the sun popped out, and then Robert appeared with Peter, then Ric and Cary, carrying backpacks laden with food, more clothes, and walking shoes. Robert went on to find John, and returned a short time later to report there was a more excellent vantage above, just below the 3 km mark. I made my way up to them just above a right-switchback along a steeper section, after several rests, and we stamped our feet with everyone else; shivering, walking, eating - anything to stay warm during the two hour wait on the mountain. It was a cruel sky that opened the clouds to let sunshine drench a valley below us to the northeast, as we watched in the shade of clouds lightly spitting sleet and rain. I walked up past the 3 km mark, and Jiohn appeared riding down. I told him of our location and he joined us.

The first riders to appear on the switchback below us, accompanied by photobikes and team cars, were Tom Danielson (Discovery), and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner). Not far behind were Landis (Phonak) and Armstrong (Discovery), leading out Christian Vande Velde, the CSC rider who we later learned started the first attacks on the road to Jacks Gap. There were a number of other riders that followed like fast stragglers, then a mixed peloton led by a Gerolsteiner. The last man was the determined Phonak rider, Aur�lien Clerc, who was followed, like Death, by the sweeper van. Danielson made it to the top, which we did not know for certain until reading the updates online at the cabin. Robert and Ric had moved the cars about 4 miles up from where we had originally parked, but Cary had been unsure about it and had left my rented Trailblazer. Cary decided to drive back to the car, but I rode on - it was mostly downhill, and it was good to warm up this way. We cranked up the hot tub later that afternoon and drank some beer, then Cary did some cooking, letting his Italian background kick-in for a pleasant Marinara.

Postscript: The next morning it snowed. The wind howled, and only The Rabid Chihuahua talked about a morning ride, though without much glee. We packed up things at the cabin, and got a late start to Blairsville, this time to watch the start of the last stage of the Tour de Georgia, a flat sprinter's stage. The highway was blocked about a mile before we got to the town, but the detour was along the route, and we parked at the top of a rise off the highway. Once again, for the fourth time in three days, we saw the peloton, this time though they were all together, gathering momentum, and blasting over and away to Dahlonega. Danielson would keep his lead, helped by Armstrong. Gord Fraser, the Canadian rider for Healthnet-Maxis, won the stage.

Friday, April 22, 2005

2005 Tour de Georgia Stage 4

Ride Report

Prelude: Cary and I left Starkville about 2:PM yesterday for a weekend of riding and watching the 2005 Tour de Georgia with a mostly local continengent from Starkville. Robert, who coordinated our stay in Blue Ridge, and John met us at the cabin with Ric, who had driven in from Michigan. Ric and Robert worked up a hearty pasta dinner, while John uncorked a vast array of vintages, and briefed us on the results of today's time trial in Rome. Robert and Cary said Landis would win the Tour De Georgia, after noting that he had won the time trial and posted more than a minute ahead of Armstrong. My bets were still with Lance, thinking there were plenty of opportunities over the next three days, especially in the mountains. Ric quietly chose Leipheimmer and John threw away anothern cork as Robert cranked up the sauna: fat digs!

Wolfpen and Woody Gap. My first foray into the mountains with a road bike. Around the table this morning we finalized our plans for the day, drinking Jittery Joe's coffee, but not anticipating a very strong cold front that would blow through in the afternoon. The plan was to ride some of the stage 4 route in the morning, then find a good spot to watch the riders come through. Stage 4 was from Dalton to Dahlonega and the start was around 10:AM, about the same time we left the cabin. The riders were expected to be in Suches around 1:PM, go over the Category 3 climb at Woody Gap for the first King of the Mountain points, continue on to Neel's Gap, the backside of Wolfpen Gap, and then return to Woody Gap again before descending down to the finish in Dahlonega. The drive from Blue Ridge to Suches was along a very curvy, hilly road with small ranches, clear-running streams, and vacation homes tucked along the edges. Northern Georgia in a beautiful place, and absolutely excellent for hill climbers and Appalachain Trail hikers.. As we approached Suches, we started seeing lots of cyclists. A mile or so south of town we parked the car, and got ready to ride. Robert, Cary, Ric and John led the way into Suches, then turned to the north where the rolling road hints at what's ahead: the Cat. 2 climb to the top of Wolfpen Gap. There were lots of riders - some going up, some flying down. The trees were mostly leafed out, and the road wound around some farms and streams, the the climbing began. I'd never done anything like this; the road was good, and traffic was minimal and well behaved, and then the grade increased, and increased again before getting steeper yet. I was wondering when the climbing would end, and as my legs protested unamicably, Rabid Chihuahua flew past me down the mountain, and double-backed just as easily. "Just a few more kilometers - you're almost there!", I remember him saying. He matched my painful ascent for a few meters before zipping up into the stratosphere again. A few minutes later I I made it to the top of Wolfpen Gap, and without stopping, where the guys, looking calm and relaxed, had been waiting for who knows how long. There were also other riders, and race officials, policemen and barricades, in preparation for Tour de Georgia, which was due through in an hour or so. One surprise was seeing another rider for John Deere, Brady, who Robert said was on his team. A few minutes later we flew down Wolfpen Gap the way we came and returned to our cars. The guys wanted to get in a few more miles from there, and continued on, while I waited, then rain. Then heavier rain. The guys returned soaked, and we spent 45 minutes or so in our cars as the first bit of weather blew through. We learned later that the weather had "gone from bad to worse out on the course." (Scrymgeour,
The rain is really bad now and riders can hardly see in front of them. All media cars and unneccesary cars have been sent up the road out of the way. There is more lightening now and the wind is really blowing and there is even hail coming down now. Seventy miles into the race now and the break is still away and have a gap of 1'35". Back in the peloton Phonak are still setting a steady pace and there looks to be about 60 riders left in this main group. It won't be long now before the race reaches Woody Gap for the first time. Today though, it won't be the climb that is the worry so much, but the descent which has some nasty turns and will be dangerous in the rain.

There was a race marshal standing outside in the rain, and we thought she had a car and just wanted to stand under trees for protection; she seemed content. Soon enough the first cars of the motorcade drove through, then three riders, with Rubiera (Discovery) in the lead! Behind Rubiera was the young rider for CSC, Andy Schleck, followed by Sven Krauss for Gerolsteiner. About 20-30 seconds later the peloton blew through on their way to Woody Gap. The Discovery team, with Armstrong in third position, was at the front behind a group of Phonak riders who were setting the pace. We continued to watch riders come through for another 10 minutes - the stragglers seemed mostly relaxed, but probably knew they were too far behind at this point of the stage to work too hard, coming through ahead of the sweeper wagon at maybe 20-24 mph.

After the riders went through, the weather seemed more stable, and we decided to ride up to Woody Gap behind the riders, where the riders would yet again come through. The climb to Woody Gap, in comparison to Wolfpen, was much easier, yet required a good sustained effort to make it to the top. This was a festive atmosphere, with lots of race officials, loud music, grills and beer, mobile homes, cyclists everywhere, and plenty of folks who walked up from Suches, most of them lining the road to the top. Even Elvis was there, popping wheelies on his bike, and posing with fans for snapshots. About an hour later the motorcade preceded the breakaway group, and just 20-30 seconds behind was the peolton with Discovery setting the pace. Later the stragglers, looking exhausted, but still maintaining an incredible pace with professional legs, yet the pain shows through in their faces. Afterwards we stuck around to hear race radio piped through a loudspeaker and unofficial results that Team CSC's Brian Vandborg had won the stage. Rubiera had won all five KOMs, while Landis (Phonak) retained the yellow jersey. Danielson (Discovery), who would be tomorrow's star, was 5th in the general classification (GC), one minute behind Landis. We returned to the car very hungry, and drove back to the cabin, cleaned up bikes, tooks showers, and I prepared some chicken and roasted vegetables and we all snacked on cheese, wine, chips and guacamole until Peter arrived.