So after much pre-ride angst on my part as spelled out in my previous post Cycling Parent: Fear and Self-Doubt, with additional angst provided by his Mom and Grandma, Liam and I headed up to north Georgia for his first ride at the Gaps this weekend. We decided to arrive early for an evening of camping on Friday, prior to the “big ride” on Saturday with an early 8 a.m. start time.
We had our tent and gear all set up by late afternoon Friday when Liam suggested we ride our bikes to the town of Helen, located about 18 miles from our campground. Helen is Georgia’s attempt at a Tyrolean Village and as someone who lived in Bavaria for nearly three years, I can say that the Germans are not as into candy, knives, or anything air-brushed as much as shop owners in this tourist town would have us believe. I was hesitant. At 36 miles round trip, I did a quick calculation of our likely average speed, estimated time to both eat dinner and do a little site-seeing & people watching. We should have just enough time to make it back before sunset- so off we went!
It turned out to be a terrific ride and not only a chance for a nice warm-up before hitting the gaps the next day, but also to provide us with a chance to run through some last minute technical skills and to shake out the bikes a bit. The route to Helen would provide us with many of the same types of roads (no shoulders) that we would be riding the next day. Also, for most of our rides in Atlanta we are on residential side streets or bike paths. The traffic on these roads, while lighter was also moving alot faster. Liam and I practiced shouting “car back” or “car up” to warn about approaching traffic and move toward the side. We also used the less aggressive descents to brush up on some braking and turning skills for the next day. After a faux-German dinner we arrived back to the campsite for a fire and early bed time.
The Front Three Gaps
After a good breakfast of bagels, fruit and coffee (for Liam too) we met up with our group at Turner’s Corner, all of whom had woken up extra early to drive in from Atlanta. We were blessed with a cold front which meant almost unheard of temperatures in the sixties for the start of our first ascent up Neel’s Gap. Liam and I settled into a nice rhythm and found our legs for the 7 miles of climbing ahead of us. He pulled up a couple of times and I warned him to to put out too much too early because we had a lot of climbing ahead of us. Neel’s would be the longest climb of the three gaps we would be doing that day and as we rolled into the parking lot of the Mountain Crossing store atop Neels I looked back to check his expression- all smiles. We re-grouped at the summit and did a bike-check (brakes). I encouraged him to eat a Gu Gel for the upcoming climb up Wolfpen, explaining that the our breakfast had just been burned riding up this mountain.
The winding decent down the backside of Neels was fast but safely paced. My new friend Brigette hung back with us because she did not feel confident about her first big downhill either. We made it safely to the turnoff onto Hwy 180 at Vogel State Park and immediately found ourselves beginning on Wolfpen Gap. Wolfpen is not as long as Neels but is much steeper with several switch backs and pain inducing turn-ups at several points. It is also deeply wooded making it difficult to visually guage how much longer the suffering will last. Liam dug into the climb and I could see that he was having a hard time with it, but then he relaxed, naturally focusing on breathing and turning the pedals. I could also feel the burn and was glad for the shot of Gu Gel. A short time later we emerged from the woods at the Summit of Wolfpen, re-grouped again and made our way down into the valley toward Suchess. The Wolfpen descent was also taken at a moderate and comfortable pace.
We rolled into the crappy gas station rest stop at Suchess for a Gatorade refill. There was a group of motorcyclists there and Liam was full of questions about the bikes- carefully pointing out that ours were pedal powered. The turn out of crappy-gas-station-rest-stop onto hwy 60 threw us onto our final ascent of the day- the “short” climb up the backside of Woody Gap. Liam was still pedaling strong, though I did see his line start to wobble a little bit at some of the switchbacks- a clear sign that he was getting fatigued. Our group had already begun the descent before we had reached the summit, so we stopped for a brief photo op at the top before turning down ourselves.
Now the dividends of the the previous 3 hours of pedalling and hell got to be cashed in with a nearly 8-mile long cascade down the gently winding roads of Woody Gap to the valley floor below. At one turn near the top we were afforded a view of patchwork farms that looked like a green earthen quilt. I accelerated next to Liam and pointed over too it which elicited a “Whoa!” from him. I explained that we had pedaled up this entire distance and were going to ride back down there. About 30 minutes later we arrived at Turner’s Corner General Store to meet up with the rest of our group for post-ride BBQ sandwiches and drinks.
I am obviously proud of Liam for this accomplishment. Not many adults, much less 11 year old boys ever challenge themselves like he did today. He rode 36 miles (72 total for the weekend) and climbed over 5000 vertical feet on his first ride at three gap. This is something I did not even do until last season- and with great difficulty even then. The completion of this climb is something that will continue to pay dividends for the rest of his life and will hopefully set a new bar for what he thinks he is capable of doing.
In honor of the Tour De France currently underway, it was suggested that Liam should be awarded the “Polka Dot Jersey” for the ride he put in today. The Polka Dots are awarded to the King of the Mountain for each stage- or the rider accumulating the most points (1st-6th) on each major climb of that stage. Liam- you have earned your mountain goat jersey. I am proud of you- on and off the bike. Well done.