Cycling website Velominoti is “The Keeper of the Cog”, the road-wizened rules of cycling by which we must abide. Liam, Ethan and I received our schooling today in Rule #5- Harden the F- Up. [all rules here] See those nifty little spirals coming out of the hurricane, fanning across Georgia? Those are called “rain bands” and they carry massive amounts of water in them to drop on cyclists heads- and can even spin off neat little tornadoes. I did not know this before today.
We had planned to ride the Silver Comet Trail today for most of the week- before we had even heard of Hurricane Lee. Yesterday I asked Ethan how far he wanted to ride. He replied “We should do a Century”.
Liam interceded “Dude, a Century is 100 miles”.
Ethan, looking insulted at Liam’s insinuation that he did not know how long a Century ride was, shot back sharply “I know- can we do one on the Silver Comet tomorrow?”
Liam now jumped on the wagon too “Yeah, Dad- can we?”
“Yes we can” I replied, shocking them both by my acquiescence, secretly sparing them the details of the pain and suffering involved in such an undertaking. I was aware that rain was in the forecast for most of the day, but so were cooler temperatures in the seventies…good for long distance riding.
The Silver Comet is a 61 mile long paved rail conversion running from just outside Atlanta to the Alabama State Line where it continues another 40 miles as the Chief Ladega trail. Together, the Chief Ladiga and Silver Comet travel over 100 miles, forming the longest paved trail in America. Doing an unsupported Century is no easy task, and there is a cyclist-friendly c-store at mile 35 on the trail that can be strategically used for resupply again at mile 65 after the turn-around at mile marker 50. This means that we only had to carry enough nutrition to make the c-store, resupply, ride another 15 out to 50, 15 back to 65, resupply again for the final 35 home.
The light drizzle at roll-out from the parking lot at Cooper Lake was actually pretty refreshing. The sensation of the rain slowly infiltrating my shoes, shorts and rain slicker came with a silent resignation- it was just going to be a wet day, no need to try and stay dry. The boys were in high spirits as we careened around the few joggers and other cyclists who also wanted the path to themselves. Noticeably absent were the joggy-mommies that usually pack the first few miles of the Comet- jacked into their i-pods and oblivious to nature, their slumbering spawn and other people trying to get around them. Yay!
We settled into a nice cadence, I figured if we could keep the average speed around 14 miles per hour, we should be able to have a sub-8 hour finish including breaks- putting us back at the car around 4 pm. We maintained this pace for about 20 miles when Ethan fell unusually far behind. Liam and I pulled off at the rest stop and Ethan arrived less than a minute later- heaving his bike into the bushes nearly in tears in a full blown tantrum. He then kicked Liam’s bike into the mud and the mushroom cloud meltdown came. He did not want us to go that far ahead and we were going to fast and he wanted to stop. He wanted to go home. My heart sank.
As a parent, and especially a cycling parent, I always struggle between the line of challenging the boys and being too pushy. This was neither- Ethan was just scared that we would leave him. He was wet and fatigued. I told him we could slow down, but all he had to do was say something next time. I assured him we would not leave him behind and that, NO we could not go home now. We had a little discussion about digging a little deeper and pushing a little harder- especially at the moment we most didn’t want to. That is when the rewards come. This is when the good stuff happens. Was he willing to do that? This broke the ice and we continued on in better spirits. I am glad we didn’t call it quits…yet.
The rain bands from Hurricane Lee would arrive in waves- washing over us constantly, but varying between a light drizzle and white squall downpour. The boys took pride in the growing piles of road grime and grit accumulating on their bikes- debating who’s was dirtiest. We made a game of shouting “It stopped raining!” as we passed under a bridge or traversed a tunnel. We were fully soaked and loving it! Soon we were back in our cadence and I would routinely perform a visual check to make sure the boys were in the right gear for the long haul- middle ring in the front, and low enough in the rear to keep a nice spin on the very gradual grade changes. They both gravitate to mashing big gears. The Silver Comet is an old rail line and with the exception of a few bridges and road crossings there are no grades greater than 2%. This is nice, but it means you are pedaling all the time- no big gears.
Approaching the C-store at mile marker 35 we hit the wall… a wall of rain. It came down in buckets and our speed dropped to 5 or 6 miles per hour as the runoff on the path was higher than the rims of our wheels. Visibility dropped to nil as we made the shelter of the gas station canopy and entered the store to buy food and drink. The lady at the counter said it was supposed to get worse as she eye-balled us quizzically. I ran through the scenarios in my mind. If we could only go 5 miles per hour we could not reasonably finish the ride on this day. It was time to head back to the car from here with 70 miles in our pocket and hope for the best.
Then the storm sirens came- these indicate that there is a tornado warning in effect. Not a tornado watch, but a warning that a tornado is imminent. The eerie howl emanated from a distance over the tree tops, sounding at first like a motorcycle topping out 3rd gear. Then the sirens were not so distant and looking back from whence we came, I knew what that low-black sky meant. Being stuck out in the middle of podunk Georgia during a tornado with my kids was not on our agenda for that day. The boys were machine-gunning me with questions about what we would do when suddenly the sirens stopped and mechanical voice came through the air telling us that this was a “REAL emergency and we needed to seek shelter now”. Shit. Shit. Shit. [this is what it sounded like]
I remembered that there was a long railroad tunnel about a mile down the path. It sure beat hugging a tree or lying in a wet ditch for shelter and I explained the plan to the boys as we began our sprint toward safety. Inside the tunnel under the mountain we were probably as safe as we could be. I viewed the prospects of us being sucked out into the afternoon sky as remote. As the sirens continued their creepy whine in the distance, the boys busied themselves with spotting twisters from the mouth of the tunnel. It was dry, we were safe and could get safer fast by moving to the middle of the tunnel. We had food and water and could sit this out for awhile.
We repeated this drill- next time under a bridge on the way back to the car, but we arrived safely and with a bigger adventure completed than we could have dreamed of when we started. Even though we did not make the Century, we pushed hard and made good decisions that we were all happy with. Still dirty with grime, but in dry clothes and shoes we discussed our near-miss with Hurricane Lee over large stacks of pancakes and hot cocoa (coffee for dad) at the IHOP near the trail head. I am very proud of the boys for their accomplishments today- and thankful that we all lived to tell about them. Well done boys- you own Rule #5.