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Cheat Mountain Challenge Ride Report (2005/09/25)

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Old September 30th 05, 05:19 AM
Chris BeHanna
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Default Cheat Mountain Challenge Ride Report (2005/09/25)

This past Sunday, I took part in the Cheat Mountain Challenge Century,
a 104-mile ride in the mountains in Pocahantas County, West Virginia.
The ride was sponsored by Snowshoe Resort and by the West Virginia
Cycling Foundation. This was the inaugural event for this partnership,
and it came off well. WVCF had arranged for half a dozen volunteers on
motorcycles to patrol up and down the column of bikes to make sure
everyone was safe (and not lost!), and had plenty of the most helpful
volunteers I have ever seen at every rest stop (and those were very
frequent in the mountain portion of the ride).

130-odd riders braved the fog, the wind, and the chill morning air (58
degrees Fahrenheit on top of the mountain) to start the century, and
another 40-odd more were on-hand to start the accompanying metric
century (which omitted a lot of the tasty roads through the forests, but
kept the mountainous climbing loop). The ride began and ended at
Snowshoe Village, altitude 4875 feet, and we started out into the wind,
with fog so thick you couldn't see more than a few riders in front of
you. I was grateful for my arm warmers and for my $2 windbreaker from
the thrift store.

The route wound up to the summit of Showshoe, not much above where we
started, then snaked its way steeply down to pick up state route 66,
where we all took a left for the descent towards Cass. The road was
quite twisty, the pavement was perfect, and, this not being a
competitive ride, riders were giving each other lots of room, so even
though a few folks were a little squirrelly about holding their lines,
it wasn't as hair-raising as a mass descent could have been. It was
quite fun, actually, and I spent a lot of that first dozen miles with a
huge grin on my face.

Before we got to Cass, the route turned right onto Back Mountain Road,
which is little more than a wide, paved bike path. It's a real road,
open to vehicle traffic, and is in excellent condition, but it's barely
more than a lane wide. This being West Virginia, there wasn't much
traffic--especially on a Sunday morning. At this point, the route
started to undulate a bit, and the road wound around and switched back
on itself a bit. I passed the first rest stop at 15 miles and kept on
cranking, feeling really good, and picked up Laurel Run Road, which
continued on in much the same fashion, for a few more miles, eventually
dumping me and my fellow riders out onto state route 28, where we hooked
right to head south for awhile.

A fellow I'd met at the start, but who'd been having some shimmying
problems on the initial descent, caught up to me at this point, and we
rode together and talked a bit, until another rider caught up to us and
the two of them set a pace that I could not match, so I let them go,
content to burn matches at a sustainable pace, which for me was about
22mph. I kept on that way for awhile, when a very strong rider came up
beside me and said, "You're working too hard! We have a big train;
catch on." Twenty-five or thirty bikes passed me at that point, and I
caught the last wheel. The train mowed down the next ten or twelve
miles at 27-30mph. I kept waiting to see riders drift back in the usual
paceline fashion, but it appeared that the original guy who talked to me
was pulling this train all by himself! Would that I was that strong.
Maybe someday.

The train came to the next turn at state route 39, where we all went
left and came to the 33-mile rest stop, and the whole train stopped. I
took a much-needed a nature break, then I refilled a water bottle. The
temperature down here was in the middle 60s, so I wasn't losing water as
fast as I expected (and remember, we started the ride with a big descent
out of the clouds, starting up in 58F and wind, so we didn't sweat much
then, either). I missed it when the train left the station, so I was
riding alone again. No matter--West Virginia is beautiful, and it's no
problem to be alone in your head when riding there.

The route turned right onto Brush Creek Road for the next several
miles, and gently rolled its way to Watoga State Forest, in the middle
of which was a 1-mile climb at over 7%. This was merely a preview of
things to come. The road through Watoga was even narrower than Back
Mountain Road, but again, it was very well-paved, and it was a pleasure
to be riding there. I was always near other riders at this point,
either passing them, riding with them for a little bit, or being passed
by them, so there was time to talk a little bit, mostly teasing and
being teased about my triple and the suffering others were going to get
for not having triples. :-)

Past the crest of the climb in the forest, the road began a tight,
steep, winding descent at 30-35 mph that I really, really enjoyed. As
the road widened and unkinked, it continued with just enough of a
downgrade to allow for easy pedaling at a sustained 30-32mph for the
next couple of miles until we got to Seebert Road, and then the road
turned back upward a bit to wind its way up to U.S. 219. Up to this
point, we'd just done 50 miles or so through forests with almost no
traffic, and it had been very, very fast (I was averaging about 18mph to
this point). I stopped at the 55-mile rest stop to fill a water bottle
and eat a little bit of salty food, and a fig newton (I'd been munching
one every half hour as an anti-bonk measure). A volunteer there told us
that the ride would begin shortly. :-)

I left the rest stop alone and rode a mile or two north on 219, then
turned left on state route 39, which led to the mountain portion of the
ride. Around about mile 57, the road turned sharply upward as it began
the climb up to the Highland Scenic Highway. This began the longest
climb I'd ever done to that point in my life--I'd done lots of hill
riding in the preceding two months to get ready for this century, but
Western PA doesn't have big mountains; it's a foothills area, so I
string together dozens of half-mile climbs instead of a few big climbs.
Route 39 climbed steadily for the next three miles, gaining about a
thousand feet in the process. I found myself aerobically limited more
than leg-limited, and found that if I grabbed a bunch of gears and stood
on the pedals and turned low RPMs, I could rest and let my heart rate
recover a bit, then downshift back to my granny gear and spin for
awhile, then grab gears and stand, rinse, repeat, and that got me up the
mountain. This is only my second season of "real" bicycling, and I'm
not yet strong enough to turn 65-70 rpms on a grade like that in the
saddle, and I don't yet have the aerobic capacity to spin 90 rpm the
whole way up, either. I managed--without stopping to push.

The road leveled off at the entrance to the Highland Scenic Highway
(state route 150), where there was another rest stop. A volunteer took
my proffered bottle and filled it for me, and I thanked him profusely.
Honestly, the volunteers on this ride were amazing--I've never seen
volunteers hustle like this, ever, nor have I seen them so cheerful
after standing for hours (and these volunteers had ridden the course the
previous day, too!).

After chatting for a minute or two, I set off up 150, which made a
stair-step climb for the next five miles, gaining another 1200 feet in
the process, taking me up to nearly 5000 feet above sea level, and I was
once again in the clouds, with a chilly breeze coming in from the West.
I passed a couple on a tandem on one of the inclines of the stairstep
climb, and they were having some kind of a conversation, and as I
passed, the captain, being goofy, said, "...which brings me to world peace."

I responded, "Whirled peas!" and we all chuckled, and I continued my
slow, steady progress up the hill, making about 8mph or so in 30x17,
standing on the pedals, and making 8.5mph or so when I'd sit down to
spin 30x25.

At the top of the climb, the fog really closed in, and it was hard to
see for the next couple of miles. It was also very quiet, aside from
the mechanical sounds of the bike and my own breathing. A volunteer
rode up on a scooter to check on me, and I said that I was fine, except
that my toes were cold. :-) He said he was a little chilly, then rode
up to check on the next rider.

After a few miles, I came out of the fog to another rest stop, where I
only stopped long enough to do a little bit of stretching. It was windy
and cold up there, so I didn't want to stop for very long. I had plenty
of water, and I had a jersey pocket still half full of fig newtons, so I
thought I was in good shape. I rolled along a little more, and came to
a blazing, five-mile descent, where I tucked in and enjoyed 50+mph for a
good six minutes or so (I topped out just over 51mph). This descent
rolled out to the penultimate climb of the day: 3 miles at a steady 7%,
with no undulations at all--there would be no place to ease off and
rest, unless you stopped. This was a hard climb for me, and I found
that I had to be very careful to avoid getting into trouble,
lactate-wise. I would spin for a few tenths of a mile, then I'd grab
gears and stand and mash for a few tenths of a mile, and keep
alternating. I was making 6-7mph up the climb, and it just seemed like
it was going on and on and on (about half an hour in all). On the way
up, I re-passed the tandem, which had passed me when I had stopped to
stretch earlier. The couple on the tandem were alternating standing and
sitting, which I'd never seen anyone do on a tandem before. I was

As I got farther along in the climb, in addition to mentally driving
myself to finish it, I started to feel bad physically. I was starting
to feel shaky, and I was starting to worry that I was going to fall
over. I didn't want that to happen, as I feared I wouldn't be allowed
to complete the ride. I figured that I was running the tank empty,
coming close to bonking, despite the fig newtons, so I promised myself
that I would eat something a little more substantial at the mandatory
rest stop at the top of the climb (the first such stop was at the 78
mile mark, at the top of the present climb--riders had to make it there
by 4PM, or else they'd be escorted back in the SAG vehicle. Each rider
had to give his number to a volunteer, so that everyone would be
accounted for). I got to the rest stop and very carefully coasted to a
stop and leaned my bike against a wall. I leaned against the bike and
took a few breaths before I decided to move. I decided to reacquaint
myself with my good friend peanut butter & jelly, so I did. I felt a
lot better after that, and after another quick nature break, I pulled on
my windbreaker (it was again very cold and windy up there) for the
descent back to 219.

150 snaked its way past what would have been some spectacular views to
the East had it not been for the fog, and on one part of the descent, on
an exposed lefthand bend, the wind was so strong that I had to downshift
and pedal downhill to maintain speed. A few miles later, I came back to
U.S. 219 and turned left, and snaked down a few S curves into the
valley, and just started chugging--I had about 20 miles left to go to
the finish at this point.

I stopped again briefly at the 92-mile rest stop to remove my
windbreaker and eat another fig newton--the end of the ride featured a
6-mile climb back up Snowshoe, gaining nearly two thousand feet in the
process, and I didn't want to bonk there. The sun was shining down in
the valley, but I kept my arm warmers, as there were occassional very
strong wind gusts--enough to drive me down from my cruise speed of
22-23mph down to a struggling 16-17mph (I'd switch from the big ring to
the middle ring when one of these suckers came, just to be able to keep
spinning). I also figured that it would get cold as I neared the top of
Snowshoe, and I'd be glad to have the arm warmers.

A few miles out of the rest stop, another train caught me, and I caught
on. This train was a little smaller, and a little less well organized,
but people were taking turns at the front. That was fine by me, as I
was tired of fighting those damned wind gusts by myself. I was on the
wheel of a fellow I'd seen earlier in the day, waiting, waiting, waiting
to come to the front. I peered around him to find that he'd been unable
to stay on the wheel in front of him, and a big gap had opened in the
line. I groaned internally and waited a bit to see if he'd close the
gap. He tried, but then courteously pulled aside, and I turned on the
gas to pull the line back together.

By this time, there were only two riders in front of me. I was
catching them, and I called up to them to invite them to fall back and
take a rest. They acknowledged and did so, and I was set to take a nice
pull when another one of those wind gusts came on and knocked me back
from 23mph down to 16. I waved my hand behind me before I downshifted,
to warn the guy behind me that I was slowing, and then I pulled for a
few hundred yards more against that gust, then moved aside, figuring I'd
get another turn before the mandatory check-in at 98 miles. I let the
line pass me and caught the back, and then the guy who had been behind
me decided that he'd just pull and pull, but he wasn't strong enough to
accelerate against that wind, and we gradually slowed to 15mph or so. I
was a little surprised that the guy didn't pull off and take a break,
but at this point, I figured I'd just sit out of the wind and be happy,
and save my strength for that last climb.

At mile 96, we turned right back onto WV-66, fought the wind another
mile, then turned left onto Snowshoe Drive. The mandatory 98-mile
check-in, at the base of the last climb, was about a mile in. We called
out our numbers and took a little break (and I ate a fig newton). I'd
deliberately not refilled my empty bottle at the last two stops--I
didn't want to carry any extra weight up the mountain. My 2nd bottle
was almost full (my bottles are 32 ounces), and that meant two pounds
right there. No point carrying 4 pounds up instead of two, when I knew
I wouldn't even finish the two by the time I got to the top.

I decided I'd had enough rest, and I knew several of the other riders
in that paceline were stronger than me, so I took off before them and
started the climb. It started easily enough, and I was turning 42x23
for a bit, and then it turned upward with a couple of 12% pitches
(according to another rider who had an inclinometer), so I backed off
and stood, always trying to stay within myself. It stayed pretty steep,
but alternated steep and medium-steep the whole way up, so there were
times when I could sit and pedal, and times when I'd stand and pedal,
and times when I'd stand and push really hard on the pedals just to keep

On the first steep pitch, the group I'd been riding with caught and
passed me, and one of the riders said, "Follow the yellow snake all the
way to the top." I didn't realize what he'd said until quite some time
later. I was in my own personal "Just get there" zone. All I could
think about was getting to the top without stopping, and without
redlining myself.

After the first switchback, it was a few tenths of a mile to where the
pitch decreased a little bit, so I hung on to get there, then sat down
and dropped to my granny gear to spin, and my desperation decreased.
The organizers had painted marks on the road "6MTG, 5MTG, 4MTG" to tell
you how much was left, and I was dragging myself up to those marks. I
was making 7-8mph up this climb, and it was taking awhile. I was more
mentally tired than anything else, and the wind gusts had picked up
again, making the climb that much harder--I'd just get myself into a
rhythm and then I'd get blasted by the wind and have to change. I knew
the climb was much less steep near the very top, so I looked forward to
that and kept on chugging.

As I finally started seeing the signs for the attractions up at
Snowshoe Village, my spirits started to come up, as I knew I was almost
done--I knew I was going to make it without stopping. I had a few more
undulations to get through, and then the road leveled off and I was
actually able to change to the middle ring and start up a spin. Then,
of course, the wind gusted again and drove me back to the small ring,
but at least I could still spin a few gears above the granny, and with
only a fraction of a mile left, there was no reason to save anything, so
I hammered it home. The guy marshalling the last turn asked me what my
number was, and I told him, and he radioed it ahead. As I neared the
finish, an announcer called out my name and my hometown over the PA,
which was a nice touch, and I finished to the applause of all present.
The announcer handed me my finisher's medal, and I rolled my bike out of
the way and just stood still for a little while.

The wind was still blowing, and I was getting cold, so I pulled on my
windbreaker, and then my wife and son came walking up, surprised to see
me (my wife expected me to take quite a bit longer to finish than I
did). I slowly followed them to the car, put my bike on the rack and
locked it, and got my bag. The organizers had provided for riders to
take a hot shower after the ride, and that's where I was headed. I
entertained the notion of calling off work the next day to spend the
entire time in the shower, but thought better of it. :-)

The tally for the day: 104 miles, 9860 feet of climbing, the last 6000
of which was in the last 44 miles of the ride. The last 6 miles gained
1800 feet and took me 49 minutes. The total ride, including rest stops,
took me just under seven and a half hours. The cyclocomputer racked up
6:46:44 and an average of 15.3mph, which I'd call quite respectable
given that, as I said, this is my second season of "serious" riding, and
I've only been putting in about 150 miles a week (with about 6000-10000
feet of climbing per week). I got to reacquaint myself with the
mountainous beauty of West Virginia, enjoy some truly tranquil forest
backroads, ride with great people, and enjoy the support of the best
volunteer staff I've ever seen. I will be back.

Some technical notes: I was riding my '03 Specialized Allez Elite 27,
which has a 30/42/52 triple on the front and a 9-speed 12-25 cassette
out back. Most of the time when I was on the big climbs, I was either
spinning 30x25 or I was standing on 30x19 or 30x17.

An observation: 30x17 is a gear ratio of 1.76:1.

30x19 is a gear ratio of 1.58:1.

30x21 is a gear ratio of 1.43:1.

39x27 is a gear ratio of 1.44:1.

IOW, when I was standing and climbing, I was typically
turning a bigger gear than I would have had if I had a "conventional"
double crank (39/53) and a "mountain stage" cogset (12-27 or 12-28). It
would have meant standing a lot more often, though; the triple allowed
me to sit and spin more than I otherwise would have been able to, which
meant a lot less stress on my already fragile left Achilles tendon,
which was sore Sunday evening and all of Monday. I also highly doubt
that I could climb "the wall" (a very steep hill on Whitestown Road in
Butler County, PA, that averages a 24% grade, with a pitch in the middle
over 30%) in 39x27--it's all I can do to get up that thing in 30x25! I
don't know how Danny Chew (founder of Pittsburgh's "Dirty Dozen" ride)
can get up Canton Street (37% grade, cobblestones) with a 42 small ring.

Cheat Mountain Challenge website:

Chris BeHanna
'03 Specialized Allez Elite 27
'04 Specialized Hardrock Pro Disc

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