That's how far of a distance it is from the very center of Chicago to Blairsville, Georgia. That's a big chunk of distance and that's the distance that a group of 10 members of Half Acre Cycling traversed in order to spend four days and some odd hours training in the mountains of beautiful, bucolic, friendly northern Georgia.
But first we had to get there. Last Tuesday at 7 pm, Half Acre Cycling gathered on the Chicago lakefront to load up cars with bikes and bags in the pouring rain. This rain seemed to follow us like a curse, or a stink, as we drove down in a caravan on I-65 south through Indiana. Cars aerodynamically burdened with bikes on their roofs swayed in the 50 mph crosswind, raindrops washing away bearing grease and chain oil. The going was slow -- by 1 am we had all adjourned to a Flying J/Arby's, where Chris treated all to some jalapeno poppers, and Dan wasted money on a sad excuse of a horse racing arcade game.
Shortly after, we all got back on the road and eventually the skies cleared up enough that driving was no longer a white-knuckled affair. Too bad this was at about 3 in the morning, when most other sensible people are slumbering in warm beds. Half Acre had hills to ride and fueled by Spike Shooters and bad truckstop food, it was a marathon cruise toward the south. In the Ford Focus driven by Chris, and accompanied by Dan, Joe and Zach, disaster was averted by a quick stop at a gas station in Lexington, KY to check out a mysterious vibration coming from the rear of the car. Seems as if the lugnuts on both rear wheels were loose and only miles from falling off, with the wheels likely to follow.
The other members of our convoy, Helge's Forester with Mia, Soupy and Kevin, and the Scion captained by Jeremiah and skippered by Adrian, had much better luck than us. For all of us in the Focus, though, we made a diversion to "Deal's Gap":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deals_Gap,_North_Carolina, otherwise known as The Tail of the Dragon, where we tested the limits of adhesion and our stomachs on the 318 turns in 11 miles of that strip of pavement. This post ain't about driving cars fast, however.
We all eventually rendezvoused at Waffle House in Blairsville at about 11 am on Wednesday. A short drive to the rental office and to the house, tucked on the side of the hill in a gated community, and we were finally able to relax and stretch. Of course, an easy ride came first, "just a short cruise":http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=2640766 to ease out the aches of travel, and for many of the Half Acre riders, this was their first time plying their bikes on anything resembling a hill. Adrian managed to break a chain during a badly-timed downshift from his large to small chainring and Helge was chased by a dog.
Dinner that night was spaghetti, as it was every night, thanks to the foresight and generosity of Jeremiah, who had brought along 10 pounds of the stuff to Georgia. 'Course, we had Helge to help make the stuff taste _good_. Beers were guzzled, and ice cream devoured. Mostly everyone was in bed by 10, because we had mountain climbing to take care of for Thursday.
Shepherded by Soupy, who'd ridden these hills a year earlier, we selected a "40 mile loop":http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=2640827 that would have us climb three gaps, Wolfpen, Stone Pile, and finally, Blood Mountain. After a group warm up, Joe launched an attack on the first climb of the day and was the first to top Wolfpen, followed shortly by me, Adrian, Kevin and Mia. We all waited at the top, took some pictures, and then bombed the descent to Suches. While Joe is a climbing ace, Soupy is a descending monster and would often pass me without pedaling on the steepest of pitches. At the bottom, we hit the rolling terrain hard and at the top of Stone Pile, I was able to outsprint Joe for KOM points as we crested the top.
The view at Stone Pile was amazing -- and being that it was at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail, we were able to talk with some hikers who were starting or were finishing their trek across the trail while we regrouped for the descent. The descent off Stone Pile was one of the most amazing experiences any of us have ever experienced on the bike. Smooth, perfect pavement, wide turns, nearly every turn could be taken at 45 MPH without touching the brakes. All one needed to get down quickly was guts, experience, or both.
The final climb up Blood Mountain was a brutal one. A long slog at grades from 5-8% that sucked the life out of one's limbs, all one could do on this slope was look down at the handlebars (or the ridiculously low number in the display of one's computer or PowerTap), and hope that it would all end sooner rather than later. Some of us tangled and battled on the way up the mountain with a rider from the Jamaican National Team and a few Cat. 1s who were kind enough to not annihilate us 3/4/5 riders, but for most of Half Acre, it was a solo effort. At the top, Chris weighed his bike on a scale as old as its operator and Kevin chugged some Gatorade.
Course, the descent back down to the cars made it all worthwhile. Exhilarating. That afternoon, a small group of us went for a "recovery" ride to even out the mileage to an honest 50 for the day, but hardly was it easy, nor did it help us recover. Something about all those 10% pitches on the way out of the neighborhood helped dispell the notion of any ride being an easy one in northern Georgia. That night, a carload went to North Carolina to buy beer because our town was a dry one. Next year we'll go wet, for sure.
Friday, we hooked-up with a group of three Canadians we'd befriended at the Waffle House on Wednesday, and they took us on a 55 miler all over the area, the route of which I cannot remember. The rain we'd escaped two days earlier had finally made it to us 10 minutes after we'd set out the door, and by the end of the ride, we were all covered in grit, dirt, and worm guts. The Canadians were all strong riders and made all of us hurt some -- a good thing for a training camp. The climbs were shorter, steeper, and punchier. Mia was crushing the guys, and that day was the one she earned the moniker "Rocketship." With any luck, she'll be a serious contender in the women's fields this year on her amazing, beautiful Eddy Merckx.
Friday night, we gorged again on excellent cooking, washed our bikes, and fought over who got to read the issues of Vanity Fair, Maximum Rock 'n Roll, and Cog Magazine that were lying about. And much like both days before, we all passed out from exhaustion by about 11 pm. I promise we can party when we want to.
Saturday morning, the drizzle had turned into rain, but for me, Adrian, Jeremiah, Kevin, Mia and Soupy, it was a fine day for a bike ride. We'd set out on an "out-and-back":http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=2640965 to the humorously-and-mysteriously named municipality of Deep Hole. We never made it that far, because the rain turned torrential and our feet and hands numb and cold. No matter, because while we were out riding and getting tough, the rest of our team was eating BBQ and visiting sad, depressing flea markets.
Saturday night, Chris drove Jeremiah, Mia, Soupy and myself to the top of Brasstown Bald, which we were unable to ride because of the weather. Certainly, driving up a mountain is a poor substitution for a bike ride, but it had to do. The view from the top was of nothing but grey, as the peak was ensconsed in a drizzly, mopey cloud. We all then drove on to Helen, where we bought more booze and Tostito's Lime chips and I made another annoying joke referencing The Kids in the Hall skit, "30 Helens agree..."
That night, cold water was poured on Adrian, Helge, Mia and Kevin while they were in the hot tub, and Dan fell down the stairs of the house. Surprisingly, he wasn't hurt -- a first perhaps.
Yesterday, we were up before the sunrise to pack the cars and clean the house before heading the way we came to Flatlandia. A reminder to all: never visit the Casa Festiva somewhere in southern Kentucky. Our team almost broke apart over plates of heavily-salted refried beans and mediocre salsa. Taco Bell would've kept everyone happy and contented, well, except maybe Helge and Kevin.
Home by 7:45pm, we all slept in our own beds, comfortable and with sore legs earned from serious, heavy climbing. No crashes, no injuries other than nagging knees, the 2009 Half Acre Training Camp was a resounding success.