Somehow I let time slide until mid May before I realized I hadn’t done one of the ITTs yet this year. Knowing that invite to the Fall Invitational wasn’t going to appear out of thin air, I figured I had better get moving. In fact, why not try to squeeze the Triple Crown into 6 weeks? I never seem to do these things the easy way…
First up was the Tellico Highlands route. I’ve done all the roads on this route many, many times, so my thinking was I would get it over with and save the routes that feel more adventurous to me for the end. I’m not saying it’s a good plan, but it’s a plan!
I was off and pedaling at about 9:30am on a beautiful morning. The temperature was hanging out in the low 60s and the sun was shining, so I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I elected to park in Tellico so I could have an easy spin to wake up my legs instead of just jumping straight onto Wildcat cold (keep reading until the end to find out my final thoughts on this decision…)
My game plan was to keep the pace steady and sensible. No sense being a hero on the early climbs, just to crash and burn in the second half of the route. Having just raced the Waucheesi 88 at the end of March, I had a good idea of the kind of time I could reasonably ride. I knew if everything went well Jon Livengood’s FKT was within reach. I just needed to ride smart, and that started with not burning too many matches on Wildcat.
Immediately, I knew I was having a fantastic day. I was intentionally holding back, keeping my heart rate nice and low (relatively speaking,) and I was still checking off PRs on every climb. When I hit Green Cove I was 12 minutes ahead of my pace from my ITT last year and feeling great. I quickly filled my bottles at the pump station and kept rolling towards North River. The one mile road from the pump station to North River Road was pretty torn up from logging, but as soon as I hit the river, it was smooth sailing. Just avoid the cavernous pot holes and cruise. I didn’t see a single car on the entire climb, and before I knew it, I was on the pavement and ready to head down the Skyway. I tucked in and enjoyed the descent, topping out at 50mph, which I think is a new record for me when not on a road bike.
At this point I was about 25 minutes ahead of my previous time and still feeling pretty good. I jumped onto the lap around the lake, which I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with, to be honest. It’s easy riding, and it’s fun, but it can become a huge headache if it’s crowded. This time I resolved to just enjoy it and not stress. Everything was going great until I came around the corner to jump onto the dam and discovered a group of about 40 people crammed in the middle taking selfies. I can’t promise that a few people didn’t fall over the edge in the process, but somehow I managed to squeeze myself and my bike across. I made a quick stop for the lake selfie, and powered on around the loop. It pained me to skip a stop at the camp store, but I was on a mission. I just quickly filled my bottles on my way out and headed down the road.
When I made the turn to start climbing up to Farr Gap, I was still feeling pretty good. I knew I had some of the toughest riding on the route ahead of me, so I intentionally eased my foot off the gas a bit. I tried to just keep my effort steady and smooth. I was starting to feel the day’s effort catching up to me when I finally got to the top, but I was still on pace and buckled up to enjoy the rowdy descent. Luckily I was already on the brakes to stop at the piped spring at the bottom, because several genius level tourists had parked their cars completely blocking the road. I gulped a bunch of watch, inched around their vehicles, and headed down the river to Miller’s Ridge.
When I made the turn and rode around the gate at Jake’s Best, I knew I was going to be in for some pain. That road is steep and constantly undulating, not to mention it is lined with the many souls of cyclists who’ve seen their rides fall to pieces as they pedal up yet another hill, wondering if this one is finally the last. When I started up, I knew I had nothing left to hold back for, since this would be the last major hurdle on the route. I pushed the gas pedal to the floor, hoping the finish would come before the engine blew.
It didn’t. At some point on that 9 mile stretch of hell, I realized the check engine light had come on. I was starting to really feel the miles adding up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to ride this route fast without things starting to get a little dark by the end, so I kept the RPMs pegged and pushed on. Finally, I found the turn onto Rafter Road, but at this point steam was starting to pour from under the hood and the engine was definitely sputtering. I passed 2 people on hardtails about half a mile before Rafter Road and thought to myself “oh cool! Some people riding the Vista!” I think I yelled some encouragement as I went by, failing to notice they didn’t have any bags on their bikes and they were headed the wrong way. This should have been a sign that I was in trouble, but I didn’t notice. I just knew that I felt pretty bad, but the finish was in sight.
I negotiated Turkey Creek Road and finally dropped back to the river. I knew the FKT had slipped beyond my grasp, but I was still looking at a big PR and possibly slotting into second overall. At this point I should make a PSA to everyone considering riding the route: make sure you look at the actual route before you go. I didn’t, so I had no idea that the out and back to Bald River Falls was removed from the route for this year. I was starting to really fall apart at that point, and could have done without those 4 miles, but I guess that’s my stupidity tax. I tried to keep a steady pace, but I was rapidly realizing that my body temperature was slowly creeping up. When I FINALLY saw Oosterneck, I was having a full blown come-apart.
Remember my decision to park in Tellico? Well, this was when it backfired monumentally. What I should have done was sit myself in the river immediately, but I wasn’t exactly thinking very clearly. I knew I had to get back to my car, so all I could think to do was roll back down towards civilization. After what felt like an eternity, I came to the edge of town. At this point I had completely lost the ability to regulate my own body temperature. I remember sort of disassociating from my body for short periods as I drug myself up the 2 tiny, insignificant hills at the edge of town, then rolling into the visitor’s center parking lot. I made a good choice when I decided to turn my car on and crank the AC to cool it off, but then went and laid in the grass for 45 minutes before I “woke up” to my phone ringing. At that point, I staggered into the car and lay in a daze for who knows how long. It was a very, very strange experience when my body finally cooled off enough and my brain snapped back to life. Suddenly the fog cleared and I could think clearly, just like someone flipped a switch. I loaded up my bike, changed clothes, and drove to the gas station for gallons of fluids.
In the end, my time was 7:28 and I somehow ended up with the fastest time for the year by 5 minutes (even with my bonus out and back to the waterfall.) A major contributing factor was I had less than 7 minutes cumulative stopped time, and this included a couple minutes of convincing my front derailleur to start working again after I spilled a bunch of maple syrup on it and it got gunked up with dust. I have to say, of all the times I’ve done this route, this was definitely the most memorable! Next time I’m getting in the river!
My bike was a Pivot Vault running Cinturato M tires in 45c. Gearing was a 48/30 crank with 11-34 cassette.