I avoid cycling in the rain when I don’t have to, but sometimes I must get from Point A to Point B even when the clouds are dumping on me. The last week of September I rode the North Carolina Mountains to the Coast event and it was almost all in the rain.
We rode in the rain, camped in the rain, packed our tents in the rain, set them up in the rain, ate in the rain, walked into the rain from the shower trucks and constantly checked the weather to see when the rain would stop. All we saw was “rain expected throughout the day.” Every day. When the sun surprisingly broke through on day four, we all felt like vampires who must hide from its rays.
As luck has it, we were riding toward Hurricane Joaquin. NC Emergency Management eventually called the ride off with two days to go to keep 1,000 crazy cyclists from peddling toward the very town Joaquin was targeting on North Carolina’s east coast. I did not protest.
My buddy Steve Moorhouse, a fellow draftee in 1972 who had traveled from Colorado for the ride, and my local riding buddy Tibor Shimek rode 300 miles — along with 1,000 of our closest friends — the first four days coming out of Waynesville, to Hendersonville, to Shelby to Concord to Southern Pines. We were blessed to spend three nights with friends, rather than wrestling with the rain and equipment in the campgrounds. Basically, that gave us a night to dry our equipment after packing it up wet in the morning. We were so grateful.
Our first day of riding included a four-mile hill of 10 percent grade. That ascent is difficult for you to imagine but think of the steepest hill in your neighborhood. It’s probably a few hundred yards long and requires your hardest effort to climb or walk. Now stretch that effort the length of four miles.
I wanted to quit on it many times. But I couldn’t find a good place to dismount because the road was littered with walking cyclists! No, the real reason I gutted the climb was because of a failure five years ago.
On the last day of RAGBRAI, the annual ride across Iowa, 10,000 riders faced Potter’s Hill, a one-mile climb that reached the nearly impossible grade of 19 percent at one point. Yes, in Iowa.
I didn’t make it up Potter’s Hill without walking my bike for a spell and it has bothered me ever since. I didn’t even dip my tire in the Mississippi at the end of the ride because I felt I hadn’t earned the privilege. That failure motivated me up the NC mountain through Pisgah National Forest.
Climbing the switchbacks on the mountain road that passes Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls on its downside, I could see only a hundred yards ahead. I had no idea how many switchbacks remained, but I found a cadence I could maintain, though it required my strongest effort. Each turn revealed only another section of hill.
I don’t know how much longer I could have gone, but when I made what turned out to be the final corner and found myself at the top, I was too tired to cheer. I wasn’t too tired to feel awfully proud. Many others made it without walking, but probably half did not.
Our reward should have been a long, swooping descent with a light feathering of the brakes to keep our speed under control. Instead, the downhill was tense because the roads were wet and covered with slick leaves, it was raining and my hands cramped trying to create enough braking power on slick rims to keep from straying into oncoming traffic or going into the ditch. I was unsuccessful only once, but the ditch was shallow.
The beauty of riding in the mountains is that hard climbs are usually rewarded with lovely descents. There is a gift for your sacrifice. Of course, some riders think the climb is their reward and a descent is a waste of time. They are the crazy ones that mothers warn their daughters not to marry.
If on your ride, or in your life, you’re in a hard spot, keep pedaling. Find a cadence you can maintain and turn the crank. The top is around the next corner. Surely.
But you know what? If you must walk it for a while, that’s alright too. It’s not really a failure, and it may motivate you for the next big hill.