We found the devil in Georgia...

...and hell had frozen over.

Thursday, 11:30 am

My fears that we'd have a delayed departure, completely understandable given the logistics of renting a van from O'Hare at 9 am and then picking up five more cyclists with bags and bikes, were proved unfounded. Seven dudes, - Dave, Tom, Ben, Newt, Liam, Seth, and myself - plus 14 bags and nine bicycles were rolling on Lake Shore Drive to a date with some epic riding in northeast Georgia on Friday morning.

For the last 10 days we'd all been feverishly checking the forecast for Clayton, GA and our emotions had been given a wild ride. The predicted weather waffled between gorgeous and sunny with 50 degree highs, to a depressingly familiar wintry mix and not seeing much above 40. We were relativistic about it, however, since the latest snowy blast just days before our departure had given us some perspective.

Cold weather sucks. Cold weather and flat terrain sucks even worse. The training potential in the mountains of Georgia would be worth the trip, no matter the weather. How bad could it be?

The trip south was very entertaining. A drunk diver just ahead kept us rapt through most of Indiana. Kentucky greeted us in spectacular fashion:

Backseat Tecmobowl on Liam's laptop:

We counted no less than five Family Inns along the two mile main street through Pigeon Forge, the hometown of Dolly Parton and the Vegas of the South, if minigolf were gambling. Gatlinburg is only slightly less rednecky and a thousand times more consumerist, with its Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, aquarium, and Hard Rock Cafe. Thankfully, it ends in blackness almost as quickly as it began, and soon we were winding through the solitude of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the dark country roads beyond.

We arrived at the lodge shortly after midnight, with the time change. Brian was already there from Miami, and Coach Randy and Ed arrived within the hour from their flight to Atlanta. Newt had arranged for us to stay at his extended family's vacation home, and it was an absolute paradise. We'd all chipped in for his mom Jane's ticket down, and upon arrival in the rural dacha - replete with mounted trophies, a pool table, satellite TV, and 10 beds - dinner and homemade cookies were ready for us.

We chose our beds, unpacked enough to be ready to ride in the morning, and turned in late with the plan to ride the next day as long as it was dry.

Friday, February 12

We ate breakfast and watched the apocalypse unfold on The Weather Channel. 49 states received snow that day, or would. Pensacola. Oklahoma City. Dallas received 11.5 inches for God's sake. It was only a matter of time before it reached in our mountainous little hole just north of the Chattahoochee National Forest. But we figured it still couldn't be as bad as riding through Chicago's north burbs again, and up there was deeply covered in the white stuff.

Out we went.

It was very similar to my training rides in Asheville. Two lane roads, little traffic, run down shacks next to palatial plantation estates, ridges and hollers. Over the rollers we rode through the crisp winter air, dead grass and bare branches, ancient tractors and rusted cars filling in the rest.

One of the goals of coming to riding "vacation" like this, a camp, is to climb. The group can stay can together on the flatter parts at endurance pace, and on the mountains, it can be allowed to break up while everyone gets the intensity they are seeking - knives in the quads, flame in the lungs, tunnel vision. Then comes the descent, roller coaster fun, bombing corners as safely as you can - acquiring vital skills for fast criterium racing and cornering without brakes - then everyone regroups at the bottom, with no one dropped and lost in unfamiliar terrain.

First up was the famed Brasstown Bald, a stage-finish of the now-defunct Tour of Georgia. The gate was closed just after the turn off, but we decided we'd go until was no longer safe to descend what we'd just climbed. Soon we encountered a bit of snow, and maybe a half mile later the leaders stopped ahead due to sketchy gravel and other scree beginning to cover the pavement.

But I'd climbed well. Not sure if the others were holstering anything just then, but the gap hadn't grown very large at all. I'd pegged my heart rate about 90% and felt ready to go hard all the way to the top. Sorry to say that as far as we could go. Brasstown is one of the harder climbs in the country. Its last few hundred yards are in excess of 18% incline. It would've been great to add that climb as a notch in my seat post. But there we turned, and kept it calm and safe on the way back down. Even here it would be far too easy to slide while banking hard in a corner.

Before heading to Hogpen Gap, another climb in the old race, we stopped at a general store for water and fuel. The climb was steeper and longer than what we'd just previously done, still nothing like the torturous days in Asheville, and we soon encountered our first fresh snow. I was dropped by the group this time, with a more severe gap and came up eighth out of ten. Arriving at the gap at the top of the ridge, we stood there, incredulous:

The descent down took us below the snow immediately and the pavement was quality enough for full speed and barely any brakes. Good stuff. Dave, Tom, Newt, and Ben were working as a group ahead, while I was gapped slightly behind them. We reformed at the bottom, realized we were 50 something miles into an 87 mile ride, and decided to keep it together for remainder home. One last big climb remained.

As we curved up the ridge top the snow fall grew thicker, wetter, and heavier. Some of us were getting cold. Brian and Liam rode together just off the front of us, and a couple had fallen behind the pace on the way up. We regrouped at the top of the ridge and the snow was steadily falling with an ominous accumulation.

People began to shiver and question their ability to safely make it home. We all descended that last climb perilously in slick conditions, pumping the brakes while our faces were stung with the airborne ice and sleet that was forming in the lower elevation. At the meet up down there with core temperatures falling and stress levels rising, Ed and Seth decided to knock on the door of a house across the road and the Good Samaritans living there took them in. Brian bailed at the BP station, and Randy, in his ever-unflappable manner, announced we had 18 miles to go and led us off.

At first, the snow turned to mostly rain and I still felt strong and warm beneath my waterproof shell; but the spray from the road was soaking my winter bibs and gloves. Soon my fingers were going numb and when Randy said, after a seemingly interminable stretch of riding, that we still had 11 miles to go, I had to deliberately switch my mindset to do-or-die.

The sleet turned back to snow. Now I was was shivering. My fingers couldn't sense the shifters - not that it mattered. My chain was stuck in the 17 cog by ice accumulation. The brakes were caked in snow and dirty ice and would barely move. The descents were terrifying and the climbs treacherous, as the gearing was too much torque in the snow and the wheel skidded with each turn of the crank. A flat now would be disaster. There weren't many cars coming by now, and with my body struggling to keep its temperature up, I could be a half hour away from deciding to take a "nap" in a drainage culvert.

My only thought at this point was to keep Randy in sight, once he'd finally announced that we had two miles to go. Then I knew we'd made it. I was still terrified at the thought of those still behind me, and the slow, personal, shivering hell they were each experiencing. I began chanting "thank God, thank God," when I saw Randy signal right and turn off the highway, and soon I was following his tire track to the driveway of the lodge, dismounting my bike, and tromping in through the front door.

I couldn't get my gloves off fast enough. I was hesitant at the same time, afraid to see blackening fingers, but I knew that a stinging pain would follow the numbness in true frostbite. Instead I saw pale raisins and then immediately felt a burning agony as the blood began to flow back into them. Randy pulled off my shoes covers. My hands couldn't grasp the wet rubber soles and pry them over my cleats. Several times I doubled over shivering as my body sensed the warmer temps inside and began to expend all the energy necessary to try and elevate my body heat.

I jumped immediately into the shower after frantically getting the rest of my clothes off. I felt waves of warmth rippling through my limbs and up my neck. As I stood there with rivulets of hot water flowing over my eyelids, cheeks, and lips, Liam, who'd just arrived with Dave, Ben, and Tom, came running in asking for my camera, even though Tom was shivering uncontrollably in the next room. Still, he had a point:

His camp name was "Jedediah."

Tom eventually stopped shivering. We recovered that night over homemade meatloaf and veggies, and then ice cream and beer, and began to discuss our plan for the next day. More snow was forecast and we were deliberating heading south.

Next up, racing and riding in Florida. To avoid keeping you in too much suspense, it didn't suck:


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