For the last three years, one of the highlights of the Tour de Georgia professional bicycling race has been the penultimate stage, a grueling ride of well over 100 miles through the hills of northern Georgia and ending in a steep climb to the top of Brasstown Bald.
Three years ago, the Tour de Georgia established itself as one of the top pro cycling races in the world when Lance Armstrong used it to train for a record-breaking sixth Tour de France victory.
Also three years ago, my two sons and I were just beginning to appreciate the fun and training benefits of road cycling. That year, Landon, my younger son, and I took part in the first Circle the Bald event. We then hiked to the top of Brasstown Bald to see Armstrong come in second while defending the yellow jersey as overall race leader.
We enjoyed that trip so much we returned last year to see Armstrong in his final U.S. race. This trip report is about our repeat ride and hike this year.
Trip Summary: Circle the Bald
|Date||April 22, 2006|
|Distance||36.49 miles (11.23 mi uphill, 12.83 mi downhill, 12.42 flat)|
|Elevation||3499 ft total ascent (3501 ft descent) – 5.4% uphill grade, 14.0% downhill grade|
|Time||3:20:58 total time (3:07:12 moving, 0:13:46 stopped)|
Trip Summary: Hike to Brasstown Bald (one way)
|Date||April 22, 2006|
|Distance||4.23 mi (2.92 mi uphill, 0.64 mi downhill, 0.65 mi flat)|
|Elevation||2750 ft total ascent (263 ft descent) – 14.4% uphill grade, 17.9% downhill grade|
|Time||2:13:25 total time (1:58:19 moving, 0:15:06 stopped)|
The Circle the Bald route begins and ends at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee, Ga. The ride goes in a clockwise direction around Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia, and at one point coming to within three miles of the summit.
The hilly and sometimes challenging route travels through the small North Georgia towns of Hiawassee and Young Harris. Part of the route is on a four-lane highway, U.S. 76, but traffic has never been too heavy to make a rider feel in danger. The remainder of the route is on country backroads.
In the three years we have ridden this route we have never been threatened by a dog, a feature always appreciated by bicyclists. In our first ride, just a month after we had bought our first road bikes, we rode the 12-mile route. But as soon as we finished we realized we were up for more, so last year and this year we rode the more challenging 36-mile route.
Our hike to the summit of Brasstown Bald was not on a hiking trail, and if it wasn't for the fact that this was the Tour de Georgia race day we wouldn't have taken that route. But on this day, the road to the summit is closed to everyone but official vehicles, shuttle vans, and of course, the competitors. Those of use who didn't want to stand in long lines for a shuttle ride hiked to the top on a spur road from State Highway 180.
The road contains several sharp switchbacks and some occasional steep grades as it climbs to the top at 4,784 feet above sea level.
On a side note: older topo maps show the Appalachian Trail going over Brasstown Bald, but that section of trail is now called the Jacks Knob Trail. The trail now links the top of the mountain to the current route of the AT.
Landon and I pulled into the campground at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds around 11 p.m. This time we knew exactly where to go because I had reserved the same site we had camped in last year.
But when we arrived, we found another tent already there. The sites aren't particularly well marked, but we didn't sweat it because the next site over was vacant.
As we set up our tent and prepared for bed, I checked the sky. It seemed like some stars were trying to peak through the clouds, so I hoped the forecast for thunderstorms was wrong.
About an hour later the wind picked up, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. And then the rain started coming down in waves. The tent shook and I wondered if we would have to deal with the rainfly blowing off.
That didn't happen, though it might as well have. The rainfly did a surprisingly bad job of stopping the rain. Soon we were looking for ways to divert the water and keep our sleeping bags dry. Most certainly, this idea would not have worked.
Fortunately, the storm passed through in an hour or so, and except for an occasional shower the rest of the night was uneventful.
We awoke to only a drizzle, which wasn't enough to change our routine in preparation of the bike ride. After eating breakfast and striking our wet tent, we drove across the road to the staging area of the bike tour.
Two years ago, which was the first year of the event, the day was bright, sunny and warm. Last year it was dreary and bitterly cold. This year was a mix of dampness and partial sun; not the kind of day you would pick, but certainly not the kind that gave you trouble.
The weather must have affected the size of the crowd some because it seemed a little smaller than last year.
After some brief instructions by one of the organizers we were off in a mass start. Usually on one of these rides there will be someone who embarrassingly gets his foot stuck in a clip and falls over at the start, but that didn't happen this time. We left smoothly out of the fairgrounds parking lot and onto U.S. 72, a four-lane highway that leads to the center of Hiawassee.
As we neared a stoplight I saw some members of the local Lions Club stopping cars to collect money for blind children some other such charitable cause. I was tempted to stop and drop a dollar in the bucket. It would have been good for a chuckle. But the pack was moving and the light was green, so we pushed on.
Just outside of town the group split, with some riders taking the 12-mile route around a portion of Chatuge Lake and back to the fairgrounds. We were headed to Unicoi Turnpike, which is a hilly but pleasant ride.
After a few miles we reached a turn off to Owl Creek Road, and I began to slow down a bit. My reaction wasn't because of the terrain at this point; it was because I knew what lay ahead.
Oh, did I.
|Circle the Bald route profile|
This is one of those nasty hill climbs, the kind that sucks the life out of you but makes you believe you can make it, only to dash your hopes at the end with a false summit.
Or at least that's what is seemed like to me last year. For Landon, it was a different story. He just plowed up that hill like there was nothing to it.
I don't think I much care for 15-year-olds.
And now that he's 16, he's gotten worse. At the bottom of the hill he said to me, "I thinki I'll time myself," and then took off.
You're not supposed to loathe your own flesh and blood, but I was not feeling particularly fatherly at this point.
After eating an orange slice at the rest stop set up at the bottom of the hill, I set off on the climb. I expected my experience might be worse than last year. For one thing, I was now 50 years old. It seemed like a good excuse, anyway. I'd also been busy lately and had not been on a bike much.
But still, I was determined to make it to the top without stopping. And too my surprise, I made it there without feeling like my heart was about to explode.
Hey, maybe I'm in better shape than I was last year, not worse!
Later I decided I was glad I had not been there to watch when the professional cylcists climbed that same hill during the race. Putting my ride in that kind of perspective would have been a severe blow to my self esteem.
There were yet a few more hills to cliimb and about two-thirds of the route still to ride, so my self-congratulating had to end. We headed down the other side of Owl Creek Road where it met up with State Road 180.
Highway 180 is a popular staging area for cyclist to ride up and down the hills on this road and the spur road to the top of Brasstown Bald. Because of the race a few hours from now, there were many cars, bikes and pedestrians along this route.
At the spur road to the bald, Highway 180 heads downhill. But the heavy traffic made it difficult to travel full speed.
At one point, I was going a little faster than the traffic warranted. Then a car in front of me slowed down and I had to hit the brakes. Apparently, though, I hit the front brake a little stronger than the back because I began to fishtail on the road still damp from the morning's rain.
My back wheel swerved all over the place. I thought for sure I was going to crash. Landon did too. But somehow I managed to pull the bike out of a collision course with the road or the backend of the car.
That was more excitement than necessary.
The remainder of the ride down the hill was open, so it was easy to coast down at speeds of more than 40 mph.
At the bottom of the hill the route turns off the highway and back onto backroads. At this point we're only half-way done, but the ride is easier from here on out.
Eventually we get back on U.S. 76. As before, it's a four-lane highway without too much traffic. But it's not as scenic as the rest of the route. We pass several tourist stops, gas stations and the like on our way back to the fairgrounds.
A quick shower back at the campground and lunch in Hiawassee, then we drove back along our bike route to Brasstown Bald. We ended up having to park about a mile from the spur road, though, because the crowd was quickly building in anticipation of the race finish.
We walked up to the spur road, where Landon asked if we were going to take the shuttle to the top. I guessed he was tired from the bike ride and wanted an easy way to the top. But the line for the shuttle was already long, so I talked him out of it.
Funny thing was, after only hiking a short ways up the road, Landon said to me, "Can I run for a while?"
Hmmm. Maybe he wasn't so tired.
"Sure, whatever you want," I replied. There was no way I was going to run up that mountain with him. So off he ran, despite the fact that he was wearing hiking boots.
About a mile and a half up the road I saw him waiting for me. He was just standing there. Not passed out. Not gasping for breath. Just standing and waiting for his old man.
It's hard to hate your son, but I think I do.
Well, okay. I don't really. But why must he make me feel so old?
Anyway, we continued up the road, watching the many cycling fans who had already picked a spot along the way as their vantage point for viewing the race. Several were ringing cowbells, a traditional cycling fan noisemaker.
Bear in mind that the racers were still more than two hour away, but that didn't stop the cowbell ringers. They used the cowbells to encourage amatuer bicyclists trying to test their strength against the mountain.
The cowbells got to be a little obnoxious after a while, so I turned to Landon and said, "We need more cowbell." (If you don't get that reference, click here.)
There are really two levels to the summit of Brasstown Bald. The first has a large parking lot, which is used during the race as a sort of festival area for sponsors to pass out schwag and promote themselves. The vendors included a few cycling-product companies like Specialized and Maxxis. There were also banks and hospitals represented there.
The most out-of-place sponsor, though, was cable channel TLC. They were there to promote a new Monday night program lineup, which had nothing to do with cycling, fitness, the outdoors, or even Lance Armstrong. I'm not sure what that was all about, except that TLC is owned by The Discovery Channel, a bike team sponsor.
After looking around we continued our hike to the second level, the true summit. There's a large stone tower at the top, which is where the finish line was set up.
About the time we arrived and started looking for a vantage point to watch the finish of the race, two announcers started describing the action along the course.
They were hilarious. Unintentially hilarious, I should say.
Imagine two announcers hyping a pro wrestling match, then crank up the exaggeration another notch. That was these two guys.
When one of them said, "This has got to be the greatest day of cycling ever!" I said to Landon using their overarching manner of speaking, "These guys are the world's greatest masters of hyperbole ever!"
Admittedly, it was a very exciting day of racing. As the racers hit the bottom of Brasstown Bald the peloton remained intact. But as steep mountain climbs tend to do, the pack of riders soon splintered. Before long, only three riders held together at the front — Floyd Landis of the Phonak team, and two Discovery Channel riders, Tom Danielson and Yaroslav Popovych.
All three are among pro cycling's brightest stars. Landis was wearing the yellow jersey as this year's race leader. Danielson was trying to defend his Tour de Georgia title from last year. Popovych is fast becoming one of riders to watch.
As the cyclists climbed the mountain, it became a three-way chess match; as much a battle of strategy as strength.
Popovych fell back, then mustered enough strength to pull himself back even with the other two, only to fall back again. Landis never tried to take an advantage, but he didn't have to. He held a four-second lead over Danielson and just needed to stay on his rival's wheel to keep it.
Landon and I couldn't see any of this, of course, from our spot 40 meters from the finish line. We could only hear about the race as it described by the two shouting announcers.
Then just moments before the finish, the announcer booth power died and they were silent.
We were spared the hysterics as Danielson and Landis made the final dash to the finish line. We missed hearing the announcers split a spleen over the finish.
Though I'm sure cycling historians can find a race or two that were more exciting than this, the announcers notwithstanding, it was an exciting day for Landon and me.
What I’d do differently
- Try to train a little more before the ride.
- Remember to brake using mostly my rear brake.
- Hike to Brasstown Bald by way of Jacks Knob Trail, not the road.
What I’d do the same
- Pace myself so I can get to the top of the hill on Owl Creek Road without stopping.
- Hike my own hike, ride my own ride.
- Enjoy the day with my son!