YO, ADRIAN! I DID IT!
My rematch with Pilot Mountain ended in sweet victory: I made it all the way to the top without clipping out of my pedals. After my savage 2007 defeat, revenge was glorious—even though there were no witnesses. (You can trust me. I made it.)
Here are the stats:
- Time / Date: 12:00 PM, November 29.
- Condition: low 40s, overcast, light wind
- Bicycle: Trek 5200 carbon frame with 30/42/53 triple crank and 12-25 9-speed cassette.
- Gearing: 30-25 most of way; 30-21 for the last quarter mile.
- Distance: 2.33 miles.
- Time: 25:23 (0.423 hours).
- Average speed: 5.51 mph. (Blazing!)
- Max speed: 9.3 mph. (Had to be in the parking lot at the summit.)
- Average cadence: 54 rpm.
- Max cadence: 80 rpm. (Again, had to be at the summit.)
- Number of idiot drivers who yelled me for riding a bicycle in a state park: 1.
Before you yell at me about the gearing, consider this: my middle ring is a 42, the biggest you can get, and while Pilot Mountain is a short route it’s a very tough climb. 42-25 is the same ratio as 30-18, which would have been ridiculous. Here is the elevation profile:
The average grade is just under 10%.
My day started with about four miles of warm up laps on the roads adjacent to the state park. It was a cold, I was stiff, and I felt like I had little chance of pulling this off. I was particularly worried about having no one there to motivate me. Last year, Rich DePolt rode with me and without his encouragement, I’m not sure I would have made it to the top at all.
The few inclines on the road next to the park were only 2% or 3% climbs, and I didn’t feel too good on any of them. But during my warmup I concentrated on maintaining an easy, low-effort pace–like a Zone 2 workout–rolling along at 14 to 17 mph. I reset my computer at the Stokes County-Surry County line, about 0.7 miles from the entrance to the park, and hit the lap button as I turned onto the main road to the summit (the data above are for the climb only, not the warm up or descent).
I decided to just start in the 30-25 gear and leave it there. There wasn’t any point in trying to turn over a larger gear and blowing up halfway through the ride. And my strategy was simple: low-effort the entire way. I didn’t care if my muscles ached since I knew the climb would only be two miles. But I wanted to avoid spiking my heart rate, which would eventually force me to stop and catch my breath. That’s what happended to me in 2007. In fact, the biggest difference between this year and last year, aside from the fact that I was probably stronger, is that I managed my energy much better this year. I was able to vary my speed between 4 mph and 6 mph, and catch my breath without having to stop.
The road starts tough, with the grade between 10% and 14% through the first third of the climb. There is a brief respite as you pass the Ranger station near the bottom of the road (the lower parking lot), that doesn’t appear on the elevation profile above (the resolution isn’t high enough). But except for that, I was working hard from the very beginning, and not very comfortable. I kept expecting my heart rate to spike throwing me into some kind of oxygen debt that would force me to stop and rest. But it never happened.
I remembered the approximate location of the first stop I made in 2007. As I passed it, I was thinking, “well, maybe I’m going slow enough to keep my HR under control.” But the switch-backs were still in front of me. They’re tougher than nails, and are still the toughest climbs I’ve experienced. But as I ascended them, I was able to modulate my speed and effort to keep my breathing under control. In the end, I think a climb like this is more about technique than fitness. You need a certain amount of energy to make it to the top, but it’s how you manage the energy that will determine whether you blow up before you reach the peak.
After the switch backs, I knew I was going to make it without stopping, unless I did something stupid. I stood up only twice, to stretch my back. Whenever my speed went above 6 mph and I could feel my breathing accelerate, I backed off and slowed my cadence and speed to stay under threshold. And that’s what kept me going. The last half-mile really is fairly easy. The average grade is only 3%, and the steepest part might be 7 or 8% for a few meters.
In the end, it was a bit anti-climatic. Pilot Mountain is a challenging climb for almost anyone, and I feel vindicated that I achieved my goal. But there are much tougher climbs out there. On the way home from Mount Airy, we traveled north on Hwy 52 through Fancy Gap, Virginia, to pick up I-77 near the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a long, beautiful route, with some serious climbing. I might have to put that on my calender for 2009.