It’s been a almost year since what was probably the worst ride of my life. Oh sure, there are those hard rides you later think of as epic, but this wasn’t one of those. In fact, I didn’t know this type of ride existed until the heat and the climbing opened my eyes to a new type of pain and humiliation on Thunder Ridge.
My History with Thunder Ridge
I’m not into drama, Not the kind that says, “Watch me act out and go on an on about all that’s wrong with my life.” I’m really not. But last year on a climb known locally as Thunder Ridge, I faced a serious comeuppance that I didn’t see coming.
It was the first really hot and humid day of the summer. I had been riding regularly since recovering from surgery January, and making what I thought was decent progress. On a coolish day only a week before the Thunder Ridge attempt, I had held my own at the annual Wilderness Road Ride in the New River Valley. So I went into the day with a reasonable expectation for success as we departed the Sedalia Center in Bedford County for an assault of Thunder Ridge a 12-14 mile climb averaging 6-7 percent on the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Strava says it’s 5.6 percent) The ride is on most local cyclists’ bucket list. It is also the focal point of the annual organized ride known as Storming Thunder Ridge.
For various reasons, I had been unable to participate in the organized version of the ride, so my wife Mary and I joined a small group of friends, including Steve Ruhf, Karen Deer and others for a low pressure assault on the famed peak. Little did I know how the assent could tighten the screws on someone who shouldn’t be there.
As I wrote in a previous post, Cycling with Sarcoidosis, I was taking heavy doses of prednisone as my doctors attempted to shrink something called a sarcoid which had decided to grow on the spinal cord at the base of my neck. This day would be the first realization of what I have come to accept as my new normal. But acceptance would not come easily.
As the climb began, most of the group was off the front. I stayed back with Mary and was happy to have the excuse of “helping” her up the mountain, so I would not have to push the pace or attempt to keep up with my normal group. For the first couple of miles, I actually believed I was helping her.
But as the road unfolded ever upward and the heat began to take its toll, I was unable to keep up. At one point Mary and Karen rode by me. As I struggled for every pedal stroke they were sitting up happily and chatting about a recipe for chicken salad.
The group waited for me at about the halfway point. By then I had pulled over twice to rest and try to lower my core temperature. I pulled up to the group and grossed them out by removing my gloves and wringing the water out of them. They laughed, but I wanted to cry.
And so it went for the second half of the climb. I drank all my water and two bottles from friends. As I recall, I nearly fell off my bike at the top. The cheers of my compatriots as I arrived at the overlook were much appreciated, but there was serious discussion of whether they should call 911 to come get me. It was that bad. For the record, I completed the ride, which thankfully was mostly downhill back to the car.
The rest of the summer would not be much better as I fought the side effects of the prednisone and whatever else was happening with sarcoidosis.
RETURN TO THUNDER RIDGE
Sunday dawned cloudy and misty. Temperatures were only in the low 60’s and the forecast called for no improvement. This reflected my mood as we loaded the car at 5 am for the trip back to the Sedalia Center. We’d gone to bed late the night before after the Puppy Love Ball fundraiser for the Roanoke Valley SPCA where Mary is finance director. She had roped me into to serving as guest auctioneer, so we had both been busy all evening. It had been a good night, but draining. Combine all of that with the above mentioned memories of Thunder Ridge and my mood was gloomier than the weather.
Steve and Karen joined us for the ride known as “The Mountain Only” version of the longer, 75 and 100 mile treks that started at the Lynchburg YMCA. We would be doing 48 miles, which seemed more than adequate.
We biked rolling terrain for about 8 miles before the base of the climb. I felt good. But then, at this point last year I also felt good. The lousy weather and my severe beating at the hands of the mountain as well as the humiliating and much repeated story of the “chicken salad” conversation were all at the front of my mind as my Garmin informed me the road was now tilting up at 6 percent.
I settled in and began to find a rhythm. Steve disappeared up the road, but a pleasant gap developed behind me back to Mary and Karen. If they were chatting idly about lunch, I couldn’t hear them. I passed the spot where I had pulled over the year before, with no inclination to do so this time.
Not long after, a whooshing noise came upon me from the rear as the leaders of the 75/100 mile ride passed me like I was standing still. I was a bit miffed, but then I admitted to myself that this was a group of people whose talent and fitness were in a different league than my own. I pedaled on.
A steady stream of 75 milers and century riders passed me for the rest of the climb. But I passed a few people myself. Each of us riding the mountain at our own pace. Each facing the demon as best they could.
Steve was waiting for me at the rest stop at the halfway point of the climb. Together we ate a cookie, refilled our fluids and waited for Mary and Karen who were not far behind. It was cold and blustery inside the cloud that enveloped us even at this elevation. With six more miles of climbing there was nothing to do but zip up my nylon shell and continue up.
And so it went. Up and up. Other cyclists passed me regularly. I was in my easiest gear, being ever respectful of the mountain and the potential that I might blow up at any minute. I marveled at all the riders who were in much harder gears, and pedaling what appeared to be effortlessly.
The year before I had stopped “to take pictures” (or anything to give my legs a break) but this year, I just kept pumping and watching as the miles ticked away on the GPS .
Gone were the doses of prednisone that had puffed up my face and bloated my abdomen. The drug I blame for last year’s debacle on this road. Who knows if I will ever return to the form I once took pride in? In this moment, near the top, today’s form was a victory.
Eventually, I heard a cowbell. A young girl at the rest stop was ringing it to welcome riders to the summit. She slowly came into view when I was about 100 yards away. The fog was so thick that you couldn’t see much further. It was a relief to know I had made it.
Steve was standing among several dozen other riders and the saintly volunteers who, in the chilly fog, dutifully handed out cookies, sandwiches and Gatorade to the tired souls who had climbed the ridge. Some of us were more tired than others.
But for me there was no discussion of emergency aid. I was fine, if understandably tired. The rest of the ride would be fun and without incident. The nine mile descent to the Peaks of Otter Lodge a welcome reward for the climb.
I had not conquered Thunder Ridge. The conquerors would be those who rode it effortlessly — dare I say routinely. But deep within me I had checked a box that badly needed it. With a single ride I had regained a bit of confidence.
The bluster of my previous years may be gone forever, but at least for now I know I can do this. I may never own it, may never be off he front of a ride again, but in the clouds at the top of the ridge I was able to see my way forward to days of more enjoyable cycling.