The Tour De Nantahala: the Nantahala Nightmare

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 The Figurehead (front and center), Coleman (green shirt), Walker (blue), and Tardy (orange) near in the mountains near the Tour. 

The Nightmare was everything it was billed to be and more. Bruce Coleman, Daniel Tardy, Marshall Walker, Brian Bush, and I all managed to load all of our bikes and gear into and on Bruce’s Suburban. We left Murfreesboro, TN around 9:00am headed east for the mountains of North Carolina and our date with destiny – The Tour de Nantahala. Only Bruce had previously done a century ride. The drive took around 5 hours, but the time flew by. Piggy backing off of a devotional that all of us had heard at work by Jamie George, pastor of the Journey Church in Franklin TN, we took the time to learn each others life stories. One by one we shared not only our story, but many of our hopes, dreams, disappointments, and triumphs along life’s path. By the time we arrived in NC I felt like I understood each of these guys much better. We were all already friends, but knowing each other on new levels made us really root for each other to defeat those mountains in the coming days. Thanks Jamie for the inspiration…and thanks Bruce for forcing us to do it.

When we arrived we started following the shore line of Nantahala Lake towards our cabin. We joked about the directions we had been given, because we were literally told to “make a right at the big Oak tree in the middle of a patch of grass.” Sure enough though, we rounded a corner and there it was…a big oak in the middle of a patch of grass. In his excitement Bruce got on the gas pedal before realizing we were headed down a gravel road deep into a “holler”.  We took a couple of hairpin turns before spotting the cabin on the lake.

The place was great. It had enough beds for all of us, a great kitchen, and a great view of the lake. We ran around checking everything out while Johnny Cash welcomed us on the radio. We eventually decided to head over the NOC to see if we could get our race packets. The drive down Wayah Rd. took about 30 minutes and gave us a nice preview of our descent down from the crest of Wayah. All of us were a bit nervous about the sharp curves and long down hill stretchs. Speeds would be high, so we’d have to keep our wits about us after a long day in the saddle.

When we arrived there were a few staffers getting things prepared. They informed us that we couldn’t pick our stuff up until the next morning. I fielded a couple of calls; one from Brett Lanham telling me that he had forgotten his helmet – a staffer told me that he could borrow a NOC helmet. I also took a call from Mark Miller. Mark and his wife Karen had driven the Wayah Gap climb that day. He suggested that our gang would be better off not going to preview it, because we would have nightmares about it.

We drove back to the cabin to meet up with David Boatman from Charlotte. Bruce prepared the Spaghetti and french bread while we enjoyed a few adult beverages. Jack Johnson chilled the mood a bit. Cyclists are a funny bunch…later that night we started comparing what we’d wear the next day to stay warm. We each showed off our multiple layers of spandex. Later we watched the latest James Bond movie Casino Royal while we tried to fall asleep. I think most of us laid awake all night thinking about 106 miles through those mountains.

We got up at 5:15 am and started throwing things together; gels, bars, gatorade, bottles of water, various caffiene products, and the all important chamois butt’r. Bruce had never used it, but we strongly urged that the try it. We’ll just say that he’s hooked on the good lube now.

When we arrived at the NOC it was still pitch dark and freezing cold. There were cyclists running around, everyone making last minute preparations. Somehow we managed to park right next to the Millers and the Lanhams. We exchanged pleasantries and took some pictures. Those were probably the final real smiles until the end of the day. Time to ride.

The gun caught us all off guard. Daniel, David, and Mark all took off immediately. I was stuck in the middle trying to decide if I should wait for the rest of the guys. Brett eventually caught up, but said that Bruce, Marshall, and Brian were still putting on their shoe covers. We tried to go slow, but we eventually hooked up with a guy from Chattanooga. We rode a decent pace for a few miles still thinking Bruce and his train would catch up. The first climb caught us off guard. I didn’t expect to start up hill so quickly, but the mountains wasted little time showing us what kind of day it would be. The guy from Chattanooga and I climbed at an even pace while Brett fell of the back a bit. I stopped and hooked back up with Brett about 15 miles in. Still no sign of Bruce, Marshall, and Brian. I was a bit surprised we hadn’t caught Daniel, David, and Mark as well.

About 25 miles in we reached the first rest stop. The boys who were up ahead were waiting there on us along with a large peloton of riders. We hung for a bit eating PBandJ and drinking hot chocolate. There was some debate about whether or not to wait on Bruce and the gang. We ended up rolling out with the peloton though without the others.

Around 27 miles in we reached the base of Stecoah Gap – supposedly the first big climb of the day. I felt like we had already climbed a couple of mountains at that point though. Mark set the pace at the front of a group of about 25-30 riders. I sat back a few bikes behind him. When we reached Stecoah there was alot of nervous chatter in the peloton about whether or not this was indeed “Stecoah”. It was. Some strong riders took the lead heading up the mountain. I stayed patient thinking I’d hold back for Wayah. I rode conservatively, but eventually realized I was with the leaders and my buddies were back down the road a ways. The guys at the front were clearly climbers, so I held on to their pace for about a half mile. The grade was around 8%. Eventually, to my surprise, the pace became too slow for me. Going against my plan, I went ahead and attacked. I dropped the group of lead riders quickly and set a hot pace up the mountain. I didn’t look back for a long while fearing that someone had come with me. My lungs were burning and I was actually wheezing when I finally looked back. There were a handful of “ants” following me up the mountain. The gap was huge. Was I a stud? Or had I blown myself up on Stecoach with 80 miles and some serious climbing still to come? Probably the latter, but I like to think it was a little of both.

We regrouped at the top and took several pictures of the views. It was beautiful. The trees were orange, red, and yellow – perfect time of year for the ride. Once Mark, David, Daniel, and Brett arrived and rested we started the descent being careful the whole way down. Somewhere between Stecoah and the next rest stop we went through some thick fog and eventually climbed another mountain that had a name at the top – I can’t recall what it was though.

We regrouped at the 2nd rest stop and again started debating whether or not we should wait on Bruce, Marshall, and Brian. After about 20 minutes of drinking Gatorade and eating PBJ and cookies Bruce and Marshall finally rolled in.

“Where’s Bush?,” I yelled.

“He’s probably at the hospital by now,” replied Bruce.

He and Marshall told us what had happened – that Brian had gone into terrible pain about 10 miles into the ride with a kidney stone. Terrible luck. They hauled him back to the cabin in one of the SAG wagons we later learned. The mood was somber for the next few miles as I think we were all thinking about all of the training Brian had invested in this ride. Eventually our quite thoughts became more agony as we hit some big climbs yet again. We climbed in groups of two for the most part. Mark and I did a couple of big ones together chatting casually.

65 miles in we stopped at the last rest stop before the ascent up Wayah Gap. The group was toast; Daniel was hurting all over – talking about dropping out, Bruce was dizzy and cramping, and everyone had various complaints. We ate and drank, but there wasn’t much joking around at this point. We all knew what lay just ahead on the road. We all shedded our winter riding gear and gave it to the SAG wagon to deliver back to the NOC. Now, riding in shorts and short sleeve jerseys, we were ready for Wayah.

The road started immediately up hill after leaving the rest stop. I sat on the very back of the pace line – right behind Bruce. I noticed a gap open between the group and Bruce in front of me. It widened more; I noticed Bruce weaving a bit and just barely turning the pedals.

“Bruce! You alright?,” I yelled.

“mmmbble,” he groaned.

“What!!?”

“grrrrmmmble.”

I rode up beside him. He wasn’t doing too good. He was dizzy and the cramps were back. He urged me to ride on ahead and leave him. I decided to stay with him instead. Eventually Marshall dropped back to us. I felt like going; I didn’t want to be last to the top of Wayah so I took off trying to catch the others. I caught Daniel and Brett first after some hard riding. David and Mark were farther up the rode. Just in front of us was the monster. The rode disappeared into it’s belly. 4 miles at an average grade of 9% through numerous switch backs. Daniel reminded me to eat something before starting the ride up.

“Oh, by the way,” he said. “Boatman’s goal today was to beat you to the top of Wayah.”

“Well, he can have it,” I said. Riding with Mark and with a head start there was no way I could catch them.

I dropped Daniel and Brett. We decided to all suffer alone – climbing as David put it “is a very personal thing.” Sometimes you just want to be left alone to suffer in silence. I put the gas pedal down for some reason and was passing riders all over the mountain. I was crushing Wayah in my polka dot socks. There was still no sign of Mark and David though. Hairpin turn after turn I’d look up the rode for them. Two strong riders together up ahead spelled trouble. Eventually I rounded a turn and there they were, about 30 yards ahead. I had them. I stayed quite wanting to surprise them when I reappeared on their wheel. Just then it hit; a hamstring cramp seized me. I swerved off the rode and tried not to scream. I didn’t want them to know I had gotten that close. I stretched and waited for the pain to subside. A guy from Atlanta stopped to keep me company – he was hurting bad. I eventually started back up the mountain and grabbed my original pace. There was still a chance. I dropped more riders and then…BAM…the wall; I couldn’t turn the pedals. I stopped again…wheezing…suffering…alone this time. I started climbing again and passed spray paint on the road, just like in the Tour: Allez Allez Allez…Venga Venga Venga…Boatman Boatman…Miller….Lanham…

“Where’s my name?” I thought. It never appeared. My anger fueled the last bit of the climb. I reached the top that was spray painted with KOM (King of the Mountains). Boatman was spralled out against the side of the mountain, clearly wasted. Miller yelled at me:

“I want those (expletive) socks right now!” Mark had beaten David (and me) to the top. No surprise as Mark is a stud. An Ironman (along with Brett).

We laughed and gave each other five. Man, I was toast. It was freezing at the summit of Wayah, so we decided not to wait on the others. We descended alone for 26 miles through the dark freezing cold Nantahala Gorge. Speeds were high, but I pedaled occasionally anyway. I just wanted to be done with the Nightmare.

At the rivers end restaurant Mark, David and I drank Guiness and waited on the others. Brett arrived first. The guy descends like he was shot out of a cannon. Eventually Marshall and Daniel arrived. Bruce showed up and told us about his climb up Wayah. About one mile in his body finally gave in. He and his bike fell to the pavement. He got to his feet and walked 3 miles up that cursed mountain. Daniel and Marshall, who had waited at the top for him, talked him into catching a SAG wagon down the mountain. Wise decision because the descent was technical and fast. There was no shame in ONLY riding 80 miles though…the guy hadn’t been on his bike in 5 weeks. He’s a stud.

All in all, a great trip. We’ll all be back next year.

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5 responses to “The Tour De Nantahala: the Nantahala Nightmare

  1. Well written article. I will give to my wife ,Leslie, so she can have an idea of the difficulty and excitement of the ride. I wanted to do this ride the first time I saw it online 6 months ago. I prepared by bringing my bike to Gatlinburg with Leslie (our getaway with out the s). The first day I just got acclimated WOW! The next day I started early, headed to the Gatlinburg visitors center and started the ascent up Wiley-Oakley road onto Skyway or Skyview (I forget), to the top where the road ends. This helped me tremendously. In all it was 5 miles up exactly (7.8 MPH). I felt good but nothing could prepare me for a 4 mile ascent after 75 MILES OF RIDING!. Thats the kicker. I did make it but i almost got to the point where I could not push anymore. I was averaging 9.8 MPH up the hill at first then this slowly declined to about 4MPH. Usually, when I am tired, I get out of the sadle and pump…I could not stand, I had to stay in the saddle. Excruciating! Anyway It was a wonderful ride and I will do it every year if I can. Concerning cramping, I used to have great problems cramping on rides and at night, I cut out alcohol and they completely went away. I stopped drinking 7 days before the Nightmare and I did not have one cramp “even though my legs were exhausted”. After I got back, I started to have my 1-2 beers every other day etc. Glass of weine etc “for the heart” and BAM the cramps came back. Maybe its just me but keep it in mind. Thanks for listening. James Horchak Clarksville, TN

  2. Chad – great retelling of what was a great day. I was rooting for you to catch them and then that blasted cramp! You’ll get em next year!

  3. Chad,

    Very well written. I’m going to steal it and put it on my blog (with proper credits of course). This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The most rewarding. And one of the best ‘guy bonding’ trips as well. I’m hoping the same group can do it again next year.

  4. Great writing,brings back great and painful memories of my first time from Franklin up Wayah.Being from south Florida with barely a hill to be found me and my buddies had not a clue what we were in for.We thought riding 200 miles a week would have us in shape for the climb. I didn’t know you could move that slow without falling over on some of those switchbacks.Been 10 years since last time climbing Wayah.Had stopped riding for work and health reasons but just purchase a Trek 6.5 Madone and it feels so great to be back in the saddle.But at 53 don’t know if I’ll be back to pick on Wayah again.Thanks again for the memories,Chris

  5. Pingback: The Nightmare revisited « The Figurehead

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