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cycling’s challenges, rewards and tragedies

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By Christopher Haddock

In anticipation of the start of the 100th Tour de France this Saturday, I’d like to share a cycling experience from earlier this spring. The first week of May I rode in the 3 State 3 Mountain Century Challenge in Chattanooga TN, a rather epic 100 mile ride comprised of over 8,000 feet of climb with ascents of three mountains located in three different states. This ride brings 2000+ cyclists to the area every year from over thirty states. Having greatly suffered on this ride last year when I was new to cycling, I had this date circled on the calendar for payback. I was also excited to represent the new race team out of Bear Creek Bikes in Dalton, Ga.

Forecasters had predicted foul weather from ten days out. When we awoke that fateful Saturday morning to heavy rain and temperatures hovering around fifty (it would drop to the mid to upper 40’s) it was an ominous sign. As expected, the leaders dropped me about halfway up the first climb at mile 15 on Raccoon Mtn as I just couldn’t burn the matches needed to keep up with the smaller guys (I’m 195lbs). This proved to be quite fortuitous for my safety and well being as once we reached the top of Raccoon we were enveloped in the clouds and fog.



Visibility was cut to maybe 50 feet in many areas as we circled the TVA reservoir up top. My glasses remained fogged but I couldn’t remove them due to the stinging rain pelting my face and the 20-30mph wind gusts. It would have been a terribly unsafe situation with other riders in close proximity. I was actually relieved to find myself alone while riding, essentially surrounded by whiteness on all sides. Descending off Raccoon was even more treacherous as we went down the same road we came up thus having cyclists using lanes in both directions.  

 

Following the descent I was completely soaked through, shivering, and couldn’t feel my hands. A quick stop to put on my rain jacket immediately improved my disposition. I remounted and gave chase hoping to catch up to the lead group, who I knew weren’t terribly far up the road. That plan was ruined when a flat tire took 15 minutes to fix with fingers that wouldn’t work and a mind that was incredibly frustrated. It took the help of a friend and fellow cyclist to complete the job.  



Three miles later I flatted yet again. I had no more spare tubes, only one CO2 canister (used to inflate the tire), and being the idiot that I am I failed to get the road assistance vehicle number to call for help. Fortunately, a van full of riders from Nashville that had been picked up after abandoning the ride stopped by to offer me some help.  I was offered tubes, patches, use of a pump, a new tire, beer, water, and a ride back to the start by these folks I had never before met. I politely declined all but the use of a pump and a spare tube which got me back on my way.  

 

At this point I’m twenty miles into the ride and all hope of a good finish is lost thanks to the 30+ minutes wasted on the side of the road. Conditions continued to deteriorate. Thoughts of abandoning the ride were strong at this point. I’m an extremely competitive person and for months my singular focus was on bettering last year’s time. I knew if I abandoned the ride I’d have to spend the upcoming year like the previous one- mad at the ride in general and the Burkhalter Gap climb up Lookout Mountain in particular. Not wanting that hanging over me I pedaled on.  



A climb up Sand Mountain, AL at mile 50 wasn’t terribly bad and my spirits were buoyed by riding a few miles with some friends I found at the rest stop on top. The descent off Sand Mtn is perilous in good conditions due to some tricky curves. In the wet and cold it was even more treacherous. Entering the first of these turns I saw an injured female cyclist in full package (spine board, neck brace, stretcher) being loaded onto an ambulance with some urgency. {It was later revealed she’d suffered a major traumatic brain injury and two weeks after the ride she was still in the ICU at a local hospital}. This really made me consider the stupidity of continuing in such conditions. The rain kept falling, the temperature was dropping, and when I stopped for anything more than a couple of minutes for a “nature break” I’d immediately begin to shiver. Hypothermia was a real threat. 

 

My decision to continue wasn’t easy but I was made for good when I made the right turn that took the full century route to the final climb. This penultimate portion of the ride was the climb up Burkhalter Gap Road to reach the top of Lookout Mtn, Ga. Last year it completely destroyed me physically as well as mentally. I was off the bike pushing for well over half the distance up that beast of a hill and I nearly quit several times. A lot of negative thoughts and energy had been focused on this climb in the intervening year, and I wasn’t shy about saying I owed it one.



No shoe came unclipped, no foot touched the mountain, and despite my rear tire slipping repeatedly as I eased up the 20% grade at the top in the driving rain I made it without having come off the bike. The monkey was off my back. I had accomplished what I came to do. Had there had been a van, truck, or bus there at that time offering rides back I doubt I’d have refused. With no ride available, I simply had a good warm cup of coffee and a couple of nutrition bars at the rest stop. I was quickly back in the saddle for the final fifteen mile ride along the top of Lookout Mtn and down to the finish in Chattanooga.  

 

It was pure spin mode and I never put much into the pedals. I just rode the elation of knowing I had accomplished my goal and was going to finish a true hardman ride in terrible conditions. On the descent off Lookout, like the previous two, I was riding the brakes hard even pulling over to a complete stop twice to let cars behind me go by. I knew something was amiss as the cars that had been passing me were all stopped down near the bottom of the hill, only a mile from the finish.  Hugging the line on the side of the road I was able to slowly ease my way past the fifteen or so cars blocking my way.  Coming through the line of halted traffic I found the blue lights of a police car and something lying in the road. Upon rolling closer I came to the horrible realization that it was the body of a cyclist lying there askew, partially covered by a bloody sheet. He’d lost control on a hairpin turn, entered the other lane, and struck a vehicle coming up the mountain. He did not survive the impact.



I did not recognize the kit or the bike. I didn’t know him. All the elation felt over climbing that hill, over finishing the ride in horrible conditions, and the veritable avalanche of powerful endorphins were lost in an instant. I don’t really remember my thoughts. I can’t tell you a single thing about that last mile or so of pedaling back to the finish line downtown.   

 

Coming to that line riding alone, nearly hypothermic, mentally unfocused, and in somewhat of an emotional shock, I simply wanted to get to a hot shower and out of the rain. My wife came to my aid and assisted me in getting to our truck. On the way out of the parking lot I refused a TV interview about the accident and bee lined to the hotel where I spent the next half hour laying in a hot shower collecting my thoughts.  

 

Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I think those that didn’t show up to ride (at least half those registered) or abandoned the ride (over half those that started) made the correct decision. As witnessed by the death of one rider and serious life threatening injury to another, the risks far outweigh any reward we may have gotten from completing the ride.

 

I give no fault to the organizing committee. We all made personal choices to ride and numerous times had the opportunity to stop and get a ride back to the start/finish. We rode of our own volition, all the while knowing the risk. The organizers made heroic efforts to go and retrieve riders from all over the course, utilizing school busses and their personal vehicles. They should be thanked, not shamed with fault and second guessing.  

 

I’ll ride other centuries, I’ll ride other 3 State 3 Mountain Challenges, and I hope to try some other “epic” rides . . . but I’ll never again risk my life to ride in conditions like I experienced this day. I’m all about hard man rides and eschewing the weather to get in your miles but when you begin to put your life in danger, discretion is the better part of valor.



That vision of Antonio Ribeiro from Jacksonville FL lying there motionless will never be completely out of my mind. In his honor and memory, I and the members of the Dalton Area Cyclists group erected a white ghost bike at the site of his tragic death. Three weeks later the best cyclists in the country repeatedly rode by this silent memorial while competing in the US Cycling National Championships. Three months later it remains still as a reminder to the risks we take each time we get in the saddle to go for a ride. Over the next three weeks watch the Tour de France, be enthralled by their ability and the drama, then go out and give the local riders in your area the space they need on the road to ride safely. There are enough ghost bikes out there already; we don’t need anymore.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.