There’s nothing quite like starting 2012 with an epic Sunday on the Heartbreak Ridge.
Grinding up the Old Toll Road was great inspiration for keeping in shape for the year to come. Not only do I want to be fit enough so that it won’t hurt so &*(#! badly, but I want to be fit enough to enjoy the descent.
The Old Toll Road can be very misleading on many occasions. Sure, it’s steep, and it’s rocky, and it’s long, but it’s also a bit relentless. I only found myself cruising along for a few minutes between cowhead rock gardens that stretched for several hundred yards.
It’s a long ride like that where I feel like I can change a habit into something more efficient. On this ride I definitely began using my core more, which is actually one of my stronger body parts. I just hadn’t been using it correctly when trying to wheelie through obstacles. However, after two hours of bashing my front wheel up a rocky road I was able to save my shoulders and neck a bit in the last 30 minutes of climbing. By curling my lower abs in I was able to get the front wheel up better and use a forward pedal stroke to motor through. Whereas I’d been able to finesse that in some occasions, on this ride I was definitely able to use repetition to make it a deep-seated habit.
Pedal stroke tends to get more efficient on these rides as well. After a while, it’s crucial to have a smooth spin. On short rides I can mash the pedals down for a bit at the end of the climb, but with the end of the climb being two hours later, I figured I’d better save some energy. After the first rush of pain through my legs I found myself able to just spin with a constant momentum, focusing only on the technicality of the trail.
It’s so much fun to pick a line, reading the trail as it unfolds in a series of rocks, roots, and divets. Sometimes it’s the big rock I’m looking for, climbing onto the higher line for one big move, rather than several small moves that could result in sliding off the edge.
On the way to the trailhead I watched the ridgeline being enveloped by a wide, dark layer of sky and wondered what would happen after 4,700 feet of climbing. The valley was sporting 55 degrees with sunshine, but the last 30 minutes were spent in short sleeves and sleet. The thick clouds cast a bone-chilling cold despite the inner engines working overtime. Then there was the wait – inevitable on a group ride. Our legs hardened in the cold as we hovered under plastic tarps, rain dripping through our helmets, our gloves soaked. I never thought before to take an extra pair of gloves. Brilliant.
I gobbled down the rest of my giant peanut butter and banana sandwich while shivering under plastic. Not only were my legs spent, but now they had congealed blood. Although the top of Heartbreak is one of my favorite descents around, I was not looking forward to the slick rocks combined with a cold body.
But then it was ok. Thank goodness descents require blood-pumping work. I began picking my way down, increasing my speed in bits until I felt smooth again. I know that it was just a fantasy – albeit a great one – because when I did slip through a tight turn and have to dab my foot, my entire leg cramped: both quads and hamstrings. I hopped back on anyway, wishing I were coordinated enough to ride with the right leg forward.
The more we dropped, the warmer it became, and suddenly the sun was shining again, the Black Mountain ridgeline was visible, and the trail was dry. It allowed us to forget the pain we had just endured, ending the ride with shouts of victory for a new year started on the right pedal stroke.