I rode the Taste of Carolina 1200K as the capstone of my 2015 cycling year. 2015 was an unusual year for me. An unsuccessful political campaign got my season off to a late start. But being impatient, I pushed right ahead with plans to ride a 600K just 6 weeks after getting on my bike for the first time. I ended up doing my SR series in exact reverse order. As a result, I arrived at the start of the Taste of Carolina having not ridden anything longer than a 300k in over 4 months. Not exactly perfect preparation, but I felt I had a reasonable chance to complete the event.
This year’s version of the ToC, started in Statesville, North Carolina. Mark O. and I arrived in town on Tuesday afternoon. We got our bikes ready and did a 20 mile shakedown ride on what we thought was the first part of the ride course. For reasons that I still haven’t figured out, we ended up riding roads that had absolutely no connection to the actual route. Anyway, that left Wednesday for lounging around the hotel, packing and unpacking drop bags, and handling the registration. By the time the bulk of the field began trickling in late Wednesday afternoon, we were pretty relaxed and ready to go.
The ride started at 4am on Thursday. The morning pace was fairly relaxed as we crossed increasingly rolling terrain. By the time dawn began to break we had travelled to the edges of the Appalachian Mountains. Somehow, in the early rollout, I had become separated from all of the people I had planned to ride with. That’s not very unusual for me in the opening stages of a 1200K, so I just kept rolling along on my own. The highlight of the morning was the long climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway around 50 miles into the ride and the fantastic view from the summit.
After climbing the 4ish mile long climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was desperate for a bathroom. I spotted a port-o-potty in a quirky little roadside campground. While there I was approached by an elderly guy who lived at the campground who wanted to talk. We had an interesting conversation about my ride and about a 1400 mile ride he had done in the 1950’s and how it was much safer to ride a bicycle today then back then. In his words, “back then they’d just run you over. Now they can’t do that.”
A short time later I arrived at the first control of the ride, 81 miles in. The control was a little surrealistic. After riding for several hours on quiet roads, the control was at some weird mountain retreat tourist attraction right out of the 1950’s. The main attraction seemed to be a large family style dining room and a natural spring. A large, old fashioned breakfast recharged my batteries. I also reconnected with Mark O. We waited a few minutes for Rod and Spencer but ultimately decided to push on.
The control in Fries, Virginia was a small gas station with a deli kitchen. The station had a scenic little patio overlooking the New River.
Unfortunately, it started to rain so we had to sit inside. While Mark O. was finishing his lunch, Spencer and Rod came walking in.
It turns out that Rod’s shifter had broken several hours earlier. They were able to rig his bike so that he had two gears. Spencer also had decided to flip his wheel so that he was riding a single speed instead of a fixed gear. So if you’re counting, Spencer and Rod had 3 gears between them! Our group of Mark, Rod, Spencer, me and Rich M. would stay together for the rest of the day.
Somewhere this evening I started experiencing stomach pain and cramps which would plague me for most of the rest of the ride. The pains were inconvenient but the bigger problem was that they made it lots harder to eat, even causing some nausea at time. I assumed it had something to do with what I was eating or not eating. So I experimented with all of the normal remedies. Nothing seemed to work, so I just plowed ahead.
We arrived at the Mocksville overnight just after 1 am. Tony had set up some food in the common room, but my stomach was too messed up to eat. So I took a quick shower and got to bed for a short 2 hour overnight. We set the alarms for 3:30 and were eating at the Waffle House down the road by 4:30.
Leaving Mocksville was probably one of the only bad road sections of the ride. We were on a fairly busy road with little shoulder in the dark for about 10 miles. We didn’t have any problems but I was glad to finish that section. The rest of Day 2 featured some interesting riding including some sections around the Unwarrie Forest which a decidedly sawtooth profile. The profile finally flattened as we approached the Rockingham Raceway, where there was apparently some kind of race car test runs going on. The section also gave me my first look at a cotton field and marked the appearance of big pots of boiled peanuts at every control. I meant to try them but never quite seemed to pull the trigger. We arrived at the overnight around 11 and were able to score around 3.5 hours of sleep.
Day 3 promised to be a much more relaxed ride across the coastal lowlands from Lumberton to the Ocean at Sunset Beach and back to Laurinberg. Like every morning of the ride, we started the day at the Waffle House. A conversation with one of the employees turned into one of the defining moments of the ride. As Rod paid his bill, the waitress asked in a heavy southern drawl where we were going. Rod answered that we were riding to the beach to which she asked “which beach?” Rod’s answer of “Myrtle Beach” led her into an incredulous set of follow-ups, still in the heavy drawl. “MYRTLE Beach? You’re going to MYRTLE Beach? Today? On your bike? MYRTLE Beach? And you’re gonna pedal? Really, MYRTLE Beach?” She then called her co-worker over and basically repeated the whole conversation before calling over a third co-worker and going through it all for a third time. We laughed about the exchange for most of the day.
With almost no climbing we had high hopes of banking some time so that we could get a decent sleep. The morning hours sailed by and I really enjoyed the flat roads and small towns. We continued to pass cotton fields and small towns making nice time. The forecast had called for rain to pop up mid-morning, so we considered every dry mile to be a blessing. In Rod’s words, “Every mile that it doesn’t rain is mile we’re not wet.” Pretty hard to argue with that.
The only noticeable climb of the day was the bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway at Sunset Beach. The bridge offered a fantastic view before dropping us to the beach for the turnaround.
Rod, Spencer and I took a few minutes, answered the information control question (or at least what we thought the question was), and took a couple of photos.
Even though the temperature wasn’t that hot, the humidity at the beach seemed oppressive to me. I couldn’t wait to get moving inland. It didn’t start raining until mid-afternoon. Even then it was more of a heavy drizzle and a minor inconvenience than any real problem. In the late afternoon, we came upon a road closed barricade with a couple of ride volunteers standing along the road. Apparently sections of the road ahead had been flooded and were not passable by bike. There were 3 sections underwater. Two of the three were only about a foot deep but the middle section was between 2 and 3 feet deep. Tony was there with his large van and ferried our group across. We later learned that some other riders had been ferried across with the help of some locals and their oversized pickup trucks.
With about 20 miles to go, we ran into the only noticeable headwinds of the ride which developed into a breezy, rainy squall for the last 10 mile or so into the overnight. By the time we finished this “easy day” around 9pm, I was tired and cranky. Adding to the excitement was news that my hotel room had been “taken out of service” and we had been moved to a Hampton Inn across the highway. It actually worked out well, but it did add to the evening confusion. Although the day wasn’t easy by any normal standard, the time we made did allow us to get 5 full hours of sleep. Pretty luxurious by randonneuring standards.
Waking up for the last day of a grand randonnnee always gives me weird mix of emotions. On the one hand, it should be a shorter day, in this case only 140 miles to go. On the other hand, it’s still 140 miles and I’m tired from doing this for the last 3 days. Adding to that was the fact that I still was having stomach problems and was eating lots less than on a normal 1200K.
Like every day of this ride, we left in the dark and rode for close to 3 hours before it began getting light. I was just focusing on each short section of the ride and we were making reasonable progress. It wasn’t pretty but the miles were ticking by. By mid-morning, I was starting to have more sections where I was really struggling to keep a decent pace. Even though it wasn’t a control, we decided to stop at the Subway in Norwood, NC to refuel. I sat in the Subway bathroom with 80 miles to go, head and hands, absolutely convinced that I couldn’t ride my bike to the next intersection, let alone, the finish. Fortunately, Ride Director Tony wasn’t there with his van. I went back to my table, managed to eat half a cookie, some apple slices and a handful of potato chips. Spencer and Rod pushed me out the door where Mark O. and Rich had just pulled in. We rolled out together and plugged along towards the next control. At one point, I was climbing a small hill and let out a profanity aimed at a sharp stomach cramp I was having. At that exact moment, mild-mannered Mark O., who I didn’t know was in the area, pulled even with me and continued to pass. I was pretty sure Mark would question me later about why I was swearing at him. As it turned out, Mark hadn’t heard anything.
Our group ended up breaking the rest of the day into shorter sections, with a couple of extra stops in between controls. The late afternoon and evening was beautiful with that great soft light, no wind, and pretty rolling farmland. We rolled into the outskirts of Statesville at dusk at managed to finish at 7:27 for a total time of 87 hours and 27 minutes.
Because of the stomach issues I had on this ride, I struggled more on the Taste of Carolina than on any other 1200K that I have ridden. Having said that, I think Tony put together a really interesting and good route that showcased the many different parts of North Carolina. I always enjoy the scenery and challenge of riding in the Appalachians and I really enjoyed the farms and villages in the low country. The people on this ride were as friendly to cyclists as any I have run across. Almost every stop led to a conversation with a local who was interested in our ride and genuinely concerned about our safety. The drivers of North Carolina were also unique. On most rides, I have several occasions where some driver buzzes too close in a rush to get past. In North Carolina, I was more likely to feel uneasy because a driver was following behind waiting for the perfect chance to pass. They were easily the most patient drivers I have seen anywhere.