Chris Haddock, a 39-year old physician, was one of those who took part in the 3 States 3 Mountain bicycle ride two weeks ago and, if you’ll remember, the heavy rains and cool temperatures made it more of an endurance challenge than the great sports event it normally is.
Because I am lucky enough to be a friend of Ron Wade, his proud father-in-law, I got to read an eye-witness account that Chris wrote after the race. I believe it is a story that needs to be shared, not just as a salute to others who rode in the race but also in anticipation of the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road & Time Trial National Championships that will be held here on May 25-27.
Dr. Haddock, who has a family practice at Erlanger Hutcheson Hospital in Fort Oglethorpe, is one reason Children’s Hospital will be involved with the Volkswagen Time Trials. It will attract the strongest field to ever compete in Chattanooga and put another feather in Chattanooga’s hat as one of the best locations for biking in the country.
* * *
AN EYE-WITNESS TESTIMONY
By Chris Haddock
Two weeks ago I participated in the 3 State 3 Mountain Century Challenge, a rather epic ride comprised of over 8,000 feet of climb with ascents of three mountains located in three different states. Having greatly suffered on this ride last year when I was new to cycling, I had circled this date on the calendar some six months ago focusing on “payback.” Due to much better fitness and many more miles under my belt I was poised to greatly improve on last year’s time.
Forecasters had predicted foul weather from ten days out and that forecast had not changed when we awoke Saturday morning to heavy rain and temperatures hovering around 50. In the only bit of luck for the entire day, the rain let off about 30 minutes prior to the start, the only time it let off for the entire day. I felt a bit smug as I chose not to wear my rain jacket and the only other person around me at the starting line making the same choice was the celebrity rider, George Hincapie, one of the top US cyclists of all time.
My smugness quickly dissipated when a few miles into the ride the bottom fell out. Hincapie had the ability to pedal 22mph, remove his hands from the bars, and put on his rain jacket without losing control of his bike or slowing down. Unsurprisingly I did not possess such abilities and within that lead group of maybe thirty riders I was the only dummy not in a rain jacket. Lesson learned.
Hincapie and his buddies surprised us by not taking the right hand turn leading to the climb up Raccoon Mountain. I assume they did the metric or some abridged route. They weren’t out for a lazy ride as we had a 24 mph average at that point. As expected, the leaders dropped me about halfway up the climb as I just couldn’t burn the matches needed to keep up. 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 and my glasses remained fogged but I couldn’t remove them due to the stinging rain pelting my face blown about by powerful wind gusts. It would have been a terribly unsafe situation with other riders around me and as I pedaled along I was actually relieved to be riding solo. Descending was even more treacherous as those coming up the mountain were on the same road as those of us coming down. With the limited visibility and wet conditions it was a recipe for disaster but apparently everyone made it down safely.
By the end of 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 as I remounted and gave chase. I was still feeling good about the ride as just a couple hundred yards ahead was a smaller group that had come off the back of the lead group. I felt if I could catch them we’d keep a good pace-line going and power on through the rest of the ride.
My first flat ruined that plan, especially after I spent a good 15 minutes on the side of the road trying to get the tire fixed with fingers than wouldn’t work and a mind that was incredibly frustrated. Numerous cyclists offered help/equipment/support as I struggled but I politely refused. It was nice to see literally 40-50 riders offer assistance to someone they didn’t know.
Finally a familiar face appeared as Aaron Curtis from Cycle Sport shop in Chattanooga (we often ride together on the CBC Battlefield rides) stopped and bailed me out when I was to the point of throwing the bike in the woods and calling for a ride.
Three miles later I flatted again. I had no more tubes, only one CO2 canister, and being the dummy that I am I failed to get the SAG vehicle number to call for assistance. Fortunately, a van full of riders from Nashville that had been picked up by friend stopped by to offer me some help when they drove by and saw me working on the tire. Again, the kindness of cyclists was exhibited as 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.
It’s 20 miles into the ride I’ve now spent over 30 minutes on the side of the road dealing with flats. Any hope of a good finishing time was as flat as my tires. Conditions continued to deteriorate. Thoughts of abandoning the ride were strong at this point. I’m an extremely competitive person and I had focused on competing against my time on last year’s ride for many months leading up to this event. The only reason I continued was I knew that if I abandoned the ride I’d have to spend the entire next year like the previous one, i.e. mad at the ride in general and the Burkhalter Gap climb in particular. Not wanting that hanging over me I pedaled on.
Further insult to injury occurred when at mile 40 my Garmin ceased to function as water had gotten into the case. Now I had no idea of my speed, mileage, etc. At the rest stop up on Sand Mtn (mile 50 or so) I did manage to run into local cyclist Scott Thomas that I’d ridden with many times before. Scott and a friend of his joined me for some pace-line work and we held together for about 8-10 miles until becoming separated leading to the descent down Sand Mtn.
On this descent I saw an injured female cyclist in full package (spine board, neck brace, stretcher) being loaded onto an ambulance with some urgency at the bad hairpin curve that is so notorious. This really made me consider the stupidity of continuing in such conditions. The rain kept falling, the temperature felt like it was dropping, and when I stopped for anything more than a couple of minutes (several quick breaks in the woods on side of road) I’d immediately begin to shiver.
My decision to continue wasn’t easy but it was made for kid when I made the right turn that took the full century route to the final climb while the 83 mile route turned left for a flat ride into the finish. It sounds corny but I actually had found some inner peace with the ride as it was no longer about time, it wasn’t about maintaining a certain speed, and it wasn’t about holding my place in a pace-line of strong riders -- it was simply about finding a way to the finish.
Without my Garmin I had NO idea of how far I’d gone, how fast I was riding, and how much further I had to go. I had no one to ask as with the exception of the first 20 miles and that 8-10 mile portion with Scott Thomas, I rode the rest of the ride essentially solo.
The penultimate portion of the ride for me was the climb up Burkhalter Gap Road to reach the top of Lookout Mtn. 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.
I nearly abandoned the rest of that 2012 ride once reaching the top. 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. I was so anxious to get up it I just skipped the SAG at the bottom and headed onto the climb. It was slow. It was painful.
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 I made it under the finish line timing loop without having stopped. That monkey was off my back, I had accomplished what I came to do, and honestly if there had been a van, truck, or bus there at that time offering rides back I doubt I’d have refused. In hindsight I wish I had found a ride but a good warm cup of coffee and a couple of nutrition bars had me back in the saddle after only a few minutes.
This year the route didn’t take us over to Lula Lake and the climbs it entails. Instead we remained on Scenic Hwy all the way past Covenant College into the town of Lookout Mtn. where a single turn took us to the downhill leading to the finish. I won’t lie, from Burkhalter Gap all the way to the descent off the mountain I never came out of the little ring.
I was in pure spin mode and never put much into the pedals. I just rode the elation of knowing I had accomplished a goal and was going to finish a true hardman ride in terrible conditions. On the descent, 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. Somewhat delirious and cold I found that singing made me warmer. If anyone heard my off key baritone rendition of “She’ll be coming around the mountain” I’m sure they thought I was off my rocker.
I knew something was amiss as the cars that had been passing me were all stopped with brake lights beaming down near the bottom of the hill. Hugging the white line on the side of the road I was able to ease my way past the fifteen or so cars blocking my way As I slowly made my way through 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.
I didn’t recognize the kit or the bike. All the elation I had 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 start finish.
I came to the finish line alone, with only my wife there cheering and celebrating but she quickly realized something was amiss and came to my aid. I regret not doing a better job of reassuring the spouses of several other Dalton Area Cyclist members present that this dead cyclist was not one of “us”. For that I do apologize and hope they forgive me.
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. I managed to find some of the Chattanooga Bike Club leadership and let them know that the accident, which they knew about, had caused a fatality. On the way out of the lot I refused a TV interview and bee lined to the hotel spending the next half hour sitting in a hot shower collecting my thoughts.
Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I think those that didn’t show up to ride or abandoned the ride 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.
That realization doesn’t lessen my sense of accomplishment for completing something I’d desired to complete for a year. I learned some important lessons in that it’s not always about the time flashing when you cross the line but is instead about crossing the line at all.
I give no fault to the organizing committee. We all made personal choices to ride and numerous times had the opportunity to stop the ride and get a ride back to the start/finish. The organizers made heroic efforts to go and retrieve riders from all over the course even utilizing their personal vehicles in any case. 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 we experienced last Saturday. It’s simply not worth it. I’m all about Rule V and Rule IX but when you begin to put your life in danger, discretion is the better part of valor.
That vision of Mr. Ribeiro lying their motionless under that bloody sheet will never be completely out of my mind. My prayers are with him, his family, and with the unidentified patient who continues to fight for her life in an ICU just down the road.
(Chris Haddock, M.D., has a family practice at Erlanger South – the former Hutcheson Hospital – in Fort Oglethorpe and has been an avid athlete and outdoorsman his entire life. He also participates on triathlons.)