Lookout Mountain is an icon of the South. As a kid, en route to see my grandparents in Alabama, we’d circle the hump-backed juggernaut as we passed through Chattanooga. It’s lore was spread via one of the most innovative advertising campaigns in history — painted barns throughout the South emblazoned with “See Rock City,” a simple message that brought the Lookout Mountain tourist attraction to from obscurity to prominence in the twentieth century.
In the century of our present discussion, however, Lookout Mountain is the mountain in the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge. The other climbs, while respectable, are merely warm-ups. Whether you’re at mile 13 or mile 32, mile 82 and Burkhalter Gap Road waits ever-so-patiently for its victims. The ride’s website describes it sparsely:
Lookout is by far the steepest – 2.3 miles at a 8-10% grade with a 18 – 20% grade at the top.
There is a rest station right before the climb. My family met me here, which was a bit of encouragement, since none of the other riders seemed to be talking about what was before them in great detail. Only a sense of doggedness was evident, with sparse tips here and there (save weight by not loading two full water bottles, as there’s another food station at the top). After too long procrastinating the inevitable, I mounted up and turned the corner to Burkhalter Gap Road.
Remember those old photos of the Alaskan Klondike Gold Rush? You know, the ones with prospectors lined up, single file, slogging up a mountain pass? Minus the snow, the view from the bottom was pretty similar. As I turned the corner and looked uphill, a line of slow-moving cyclists angled upward as far as I could see. The grade looked manageable as I rolled over the electronic timing mechanism that marked the showcase climb. However, it didn’t take long for my already weary legs to run out of gears.
On my compact gearing setup, 34×26 is as low as it goes. A quarter mile into the ride, I had bottomed out. The temperature was hovering around 90 degrees, and it became difficult to turn over the pedals even in my lowest gears.
Here’s where I wish I could tell you I fought the good fight and disregarded the burn in my legs and powered up the mountain on guts alone. I wish I could tell you that, but here’s what really happened: About a mile into the climb, I noticed a shady spot on the side of the road. My tumble into temptation began here. The mirage effect took hold. It was so hot, and that spot looked oh-so-shady. Just a one minute rest to get my heart rate — already near maximum — settled down. One minute, no problem. I paused for about 60 seconds.
The problem was, once I began the ascent again, it didn’t take but about 15 seconds for my heart rate to again max out and for the burning in my legs to ignite anew. About 1.5 miles into the climb, I paused again. After another quarter mile, I rested yet again. As I encountered several riders walking all the way from the halfway point in the climb, my hopes were fading — this mountain was tough. I have ridden similar climbs before and survived them, but this climb, at this stage in the course — had become a menace.
Just before the last insanely steep 300 meters, the grade levels out a bit — a tease before the mountain eats you alive. Once I reached the steepest upturn with 250 meters to go, I dismounted, knowing that the grade was too steep here get back on the bike and clip in. I was done. I joined the Klondike-like stream of walkers pushing their bikes up the right side of the road. A fellow rider who walked beside me commented, “I don’t think I could do this hill even if it wasn’t at mile 82.”
To our left, the heroes of the day powered up — all standing, and all zig-zagging up the slope with barely enough momentum to keep their bikes upright. I looked over with admiration at those who summited beneath the red archway with grunts, pains, and gasps. There was no shame on my part at the time. After all, I had done all that I could do. The haunting would come later.
No one lingered long at the rest station atop Burkhalter Gap — there were still 18 miles to go. At the top of a mountain, one would think they’d be easy miles, but at that stage, nothing was easy. It’s that point in a monumental effort when quitting is out of the question, but continuing cuts you to the core.
The long, gradual climb up Lula Lake Road was just long enough to be disheartening, when I encountered two twelve year-old boys on the side of the road clapping and yelling encouragement, calling out riders by number (who says there’s no hope for America’s youth?).
When it became apparent that there was nowhere else to climb, the police officer holding traffic shouted enthusiastically to the small, disheveled group of riders I had joined, “It’s all downhill from here, boys.” Music to my ears.
The 5-mile descent down the scenic Lookout Mountain highway is harrowing. Fast downhills are tedious enough, but with constant switchbacks with tourists crossing the road, it was no time for a weary cyclist to be groggy. I “saw Ruby Falls” in the blink of an eye. Make no mistake, it was fun, but I’m often just as relieved (in a different way) to reach the bottom of a mountain as I am the top.
Immediately upon reaching the base of the mountain, I was back in downtown Chattanooga, and the two miles back to the finish at the stadium were largely ceremonial. Just like the rest of the preceding 100 miles, all intersections were manned with cheerful volunteers. An immense sense of relief came over me as I rolled into the stadium parking lot to the finish line where bounteous refreshment awaited.
A short two hours later I would be asleep after simply just stretching out “for a moment.” I slept well that night, but it wasn’t long until that last stretch of Burkhalter Gap Road began to haunt my dreams.
As I write this, I’m staring at an event decal on my desk from the 3S3M. It was given out to finishers of the century course, and reads “I Conquered The Gap, May 5th, 2012.” However much I actually conquered, I know well that on that day, the Gap conquered me. I also know that in 2013, Lord willing, the Gap will be put in its proper place. Stay tuned…