It was an exciting race to the top of Brasstown Bald on Saturday and I had a really great time photographing the action. Check out my latest stage 6 photoset on Flickr if you are interested. I have probably mentioned before that I really love to see the mountain top finish on Brasstown; my kids and I have been to watch it every year since it was added to the TdG in 2004. One of the reasons that I like to see the pros suffering on those extremely steep grades (up to 25%) is that it reminds me of the pain I felt the first time I raced up to the top of Georgia’s highest peak many years ago (time to cue the flashback music).
For a few years in the late eighties/ early nineties, a very short time trial (4 miles if I remember correctly) to the top of Brasstown Bald was part of the Athens Twilight Criterium race weekend. I was in college at the time and had never been to Brasstown Bald, but I decided to ride with some friends to do all the races in the weekend series. At the time, I was a fairly strong rider and the lowest gear on my bike was a 42 –21. Those were the days of 7-speed freewheels, and I firmly believed that there was never a need for a rear cog bigger than a 21 tooth on a road bike. After all, a 21 was a lot bigger than the 18 tooth rear cog on a 7 speed straight block, so it seemed like a good climbing gear. After we arrived and registered at the base of the mountain, I started warming up with a friend who had a similar rear cog. Several other riders started asking us, “are you riding up with that?” or making comments like “you are going to change wheels before the race, right?” We saw a few people with triple cranksets and started to get a little worried. When someone showed us how he had set up his road bike with the 32 tooth cassette and long cage rear derailleur from his mountain bike, I started to question my own gearing choice a tiny bit.
I don’t remember my finishing time, but needless to say I did not win. I never had to get off the bike and walk as I saw some people doing, but I can say that on the steepest sections I was swerving from one edge of the road to the other. I remember a spectator on the steepest grade telling me to ride a straight line. I don’t know if he was trying to be helpful or just being a smartass, but either way I was too delirious from the pain to yell anything back. I didn’t have to ride 88 miles over Hogpen Gap and Unicoi Gap to get there like the pros in this year’s stage, but I still remember it as a pretty painful day on the bike. The fact of the matter is that Brasstown is an extremely hard climb no matter where you start.
OK, that is enough reminiscing about a race that I did nearly 20 years ago. The point of my little trip down memory lane is to explain why I was checking out the cogs on several of the pro bikes that I saw on Saturday. Several of them seemed to be running 26 teeth in the rear, but a few looked like they were at the maximum limit of their rear derailleurs with 28s. You don’t often see pros riding with gearing like that, so it says something about the difficulty of the climb. It also should serve as a lesson to young racers who want to look PRO. You won’t be fooling anyone if you are struggling with a gear that is way too high for the conditions while everyone else is passing by. The real pros know that the gear that gets you up the hill the fastest is the best one to use. There is no shame in riding with a compact crankset or a really big rear cluster if that is what you need. If I were to race up Brasstown today, you can bet that I would set up my bike with a lower gear than I normally ride. Even then, I doubt I would turn down a friendly push on some of the really steep sections.
Updated 4-29-08: Obviously I wasn’t the only one looking at cassettes on Brasstown. I just noticed that Velonews has a good tech article on the subject. Also, be sure to check out the link that Fritz left in the comments about the gearing that Team Type1 ran during the stage.