Monday, August 23, 2010

A Very Savage Weekend

There is a triathlon that's held in western Maryland annually called the Savage Man .   It's a half iron man distance and includes a brutally tough ("savage") bike portion.  What makes it hard is the climbing in and around Savage River State Forest.

I rode the bike portion of that course on Sunday.  I rode it two years ago, but due to some wrong turns, rain, and fatigue I cut off some of the shorter later climbs, which I assumed were not significant.  They are.

 The climbing starts with a section called the "Westernport Wall" which includes a 31% grade on a fractured concrete slab of a road in the town of Westernport, MD.  This leads into a 7 mile/ 1950 ft. climb up Big Savage Mountain.  From there there are numerous shorter but brutally steep climbs that keep coming for the next 30 miles.   Here are some quotes from their website describing the ride.

  • "If, after finishing the SavageMan 70.0 Triathlon, you feel you have previously completed a similar distance race that is more scenic and more savage, race management will refund your entry fee complete with a profound apology."
  • "It is of utmost importance that riders ensure their bikes are in good working condition as this bike course includes some steep, technical descents. There is a mandatory pre-race bike check and athletes whose bikes do not pass inspection will not be permitted to start the SavageMan 70.0 Triathlon."
  • "the hardest 30 miles in all of triathlon"
  • Killer Miller: The first 0.6 miles of the climb shoot seemingly straight up at an unfair pitch, forgoing switchbacks to head straight up the hillside at an average of 13% with stretches over 20% before leveling out to a more gradual summit
I rode this with my wife and brother in law on Saturday.  Before we had gone a mile we came across two other cyclists (triathletes) who were also riding the course that day.  An older lady, Ellie, and her friend Joe.  Ellie was local and had ridden the course a dozen times, and completed the triathlon several times as well.  Joe was visiting from Columbus OH, and this was his first time.  Joe had one of those IM tattoos, so I presume he was an Iron Man finisher.  But Joe was a big man.   Looked about 5'8", 225#.  I don't think he quite appreciated what he was in for.  We stayed close to Ellie and Joe for the first 18 miles, which is mostly descending from Deep Creek Lake down to Westernport.  The first climbing challenge was the Westernport Wall.  This is the section that got me excited to do this ride two years ago.  I watched videos of triathletes falling over while attempting to ride this section as raucous fans cheered them on.  The first time I rode this course I made it all the way up, with just a little wheel spin near the top.  This time I also made it up.  We spoke to Ellie at the top as she was walking back down to encourage Joe on a second try.  I thought that if Joe knew what was ahead of him there's no way he would making multiple attempts at this hill.  This is not a ride where you can afford to burn your matches indiscriminately.  We continued on leaving Joe to his attempt to master the wall.   With his body type and time trial bike I knew it wasn't going to happen. 

From there we continued up the climb of Big Savage Mountain.   This would start a trend for the day where I'd be a little bit off the back of my brother in law, John, for most of the climbs.   He's lost about 50 or 60 pounds in the past year and has some very fine form now.   To be honest I'm a bit stunned that he's now able to out ride me on these tough climbs.  And not a little bit dismayed.  This one was by far the longest climb of the day.  The descent after the top is 3 miles of twisty, technical riding.  This is one of the parts that necessitates the aforementioned bike inspection.  It's also where I was able to put HIM off the back for a little bit.  At the bottom we then climbed out of New Germany State Park to take a rest stop at a local store. 

The store is a gas station/convenience store that's right on the route, and the owner has gone out of his way to accommodate cyclists.  He's got any thing you'd need to refuel, and is more than happy to talk your ear off about ANYTHING (be warned!).  We found out later that this store was the end point for Joe that day.  His companion was going to drive back to pick him up there, but the store owner very kindly gave him a ride back to Deep Creek Lake State Park. 

Leaving the store we went immediately (and I mean immediately - as in right across the road) to the final series of climbs.   All of them at grades that frequently past 10%.  Otto Ridge (avg 8%, max 17%), "Killer Miller" (avg 8%, max 22%), and Maynardier Ridge (avg 12%, max 23%).  We took another brief rest after these three, along MD 495 to regroup.  At this point any extended downhill was cause for concern since it had to be followed by an equivalent climb.  As it turned out, the worst was behind us.  There was one more dip into the Savage River State Forest, but the climb out wasn't as long as I feared and it was the last real climbing of the day.  

Leaving the Forest, we headed back to familiar roads.  Waiting to make a turn for our final leg we saw a cyclist approach and turn onto the road we were leaving.   She was going a little bit fast which normally wouldn't have been a problem, but she ran directly across a patch of gravel in the intersection.   I had seen the gravel and watched her start to turn, so I knew what was going to happen next.  Her front wheel hit the gravel, and down she went.  Full body contact on the pavement, then rolling over the curb onto the grass.  It was a dramatic crash, but there were no injuries worse than some moderate road rash on both arms and legs.  We went over and she said she was OK, but still took a minute before she got up.   We helped her up and made sure she was OK then took a look at her bike.  Her name was Cindy (I think?) I was surprised at how  unfazed she was by the crash, but then she told us she was a nurse, and it made sense that she'd realize her road rash was just scrapes and bruises.   She called her son to pick her up and we stayed with her until he did so. 

As we all waited, along came Ellie riding by.   She stopped briefly and filled us in about Joe bailing out at the store.  She had spent enough time waiting for him that she had to cut off her ride, missing the final significant hills.   Cindy's son drove up (did I mention he's only 14 but she has been letting him drive around out there?) and we got her bike loaded into her car, then we went on our way.  The rest of the ride was gentle rollers around the lake.  Or, should I say, normally gentle rollers.   No elevation gain felt "gentle" after the length and grades we had done that day, but we were happy to know there were no more real climbs.

I'd recommend this ride to anyone in the area of Deep Creek Lake who's looking for a real climbing challenge.  It will test your all kinds of climbing skills, descending and handling.  It will make you suffer in the midst of some truely spectacular mountain scenery.   It's 56 miles that feel like 86, and if you underestimate it, well, don't say you weren't warned.

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