Well, we’ve now attended our 9th of 9 Tennessee Tandem Rallies and as always, we got to spend time with a lot of old friends, met new friends, ride a few miles, and otherwise have a grand time.
TTR sets the benchmark for pulling off an exceptional rally and while making it look easy…. well, at least the logistics and planned events. The riding… never let it be said that there’s an easy day at the Tennessee Tandem Rally. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to contrast the three rallies we’ve attended in the last 30 days by looking at where we fell in the hierarchy of rider performance.
- At the Santana Rally in Chattanooga we were one of 7 teams out of about 40 attending the rally who elected to ride up Lookout Mountain and passed 4 of the other 6 in the process noting we got a very late start. We know that there were easily three or four teams who could kick our butt on a whim, so we clearly weren’t the A Team, but we were doing pretty well for 50-year olds.
- At the Georgia Tandem Rally there were over 100 teams and I’d guess that we probably fell into top 20, but perhaps as the 20th team. Lots of strong teams made a showing this year, and the hills didn’t slow them down one iota including Bob & Jan T. from the Villages who were looking really strong all weekend long.
- At the Tennessee Tandem Rally there were about 50 teams, and we were lucky if we were in the upper 1/2 of the stronger riders, noting we were laid to waste on the return ride along the river on Friday by a very spirited pack that had at least 15 tandems. TTR pulls in some of the strongest teams we know, and that extends to the Nashville-based Harpeth tandem teams who seem to get stronger each year (or maybe it’s just us getting weaker).
Regardless, TTR once again is a standout for offering some of the most scenic routes that you’ll find at a tandem rally, with lots of tree-shaded routes, undulating roads, demanding climbs and the most kick-ass pay-off ride East of the Mississippi River… perhaps even the Rocky Mountains. Underlying all of this great riding is the never hurried, always laid back tempo of the off-bike activities which is perfect for what is often times more or less a reunion event for many of our dear friends who we only see at this event, i.e., our friends from Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, the Carolinas, Poland (yes, Poland) and of course the aforementioned Tennessee Tandem Mafia from Nashville en mass. Well, OK, some of these folks will also show up at the Southern Tandem Rally, but TTR is the sure thing… and we’re glad of it.
We were also very happy to be back in Alcoa as the rides are always some of the best, where familiarity isn’t a bad thing since we always know what awaits us. The same is true with respect to the Saturday lunch and banquet: both of which we look forward to more so that any other catered events at tandem rallies (sorry, it’s true). Of course, we’re also creatures of habit who like familiarity, especially when we find something we like… and that sums up the Tennessee Tandem Rally better than anything else that comes to mind: it gives us a chance to see our friends, enjoy meals at familiar places and ride roads that we know we’ll always enjoy. Throw in good weather, and you have a perfect event.
Thursday Challenge Ride:
This one’s easy… Didn’t do it! Well, to be honest, we’ve never really done the Thursday Challenge Ride at TTR. As to why, it’s rather simple: we’ve never been able to ride at the level that many of our friends do, so we’ve opted to pass rather than dragging down the tempo of the ride and finding ourselves riding alone. Now, we’ve done bits and pieces of the Challenge Rides in past years, cherry-picking the ‘fun’ parts like the Tail of the Dragon. However, this year we weren’t able to even do the Thursday Challenge Ride – Lite Edition as we had a two-day off-site at work that overlapped on Thursday.
However, in an effort to get the most out of our 3-day rally weekend, we decided to make the 3-hour drive up to Knoxville, Tennessee, on Thursday after work and spend the night at the Hilton so we’d be somewhat fresh for the 9:00am Friday morning ride to Metcalf Bottoms. We were able to hit the road shortly after 6:00pm and it was an easy, uneventful drive. After checking in and getting everything moved to our room, I wandered through the lobby of the Hilton and found our friends Tom & Donna C. from Ohio enjoying some quite-time in a private corner and probably invited myself to crash their little party for two for about 20 minutes: I hate when I do that! Anyway, I enjoyed catching up on what they’d been up to…
Friday Ride to Metcalf Bottoms:
Friday began with breakfast in the Hilton where we found quite a few of our friends “fueling-up” for the day ahead. Early-on in TTR history, the Friday ride didn’t begin until 1:00pm and came with a second helping around 4pm, with ride options that kept us on the South Side of the Little River once we crossed over Lamar Alexander Highway, going up and over Schoolhouse Gap and then doing an out-and-back into the Smokey Mountain National Park. However, a few years back our host decided to add a new, more challenging option that would take us out into the Weir Valley where big climbs of 15% and 20% stood between us and the most amazing pay-off ride along Little Rider.
Flashback: I can vividly recall our first ascent up Weir Gap Rd, where as we approached the top of the final stretch of this three-legged monster climb that included progressively steeper grades of up to 20% when our friend Linda, who hardly ever cusses, called-out, “Son-of-a-*itch… this is a tandem rally!” as we all ground our way to the top. The icing on top of the cake was when Linda rhetorically asked our rally host, “You and Sharon ride this route?”… to which he replied without missing a beat, “Oh no, we’ve never ridden this on the tandem.” Doh! However, after descending to Little River Road and the exhilarating, winding ride along the river back to Townsend, we all agreed the effort was worth it.
So, back in the here and now the Friday rides now start at 9:00am and 1:00pm to take advantage of the cooler morning temps, reduced traffic and because a lot of folks now arrive for the rally on Thursday evening or Friday morning. Rush hour in Alcoa and Maryville, Tennessee isn’t all that bad so it was an easy drive out to the remote start about 20 minutes away from the host hotel. Coming into the high school’s back parking lot we could see that most of the rally goers would go off at the 9:00am start. We could also see that there were four 3-seater (aka, triple or triplet) tandems!
However, it was hardly a straight forward proposition, as the tandems and riders were a mix of different families and friends: Linda & Eric were teamed up with Lisa on her Mango-Yellow Co-Motion triplet, Tom & Donna had Kip & Anne’s daughter Sophie riding tail gunner on their blue Co-Motion convertible quad, triplet, tandem set-up in triplet mode, Kip was piloting James & Brenda’s Green Co-Motion PeriScope triplet with his son Cedric and Tom & Donna’s son Ryan (Note: Kip’s wife Anne and daughter Margo were teamed up on another tandem), and our expatriate friends from Poland, David & Christen with daughter Audrey were on Linda & Eric’s orange Thorn Triplet. By the end of the weekend, there had been a total of six triplets on the road at TTR.
The fifth triplet was a brand-spanking new Co-Motion PeriScope take-a-part that had just been delivered to David, Christen & Audrey just before the rally such that they could give it a shake-down ride before taking it back to Poland. The new bike proved to be a bit of a challenge, in that it had been expected that little Audrey would be able to ride it without kiddie cranks… and that wasn’t the case. Moreover, there were no kiddie cranks on hand to make the modification. The work-around ended up being an unplanned 7-hour quest that began at 11:00pm on Thursday night when Eric, Linda & David made a road trip back to Atlanta to collect the aforementioned orange Thorn triplet & kiddie cranks. They made it back to Knoxville around 6:00am and were still sorting out the bikes when we rolled into the remote start area. The sixth triplet arrived on Friday afternoon and, yes… it was another Co-Motion belonging to our friends Paul & Lisa with daughter Anna from Atlanta, Georgia.
Whew… what an ordeal. But, once they were all on the bikes the day quickly improved. As always, the ride out along the Little River towards Townsend began with a mass start and a very long, two column tandem parade for the first several miles. Perhaps about 1/2 way along the river stretch the group began to split up a bit. We had a really nice line of about 20 tandems on the shoulder of the Lamar Alexander Highway as we rolled into Townsend… in fact, there were a number of photographers who stopped in their cars to take a photo of the tandem train as it rolled along.
We finally came to the split at the Weir Valley Road and that’s when the climbing began… and when the pack began to splinter. The first climb wasn’t all that challenging, but after a short descent the road kicked up with a very steep 15% switch back and then left us climbing a steady 8% for what seemed like a mile before the next descent into the Weir Valley where we rested up a bit as we girded ourselves for the real climb on Lyon Springs Road & Weir Gap. As noted earlier, this is one of those climbs that just seems like it gets longer and steeper every year… where familiarity is of no value as the crest of the climb never seems to come soon enough. Just for kicks, I decided to throw in a Google Earth image of the climb up Weir Gap Road; it’s the road that snakes its way through the middle of the photo below, followed by a road-level shot just below the crest of the climb where the road is about 18%.
But, after all is said and done, the pay-off is exceptional. Again, stealing a shot from Google Earth, note that the starting point for the descent along the Little River for our loop began near the Red dot at the top of the image. Little River Road is a constant 0% – 1% grade that parallels Little River all the way back to Townsend represented by the winding Yellow line in the Google Earth image below: simply amazing.
In fact, I finally found a little video shot by someone on a single bike that “almost” captures the beauty, the amazing road, and the speed you carry along the entire descent:
Riders typically regroup just outside the entrance to the Smoky Mountain National Park at a nice little mini-mart and finishes the ride back out along Lamar Alexander Highway and the river road en mass and this year was no exception. However, I found myself struggling with the heat and an unusually high heart rate this year and decided to back off and let the group go on the River Road in an effort to keep my HR under 180 BPM, noting it had been up as high as 200 BPM on the Weir Gap climb. But, even finishing off the back, we had a great time on the ride and will keep coming back for that route until we simply can’t do it anymore. Of course, we may swap out our 11x32t cassette for an 11x34t and now have the ability to run an 11x36t if we need it!
Following the ride, we headed to Cycology Bicycles to see what we could spend our $20-off coupon on and then to The Tomato Head in downtown Maryville for lunch, sharing a table with our friends James, Brenda & Lisa. The Tomato Head is a favorite that should be on anyone’s short list of places to eat in Maryville; very healthy and an amazing assortment of choices in a funky, clean and fun environment. After lunch it was back to the Hilton and some down time before heading off to dinner.
I will say, the one thing I miss from earlier TTR’s in Alcoa was the post-ride social environment that we enjoyed over at the Holiday Inn, just a mile down the road from the Hilton. The Holiday Inn was a much more intimate environment where the first floor rooms at the back of the hotel all had back doors leading to the parking lot as did the hospitality suite sitting dead-center in the hotel, which made it really easy to keep everyone in close proximity and it was easy to spill out from the hospitality suite to the hotel lounge and parking lot. Sadly, the Holiday Inn became too hard for our hosts to deal with and they were forced to find a new host-hotel for the event. The Hilton is an awesome facility, but just not as intimate or as parking-lot and hospitality suite friendly.
For Dinner, we joined our friends Ron & Shari at Sullivan’s so that we could enjoy one of their off-the-menu meals in a somewhat more relaxed setting than the banquet on Saturday. We were not disappointed. I had the Shrimp Charleston – spicy gulf shrimp sautéed and served over jalapeno cheese grits – and Debbie had the Blue Plate, homemade Meatloaf. It was delicious, the service was excellent, the Corona was cold and Debbie’s Strawberry Daiquiri was delicious. It was also great having some alone time with Ron & Shari, as I don’t think we’ve had a quiet dinner with them in several years. Just a great evening.
And, if that wasn’t enough, we still had to head back to the Hilton for the TTR Friday Night Desert Social… where we were treated to an amazing selection of cakes, soft drinks and enough snacks to put a small child into a sugar coma. A sweet end to a great first day for this year’s rally.