On Top of the World

Area climbs prove revelation, inspiration for visiting cyclists

Just a little bit more.

Make this next corner, pour it on, and it’s less than a tenth of a mile to the top of the climb.

That’ll show ’em. That’ll shut ’em up.

And then it happened.

Like a jet blast deflector rising from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the road rose in front of Baltimore cyclist Frankie Johnson as if pushed from the earth by hydraulics.

Major Taylor-affiliated cycling clubs from seven U.S. cities converged on Blount County last week. Organized by the Metro Detroit Cycling Club and Walland cyclist Eddie Sloan, they’d come to test themselves on some of the area’s most feared climbs, including Butterfly Gap Road, Happy Valley Road and Flats Road.

Baltimore Metro Wheelers Cycling Club cyclist Ashanti Barfield had done his best to warn Johnson about the latter. Flats Road, dubbed “Sweetie Pie” by area cyclists, is an awe-inspiring gradient from behind the wheel of an automobile. On a bicycle, the 28-percent, half-mile monster is all but impossible without the right gear.

A rear sprocket with at least a 27-tooth gear would be best, Barfield, who’d ridden the climb the year before, advised his friend.

“He said a 27 is a mountain bike gear,” Barfield said.

A strong, experienced cyclist who’d ridden some of the world’s toughest climbs — including the famed, 21-switchback Alpe d’Huez featured in the Tour de France — Johnson rolled to the start Saturday confident a 25 would be plenty.

“They said, ‘You need to bring a 27,’” he said. “I ain’t bringing no 27.”

When Johnson hit the final, fierce 50 meters, Sweetie Pie stopped his bike dead in its tracks in mid pedal stroke. To keep from falling over, he was forced to dismount, with Barfield and two others waiting at the top.

“Bet he’ll bring that 27 next year,” Barfield said.

After nine attempts, Johnson successfully engaged his pedals and continued to the top. There, he received a fist bump from Barfield and Dayton, Ohio, cyclist Charles Love. After a brief rest, the trio set sail down Foothills Parkway for the 18-mile ride back to Valley View Lodge in Townsend for a shower.

The trash talk directed at Johnson for much of the 60-mile ride had been stinging and relentless, but it was never personal, Love said. A year ago, on the very same stretch of road, Sweetie Pie had kissed him square on the mouth, too. That, Love said, he blames on Sloan.

“Eddie tricked me last year,” Love said. “He said, ‘If you get to (Flats Road), and you don’t like it, there’s a shortcut to go home.”

The challenge of Flats Road is due, in part, to where it comes in the ride, said Love, who made the trip south with Dayton’s Major Taylor Cycling Club. The climb to Butterfly Gap and the Top of the World is 6-mile lung-buster in its own right, coming some 16 miles over steep, rolling terrain from the group’s hotel. Many area cyclists rate it the toughest climb in the Smokies.

“It was rough,” Barfield said. “Once you got on it, it was a question of, ‘When is it going to end?’”

For Metro Detroit Cycling Club president Brian Cox, whose riding partner had dismounted, removed his shoes and began walking halfway up the climb, Butterfly Gap would signal the end of his day.

“He dropped me,” Cox said. “Walking, no shoes, and he dropped me.”

As the climb neared the parkway, Cox, who’d finished the ride a year ago, hiked across a berm to join other riders for an abbreviated trip back to the hotel.

“They said, ‘Just pick up the bike and come on over here. You know you want to,’” Cox said.

Riders continuing on plunged south down the parkway to US 129, crossing Happy Valley before a searing, 2-mile climb up Happy Valley Road. The turn onto Flats Road comes less than a mile from the summit.

Love said he struggled on the first two climbs a year ago.

“They were calling me, ‘Last place, dead meat,’” he said. “They said ‘Why don’t you pull over and let us call the sag wagon for you.’”

By the time he reached Flats Road, Love said, the tank was empty.

“I had to walk it last year,” he said.

Part of it was not enough miles in his legs prior to the trip to Tennessee, Love said. Part of it, he added, was a needed change in lifestyle.

“I was a party animal,” Love said. “All I knew how to do was pick up a bottle, go to a club and chase girls. This stopped all that.”

Intent on avenging last year’s ride, Love said he put away his bike over the winter and hired a personal trainer. From December to February, he did nothing but lift weights.

Being humbled on Sweetie Pie last year made him “take a good look at myself in the mirror,” Love said.

It helped make last Saturday’s rematch all the more sweet.

Love was the first in his group to reach the turn onto Flats Road this time. The others would join him there, enjoying a brief respite before pushing on. Nearing the top, Love pulled clear of the others to reach the crest alone.

As it had with Johnson, the final few meters took all he had.

“I thought I was going to jump off,” Love said. “I knew I’d never forgive myself if I did. I would have had to go back down and do it again.”

There would be no need for a do-over, however. Upon reaching the summit and unclipping from his pedals, Love let out a loud whoop, pumping both fists in the air in celebration.

“This was sweet!” he said.

No. It was Sweetie Pie, and she’s not such a bad girl after all, once you get to know her.

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