By Rick Sheek
Robert Sweeting, a Florida native, stresses that racing these Tennessee mountains is not his forte.
He did all right on Saturday morning, though. Sweeting won the People’s Community Bank Roan Groan Road Race, crossing more than three minutes ahead of old college friend Shawn Gravois.
Sweeting covered the 56.5-mile course, which began for the cyclists in downtown Elizabethton and ended at the top of Roan Mountain, in 2:42.55. Gravois clocked a 2:45.56.
“I’ve gotten use to the style of climb around here, which is phenomenal,” Sweeting, 25, said. “I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a climber. I’m more of an all-arounder, so I worked from the bottom and tried to get as much as of a gap as possible before the real climb started.
“Then I wanted to ride my own pace. I just kind of wanted to do my own thing.”
Which was no doubt dominant in the 10-plus mile charge up the mountain.
“Bobby’s a bigger guy more in the time trials, so I thought us climbers in that second group would have been able to close the gap on him,” Gravois, 26, said. “I was kind of surprised we didn’t catch him, but he put in a good ride.”
Sweeting and Gravois actually attended the same high school in Sarasota, Fla. They didn’t become acquainted until their collegiate days at the University of Florida and have been training and riding together ever since.
Sweeting recently settled in Asheville, after moving from Connecticut.
“I did the race last year and I really loved the climb, so I wanted to come back,” Gravois said. “I’ve been living with Bobby in Asheville for a little bit, trying to work on my climbing a little bit and just trying to get to the mountains as often as I can.”
This year’s event added a 1.75-mile incline to the 6,285-foot elevation. The final nine miles were at a 6.4 percent average.
“It definitely changed the race a little bit,” Gravois said. “It kicked up a lot here at the end. All of the groups were coming together, and it just split everything up into ones and twos.
“We had a good team riding, keeping me out of the wind today and then just did the last climb and hoped for the best.”
Chattanooga’s Christopher Brown was third in 2:46.10. He has won six races in Tennessee this year.
“It was pretty windy, and I thought it would be kind of hard to stay away with one guy,” Gravois said. “The climb goes from steep, to kind of levels out again, to steep. You can kind of make some time up in the flat section, but definitely an unpredictable race.”
Anna Barensfeld, a Pennsylvania native who currently trains in Asheville, was the women’s winner. She compared the challenge to Mount Washington, on the west coast.
“That climb was pretty awesome,” Barensfeld, 29, said. “We’ve done elevation at some of the other races, but I don’t remember the last time I did a climb that extended. That was a nice climb.”
Finishing second was Winston-Salem’s Sara Tussey, 33.
“She was able to sit on my wheel till there about six miles to go, on the hill,” Barensfeld said. “Props to her. She did a good job.”
There were 340 starters in the race, with 309 finishers.
“One of the best parts of being a professional cyclist is the travel,” Barensfeld said. “I just love showing up at new races in different states like this, and just discovering. Meeting new people, seeing various courses and trying new food.”
The women’s winner didn’t mind the final challenge added at the mountain’s top.
“I like climbing, so that was fine,” Barensfeld said. “We tried to animate it a little. One of the teams did some attacking early, and I appreciated that.
“They tried to animate the race a little bit, and I tried to split up the group on the first little bump halfway through the race. We got a little bit of a gap, but the group came back together and I knew it was kind of a waiting game until we got to this hill. I just set some tempo.”
The women’s race was 31.5 miles in length.
“No attacking,” Barensfeld said. “It was just pace. I just settled in.
“There was no attack. I just settled into my pace, a one-hour pace right from the bottom.”
Like Sweeting, Barensfield insists taking on these stringent inclines is not her strength.
“I knew it was just going to come down to this hill, so I was waiting to kind of do my thing on this hill,” Barensfeld said. “I’m kind of an all-around rider. I’m not exceptional at any one thing, but I can do a little bit of everything.”