Posts tagged ‘mountains’
Today’s ride may very well have been my toughest road ride ever (last week’s 9 hour mountain bike race at Oak Mountain may have been a smidge tougher). I’ve done rides that were much longer with twice the total climbing, but this one was particularly difficult because I was trying to go for some really long KOMs on top of the overall fast pace for the 135 mile ride. Plus, I was not quite adequately dressed for the first 4 hours of the ride in temps that varied constantly from mid 20s to lower 30s back to mid 20s to upper 30s back down below freezing again before FINALLY starting to climb up to the predicted high of lower 50s.
I got started at 6:40AM still before sunrise, and after a very short warm-up, I started out on a KOM attempt from Gatlinburg up to the top of the Clingman’s Dome tower. I set 275 watts as my power goal and ended up falling a couple watts short of that … I broke my old record by a few minutes, but it was only good enough for 5th place on Strava. When I made it to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, there were only four cars and so I was able to ride up to the tower passing two couples along the way. I made it up to the top to enjoy the view very briefly before heading back down. I was super, super careful on the descent as I passed those same two couples still walking up. See video of the tower below:
From the top of Clingman’s I started to head back down the access road towards 441. I stopped to get a few pics on the way back down since I wasn’t going for any KOMs. I also got this video below of the icicle wall melting:
The Clingman’s dome access road is on the southeast side of the ridge line for the most part so it warms up pretty quickly, but as you descend on 441 towards Cherokee you enter a narrow river canyon that is shaded by an arm of the ridge line. This was the coldest part of the ride because I was sustaining an average speed of close to 40mph at temps below freezing. My “holey” long finger gloves, which I had brought with me because I knew that it was supposed to warm into the 50s, were no match for the windchill. I think it is probably in the top 5 of the coldest I’ve ever been on the bike … #1 still belongs to another ride in Gatlinburg from about 5 years ago where it was raining in the low 30s and I had short finger gloves on … oh my goodness just thinking about it makes me shudder. Also, ironically, these gloves were “holey” from a wreck a couple years ago where I slid out on some ice on the descent from Newfound Gap back down to Gatlinbug. I ripped both palms wide open sliding along the icy road … fortunately my hands were ok, but the gloves were now “holey”.
I made it down, stopped briefly at the national park info center hoping for some free coffee and after not finding any checked my Garmin and saw that a mini-mart convenience store was only 1 mile away in Cherokee, and headed out to refuel with something hot. I got a large coffee and also a large hoagie burger that had 650 calories and 31g of protein and who knows how many grams of fat. But it was awesome. After warming up in the gas station for a good 20 minutes, I headed back out to start the climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Wolf Laurel Gap and eventually to the 6000ft overlook at Waterrock Knob.
The cool thing about this long climb at the very end of the Blue Ridge Parkway is all of the tunnels (about 5 of them). At the very beginning the road is potmarked with rockfall from the super steep wall immediately right of the road. It’s easy enough to dodge the small holes when climbing, and then when descending you are on the opposite side of the road which doesn’t have as much damage. It’s also easy to get paranoid that a rock is going to fall and hit you … I looked up a couple times just to make sure everything looked stable.
After the long climb to Wolf Laurel Gap, there is a 2 mile descent down to the bridge which crosses US-19 before the 6 mile climb up to Waterrock Knob. The cool thing about the Waterrock Knob climb is that the trail to the overlook area is paved … it averages probably somewhere around 18% with sections close to 25%. The paved trail climbs all the way up to the steps to the overlook. You have to unclip at nearly a 20% gradient with a rock wall to your left and a steep drop-off to your right and only one chance at getting it right. It’s the one time I actually get nervous when trying to unclip because of the consequences of not getting unclipped. Fortunately it was no problem and I was able to lean forward to keep from tipping over backwards. But I remember last year when I rode to this same point being nervous about unclipping. You climb a short flight of stairs to this overlook (see video below).
My original plan after this climb was to descend down the other side down to Waynesville, turn around and go back skipping Clingman’s Dome … but I chickened out thinking that my legs wouldn’t be able to handle a FOURTH hors categorie (HC) climb in this ride so I opted to add on the additional Cat 2 climb from the top of Newfound Gap to the Clingman’s Dome tower. Next year, I’m going to try to plan it out better and do that extra HC climb and skip Clingman’s Dome especially after what happened this year …
First, I got these videos of the climb on 441 and then the access road to Clingman’s. I was really tired by this point. Then, when I finally made it to the parking lot, it was jammed pack with easily 100 or more cars. There were people everywhere. Naturally when I started to ride up the path, the forest ranger stopped me and told me that bikes were not allowed. I convinced him to let me walk with my bike so I took off my shoes and ended up walking/jogging all the way up the super steep trail to the top (about 0.3 miles / 300 feet vertical gain). I still had to weave around hoards of people as I was jogging up the mountain in my socks … and I couldn’t help but think of the irony of me being faster 110 miles into my difficult ride, running in my socks, pushing a bike up the steep trail than most of the people who were trying to hike 0.3 miles from the parking lot. Kudos to them, though, for attempting the strenuous activity rather than just sitting in the parking lot and enjoying the view from there. Here’s the video I got from the top the second time:
After walking back down to the parking lot (again in my socks), I put my shoes back on, hopped on the bike, and zipped back down to 441 where I ended up unfortunately getting stuck in a long caravan of cars stuck behind a slow driver. The cars were still going fast enough on the flatter sections of the climb that I would briefly get dropped before catching up in the next series of turns. This meant I got to enjoy at least a few of the many corners on the descent at speed.
Gatlinburg was a bit of a zoo by the time I made it back down at 4:15 in the afternoon. Fortunately, the turn to get up to our hotel is the first righthand turn you can make as you get back into town so I was able to make it back to the hotel without the Garmin battery running out … 9.5 hours after first starting … the rest of the pics, Garmin screenshots, and videos are below.
Do you know how much I love riding in the true mountains? We got in last night at 11:45PM, and I knew that my 700x23c racing tires would be no match for potentially slick icy roads up here so I spent another 30 minutes changing both tires and putting on some good 700x25c all-weather tires (gotta love the Strada-Ks) so that by the time I made it to bed it was 12:30AM. Nevertheless, I set my alarm for 5:30AM so I’d have a chance to do some riding before my computer conference began. Now during a quick break after lunch I just uploaded my ride and see that I ended up with the KOM on the motor trail descent … heartrate still racing a bit from ducking, diving, and sliding around corners in the half-light of dawn shaded by Mt Leconte. Here are some pics I took along the way:
176 miles and just under 20,000 feet of climbing on a cold, foggy, sometimes rainy beautiful October day in the mountains of upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina. My one goal for the ride was to get the Sassafras KOM on the Cat 1 climb from the Eastatoe Valley, but I ended up setting a few other KOMs along the way! Climbing up through the cloud layer and then riding above the clouds up on the Blue Ridge parkway was definitely the highlight of the ride. Ironically, turning around a few miles later and descending back through the cloud layer nearly crashing a few times and absolutely freezing in the mist was the low point of the ride. I’ve included a few of my favorite photos and videos below and then a detailed write-up – and then the rest of the photos, videos, and Garmin screenshots at the end of the post.
We left Birmingham right after Josiah’s baseball game so we could try to make it up to Talladega before the end of the big nascar race and the ensuing traffic nightmare – but we were also hoping to see if we could catch a glimpse of the cars high on the track visible from I20 as we drove past. We ended up arriving about 5 minutes after the end of the race, which we listened to on the radio so we were hoping to see smoke from the big crash on the last lap but we missed that too. Still, it was cool to see all the campers and all the people in the grandstands.
The rest of the drive up to South Carolina was relatively uneventful, and we arrived at the Fieldstone Farm Bed and Breakfast just outside of Seneca shortly before 10PM eastern. After an early breakfast the next morning, I was off on what I was hoping to be a 10 hour adventure (it turned out to be closer to 11 hours). It was cold, overcast, and windy on the way over to Clemson – but the clouds didn’t look thick enough for rain (I was wrong about that, too). Riding through campus, I ran into a guy with a backpack riding a nice Trek while I was taking a picture of Tillman Hall – we chatted for a minute or two and then I headed north out of Clemson up past the mountain bike trails of Issaqueena Forest towards my first goal of the day – the Sassafras Mountain KOM from the Eastatoe Valley.
I decided to target 275 watts for the climb, but my legs were feeling great so I ended up averaging close to 300 watts on the climb up to Beasley Gap. After the long downhill before the start of the final steep Cat 2 portion of the climb, I had dropped down below 280 watts. The Sassafras climb is super steep in parts with downhills in between – there is only one short section with a steady easy gradient. Everything else is either straight up or straight down. I was surprised at how quickly I made it up the last steep section to the short downhill before the final kick up to the top. Then after pushing my bike under the gate, I was able to blow through the last slippery wet steep leafy section with no problem. I ended up getting the KOM by 20 minutes.
The very top of Sassafras (elevation 3559ft) was at the bottom of the cloud layer so there was a light mist, and the air temp had dropped into the upper 30s. I wanted to get a short video at the top, but was having problems with my iPhone crashing so it took a few minutes to get the video. I was freezing by the time I was ready to head back down. Fortunately, I was out of the rain mist pretty quickly and was able to bomb most of the descent. By the time I hit the Chimneytop Gap descent, the roads were completely dry and I let it rip down the mountain pedaling hard at the top and never hitting my brakes. I ended up maxing out at 59.5 mph, but it felt much faster than S Cove because the distance traveled at that speed was far greater (close to a mile!)
Once I made it back to US178, I started the climb up into North Carolina that crosses the Eastern Continental Divide. As I got close to the divide I noticed that I was approaching the cloud layer again. Once I hit the cloud layer this time, it was a much heavier rain mist. This continued all the way across the top and then all the way down the long gradual descent to Rosman, NC. By the time I made it to Rosman, I was absolutely freezing. I had no rain booties on so my feet were freezing with the wind, rain, and cold. I spent a long time inside the gas station warming up – drinking a large cup of coffee and refilling my bottles with gatorade. I also got a couple plastic grocery bags I could use as rain/wind booties inside my shoes. They worked perfectly.
Leaving Rosman, I continued heading north (and up) towards the Blue Ridge parkway. The climb starts out very gradual on some really curvy fun roads on NC215 to reach Balsam Grove. After passing through Balsam Grove, I was starting to finally warm-up again because the rain mist had turned into mostly just fog climbing up through the cloud layer below the parkway. By the time I made it to the parkway, I had climbed up through the clouds and was rewarded with some spectacular views. After another 10 miles of rolling roads and climbing, I reached the high point of the parkway, which was again back in a layer of clouds. Cold and out of food, I stayed there for less than a minute before turning around to book it back to Balsam Grove as fast as possible.
Some of the best views on the way back were near the Rough Butt Bald overlook. Several mountains were peaking through the cloud layer and looked like tiny islands surrounded by a sea of white. Plus, there were some arms of the main ridge line extending down into the clouds that were lit up with the beautiful fall foliage. Leaving the parkway, I knew that the descent back down to Balsam Grove would be wet, but I didn’t realize how cold it would be. After nearly losing it in the first switchback I went really slow and my heart rate probably dipped down into the 60s or 70s which meant that my body was a frozen popsicle by the bottom.
Fortunately, I made it back to the gas station and warmed up again with hot food and more coffee. I was running really late by this point in the ride and I was starting to realize that I wasn’t going to make it back before dark — so I poured the coffee into a gatorade bottle and stuck it in my back pocket — perfect to warm up my body while I was letting it cool off enough to drink. By this point I was having lots of problems with my phone (it kept on locking up whenever I tried to do anything) so I didn’t end up getting any more pictures, so that was disappointing.
The highlight of the latter part of the ride was finding a really cool road that paralleled US64 for a while — Old Quebec Road — which came after all the switchbacks on Silverstein Road. These two roads are amazing low traffic roads. If I lived anywhere in the Cashiers/Sapphire/Rosman area, I’d spend a lot of time on those roads. With my phone not working, I was worried that Kristine would be worried — especially as I approached my original estimated return time of 6:30PM. I booked it down Whitewater, which again was somewhat disappointing because as soon as you cross back into SC the roads are so rutted and stacked up from heavy truck braking that it is pretty dangerous. It feels like the bike is going to break up underneath you.
When I finally made it to Salem, I saw a Dollar General employee outside taking a break and asked if I could borrow her phone. She kindly let me use it to call Kristine and tell her that I was about 15 miles out. It was 6:45PM with a sunset scheduled to happen at 7:07PM. I was going as fast as I could as I skirted around West Union via Burnt Mill Rd when I saw a “Road Closed Ahead” sign. I thought “you’ve got to be kidding me”. I chanced that I would still be able to get through on my bike, thinking that worst case there would be a bridge out and I would have to take my shoes off to cross a small creek. But fortunately, it was just a closed bridge that was still perfectly intact, but must have been declared unsafe for cars. Once past there it was less than 5 miles to home and I was running on a lot of adrenaline to be done as the sun had already set and it was getting quite dark. I ended up averaging well over 20mph for that last 15 miles of the ride making it back to our cabin by 7:25PM.
We piled the kids into the car as far as possible and drove to Clemson to enjoy our favorite Mexican restaurant and then 3 spoons yogurt afterwards … perfect ending to a perfect day!
Awesome ride. I was aiming for about 9 hours on this ride (wall-clock time), but I ended up flatting in the middle of a KOM attempt on Sassafras only 50 miles into the ride. I spent 30 minutes changing the tire trying to inflate with a tiny mini-pump and could only manage to get the tire to hold maybe 60psi. But amazingly, it held for the rest for the rest of the ride with no pinch flats. I was a little bit more cautious on the descents for fear of a sudden pinch-flat blow-out, or rolled tire so I ended up finishing the 163 mile ride in about 10 hours, 15 minutes.
Beautiful fall colors. There was one overlook near the top of the 215 climb where you could see straight down into the valley and could see the different levels of “color change” in the leaves based on elevation. It was awesome.
I saw lots and lots of wild turkeys on the Sassafras climb. With the tire change, I spent nearly two hours on the mountain and did not see a single other person/car. On the way back down, I ran into the back of a turkey, taking feathers to the face, after startling it on the side of the road. It flew into the road and up in front of me. For a split second, I thought for sure that I was going down, the turkey was soon to be dead, and the ride was done. Instead, the turkey just barely cleared me brushing my face and helmet with its tail feathers as it gained enough altitude for me to go under.
North Carolina has amazingly smooth roads. 215 was perfect. The bottom of 215 with its rolls and twists was probably the “road highlight” for me.
Extreme winds across the ridges on the parkway. I would guess that there were 40-50mph gusts across the ridges. I was lucky with my deep dish racing wheels not to go down. The last mile or two of the 215 climb plus all fourteen miles (round trip) that I spent on the parkway had a temp of 47-50degF with light drizzle, lots of fog (i.e., riding in the cloud layer), and amazing winds. I tried to push 225-250 watts on the uphills and over 200 watts on the downhills to stay warm in just shorts, short sleeves, and sleeveless rain vest.
$1.59 pizza/coke after school special at the Salem gas station. I was down to $2 so this worked out really well. 1 large slice of pepperoni/sausage pizza and 1 twelve oz can of coke was perfect to get me the last 20 miles home.
The final ride highlight was making it back to the farm having completed the ride that I thought was doomed when I hit the rock climbing Sassafras and pinch flatted my rear wheel. And then to have Kristine and Analise out on the deck of the cabin watching for me and then seeing Analise and Josiah playing with the horses … well, it was the perfect end to a great day.
What a way to end an over-the-top season – with an over-the top epic ride of 163 miles! I planned out this ride a few weeks ago thinking originally that I would combine the Sassafras climb with the Highlands route for over 130 miles. But while playing around with topocreator to make the route, I realized that I could substitute the 215 climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway instead of Highlands and then continue climbing up to the highest point on the parkway (6053′). It would stretch the ride out over 160 miles, but I knew immediately that this was the ride I wanted to do. About 15 years ago while I was a student at Clemson, I tried twice to ride from Clemson out to the Blue Ridge parkway and back, but failed both times — once making it all the way to the 215 climb but having to turn around unable to complete the climb with my back giving out.
Fast forward fifteen years to Fall 2011, and we’ve had nearly two weeks of perfect weather across the Southeast so approaching Fall Break I knew that the odds of continuing the good weather streak were low. Sure enough, I felt the first rain drops as I was leaving the driveway of the Fieldstone Farm Bed and Breakfast (awesome horse farm we visit every fall break). Even with the overcast skies, it never really started to rain until I was on the 215 climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway over four hours later.
We changed our plans last minute to stay for Josiah’s baseball game, so we didn’t end up leaving until sunday right after his game. This put us into Fieldstone Farm pretty late combined with the 1 hour timezone change meant that when it was still dark outside at 6:30 eastern, we kept right on sleeping. Still, I made it out the door by 7:30 or so with the kids set up to watch a movie.
The ride out to the mountains was great. Even with a few rain drops and threatening skies, it was still clear enough to see the dark blue outline of the blue ridge mountains. I made it out to the Eastatoe Valley and hit the Dug Mountain climb at 275 watts to try to set the KOM on it without digging too deep. I went easy up the climb out of the Eastatoe Valley and all the way to the top of Beasley Gap on 178. I had my eyes on the Sassafras Mountain KOM. I knew that I still had well over 100 miles left in the ride, so I was aiming for the 280-290 watt range for the nearly 5 mile climb. I was over halfway up it and enjoying chasing the turkeys out of the road on the climbs … they would fly up the road and then land again 1/2 mile ahead. It was a good distraction because I was pushing it hard with a 290 watt average 3 miles into the climb when I was looking down at my GPS to see my current wattage for the climb when I came across some large gravel rocks washed onto the road. I hit one of them hard and immediately pinch flatted. Doh!!!! I realized a couple things very quickly – 1) my attempt at the KOM was done 2) if I didn’t get the tire changed I was in for a long walk back to civilization. I had everything I needed to change the tire, except for the cO2 cartridge that goes with my mini-pump. Without the CO2 cartridge, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get enough air into the tires having to send the air through the valve extender through the deep dish rim. Fortunately, it worked, albeit very slowly. At one point, I laid down on the road with my helmet still on and pushed back as a head rest, with the tire propped up on my knees and pumping on the tiny pump for several minutes. I would count to 100, rest, and then try some more. I think I eventually got somewhere between 60-70 psi into the tire.
After finishing the climb to the top, I took a couple quick pictures and then headed back down somewhat slowly to make sure I didn’t have a pinch-flat blowout. It was on one of the steep pitches that I startled a group of turkeys nearly taking out one (see ride highlight section). The bottom part of Sassafras has been repaved so starting to get a little bit more trust in the tire, I went ahead and let go of the brakes hitting 54 on the steep section below Chimney Top gap. Oh and I forgot that I almost hit a squirrel through here going 54. That would not have been good for me, the squirrel, or my squishy rear tire.
Once I made it down to the bottom, I was faced with a choice – turn left to head back and finish up a nice 9000+ ft 85 mile ride and be back way earlier than Kristine was expecting me, or turn right and try to finish the ride even with the squishy rear tire. I turned right reasoning that Rosman, NC probably had a bike shop where I could borrow a floor pump to finishing pumping up my rear tire. When I made it to Rosman, I couldn’t find a bike shop, but my rear tire seemed to be holding the air that I had it in it. I pushed on reasoning that it was mostly uphill to the Blue Ridge Parkway and that I was going to make it there and then I could repump up my tire with my mini-pump once I made it to the top and before I started back down the mountain. As I started to gain altitude, the weather started to head south because I was climbing into the cloud layer. The light drizzle became a heavier rain mist / fog and the temp dropped below 50 degF by the time I made it to the parkway
The Garmin was really helpful as it counted down the miles to my next turn, which I knew would be the parkway. This helped me make it up the long steep 215 climb. Then, once I was on the parkway, my Garmin counted down the miles to my turnaround spot at the high point on the parkway. I had to keep pushing hard to stay warm, but my legs were getting tired. Eventually, I made it. I asked a motorcycle rider to take my picture at the top. I took one picture looking off the side, and then I started back down.
Squishy rear tire, high winds be damned as I was now tired, hungry, and cold. I drilled it on the descents on the parkway and made great time back to 215. My philosophy has always been this — if you are cold, then you need to ride faster! This didn’t work well on 215 though as it was raining heavier there and the road was twisty with LOTS of leaves on the road from the high winds. I had to brake a lot and would have gotten dangerously cold, except it was amazing how you could feel the temperature increase on the descent. It was well into the upper 50s by the time I made it back to Balsam Grove for a very important refueling stop. I chatted with the gas station clerk, who was also a mountain bike rider, as I ate a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit and loaded my bottles with a 24oz coke and 20 oz gatorade.
By now, it was 3:30PM with Kristine expecting me back by 4:00. I still had over 50 miles to ride and no cellphone reception. But on the top of one of the climbs on 281, I had enough reception to call her and leave a message that I wouldn’t be home until 6. She got through to me a little later once I made it over to Sapphire and helped talk me through a couple of the climbs leading into the Whitewater Falls descent. The Whitewater descent was supposed to be a late-ride highlight, but the road was really crappy immediately after you hit the South Carolina border and I couldn’t just bomb over everything with the threat of a rear tire blow-out. So I would say that this was the ride “low point”. It was over soon enough, though, and I made it to Salem where I found a gas station with an after-school special of pizza and coke. This was just what I needed to get me home the last 20 miles. I pushed it hard and had a nice tailwind making it home 10 minutes before 6PM. Done!
Other random pics
I lived in this trailer for about 4 months while I was at Clemson. It looks like it might be abandoned now. Rent was only $65 / week!!! I passed this on 188 by Lake Keowee near the start and finish of the ride
How is that for a scenic view and ride profile? It took just over two hours to do the 22 mile climb out of Gatlinburg up to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot – and then only 42 minutes to make it all the way back down! That works out to an average speed of 11mph on the way up and 31mph on the way back down. My one mistake for the ride was not realizing that there is actually a paved path the rest of the way up to the lookout tower that is like a hot wheel’s track for grown-ups. When Kristine and I drove back up to the top later, we passed a small group of cyclists nearing the top. We then saw them riding up the path and caught up to them while they rested at the lookout tower. I found out they race for a team in the tri-state area (TN-NC-VA). The view is absolutely amazing. Check out the rest of the photos from the ride.