A Southern Pilgrimage

I’m writing this account a few months after the fact. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is purely intentional.

Sitting in the Greenville – Spartanburg airport, I’m doing my best to grasp the epic scale of the last few days. I’ve just completed 213 miles and 23,399 feet of climbing over four rides in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In early September my friend Mike and I hatched the idea. He was going to be here anyway racing the Hincapie Fondo, so why not come on down? After a season foreshortened by a bout with mono, back problems and numerous work interruptions, I saw the opportunity to close it out on a high note, and air tickets were purchased.

blue-ridge-parkway_2The area between Greenville, SC and Asheville, NC is a maze of rolling valley roads and climbing scenic highways. The cyclist friendly Blue Ridge Parkway and it’s feeder roads offer numerous options. Many rides begin with a long climb and end with a bombing descent – the middle part being a stretch on the Parkway. It’s no wonder that World Tour and Pro Continental riders live and train here.

FIRST DAY. We woke up to pouring rain, and decided it was ill-advised to go for a ride. Instead we headed out for a recon drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway to enjoy some peak foliage and pay a visit to the Appalachian Folk Art Center. Part store and part museum, the center sells the work of local artisans and displays virtually priceless examples of regional craftspeople – including period black and white photos of frowning women churning butter and their men standing by in patched overalls.

SECOND DAY. I don’t often think of riding in the rain as an opportunity to find something special. Mostly I avoid it. But we didn’t travel this far to sit in a hotel room – so we headed out to do Caesar’s Head and Mt Sassafras. The mist and occasional rain showers provided a neutral palette that made the foliage really pop. Through this tunnel of color we settled into the CAT 1 climb leading up into the state park, and reached the summit welcome center in high spirits. After Mike stuffed some glossy brochures into the front of his jersey – for warmth and possible later reading – we descended toward Sassafras.

sass3The final climb rose in two steep walls separated by a short flatter section: both walls averaged 15% and hit 21% briefly. The storm  had pasted a layer of wet leaves on the pavement, and let it be known for future posterity that this made for a supremely slick situation…going up AND down. I’m fairly strong, and was able to climb the first wall seated. On the second wall I got up out of the saddle only to feel my tires spin out beneath me. It was time for walk. Mike was kind enough to capture the moment: yep, that shadowy figure is me. He also captured the moment in verse:

With the final high point made, at the overlook they peered
No fall colors or great views they saw – Instead, the grayness sneered

After picking our way down from the summit, we descended down to Rocky Bottom. As the sun began to peak through the clouds we finished our plunge to the valley on drying roads through a section of technical curves. As we rolled back into Pumpkintown, SC, it was evident that we had indeed found something special in the rain.

burnerTHIRD DAY. There’s nothing like consecutive days of hard cycling to kindle faith. For example, it is a supreme act of faith to get out of bed – never mind getting kitted up and heading out the door. This is why I favor week long point-to-point tours or riding with friends that I don’t want to disappoint: both effectively sabotage any laziness on my part. And, so, off we went to Transylvania county to ride the legendary Rosman Half-Burner. The 18 mile HC climb up to the Parkway unfolds in two parts. First there’s a steady climb averaging maybe 5% that leads to a flat section that has undoubtedly broken the hearts of legions of cyclists who thought they were done climbing. NOT A CHANCE. The final eight miles were sustained double-digit grades.

On the way up the final section I had trouble overheating and had to stop twice to cool off. After another heartbreaking false summit, I got to the summit fully cooked, and headed off with numb legs to find Mike…which I did. He was standing on a bridge drying his clothes in the wind with a big grin on his face:

How ya doing buddy?!’ ‘BLOWN‘ I replied. [e.g. wrecked, trashed, wasted]  After devouring an entire Pro Bar and half a bottle of water, I recovered and we proceeded to a curvy descent that put a smile back on my face. With an impatient driver creeping up from behind, I surrendered to gravity and hit the first hairpin going 30. I don’t recall seeing that vehicle again. A few minutes earlier I asked Mike about the terrain ahead. He must’ve sensed a bit of desperation in my voice, so he replied, You know, it goes up some and down some. I’m pretty sure he wanted me to be pleasantly surprised by this ripping descent.

Later that evening we discussed the next day: Mike talking animatedly, and me lying on the floor answering in three word sentences. With the cold temps forecasted on Mt Mitchell, we agreed to do two climbs adjacent to the Parkway, and finish up with a long CAT 1 to Craggy Gardens. The forecast was for bright sun.


mikeonmitchellFOURTH DAY
. Mike and I were both feeling strong as we headed out toward Ashville. My resurrection from the dead was complete after my recovery routine of the night before. I felt down-right sporty as we headed for the top of Town Mountain, and it’s gorgeous descent through banked curves down into Ashville, NC. After a water stop we picked our way through residential neighborhoods to the start of the Elk Mountain Scenic Highway – a perfectly lovely CAT 2 climb ascending through switchbacks back up to the BRP. As it turned out my adventure was just beginning.

Somehow I misunderstood which Craggy Gardens I was to meet Mike at. There’s a picnic area and a visitor’s center – I visited both and added another 500 feet of climbing to further build my character. Now, we often say that a hard effort is ‘worth it’ – whether we believe it or not. Sometimes what we really mean is that we’re thankful the ordeal has come to an end. But I’m here to say that every bit of that 7631′ of climbing was worth it. We stood at the top of a 17 mile long descent.

IMG_0233Endurance athletes chase an endorphin-laced transcendent dream who’s fulfillment lies eternally beyond the next hill. And in keeping with this, a ride has the capacity to move us deeply. After the first tunnel I let my bike run: simultaneously attending to speeds approaching 75 Kph, setting up for each curve and taking quick glances at mountain top views to my left. I was moved: in equal parts of awe, gratitude and joy as I swung through the turns and tucked along the straightaways on the way back down to the Folk Art Center.

FIFTH DAY. Today answered the question of what to do with a limited amount of time and a plane to catch:

Get packed…get dressed…and go for a bike ride.

We headed over to Paris Mountain and were given permission by the fine folks at Hincapie Cycling Clothing to park in their lot. After warming up on a bike trail through a swamp, we arrived at the base of Paris Mountain where I settled into my climbing cadence – reaching the top in fine form, even if I do say so. Everything seems easier on the last day of a hard bike trip – so I didn’t consciously take note of the steep sections on either side…I just pedaled along eyes and ears wide open, trying to catch every last little bit before we were done.

parisThe trees bowed over the road making golden a tunnel fit for a king. As we entered Paris Mountain State Park the road wound sharply up and down through hardwood forests until our turn-around. On the way back I could see Mike was letting go in his own way: repeating one of the climbs and descents to wring every last ounce of joy from the road. Then it was a quick trip back across the bike path through the swamp, tearing down my bike, jamming my sweaty kit into my suitcase in favor of a pair of jeans and my last clean t-shirt…and off to the airport.

Almost five months later I’m still pausing over the keyboard – lost for minutes at a time remembering. I love everything about the bike. I love the technical bits of carbon and titanium…going fast and long with the sun on my back…the quiet hum of a well adjusted drivetrain…the feeling of relief and accomplishment when summiting a hard climb…dousing my head with cold water on a hot day. I love all the places I can go. But more than this, it’s sharing it all with a friend.

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