Warrior Mountain / Howard Gap Road

On Sunday I had planned to attend Fletcher Flyer near Asheville, NC. To make a long story short, something happened to my registration and I decided not to go. Having already tackled three mountains in two days, it might have been a little much anyway. Instead I attempted my fourth mountain in three days. If all went well, there were optional routes afterward to make up for the miles I missed.

I began with a morning descent down the Saluda Grade. The cool mountain air felt great as I dropped towards Tryon. Unfortunately I was met with an unexpected obstacle – a fallen tree.

Fallen Tree on 176

Fallen Tree on Highway 176

It covered the entire highway and initially looked impassable. There was debris everywhere. I looked around for an opening and finally noticed a gap on the left shoulder. I carefully carried my bike through and navigated my cleats around muddy spots as much as possible. I cleared the tree and rode a little faster, knowing there would not be any traffic coming behind me.

The goal for today would be to climb Warrior Mountain via Howard Gap Road. This would be my first attempt at the short and extremely steep climb. From what I understand, this climb had been part of the Marquis de Sade rides in the past, but last year arider decided to take the descent without braking, ended up going 50 mph and crashing. I believe the climb is a little more than a mile long at a 14-18% grade.

Howard Gap Road to Warrior Mountain

Howard Gap Road to Warrior Mountain

After a lot of tales of success in recent weeks, I am long overdue for some failure. That is what I experienced today. The start of the climb went fine, as I handled the initial winding climbs without issue. When the climb turned upward and hit grades above 10%, I knew I was in trouble. At first I pushed along, but the legs started yelling at me shortly thereafter. They were simply worn from all the weekend riding. My heart felt good, but the legs would not carry me straight to the top. I could have stopped to give them a couple breaks, but at this grade, clipping back in would be highly difficult. After making it almost halfway up the mountain, I cut my losses and turned around. This was not my day.

A little disappointed, I rolled back to Highway 176. In hindsight, I should have just dealt with Howard even if I had to walk the bike a little bit. A mile walk is not the worst thing in the world. Since I turned around, I now had to take the only other way back to Saluda, which meant climbing the four-mile Saluda Grade and facing that downed tree again.

The little bit of Howard Gap took a lot out of me. I have now ridden up the Saluda Grade a few times and no longer consider it to be terribly challenging. Today was different. I struggled on the lower portion and almost welcomed the tree in the road because it gave my legs a rest. This time there was a huge crew of firefighters and others trying to clear it up. At first they didn’t want to let me back through, which would have given me no choice than to ride up Howard Gap. Fortunately I convinced them it was fine, and that I had already come through the other way. They allowed me to pass and I continued my climb.

I contemplated stopping at the bakery once at the top, refueling, then heading down and back up the Watershed, possibly back down Pearson Falls and then up the Grade again. That would have been a good Sunday ride to more than make up for missing Fletcher. With each turn up the Grade, my thinking changed. I was hurting and didn’t have much left in me. Once I reached the Inn, I was ready to hang it up. I had gone a mere 18 miles, probably my shortest ride in weeks, but I was spent. I even had to walk up the 18% grade driveway. After getting off the bike and walking, it became clear that my legs were stiff and I needed some recovery time.


4 responses to “Warrior Mountain / Howard Gap Road

  • Kathrin

    Well…. It certainly gives you a good reason to schedule another trip! 😉

  • Mark Schmerling

    Hi Aaron,

    Today, I finally challenged Howard Gap Road, and won, largely due to the small triple chain ring on my hybrid bike. Though my average speed on the climb was under 4 mph, It never felt too difficult (At that speed, I guess not!).

    I have a possibly-too-late suggestion for you on climbs that you could probably finish with a bit of a rest. You probably know the answer as well. On a road like Howard Gap, which is wide enough to turn around on, how about turning around, unclipping and resting. Then, when you feel like attacking the rest of the hill, stay pointed downhill, clip back in, and turn uphill once more.

    Is your hip letting you ride much these days? I hope so.

    Mark Schmerling

    • aaronwest

      That’s a good suggestion. I try not to unclip at all, but it is unavoidable on some roads.

      The hip is so much better, but I’ve not yet started to ride. I want to make sure I won’t set myself back first. I have been walking a lot so probably getting closer.

      • Mark Schmerling

        Good to know that you’re on the mend. As far as cycling, “There’s always next year. (and maybe later) this year.”

        You’re right; I also dislike unclipping, and would rather climb all the way without stopping. I guess one criterion would be if you’re able to easily visit that climb in the near future. Then, it might be simpler to turn around, then re-visit when one is in a little better shape, and then do it all at once. But don’t ask me; I sometimes make up rules as I go along, and simply try to do my best.

        Be well!

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