It was a beautiful morning in Lenoir, NC. It was a slightly chilly start, colder than I expected. No complaints here. According to the weather report, the cold would not last. It was supposed to be in the 50s in the morning, then the sun would come out in the afternoon and would climb into the low 70s, maybe the 60s in elevation. That would be ideal riding weather. Unfortunately weather conditions are not completely predictable, especially up in the mountains. Things turned out a lot different, which made this more of an adventure than I had expected.
The first 50 miles of the ride are mostly flat with a few tough hills thrown in for good measure. My approach was to sit in with a good group, not too fast or slow, and save energy for the climbing. The key was to find a good group to ride with. I found the right one after a few miles and rode with them throughout the rest of the rolling hills until around mile 52-53. The pace was perfect. It was more than fast enough for me, about 21 mph for the first 50, and I felt comfortable and not worn out. I took my turns at pulling, usually a mile or two at a time, with maybe a dozen others in the pack also taking turns.
The clouds were still with us as we hit the climbs. It was still on the chilly side and I was feeling it in certain places, especially my toes. Fortunately I had prepared with a long-sleeve base layer underneath my jersey and arm warmers.
The first major climb was a whopper. Around mile 52 or 53, we headed up Highway 181 North and it was a bear. We kept climbing for the most part for around 11 miles. The climbs were interrupted with a couple minor descents, but it felt like one long, endless climb. The early going was on the steep side. Some parts were in the 10-12% range, a couple times a little higher. The rest of the climbing was more moderate, maybe 8% with some leveling off. To me, this was the toughest part of the day because you had to stay in climbing mode for so long. I must have been at it an hour or maybe longer. I was ever grateful to pass the Blue Ridge Parkway, knowing that meant the toughest part was behind me.
From there we headed past Grandfather Mountain’s north side on Highway 105. The clouds were still with us and it was still in the 50s. To our surprise, the temperature had hardly budged. That kept it from being as scenic as it might otherwise be, but still made it easier to perform. It also prevented us from wanting to stop and let those muscles cool down.
Highway 105 was a ten-mile stretch with a good bit of traffic. It had rolling hills, but not terribly difficult considering what we had just experienced. At the most, we probably dealt with some short 6-8% grades around the Linville Ridge area, followed by equivalent descents. I rode back-and-forth with a couple other people, mostly on own pace because we descended and climbed at different paces.
We turned onto Schull’s Mill Road, which would bring us back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and we would head to Grandfather Mountain from the other side. This is a climb I was somewhat familiar with already and it was comfortable compared with the rest. This is just a nice, scenic, moderate climb. The grade varied, but was usually not more than 8% and had some level sections in between. This climb is shaded and extremely green. The lush landscapes were a welcome distraction from the difficult task at hand. I didn’t push myself. Instead I just spun up comfortably, enjoying the scenery and saving energy for the mountain that waited for me ahead.
It was still cold during the Schull’s Mill climb. That I expected since it is such a shaded area, but as we got higher and higher, the clouds became denser. When we got to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a thick, enveloping fog was everywhere. I believe we were supposed to turn here on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the volunteers directed us away from it and we continued on highway 221, Blowing Rock Highway. My guess is that the Parkway wouldn’t let us on given the foggy conditions. As much as I love riding the Blue Ridge Parkway and the beautiful Linn Cove Viaduct, I didn’t mind the detour this time since the alternate would not have nearly the amount of traffic. Fog and traffic on the parkway could be dangerous.
Highway 221 was quite the experience. The fog continued to be thick, and at times I could barely see more than 10 feet in front of me. Sometimes it looked like there was a pure white floating blanket in front of me. This proved to be a uniquely difficult experience. Most of the road was rolling, up and down, with nothing too steep in either direction. Without visibility, it was impossible to see what was ahead. Knowing I was making good time, I rode conservatively. I didn’t want to get caught off guard by a tight corner. Plus, I still wanted to save energy for Grandfather Mountain.
By the time I reached Grandfather Mountain, my bones were chilled through and through. The temperature had dropped to the low 40s during this stretch and I feared that it would be even colder at the top. While I pledged to not complain about the cold, I was getting close here. To my surprise, shortly after the Grandfather Mountain climb began, the sun came out. We emerged from the clouds to sunny, beautiful 70 degree temperatures. The natural beauty of the mountain was finally visible after miles of murkiness. I pulled off my arm warmers and rolled up the sleeves on my base layer and thoroughly enjoyed the bright view. The climb, on the other hand, was not nearly as pleasant.
The climb up Grandfather Mountain is only about 2 miles, but incredibly steep. This was perhaps the steepest climb I have ever experienced. In that short distance, we climbed approximately 1,000 feet. Grades were typically in the 10-15% range and a couple of the hills were in the upper teens. The last climb, which is merely 20-30 yards, is a brutal 20%. This would be a tough climb even with fresh legs. It was brutal on legs that had already traveled 100 hilly miles.
It was a good thing that I saved energy because this climb nearly killed me. Others had it worse. I ran into a few guys who cheated by riding into the flat sections, usually parking lots. A couple other guys gave up completely and walked their bike up. Some guys swerved from side to side to make the climb easier. A lot of us stopped for breaks in the flat in-between sections. I cannot remember how many times I stopped, maybe three, and I did the parking lot cheat a couple times. As we approached the top, the climbs became steeper. The more I rode, the more it hurt.
I came upon a series of three switchbacks that looked menacing, but in reality, they turned out to be quite easy. I believe they were around 6-8% or so, which was a big relief. At the top of the switchbacks I saw a lot of people stopped, which caught me off guard. Then I turned my head and looked up, realizing what they were waiting for. I saw the image below.
Yes, that was the last gasp, the last hurrah. The finish line was at the very top, with yelling and screaming crowds to welcome us. My wife was also up there waiting for me, with just a 20% grade in the way. I watched people go up and stagger, barely moving the pedals forward. I sat there and let my muscles rest, contemplating what was ahead of me. One of the other guys said “Here goes nothing.” He set off with another guy and I followed a little ways behind.
Ouch. Pain. The hill became steeper gradually, beginning at around 6-8% until quickly hitting the teens and 20%. Wow, this hurt. I pushed and pushed to get up these last few remaining feet. I saw the guys ahead doing the sideways swerve. I considered it, since it would make the climb easier, but it would also make it longer. I wanted to be done with this thing. I kept pushing ever so slowly, getting further up the hill. Finally I was almost to the top and it lightened up a little bit. A few more pushes and I was over it. A nice volunteer, who I probably was too tired to thank, motioned me towards the finish line to the side. I slow pedaled and crossed. I was spent, beaten, but at least I was finished. My time was 7:05, not bad especially since I had stopped for 20-30 minutes.
Thanks to everyone involved with organizing such a fantastic ride. Even with the tough weather conditions, everything went smoothly. The volunteers were so helpful, so amazing, just great people. They seemed to enjoy being out there as much as we did, never complaining about the cold.
Did I mention it was foggy? I’ll leave you with this view from the top of the clouds I had been riding through all day.