This week I found myself again heading to North Carolina, this time to the Western side around Franklin and Sylva. There would be a few hours for me to kill, and I first planned to climb Clingman’s Dome. Unfortunately Mother Nature did not agree. A huge weather system materialized during my allotted time, so there went that idea.
Plan B was to get a shorter ride along the way before the storm arrived. I decided to take another stab at Howard Gap, which I had previously failed when attempting on tired legs. So I headed out early enough to beat the storm. When I arrived at Harmon Field, it was cloudy and overcast, but the rain had not yet arrived. According to my radar it was close, but far enough for me to get a short ride of around 20 miles.
I prepared quickly and got on the road. Rather than warming up on some flats, I headed straight to the climb, eager to finish up before the rain.
There was a short and steep hill a little ways before the major climb, which was around 11-12%. That was my warmup and it was tough. It made me wonder if my off-season legs were up for the challenge, but I soldiered on nonetheless.
The climb began slowly, around 6-8%, which was great as it allowed me to get in a rhythm. Early into the climb it turned upward, almost straight upward, and continued at a prolonged, constantly steep grade. It was always in the teens. The highest grade I noticed was 18%.
Yikes. This was tough, both physically and mentally. Part of the problem is that you can see a long ways ahead of you, and can tell that there are no breaks to the grade. It is completely disheartening to turn a corner and see yet another stretch of 200 yards or so at the same incline.
I pushed and pushed, slowly but surely. This was a short climb, but it still seemed never-ending. As I got closer to the top, I could hear the hum of cars on Interstate 26. When I got high enough to see them, I knew I was close to the end, after another few handfuls of steep climbing.
Phew. I made it to the top and gave my aching legs a break. I figured there would be time before the rain came, and really didn’t want to attempt descending Howard Gap in this weather. Instead I rode several miles of rolling hills until I reached the town of Saluda, where I would then turn onto 276 and descend via the Saluda Grade.
That seemed like good plan at first, until I started feeling raindrops after about a mile. Hmm. I considered turning around and taking the short Howard Gap route, then thought better of it. Even in heavier rain, Saluda Grade would be much safer even though it would mean an additional 10 miles of wet riding. It wasn’t pleasant, but that was the way I went. My Saluda descent was the slowest ever. I even stopped a few times to let off the brakes.
By the time I reached the car and checked the radar, I realized that this was simply a pocket of rain. Note the blue dot in the radar image below. The big monstrosity was still a little ways away. However unpleasant, it could have been worse. Besides, it was worth it to conquer something new.