Tag Archives: mountain

Grayson Highlands, Virginia

Grayson Highlands

Since I would be up in the High Country a day early, I decided to make my warm-up ride a little more interesting. Usually I will spin for 10-20 miles before a big ride, just to get the legs fresh. This time I decided to do so at a state high point, Grayson Highlands, Virginia, which is about an hour north of Boone.

Since this is a warm-up ride for a mountain century, I didn’t want to overcook. The plan was simply to park at the visitor’s center, drop down to the entrance, turn around and climb back up. This isn’t my ideal way of climbing, sort of feels like cheating, but that was the plan.

As I drove up, I noticed that Highlands Parkway climbs to the base of Grayson, and the last couple miles are relatively steep. I decided to extend the ride a little bit, descend until the road becomes flat, and then turn around to climb.

The descent ruled. Just when you’re barely outside of the Visitor Center parking lot, there’s a view of 5,700 foot Mt Rogers. It didn’t come through on the pictures, but could be seen from the naked eye. I stopped for the photo op before dropping down the rest of the way.

The grade varies, but there are some nice, straight sections inside the park with 8-11% grades. I sailed down those until I reached the lighter grades at the bottom, where I had to keep pedaling downhill.

I turned left on Highlands outside of the park and continued the descent. This stretch had some tighter, steeper curves, which required a little bit of brakes, but it was still a blast of a descent. After a couple miles, the road straightened out and I expected flat. Nope. It was still dropping, although not nearly as steep. It was around the 2-4% range. I kept descending.

The road continued to gradually lose elevation. I was starting to get worried. By the time I turned around, this was going to be a long climb. Soon I was over 10 miles, and had descended over 2,000 feet.

As I passed 11 miles, the road began to turn up a little bit. Before I knew it, a dog darted straight at me. This was a big, white dog, and boy was he fast! He covered the few hundred feet from his house to my bike quick. The road had turned up enough to slow me down, so I whipped the bike around, and sprinted in the other direction. Instantly I was at 25 mph. I turned around, expecting him to be gone, but the guy was still chasing and barking! I yelled “NO!” and beckoned it away. He was within 10 feet of my rear wheel, charging hard before he finally gave.


As I drove by later, I looked for the dog and instead saw a huge “Beware of Dog!” sign. Noted.

Now came the climb, and it wasn’t too bad. The grade for those first few miles was easy, in the 2-4% range. This turned out to be great as I needed something to warm up my climbing legs. The real climbing began near the end of Highlands Parkway when the curves began. That started with a stiffer grade, and for a short stretch it was in the double digits before relaxing to 8%. I was careful to watch my pace and keep things comfortable, and chewed the miles away.

This is one of the tight Highlands Pkwy sections.

This is one of the tight Highlands Pkwy sections.

By the time I turned back into Grayson, the sun was out and the view was beautiful. This is a nice climb. The scenery reminded me of Brasstown Bald, only without the punishment. The early part of the climb was not too difficult. Around the middle, after the ranger station, it gets a little tougher. That long 8-11% section that felt so great going downhill didn’t feel as great now. Again, I took it nice and easy, and felt alright.

There is not a natural summit. The climb ends at the visitor center, and from there you can hike about a mile to two viewing points – Little Pinnacle and Big Pinnacle. I changed out of my cycling gear, and took to the woods. It was worth it. The overlooks were gorgeous, and afforded views of nearby Mt. Rogers, Whitetop Mountain, and others in the area.

The view from Big Pinnacle. That's either Rogers or Whitetop.

The view from Big Pinnacle. That’s either Rogers or Whitetop.

It turned out to be a good ride. And another state highpoint can now be checked off the list. I’m ready for the big ride tomorrow.

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Independence Pass from Twin Lakes, CO

As of Friday, I had already climbed Mount Evans and three mountain passes in five days. It was a busy week, but somehow my legs stayed fresh. Usually with this much volume, I would have been exhausted. The only reason I can think of for my vitality is the fact that I have been riding easy on the climbs. For that I can thank both the altitude and the spirit of vacation. I’m in no hurry.

I had one more big climb in me before Copper Triangle. For my last solo ride, I wanted something big. I settled on Independence Pass, the second highest paved pass in the state (according to Cyclepass.com). I was partially inspired by a report that former baseball player Barry Bonds had climbed Independence Pass recently. I may not be able to slug 74 home runs in a season, but I sure can ride my bike up a hill.

I opted to start my climb from Twin Lakes, CO. It is a tiny town, not too far from Leadville, that sits in the shadow of Colorado’s two tallest mountains — Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. Independence would be long climb of approximately 17 miles where I would be gaining 3,000 feet of elevation. 

The climbs starts out relatively easily. There are a handful of sections where the climb reaches 6%, while there are others where it is flat or a slight incline. This allowed me to get comfortable in my climbing legs, and warm up appropriately.  It was the perfect profile for my type of riding.

Like most of my climbing thus far in Colorado, the terrain was beautiful. At times I could make out the bald peak of Mount Elbert to my right, even if its base was obscured by smaller mountains or trees.

The route stays mostly straight for a long ways. I had heard that Independence had a twisty reputation, and assumed correctly that would be revealed later. After around 11-12 miles, I found myself in a valley with a slight incline. To my left, I could see a road rising along the cliff, going higher and higher. I would be up there before long. 

The road curved left at just under the 13-mile point. It also turned upward, at a steady 5-6% grade. There was no barrier on the cliff edge, so as I climbed higher, it seemed like I was walking on air. The view below was not immediately apparent, so I stopped at the lookout where a few motorcyclists were already hanging.

Let me first clear up a misconception about motorcyclists. I’m sure there are some bad seeds here and there, but all of the riders I have encountered have been classy, respectful people. In a way we share a certain camaraderie since we appreciate nature on two wheels. These guys were very cool. We talked a lot about different rides we had done. It turned out we had climbed a number of the same southeastern hills. One guy even rode a bike, although he was too old to ride in the mountains (his words). They even offered me a bottle of water, which I declined because I had more than enough fluids.

As for the view, look at the cover photo. Breathtaking!

I rolled away on my own. The motorcyclists took their time and passed me after about a mile. I caught the picture below as they passed.

Waving goodbye to the motorcyclists. These were some good guys!

One thing the motorcyclists told me was that the climb would get steeper. That wasn’t entirely true, because it still topped out at about 6%, but the climbing was more consistent. There were not many more of the false flats that I had already enjoyed. 

Do I need to talk about the scenery? It was just as gorgeous as all the other rides, if not more so. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Regardless how steep, a climb as long as this one becomes a grind. At some point I focus on just powering my way to the top. With that in mind, I was glad to get some levity from none other than Jens Voight, or the ‘Jensie,’ as he is called. Someone had written his trademark saying — “Shut up legs!” on the road. With maybe a mile or two remaining in the climb, I heard the message loud and clear. Yes, shut up legs. I am going to the top. I surprised myself by laughing out loud. Jens has a unique ability to put a smile on my face, regardless of the situation.

Soon enough, and I had reached the peak at 12,095 feet. That would be the second highest elevation I would reach on this trip, next to Mount Evans the previous Sunday.

I was taking the usual picture of my bike next to the elevation sign when a tourist stopped me. 

“Would you like me to take your picture?” 

Sure! I gave him the camera, then almost on impulse, I grabbed the bike and thrust it high in the air. I’d say the picture came out well.

The descent was hair raising near the beginning, as expected. I was careful around the curves. The big ledge where I had rested with the motorcyclists was the most unnerving because the ledge was right up against the road. I found myself drifting almost all the way into the other lane, wanting to stay as far away from that ledge as possible.

As I descended the rest of the way, I reflected on the magnificent week. Never did I expect to reach such heights in such a short time. It may sound silly or egotistical to say that I was inspired by my accomplishments, but I was, and my reflection was somewhat emotional. I proved to myself that there are no limits to achievement. I vowed then to continue setting ambitious goals, and try to accomplish what does not seem possible. More importantly, I won’t stop until I get there.

Independence Pass triumphant!

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Brasstown Bald, Hogpen Gap & More

Another weekend, another state. This time I was in Atlanta, GA, catching up with some family. Of course I brought my bike, and somehow I convinced family to drop me off in Helen, GA. I would ride my bike while they would gallivant around.

Brasstown Bald had my eye, the highest point in Georgia. I had heard stories about ‘The Wall,’ where the grade increases to above 20%. Many have said this is the among the toughest climbs in the Blue Ridge. On top of that, it used to be a stage finish spot in the defunct Tour of Georgia. Lance, Levi and other celebrated pros battled it out on the steep grades, adding to the mountain’s legend and lore.

Jeff Dilcher was gracious enough to help me devise the route. Towards the last minute, he decided to join me. That was great. Not only would I have some company, but I would also get words of wisdom from someone with riding experience out here.

First on the menu was another legendary behemoth, Hogpen Gap, the prize climb of Six Gap Century. Again, I had heard that this is a beast. It is approximately seven miles with many steep grades.

We left Helen bright and early, and turned onto the Richard B. Russell Scenic Parkway. Before long the road turned upward. I asked Jeff if this was Hogpen. “No,” he said. “This is the climb before the climb.” In a couple miles, the climb really began.

The grade ranged anywhere from 6% to maybe 15% in some sections. It went on awhile and was quite the climb, but not quite the quad killer that I had expected. There were even a couple level sections and a slight downhill near the top. I mentioned to Jeff that the actual Hogpen climb paled compared to its reputation. He reminded me that most who ride up Hogpen, do so at mile 70 of Six Gap Century, where it hurts a lot more. Good point. We tackled it with fresh and tapered legs. By the time we reached the top, those legs were feeling loose, stretched out and ready for the big challenge ahead.

Hogpen had not been a particularly scenic climb, but the descent more than made up for it. The tree line opened up on our right and revealed a splendorous view of the North Georgia mountains below. We started down aside a rocky cliff to our left, as the road pitched steeply downward. There weren’t as many bends on this steeper side of the climb, which made for a screaming and somewhat scary descent. I had to continually pump my brakes in order to keep my speed under control.

The next climb was Jack’s Gap, which would be more of a prelude for the main event, Brasstown Bald. Jack’s was not much to speak of, just a short and not too steep of a climb. What was imposing about it was that we would still be climbing when we reached the spur to Brasstown Bald.

As we reached the park entrance, the difference between Jack’s and Brasstown was apparent. The winding road to our left turned straight up, with a yellow sign warning of steep grades for the next three miles. We stopped briefly to collect our breath, then put rubber back on pavement. Here goes nothing.

Yep, it was steep alright. The early portion was a double digit grade. “This is the easy part,” Jeff said. He warned me not to push too hard during the first mile. He said that if my heart rate was too high when we hit ‘The Wall,’ that I would have to stop. No problem there. I took it as easy as possible.

We reached the mile one marker. Really, that’s all we climbed? The steep grade continued and I kept the pedals moving slowly. We reached a clearing and I could see the road zigzag ahead far above my eye line. I figured that must be the wall. As it turned out, that was only the beginning. We turned the corner and the punishment began.

I have noticed that some grades get exaggerated in cycling circles. Not this one. It was at least 20% and maybe higher. It reminded me of Pinnacle Mountain from early in the year.

It was so steep that my wheel would leave the ground. I had to lean forward and be careful not to topple over. My riding was wobbly. I could barely keep my balance. My wobbling unintentionally made me tack from side to side (something I try not to do), just trying to keep control of the bike. After pushing and grunting for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only a tenth of a mile, the grade leveled out to an ‘easy’ 10%. The rest of the way was not too bad, but I kept going easy in case the road pitched up around another corner.

We reached the parking lot, but not yet the summit. There were still approximately 400 more feet to climb to reach the highest point in Georgia. I had heard of Brasstown’s strict rule against letting cyclists ride to the top, but had also heard that on quiet days, they would sometimes let you through.

The ranger met us at the gate. I asked if we could keep going. Absolutely not, was her answer. I begged. I had come a long way, and pleaded for her to make an exception . Nope, not happening. Jeff joked that she couldn’t catch our bikes going up. She replied that there is a hefty fine for riding to the top, and that effectively ended the conversation. I snapped a picture of my bike next to the ‘No Bicycles’ sign, then took the shuttle bus to get my summit pictures. It was a glorious view, even if a little hazy on this morning. I walked back down and got back on the bike.

Descending Brasstown was a white knuckle affair. We had to ride the brakes much of the way down, and throughout all of the wall. Fortunately the descent was short. After winding down the steep switchbacks, we were back at Jack’s Gap in no time, ready to finish the ride.

We looped around via the Unicoi Parkway, where one more challenge awaited us. Unicoi Gap would be the last hill of the day. Jeff warned me that it was no cakewalk, but how bad could it be compared to what we had just climbed?

The grade was not terribly steep, yet it was tough nonetheless. Part of that was because my legs were worn down from the last two climbs. The heat was also taking a toll. And, this was a nagging, tough little climb. Fortunately once we were done, we were done.

The descent from Unicoi Gap was exhilarating. It had technical, winding roads, but the grade was moderate enough that we were able to glide through them, barely touching our brakes. It was a nine-mile stretch back to Helen, mostly downhill.

After the ride, I reconvened with family and we had lunch at a German restaurant. Bratwurst and a gigantic glass of German beer was the perfect recovery food. Prost!

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Seven Devils & Hawksnest

It was the day after Blood, Sweat & Gears and we would be leaving the Boone and Banner Elk area soon. It turned out we could not make Cyclo-via, so I wanted a final mountain ride before heading out. Fortunately I found one right next to the hotel.

I have to give John Summerson some kudos for this one. I found it from his Southeast climbing book, which I recommend any serious climber pick up.

The climb started in the nearby neighborhood of Seven Devils. This is a small resort town with an off-season population of a mere 129. The climb started easily enough when I turned from Highway 105, but it wasn’t long until it turned up into double digit grades and stayed there. It was a challenging climb, with a few tight switchbacks and steep pitches. Little did I know how much more would be coming ahead.

After navigating the steep grades for just under two miles, I found myself in the heart of Seven Devils. It really is a small town, an intersection really, with an apartment complex and a Town Hall. There were lots of small roads that led to other houses and resort facilities, which I didn’t try, although I imagine there are steep climbs throughout the town.

I followed John’s instructions for what he calls the Hawksnest climb. This is a ski resort that boasts of snow tubing and the longest zipline in the Southeast. I turned onto Skyland Rd, which would take me almost to the resort. This was a much more moderate grade, maybe in the 3-4% range, with a downhill about midway and one steep hill just to keep me on my toes.

I could see the ski hills up ahead in the distance, and knew this meant my next turn onto Skiview Road would be coming up. I saw a seriously steep road to the right and thought that was probably a driveway. To my surprise and anguish, that was my turn. The steep grade hit me like a ton of bricks. It must have been right around 15%. It stayed in that vicinity for the majority of the climb. After getting past the first pitch, I saw was a retiree couple driving down the mountain. They looked at me curiously as I huffed and puffed slowly my way up the insanely steep hill.

I came across another pitch in the road, with a sign that said blind hill ahead. That can’t be good. It wasn’t. That was easily the steepest section. My Garmin showed that it was mostly in the 18% vicinity with a peak of 20% at the end.

After winding around for around a mile, the road narrowed to one lane. The steepness persisted around the 13-16% range, with occasional breaks to around 10%. There was one last road near the top, which was just a small hill, but John listed it just to extend the climb. This was Divine View Road. This was practically a driveway, as there was only one house on the road. I could tell that the so-called ‘Divine View’ was probably from their patio. I was tempted to cross the driveway if it weren’t for the No Trespassing sign. Not a good idea to disobey those signs in the mountains of NC.

All told, the climb was about 4 miles, of which I averaged between 5-6 mph. I consider it to be slightly more difficult than Snake Mountain, the toughest climb on the Blood, Sweat & Gears ride.

The descent wasn’t much better. With narrow roads and steep grades, I found myself sitting on the brakes, wearing out my hands. I had to stop a couple times. It was a relief to get back to Hawksnest, where the road eased off. Seven Devils was a technical, but manageable descent.

It was tough to leave. The Boone and Banner Elk area is a cyclists paradise. There were so many other climbs I wanted to try out, but alas, I had not the time, nor the legs. Another day.

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Richland Balsam Mountain

After conquering a Southern Sixer the day before, I found myself with a couple hours to kill and decided to take a stab at another. Richland Balsam Mountain, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, was literally in the back yard of my hotel.

I had already been there on the Blue Ridge Breakaway route, which went along Lake Logan Road near Cold Mountain (another Southern Sixer). We had descended down from that point and then climbed back up Waterrock Knob on the other side. This time I would climb up hard way, the same 12-miles I had descend the first time. Since I needed to get back home later that afternoon, all I could manage would be an out-and-back route, but that was fine. My legs were a little cooked anyway.

I parked at the bottom of the climb near Balsam Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway and immediately started the climb. Without the opportunity to warm up, my legs were a little stiff out of the gates. I found my hamstrings to be especially sore in the early going. What made it more difficult is that the first four miles of this climb are the steepest, averaging a 7% grade. It was quite the chore on cold legs.

I knew right away that this would not be a hammering ride. I was as much cyclist today as I was tourist and photographer. I stopped often along the way up. This was mostly to take in the sights on such a beautiful day. The first time in this area everything just blurred by as I screamed down the mountain. It was nice to stop smell the flowers this time (not that there were many flowers in early March). I got a picture at every overlook on the way up, some of which you can see in the gallery below.

My legs came back about mid-way. This was probably mostly due to the climb easing up. In the first four miles I had climbed close to 1,500 feet and the last eight climbed another 1,500. My leisurely pace continued. I saw that there was a forest near the top named after Senator Roy Taylor, and a nice overlook a little off the beaten path that I would have otherwise not noticed. These are the things you miss when you don’t stop.

Finally I reached the top. There were a couple other people marveling at the “Highest Point on Parkway” sign. They were nice folks and even took a picture of me with the sign (didn’t come out well). When they saw me they said, incredulously “dang, did you ride your bike up that whole thing?” Sure did.

The descent was just as fun as I remembered it from last September, albeit not quite as colorful. I had forgotten about the tunnel and had to stop, pull out my phone and use that to nervously guide my way through the pitch dark. I’ll have to make it a point to invest in better lights later this year.

The 12-miles flew by. I saw my car parked at the overlook and was disappointed. The descent ended there and I wasn’t about to climb back up. I’ll get to experience it again.

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