Tag Archives: mountains

New Section: Routes

A lot of the stuff I add to the website are things that I would want for myself. For example, my Climbs section was started because I was spending a lot of time looking for interesting roads to climb when training for my first Mitchell. It grew from there.

The Routes section came from the same place. When I am in the Blue Ridge area, I often don’t have time to seek out group rides to show me around. I am always looking for convenient routes that I can take by myself. I find a lot of them on the internet, and some I make for myself. It would have been amazing had there been a single resource where I could find them all. If I cannot find it, why not create it?

This section was conceived a few months ago when I was training for my second Mitchell. It would have been too time consuming to put together a list of cue sheets like the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club has done to perfection. Instead I decided to use newer technology and use RideWithGPS links. Because people all over use this software, the content is vast and limitless. It also allows people to view the route on a map, see the elevation profile, and download it to their GPS device.

To begin, I asked a few friends if I could use theirs. Special thanks go to Neil Turner, Michael Powell, Scott Baker, John McSwain, and Jeff Dilcher for providing a starting point.

As of right now, we have routes that begin in Spartanburg, North Greenville, Brevard, Sylva, Tryon, Atlanta, and the North Georgia Mountains. In time we will add plenty more.

I am looking for a good source of content for routes out all over the Southeast, but I would specifically like to find some from Asheville, Boone, and Roanoke. If you know of anyone who creates these for your town, please send them my way.

Keep an eye on this section as I expect it to grow. Keep in mind that there is danger in undertaking any of these routes. You’ll notice a disclaimer on every page for a reason. Do your research and make sure you are equipped before trying these. While some are easy, others are epic rides that few people can accomplish on their own.

Steep Climbs Routes

South Carolina Routes
North Carolina Routes
Georgia Routes

Blood, Sweat & Gears, 2012, Valle Crucis, NC

Blood, Sweat & Gears is a huge ride. Nearly 1,000 riders were bunched in the Valle Crucis Elementary School entry-way, slightly off the main road. I arrived late and found a spot near the back of the pack. No worries. I didn’t want to go too fast anyway. I squinted to see the Mast General Store at the starting line. After a few announcements, the ride officially started. I could see movement at the front of the pack, but it would take another minute or two before I would funnel through.

We started in a dense fog. The forecast was for clear and sunny skies, so I knew it would burn off soon. The massive pack of riders left Valle Crucis at 7:30am, turned onto Highway 105, and made a quick left onto Schull’s Mill Road to start the climbing.

I’m a habitually slow warmer. My muscles are not ready for a climb at mile four, but part of the challenge is taking what is thrown at you. I was not afraid of this climb, having conquered it before (link to B2B). Schull’s Mill is a gorgeous stretch of road. Most of it is under heavy tree cover. I could tell we climbed out of the fog because sunlight pierced through the trees, leaving gorgeous sights like the cover photo above. My legs hurt, but I didn’t care. I pushed through the crowd and made sure to stretch out on the following descent.

The route took us beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not to worry, it would be back shortly. We coasted through downtown Blowing Rock, across the connecting highway, and jumped back on the Parkway a few miles later.

This was a new section of the Parkway for me. It was gorgeous and scenic all throughout, naturally, but this time in a different way. The elevation was around 3,000-4,000 for most of this stretch, which is a little lower than many Parkway sections to the west. There were a number of short rolling climbs, and subsequent descents, all at that lovely moderate 6-8% grade that is characteristic of the Parkway. There was a lot of greenery and even some farmland, with only a small handful of overlooks. I stopped at one for a photo opp. The short, easy climbs went by quickly and soon we were escorted back onto country roads.

All of these short climbs were window dressing for what was coming up. The big climb of the day would be Snake Mountain, and that was all anyone was talking about. I encountered Gary, a rider from Raleigh who had done this ride a few times previously. He told me some great stories about Snake. There was one time when kids were pelting him with rocks at the top, which was nothing compared to the punishment of the 20% grade. I heeded his warnings by taking it easy and leaving something for the punishment up ahead. Ready or not, here it was coming.

There was a short climb followed by a short descent. “This is the easiest it’ll get for a couple miles,” Gary called out. He was right. The climb began easily enough, but I knew from his warnings and what I had heard from others that it would stiffen up soon enough. The more we moved ahead, the steeper it became. It settled into double digits, which were not fun, but I could handle.

I kept on turning the pedals, slowly but surely making my way upward. We went around some switchbacks. Gary had mentioned that when you see those, you think the climb is over, but the worst is to come. After traversing the curves, I faced what many called “the wall.” The pavement was covered in chalk writing, ranging from clever sayings to encouraging words for people I didn’t know. I kept pushing. People were on the left and the right, cheering the riders on. The first people I saw were two little girls. I playfully asked them if they would ride my bike the rest of the way. It wouldn’t fit, they said. Good answer! After a couple hundred more feet of beastly grade, I was over the top.

After descending Snake, we crossed the Tennessee border and then, moments later, we were back in North Carolina. The next big climb was George’s Gap, a grinder as Gary put it. That was about right. It was in the 6-8% vicinity, with enough variety to make you work and give you couple of breaks. At this point the temperature had crept up and I could tell it was having its way with people. A guy was struggling on George’s Gap and asked me how much longer. Guessing, I said three miles. It was closer to one more. Glad to have been wrong on that one.

After that, we had to ride through another gap on Rush Branch Road. There was a short climb, a big descent, and then another short climb. I knew that once we were through the gap, we would be home free. The problem with this climb was that it was totally exposed to the sun, with little shade. At this point the temperature was flirting with 90 degrees and the sun was taking a toll on me.

The miles crept by and I could tell we were approaching the finish. But what’s this? One more climb? Mast Gap was waiting at mile 98. What cruel, cruel person threw in this one at the end of a mountain century? It was short, barely more than a bump, but it was steep — the final punctuation on a challenging ride.

It was a gorgeous, very well organized ride. It was slightly less challenging than I expected, but I’m happy to have passed it regardless. My official time was 6:32, which was good considering I wasn’t riding for time. I was just there to enjoy the experience, which I most certainly did.

Strava Link

EDIT: This was my Ride of the Year for 2012.


Tour de Cashiers, 2012, Cashiers, NC

The forecast was scary. There was going to be a major storm system passing through at some point, with a 40% chance of thunderstorms for all day. That usually means that over a 6-8 hour period there is a 100% chance that some bad weather will occur. Fortunately that turned out to not be the case. The big storm system passed north of us, and no others came. We had to deal with some clouds and wind at the beginning, and the sun came out later. It turned out to be a beautiful day for riding.

Tour de Cashiers is a brutal ride. As I was getting ready, I overheard someone talking about how he feels it is the toughest ride in the Southeast. He said it was tougher than Mitchell, Six Gap, Blood, Sweat & Gears, and any other ride he had tried. Apparently he had tried many. A local disagreed, although he said that a few years ago when it had Charley’s Creek and Buck Creek, it might fit that bill. Either way, Cashiers is an extremely difficult ride, one of the toughest I have ever done. It is easy to forget how tough it was last year, even though I named it the 2nd toughest ride all year.

My goal was to finish fast. This was my final test before Mitchell, my A event, and would help me with preparation. I planned to carry a lot of food and stop as little as possible. I would try to hang with the lead pack until the climbs began and try to “push” my way through them.

Things don’t always work out the way you plan. To my surprise, I had absolutely nothing at the start of the ride. In the first couple miles I found myself falling behind. Then I tried to speed up and catch another pack, but my legs felt like big sticks. It was a feeling I have never felt before. I fell back again into another pack. Soon enough I was pulling them and working harder than ever. I looked down and saw my heart rate was between 190-200, whereas it would usually be 140-150 in this situation. ‘What in the world is going on?’ I thought. This was not right. I fell back again, dropped by all of the packs and rode by myself. I would ride solo like this for most of the day.

I learned a lot in those first 10 miles. The culprit was most likely a lack of fueling, although there were probably some other factors. I ate some of the food I was carrying and almost immediately felt better. I made sure to stop at every rest stop (not part of the plan) to keep myself fueled. From there I was able to get my legs back and soon enough start catching and passing the packs that had dropped me.

The first climb is not really one big climb, but a series of many steep, rolling hills that trend upward. This took us to the scenic Tanassee Gap area and beyond. This was where I found my climbing composure and settled into a group. I was still not 100%, but I was getting there.

There was a nasty accident right before Tanassee Creek. Apparently a rider from Anderson, SC on the Melo Velo Cycling Team took a fast turn wrong and wound up in the woods. He was being stabilized as I passed through. Later I found that he was airlifted to the hospital as a precaution in case there were any internal problems, but he was in stable condition. Please comment if you hear any updates. Hopefully he was not seriously injured.

The next climb was Tilley Creek Road. Last year I had difficulty and found it to be the toughest climb of the day. This time I still found it to be awful, but I had an easier time. I think what hurt me most last year was the heat, my achilles heel. Tilley Creek has a lot of areas that are exposed to the sun. That combined with steep grades makes for a tough time, plus I believe the temperature was 10 degrees warmer that day.

Tilley Creek is where I got my groove back. It was unimaginably difficult and I got passed by a couple riders, but I gained momentum and felt okay when I reached the top.

Walnut Creek Rd, we meet again. At mile 80 I would face the beast. The climb is 6-miles long and starts with a bang. When I hit the first pitch, it was like being smacked with a hammer. It was in the 13-15% vicinity and did it ever hurt. BAM! That continued for awhile. I passed a rider stopped on the side of the road, collecting his breath. “It eases up in a bit,” I promised him. After a few more grunts, it did. The grade becomes a lot more manageable in the middle of the climb, with a couple flat and downhill sections, and some 4-6% inclines.

It was at mile 84 when the smackdown came again. This was just like the beginning of the climb and continued for another grueling mile. As much as I hated this climb on the way up, I felt alright. I was able to alternate spinning my way up, standing up to use my calves, and also pulling on the handle bars to use my upper body. I started passing people and that would continue for the remainder of the ride.

At the top of Walnut Creek there is a short descent, a rest area, and then more climbing. This was just a few hundred feet, but again above 10% grades and not easy after the monsters behind us. I grunted my way through these hills and let out a sigh of relief when I hit Highway 64. Almost done.

I rolled into the city of Cashiers feeling good, not too tired, just ravenously hungry. Even though I struggled, I blew away last year’s time, finishing in under 7 hours. The trout salad at the end tasted amazing. The steak dinner later that night tasted even better.

Strava GPS Link


Why Climb?

At a rest stop on last year’s Bridge to Bridge ride, a kind gentleman looked at me with a confused look on his face. “Can I ask you an honest question? Please know that I don’t mean any offense. I just gotta know.” I nodded. He pointed to the climb just ahead. “I just gotta know, why?”. There were a group of us standing around and we all laughed at the question. I quickly joked back “Because we can.”

We continued to talk and nobody could give a great answer. It’s just what we did. This man didn’t ride and thought it was amazing that we would ride up these mountains, but he didn’t understand why we put ourselves through such suffering.

It is a fair question and it’s one I’ve pondered on many climbs since. Why indeed? Why not just ride our bike around and enjoy it?

The more I think about it, ‘because I can’ is a pretty good answer. Another one is ‘because it’s there.’ Why do people climb any mountain, on a bike or otherwise? Why did Edmund Hillary climb Mount Everest when nobody else had done it before? Why indeed?

Converging Fitness and Nature

My climbing passion came at the right time in my life. I have long been passionate about being in nature. Part of that is from my childhood time in the west. I have fond memories of camping in Yosemite National Park. I’ll never forget peering at Half Dome Mountain, marveling at its beauty.

In my adult life, my passion for nature was mostly unsatisfied. I have spent my time in large metropolitan cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles. For the last seven years I have lived in Columbia, SC, which is a large city, but has access to a lot of nature. You can drive to either the beaches or the mountains in about an hour and a half.

After getting married and gaining a few pounds, I decided to get fit around four years ago. That started with gym exercises and continued in a lot of different directions, including running and WiiFit of all things. I lost a lot of my weight and developed a habit of exercising several times a week.

Almost two years ago, I finally got a bike. At first I used it locally. Later in the year I joined a cycling club that got me free entries to organized rides. My first ride was the Tour de Leaves out of Tryon, NC. I chose the short version without many major climbs, but fell in love with the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a beautiful, frosty day. At one point I looked out and found myself at a higher elevation with a breathtaking view of the valley below. Right then, I was hooked.

A view from the top of Sassafras Mountain

Training for my first Mitchell ride came shortly afterward and I fell further in love with each subsequent breathtaking view. And there have been quite a few of them.

Setting Goals

If I don’t have a goal, I am an extremely lazy person. When I have a goal, I am like a man possessed. I’m not sure if it is the fear of failure, or letting myself and others down. When I set my mind to something, it usually happens. In order to hold off the laziness, I try to keep goals out there. Registering for big mountain rides is a great way to keep myself motivated. If I don’t prepare for them, the experience will be miserable and I could fail.

I have also found climbing is the best training for cycling. In the short time I’ve been riding, I have improved beyond my wildest expectations. I can thank the mountains for that. Now my goal is to continue in that direction. If I try to improve my Mitchell time every year, I’ll be able to ride other, steeper mountains.

Climbing Tourist

I am a perpetual tourist. I love discovering places. My camera is always on the ready to snap something new. Part of this is because I want to capture the memory. This is also my way of planting a flag. Been there, done that, and I have the picture to prove it.

While I set goals to improve on certain climbs, I also like to find new and and interesting challenges to tackle. My recent foray to the highest mountain in South Carolina was for that reason. I knew it was there and I knew it was difficult. That meant I wanted to climb it.

Fortunately I have access to a lot of different mountain areas. So far I have mostly climbed in North and South Carolina. At some point I will venture further other climbs in the Southeast. I’ve even thought about making a trip back to California someday to try out some of their mountains. The possibilities are endless.

The Thrill of the Descent

Perhaps the best part of the climb is the descent that follows. At first I was tentative when descending a mountain, but have since come to love it. Nothing feels better than screaming down a mountain, banking around tight corners with the wind in your face and the sun above your head.

If I could do nothing but descend mountains, I probably would, but that’s an impossibility. What goes up must come down and vice versa. The descent won’t happen without the climb.

Is it worth it to grunt up a steep mountain for an hour in order to descend for 15 minutes? If you ask me, absolutely, unequivocally, yes!

Tour de Franklin Preview

I am now just two days away from my penultimate cycling event of the year. The Tour de Franklin a.k.a. “Halloween Hunard” will be my last ambitious mountain climbing challenge. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of the event a few weeks ago. It was sort of a whimsical decision to participate. A friend of mine mentioned the ride and there was a registration offer I could not resist. So, here I go again to the mountains. This time there will be a lot of climbing, although not quite as extreme as other rides this year. The grand total should be around 8,500, a big chunk of which will come on a lengthy 10-mile climb.

The most difficult aspect will be the temperature. It is going to be on the chilly side. Scratch that, it will be freezing, blistering cold. I have been watching the forecast all week and the low has ranged anywhere from 25 to 32 degrees. Right now it is saying 27 degrees at 8AM, which is when I’ll be preparing my bike and getting dressed. It will be below freezing when we scoot out. The temperature will rise quick and after a few hours should be a gorgeous day for a ride. But that start is going to be brutal. Needless to say, I am over-packing heavy, layered clothing. I picked up some new winter gloves and heavier socks for riding and packed my shoe warmers, balaclava, and everything else I can think of. This time I won’t be caught off guard.

On the bright side, this will prepare me for some of the winter training I’ll be doing. While I will be spending considerably less time on the bike, we will be planning some occasional ride challenges just to keep the fitness level up.

Since this is the last mountain challenge of the year and I am technically in transition mode, I will not be pushing myself. I could care less how fast I ride. I’ll coast along with the crowd, enjoy the Fall colors, and try to make it up the hills without killing my quads.

Hot Doggett, Part Two

Catch part one here.

French Broad River

French Broad River

After descending Devil’s Fork across the Tennessee state line, having released my demons, I felt almost like a brand new rider. I may not have been as strong as the first mile, but I had some climbing legs in me. I continued forward alone at a decent pace without pushing too hard. A big climb was coming, Sam’s Gap, that I had heard went on for six to seven miles. My expectation was that it would be similar to Caesar’s Head, maybe not quite as tough. I was ready for it.

To my surprise, I caught up with a familiar face. Since I had spent so long at the rest stop, she should have been way ahead of me. I came up on her a lot faster than I should have and looked over to see anguish on her face. She was cramping badly and could barely push the pedals forward. She kept going, albeit slowly and I rode alongside. The worst of her cramping was in the hamstrings, but the pain was spread throughout her body. She was afraid to get off the bike because it might be too painful to get back on. It was a tough today and she was on the verge of giving up.

At one point we stopped. She was ready to cave in and wait for the support vehicle to take her home. I happened to know that another rider was just picked up at the last rest stop, and didn’t expect to see another vehicle for quite awhile. The stop was only momentary. She told me many times to go ahead and finish the ride without her. She would wait for the wagon. We were in the middle of nowhere, in 90+ degree heat and she was cramping badly. There was no way I was going to leave her. When she realized how futile it was just to stand on the side of the road, she suggested we get back on and go real slow. I was fine with that. We continued at maybe 7-8 mph as she struggled. At one point I realized I had three electrolyte pills. She took all three and we went forward slowly.

Her strength recovered a little bit as we moved along. She ruled out the SAG wagon, which I was a relief to me. I had only known this person for a couple of weeks, but could tell she was a tenacious, tough rider, and it would be a major disappointment for her to abandon the ride. She later told me that she had 100% success rate on these tough rides, so it would have been a major disappointment if she had given up.

Approaching Sam's Gap

Approaching Sam's Gap

The big concern was with the last lengthy climb. We pedaled and talked quite a bit. I can be a bit chatty, maybe too much sometimes, but this time I pushed it into overdrive. I recalled an experience when I was ‘bonking’ and someone else talked me through the ride. That helped a great deal, so I tried to do the same for her. We talked about all sorts of things. I tried to tell some inspiring or funny stories (or maybe boring). I just wanted to distract her from the agony and frustration she was going through.

She made progress in the flats and we were maybe in the 12-14 mph range, but I was seriously worried about Sam’s Gap. A lengthy climb might have been too much for her, even though she was doing better than when I first ran into her. Looking at my odometer compared to the cue sheet, I discovered that we were on the climb already. It was just a slight grade in the beginning for a couple miles and we barely noticed we were going up. We kept talking and pedaling, slowly making our way closer to the tougher stretch, while trying not to think about it.

When the climb turned up, it was not bad. At most it was 8% and most of the time it was around 5-6%. It was not bad at all. It just went on for a very long time. We took it nice and easy, continued talking and enjoying the scenery. What was cool was that the top of the climb runs parallel to Interstate 26. It was a joy to get to the top and see not only the Sam’s Gap elevation sign, but also the NC state line. I caught a picture of my travel companion at the top of the mountain, and she had a beaming smile. That was quite a contrast from the expression on her face a mere 10 miles earlier. I was very impressed that she soldiered on and made it. In the same situation, I may have given up.

Top of Sam's Gap

Top of Sam's Gap / NC State Line

There were a couple short hills remaining. A couple of them were challenging, but nothing like we had already encountered. Finally we arrived at the big descent. We were greeted by the sign warning truckers of an upcoming 9% grade. That was music to our eyes. We ducked down and let fly for two, maybe three miles. After climbing in the heat, nothing felt better than descending with the wind in our face.

After a couple more grunts, we were back at Mars Hill College. Finish time was 7:42 — not too shabby given some of the difficulties we faced out there.

Aside from all that happened, this was a wonderful ride and I cannot wait to do it again. This was easily the most efficiently organized big ride I have attended. The rest stops were perfect. I cannot thank the volunteers enough for doing everything they could to accommodate us. The road markings were perhaps the best I have seen on a ride. There was no confusion on where to turn, which is impressive considering how I can get lost crossing the street. The city of Mars Hill really turned out, supported us, and made this seem like a major event. Thanks to everyone involved. See you next year.

Google Maps GPS
Strava link

Hot Doggett Finish line ahead

Finish line ahead

Hot Doggett 100, 2011, Mars Hill, NC

The Hot Doggett 100 turned out to be quite an adventure. It was so eventful that I cannot recap it in a single blog post. This will be part one. I will continue the recap in the next day or two.

We departed at 7:30am from Mars Hill College in Western North Carolina, not too far from the Tennessee border. This was yet another big climbing ride. It consisted of a number of smaller climbs and three moderately difficult category two climbs. The major obstacles were Doggett Gap, Devil’s Fork Gap and Sam’s Gap.

The weather at the start was overcast and foggy with a nice temperature in the low 60s. It had rained buckets overnight, so in the early going the roads were damp with small puddles littered about. My glasses fogged up and I had trouble navigating the beginning portion of the course. I even got yelled at by another rider because I could not maintain a line. Tough to do when I can barely see. Once we got into the country, the roads dried up and conditions eased. We had some nice rolling hills and a few downhills, one of which sped us through the town of Marshall, NC. Through the early going I felt terrific. I paced with a group from Spartanburg and could tell that this would be a good climbing day.

Approaching Doggett Gap

Approaching Doggett Gap

The first major climb was Doggett Gap, which came at about 25 miles into the course. It began easily enough, with a small grade of 3-5% until it turned up and became more like 10%. The total distance was around four miles, most of which was consistently at the 10% grade. It reminded me of an easier version of Cullowhee Mountain that I had climbed during the Tour de Cashiers. I felt great through the climb and maintained a decent, steady pace. The only real stumbling block was when I accidentally dropped my phone while trying to take a picture. That forced me to unclip on a steep segment and I lost my rhythm and slowed my pace. I still felt fine when I reached the top and looked forward to what else was around the corner.

After Doggett there were a series of exhilarating descents through the Pisgah National Forest. I had lost my group after Doggett so I found another foursome out of Asheville. Usually I am a conservative descender in the mountains, but I felt a lot more confident following their line since they had a good feel for these roads and had experienced them before. We glided down the mountains gracefully and it felt amazing. This type of experience is what makes all the training, all the grunting, and all the soreness the next day worth it. Descending mountains such as these is pure bliss.

Doggett Gap

Near the top of Doggett Gap

We rolled across the French Broad River and into another climb of three miles. This wasn’t too difficult. It was mostly straight highway riding, and the grade was around 6% the entire way up. I made it without issue. It was afterward that I started having problems.

My downfall was a stomach cramp and it was nasty. It started somewhere during the middle climb and became progressively worse as we moved forward. We had a series of flats afterward and formed a large pace-line, maybe 10-15 riders. The group worked together well and we maintained great speeds, but I was struggling. A knot was forming in my belly and I was having trouble maintaining my spot in the line. When I got to the front, I could tell that my speed was not good for the group so I backed off and just sat in until climbing resumed.

What came next was Devil’s Fork Gap, which I found out later is also an Appalachian Trail stop. Compared to the lengthy climbs at the beginning and end of the ride, this was short and steep. It usually would not have been terribly difficult if not for my stomach woes. To make matters worse, the sun had come out with a fury. We had been riding in moderate temperatures around 70-80 most of the morning. On this climb the temperature spiked up to 95. The climb was only two miles or so, maybe not even that, but I struggled. When the grade hit 15%, I did everything in my power to keep pushing myself up. I wobbled on the road, moving from side to side, just trying to keep some momentum upward. This was without question the most difficult part of the ride for me. I made it up exhausted and with what felt like a solid rock in the middle of my gut.

Fortunately there was a rest stop right at the top. I knew that I needed a break. My stomach needed to settle. At first I could not eat a thing. Gatorade was too strong. Water helped. I sat on a lounge chair and waited it out. It was probably 15, maybe 20 minutes until my energy came back. The stomach cramp eased and I was able to eat.

The next section should probably remain between me and the mountain. It is all part of human nature, so I may as well share it. As a result of my stomach discomfort, I had a little bit of, ahem, build-up that needed to be released. That also gave me incentive to get back on the bike and away from such nice and friendly rest stop volunteers. Trust me, I had enough poison within me to ruin their day. I was also fortunate to have waited long enough to let other riders pass me. As I took to the next descent, I let things fly in more ways than one. Let’s just say that I had some acceleration assistance that probably netted me an extra 2 miles per hour.

When I reached the bottom, I felt like a brand new rider. Less than a quarter of the course was ahead of me and despite having to ride it solo, I knew I would be able to finish. Then something else happened, which I will talk about in my next post.

Read part 2 here.