Tag Archives: Saluda

Howard Gap, revisited

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Garmin Link


Taking the Scenic Route

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Today was my travel day. I left early enough that I had plenty of time to get to Franklin. As I sped down the freeway and crossed the state line into North Carolina, I was practically hypnotized by the Fall colors. Rather than speed through the mountains, I decided then to take some time and make an adventure of it.

The adventure started by stopping in Saluda for lunch at the bakery. Of course I have made this stop many times, but seldom off the bike. As I ate my sandwich, I watched other cyclers struggle their way to the counter. The one thing they had in common was they were freezing, looking for warm beverage. Yeah, I know how that goes.

This was also a reminder that I’m a cold wuss, and feared that I was underprepared. The next stop — REI, where I picked up a couple other layers and a nice, heavy windbreaker jacket. While this was an impulse buy, it’s something I’ll need if I plan to ride over the winter.

The adventure really began as I approached Asheville. I’ve travelled highway 74 more times than I can count now. It was too beautiful of a day for the ordinary route. I took an early exit and hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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The drive was heavenly. I stopped at a couple overlooks to breathe in the scenery. I kept going, admiring the golden yellows, ruby reds and pumpkin oranges that highlighted the mountains above and below.

After traveling a couple dozen miles, I passed through the Devil’s Courthouse and immediately recognized familiar territory. This was the same route I had taken in the Blue Ridge Breakaway ride. It was cool to revisit the same climbs and descents and see how they look with color. I passed by the Richland Balsam overlook, the highest point of the parkway, and began the 11-mile descent. Needless to say, it wasn’t nearly as breathtaking in the car, pretty colors or not, but it was still cool to revisit the area. The blind tunnel seemed to go on forever. No wonder I struggled so much. I passed the stretch where the mother bear and cubs had been last time. They were probably somewhere warmer today.

It was tempting to climb up to Waterrock Knob, but I knew I had to grab my packet in Franklin and pick up my brother in Sylva. We grabbed some dinner and still had some daylight left. At first we drove around the mountains just to talk.

As we kept going, we came closer to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Why not? We got back on and climbed the 10 miles to the top. When I told him I had taken my bike up here, he said I must be some sort of masochist. Yeah, something like that. When we got to the top it was below freezing. At first it didn’t feel too bad. We watched the sun set as long as we could stand it. The cold caught up quickly. My brother was wearing shorts, so he was done.

I wanted to take the short hike to the top. My brother waited in the car. I’ll be back in two hours, I joked. It was a quarter mile to the overlook and half mile to the peak. The walking trail was quite the climb. It is hard to estimate on foot, but my guess is 20%. Soon I found myself breathing heavily and getting colder. The sun was dropping and I didn’t want to hike back down with it much darker, so I cut my losses at the overlook. The peak will have to wait. I sprinted down the hill, not really by choice. Probably have some lactic acid stored thanks to this jaunt.

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It was a fun adventure, a nice prelude to tomorrow where I’ll be spending more time out in nature.


Cherokee Foothills Bicycle Tour, 2011, Tigerville SC

I approached Cherokee Foothills as a tune-up, a last hurrah before buckling in for the Bridge to Bridge ride in two weeks. At first it looked like it might not be challenging. As I discovered when reviewing the cue sheet, it would be just fine. Nothing like a lot of the other rides I have done recently, but good enough to continue my fitness. In the end, this turned out to be a beast of a ride, much tougher than I bargained for.

I woke up at the ungodly hour of 4am, earlier than any human being should be awake unless they are still up from the night before. Soon I was en route to Tigerville, SC, a familiar location for upstate cycling. I arrived with plenty of time to spare and felt great. A big difference this time was that I traveled to this ride totally alone. Of course I always like good company, but it was nice to go at my speed.

Cherokee Foothills Start

After starting at 8am, I hung with the lead pack for the first couple miles. The pace was manageable, but I did not want to burn my candle too early, so I backed off and rode solo. I still kept a good pace. I had an 18 mph average after 10 miles, with nearly 1,000 feet of climbing. These were literally the foothills and they were mostly rolling. Some kicked up to a steep grade, but were over quickly before we were rolling back down again. It was a nice, scenic, leisurely ride down roads I had often traveled before on other rides.

Eventually I caught up to some who had fallen off the lead pack. We rode together and caught up with some others. We ran a nice pace line until we approached the Watershed. As it turned out, most of those in the pack were doing the metric, so it thinned out for the Watershed. There was a lot of confusion at the intersection where the metric route split from the century route. One rider inadvertently started going up the Watershed with his riding partner down below yelling that he was going the wrong way. I caught up with him and steered him back down to his friend.

Cherokee Foothills first paceline

First paceline

Have I ever mentioned how much I love the Watershed? It is nice and quiet. Usually the only sounds are other cyclists and water trickling. It is not terribly steep save for a couple of sections, and is pretty much devoid of traffic, not counting cyclists. There are often a ton of them, as there were today.

I felt good on the Watershed and later found from the Strava data that I beat my personal best time. After a strong lower half, I lost some of my mojo on the upper half when the climbs get a little steeper. When I got to e top, I was riding alone again but felt great and enjoyed the ride into Saluda. Once at the Saluda rest stop I caught up with two other riders, Scott and Rich and rode with them most of the way.

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Riding up the Watershed.

After Saluda, we headed north up Highway 176 towards Flat Rock. The traffic was a little heavy on this stretch, but we made it just fine. Then we turned back through Zirconia and back down the Watershed. We came down on a different road, one that I have not traveled before, up or down. The descent was just as fantastic as the way I am used to. It would be amazing if they repaved the roads. Scott pointed out that they probably don’t because of all the cycling traffic.

We hit the bottom of the Watershed and immediately noticed the heat. It was a lot hotter down here and would only get worse. Heat is my Achilles heel and I handled it poorly. I probably did not drink enough and was losing power the hotter it got.

The rest stop was supposed to be at mile 69. We went there and beyond. No rest stop. We found out later that it didn’t exist. Who knows what happened? There were not many century riders, so it is possible they packed up after the metric riders stopped coming by. The cue sheet said they would be open until 3pm and it was not even 1pm when we came through, so it was a little frustrating. Fortunately there was a store a few miles afterward. We rested and refueled. There was another stop at mile 85 and we topped off.

Those last 15 miles were rough. I lost my humor and almost all mental capacity. I just mindlessly peddled along. The last part was again back in the foothills. They were also almost completely out in the open, totally exposed to the sun’s relentless wrath. The hills were rolling like before, but because of the brutal heat, they seemed steeper and longer. I remember Oak Grove Road being particularly difficult. We had nice descents, but the uphills were often in the 9-10% range.

Sunny Day in the foothills

Sunny day in the foothills

At one time my Garmin showed 100 degrees outside. That was probably exaggerated, but it was easily 95 or higher from noon until 3pm when we finally finished. We came back on Highway 414, which thankfully was not too challenging. I almost screamed with joy when I saw Tigerville Elementary. It was almost over. Soon after we rolled into North Greenville College and got some relief. I practically guzzled water and did my best to eat. It wasn’t until I had spent some time in my air-conditioned car before I started to feel better.

This was a tough one. I ended up with around 6,500 feet climbing. The last 1,000 or so were in high temperatures and unquestionably the toughest.

Strava link


Cherokee Foothills Preview

One of the lovely Greenville Watershed views

This weekend is the Cherokee Foothills Bicycle Tour out of Tigerville, SC. For awhile there wasn’t a lot of information about this event. Even though I was registered, I wasn’t sure if this would be the right event for me. The question was how tough these foothills would be. I’ve developed an affinity for mountains and they would be ideal for my training at this point. After all, Bridge to Bridge is not even three weeks away.

Fortunately I got a hold of the cue sheet and found that this ride will be perfect for me. The century begins in Tigerville and rides around a lot of the rolling country roads before heading up to Saluda. We will take the Greenville Watershed, always a nice ride, up to downtown Saluda. From there it looks like we head up 176 towards Flat Rock, which will mean some additional climbing before heading back down again. My estimation is the century ride will be between 6000-7000 feet of climbing, which is perfect.

Rather than stay overnight, I’ll be leaving early in the morning — VERY early in the morning. I will probably get up around 4am and hit the road before 5am. Depending on the night’s sleep, which probably won’t be too great, I may be a bit weary for the ride. I’ll try to get us some good coffee along the way and I may bring a 5-hour energy to drink before the climbing begins.

My approach will depend on how I feel. It will be tempting and probably good for me to open it up and try to get through fast. But that won’t be necessary. I may go at a moderate pace if it’s hot, I’m tired, or both. For now it looks like terrific weather with a high in the mid-80s. There is a small chance of rain, but it looks like it will hold off until late afternoon or evening.

After pushing the mileage last week, this week I have taken it easy. This is not tapering, but more giving myself some recovery time. I will participate in easy rides on Wednesday and Thursday and rest Friday.