I’ve just had the most amazing week of riding in North Carolina. It’s a great place to ride a bike.
I tagged along with a group of nine other MAMILs (I mean that in the nicest possible terms) who routinely drive down to the Blue Ridge Mountains in early spring to get a head start on the cycling season. Bob books the hotels, Dave plans the routes. I just had to pack, drive and pedal. These are some random notes about the experience. But first to Bob and Dave for planning I say thank you. I was honoured to be invited and it was the best riding I’ve done in a long time. To my co-sufferers, I say thank you and thank you for your forbearance.
My goal was to stay upright and not cause any accidents. And I think I can say (chest swelled with pride) that I accomplished this objective.
Riding real hills, up and down
There were quite a number of moments where I was riding outside my comfort zone. On two of the climbs (see we don’t really have hills in Ottawa whereas in North Carolina they really do) and descending the hills we didn’t climb. I have actually climbed real hills, and I’m fairly fit. But in reviewing the elevation profile for this one particular route my heart started racing before even getting my shorts on. See, from what I could tell there was a five kilometre climb with gradients of more than 12 per cent on average, including a 100 metre stretch where the gradient averaged 20 per cent. Hell Zwift doesn’t even simulate a 20 per cent gradient.
However climbing is just hard work. And I am used to that. But descending is all about technique. And I have very little experience with that. Switchbacks in the middle of a 10% drop. Riding into curves after hurtling down the road at upwards of 70km/h. I have almost no experience doing that. Maybe two or three rides in hilly places. Whereas my tripmates have been doing this for years.
I feel like I got a little better at it over the course of the week but at the top of a climb, in preparing for the inevitable plummet I would always wave them ahead so that I could take it as slow as I wanted without worrying about them having to slow down or risk overtaking. No shame in surviving I reckon. Also I am convinced that if my bike didn’t have hydraulic disc brakes they would have been scraping me off the pavement on day one. These roads brought down two of our group, including one seriously, so descending is not to be trifled with.
Drivers are really patient and courteous
Drivers are for the most part extremely courteous. We were coal-rolled a couple of times and yelled at once. But it’s easy to see why that could happen down here. The roads we ride are strung up down and all over hills, through valleys with the greatest of economy. They’re everywhere but they are narrow. They have no shoulders and poor sitelines as they wend their way up down and around.
So when a group of riders is climbing, there really is no way to pass safely. And yet, cars, vans and trucks of all sizes would queue up behind us as we crawled up the hills at 10km/h (or less). They would wait patiently for their moment — often for an agonizingly long time — then pull into the opposite lane, go past and get on their way. We did what we could. We rode single file, would wave them on when we saw clear road ahead, and pulled off the road entirely for the occasional huge truck. Compare and contrast with Ottawa where drivers will do an anger pass, give you the finger, honk and yell despite having a clear, safe way to overtake if they perceive you to be at all infringing on their territory. By which I mean the road.
After one ride we landed at the same restaurant as two people who’d been following us. One said she’d been behind us all for quite some time, including a long climb. I thought to myself “Oh god, here we go.” But she said “Y’all were great to watch. It was really exciting,” making particular note of Dave, who she said (accurately) pulled all the way.
We drove down either overnighting mid-way or all in one 15 hour go. We stayed at two modest economy hotels in Brevard and Boone North Carolina — the kind with breakfast included, free wifi and not much else. Bob booked the rooms in bulk but each pair of roomies settled their own bill. Cheap, uncomplicated and a good starting point for bike rides was the order of the day. Lunches were in-saddle picnics or gas station carb and sodium loading affairs. Some brought their own dinner food or bought food at a local grocery store. Most of us went to modest, local restaurants. Mexican and micro-breweries figured prominently.
Notes about the riding
The Blue Ridge Parkway is gorgeous. But there is much more to be done. Indeed much more interesting roads to ride. Like so many public works projects in the US, its construction started in the Great Depression in 1935 as a way to put Americans back to work. And it is quite an engineering wonder. But the original plan was to link the Shenandoah and Great Smokey Mountains National Parks — so a long road from point to point. And the thing about ‘Build a new Road’ is that it goes right past, over and around the existing, older, less well endowed roads. And those are some of the fun ones. So we rode the BRP, but we spent most of our time riding up, over and down, through the valleys and up again.
Almost everything is paved. Nicely paved. I expect there are paved roads that are in terrible shape and it’s only through the knowledge and skilled planning of our routemaster Dave that we avoided them. But the roads we encountered were in much better shape that your average road in rural Ottawa or Gatineau and the surrounding municipalities. More roadkill — possums mostly — than at home.
Garmin Climb Pro was made for this
I have to say, Garmin’s Climb Pro feature was massively helpful on these rides. I loaded the course for the day, and every time we approached the bottom of a climb, my head unit would put up an elevation profile. From green to purple (easy to hard), including the current gradient, horizontal distance, and (crucially) gradient remaining. It leaves you a couple of data fields (I like three second power and altitude remaining on the route) to track other things. But knowing how much further I had to go before the top, and whether it was going to get easier or harder let me pace myself.
- Candler – Canton – Lake Logan: a lot of elevation packed mostly into two long steady climbs, from our first ‘base hotel’ in Brevard.
- Rosman – Frozen Creek via Piney Woods: a shorter, recovery-adjacent ride that still had about the same elevation gain as your average Gatineau Park Loop
- Caesar’s Head – Rocky Bottom – Mount Sassafras: fewer kilometres, nicer views (though you’d scarcely think that possible) but a very steep journey up Mount Sassafras required to get there.
- Banner Elk – Newland – Blowing Rock: our first long ride in Boone
- Banner Elk – Newland via Linville Viaduct: this route includes a good stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway to soak up the scenery.
- Meat Camp – Snake Mountain: short ride but savage ascent of Meat Camp Road. You had to do it, though, for the name alone.