Four Days in the Mountains
Ever since the transition to ToBeDetermined.CC we have been slowly resurrecting our favorite posts from our now defunct first generation team website. In the latest dive into the TBD Archives we bring this late-2013 story of an East Coast cycling focused road trip that included some of the most well known roads in the Carolinas and Virginia along with too much driving and an overnight stay in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
It started with nothing more than the vague notion that with a wedding in Greenville South Carolina on an early November weekend this would be a rare opportunity to explore the roads of North and South Carolina by bike. It quickly evolved into an epic albeit abbreviated road trip with more than 24 hours of driving over four days, complete with an English bulldog in tow throughout and, on the return trip, a car full of Sweetwater beer to be transported north.
The drive south was the most challenging element of the trip with our departure delayed several hours and then further derailed with rush hour traffic leaving the city. With a re-route through Staten Island, we eventually started to make good progress – ticking through Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC in quick fashion before hitting the long and dark slog of I-85 between Richmond and Raleigh.
Our original plan involved sleeping just outside of Raleigh on a friend’s spare bed. However with our delayed departure conspiring against us, our ETA in Raleigh was now several hours later than anticipated – 2:30AM. Not wishing to impose on our host’s hospitality, we found ourselves at Walmart Store #4250 – a gleaming bastion of Americana bathed in fluorescent lighting – at an ungodly hour. Identifying the camping section by the plethora of camouflage clothing and accessories hanging from the rafters, we purchased two sleeping bags and two pillows, with which we grabbed a few hours of sleep in our station wagon, with our bulldog joining us in the less than ideal sleeping conditions. The next morning we had some decidedly non-New York “New York Style” bagels before once again hitting the road for the final four hour stretch to Greenville SC, arriving with just two hours to spare before heading to the wedding that was the catalyst for this entire journey.
Following another abbreviated night’s sleep after the wedding reception, on Sunday we woke for a celebratory brunch featuring a fusion of Southern and New York cuisines – grits and bagels – as well as the obligatory bloody marys. Refraining from the latter tested our discipline, but we had little option but to focus on rehydrating as within 30 minutes of the conclusion of the brunch we were on our bikes, heading north from downtown Greenville in the general direction of Paris Mountain.
A few miles later we were on the southern side of Paris Mountain, ascending Altamont Road, which in its more glamorous days was home to the US National Championships. A mostly steady gradient with a few kickers and false flats interspersed, the southern ascent would turn out to be the more residential and less scenic of the two routes up Altamont, something we would only discover while bombing down the northern side of Paris Mountain, basking in the glow of the fall foliage.
At the bottom of Altamont the late afternoon sun quickly confirmed that we lacked sufficient daylight to do the longer ~15 mile loops that we had originally planned for, so we settled for several repeats up the north side of Paris Mountain, an ascent that kicked hard at the base and summit, before topping off with several switchbacks to the top of Tower Road, an appropriate name based on the plethora of television and radio towers protruding from the summit. As we discovered, Tower Road both provides epic views back towards Greenville while – based on the graffiti and empty beer cans – also serves as a local hangout spot. For us it was the perfect location to catch our breath before continuing onto the next repeat.
After four or five trips to this summit and with the sun quickly descending towards the horizon, we abandoned Paris Mountain and headed back to downtown Greenville, losing our way once or twice before eventually finding ourselves at the “House of Jerky” for some post-ride dried beef nutrition.
On Monday our brief respite from the car came to an end as we departed Greenville shortly after dawn, heading for Asheville and the real mountains, with only a brief stop at Tommy’s Country Ham House on our way out of town for some ham biscuits and sweet potato hotcakes. Just over an hour later we dropped our canine companion off at a groomer and headed to a nearby Ingles grocery store to deposit our car and kit up in their restroom.
Back on our bikes we pulled out of the generic suburban parking lot and in less than a mile hit Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. An incredible back road featuring countless switchbacks amidst falling leaves of orange and yellow, Elk Mountain was also the start of what would prove to be nearly four hours of almost continuous climbing. Words can hardly do this leg of the journey justice – as we transitioned to the Blue Ridge Parkway the combination of smooth pavement, fall foliage and incredible vistas, broken only by eerily unlit tunnels, made the ongoing ascent pain free as we continued our journey towards Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain on the East Coast. Cyclists can debate the merits of this climb or that climb, but for me, on that day, with the entire mountainside awash in color, that was as close to on the bike nirvana as I have ever come. And our timing was apt – the entire section of road that we were riding was closing until spring in just a few days, unbeknownst to us during our visit.
We continued climbing, with the temperature dropping and the foliage shifting from brightly colored leaves to barren tree branches and finally to wintry evergreen as we gained elevation. At various points we checked our progress against the clock and it quickly became apparent that we had not appropriately researched the amount of elevation gain on our route and as a result we were falling far behind our expected progress – our planned four hour ride was now a five plus hour ride. Despite woefully insufficient nutrition, we continued north, motivated by Mount Mitchell looming in the distance.
Our nutrition lasted us until the summit of Mount Mitchell, where our hopes for savior from the summit restaurant were squashed by boarded up windows – closed for the season. With the sun once again moving towards the horizon and our bodies starting to bonk, we turned tail and headed for a Park Visitor Center some forty five minutes back down the road (with to our dismay, much more incline than we thought plausible), hoping that it would both be occupied and selling some form of nutrition. Riding mostly in silence reflective of our muted energy levels, we finally reached the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, where we discovered the only form of nutrition available was “beef sticks.” In no mood to be picky, we downed several beef sticks and continued our descent back into Asheville, carving the switchbacks of Elk Mountain and reaching our car approximately five and a half hours after our departure and just in time to pick up our gleaming and freshly scented pooch-beast.
With a four hour drive ahead of us – our planned lodging for the evening was in Lexington Virginia – we refueled at an Atlanta favorite of ours, Mellow Mushroom, and hit the road, though not before buying ten six-packs of another Atlanta favorite, Sweetwater beer, for transport back to NYC where it is not otherwise available for sale. Having arrived at our accommodations in the horse-centric town of Lexington just before midnight on Monday, we were less than motivated the following morning. However with our last opportunity to do some real climbing ticking away by the minute, we eventually loaded up our car and headed north to Vesuvius VA, eventually selecting a closed post office parking lot – across the street from several abandoned buildings – as our home base for the ride.
Departing the post office we almost immediately started the climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Monday’s effort, combined with the lack of any warm-up miles on flat ground, made the steep kickers painful, particularly in comparison to the generally gradual gradients from the day prior. After thirty or forty minutes of kicker after kicker we rolled onto the Blue Ridge Parkway where we assumed a moderate pace, our progress slowed by the impulsive decision to make a pit-stop for some impromptu rock climbing. Once our rock climbing diversions were complete, we resumed riding north only to once again depart the roadway to partake in some off-road riding near one of the various scenic lookouts interspaced along the Parkway. While our pace was decidedly on the slow side, it provided ample opportunity to appreciate our final hours in this beautiful landscape.
With low cloud cover rolling in and threatening to add precipitation to the decidedly chilly ~40 degree conditions, we determined to make that lookout our turnaround spot. Before long we were carving the various switchbacks down Vesuvius, where we eventually started the long journey back to New York City and a winter of long cold base miles on 9W and its surrounding roads.