Sunday, September 5, 2010

ALMOST PERFECTION...

What a day! Saturday, September 4, 2010, may be as close to a perfect day as it gets here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. A touch of fall was evident in cool morning temperatures that made it hard to get out of a warm bed to go riding. Nevertheless, upon rising and getting that first cup of coffee in hand, I could tell that it was going to be a gorgeous day. The skies were already crystal clear with a brilliant blue sky and a full sun bathing the landscape.

Our plan was to ride the Cold Mountain Loop as it is known to local cyclists. This is a 45 mile run from Bethel, NC up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, north on the BRP, and a descent back to Bethel along US 276. The ride up to the BRP has been one of my goals for this riding season.

As we gathered at Bethel Elementary School, preparations were already underway for the day’s slate of midget/mite football games. Volunteers were striping the field and getting the sidelines ready.

Group prepping for ride

Climbing Jen at the start

(Trucks arrive with bikes!)

(“Climbing Jen” before the day’s climb)

Our group for the day consisted of 5 riders. I was the least experienced of the group. As we departed the school and headed toward the BRP, we were at our lowest elevation of the day. The climb to the Parkway begins immediately although the grade is slight for several “warm up” miles as you ride along the West Fork of the Pigeon. Traffic was mild as we headed south.

For the second time in 4 weeks, I found myself struggling to maintain the initial pace of the group. My fast twitch muscles must have been longing for more caffeine. Wolfpen Andy and I had been 4th and 5th wheel in the group and a gap had opened up between me (4th) and Climbing Jen (3rd) in the line of cyclists. I knew that I wasn’t going to make it to the top if I continued to try to keep pace. Wolfpen Andy reminded me that it wasn’t a race and that we’d go at our own speed. Thankfully, I settled in and let the heaviness left in my legs from Thursday ease out of my muscles on its own sweet time.

In short order, we were at the first climb of the day, which is a moderate climb beginning near the base of the Lake Logan dam. The climb is in two stages with a false flat giving the unfamiliar cyclist the wrong impression that the climb is over. Interestingly, the climb seemed to help my legs finally get warmed up and I felt much looser from that point. We came back together as a group at the bridge across the upper end of the lake. Another few miles riding mostly at river grade brought us to the Sunburst Campground along the West Fork. This is the beginning of the serious climb to the top. It is a little over 8 miles to the BRP from this point.

We agreed to go at our own pace and reconvene at the top of the mountain. I settled into my saddle for the ride. As we made our way toward the top, the group did indeed separate. With the number of curves in the road, I found myself seemingly riding solo because I couldn’t see the other riders. I had shed my wind breaker at the Sunburst Campground and had worked up a good sweat as I climbed along the road enjoying the views of the woods. Traffic was somewhat heavier than usual, which was to be expected on a Labor Day Weekend. Wolfpen Andy and I would agree later that motorcyclists outnumbered 4 wheeled vehicles by at least 5 to 1 and maybe more. It is pretty easy to share the road with motorcyclists as there was plenty of room for them to get by without pushing me to the edge of the road.

At the 1 hour and 20 minute mark of our ride, I arrived at the first bridge where the West Fork crosses under NC 215. I was joined there by Wolfpen Andy and we took a short break to refuel and enjoy the scenery.

View from the waterfall...(Deep in shadows, we could see the sunlit distant mountain)

The grade of NC 215, which had not been bad to this point, takes a significant jump to the next bridge above. The next section of climb also has hairpin curves and a long straight section that could be demoralizing. The curves at least give you the false hope that it will get back to a lower grade just around the bend! We struck out on the next section and I noted that the sounds of birds had become more frequently replaced by the sounds of approaching diesel engines and motorcycles.

I kept up my mantra “if you can walk it, you can climb it!” on this next section and soon found myself eyeing the road sign that I know indicates the second bridge is really just around the next bend – this time! Whereas I had been riding mostly in the shadows of the mountain and overhanging trees, I came out into full warming sun as I stopped on the bridge to grab a couple of images.

View of the West Fork(Looking down at the West Fork from Bridge #2)

Wolfpen Andy arrives on bridge(Wolfpen Andy joins me at Bridge #2)

We were approximately 3 miles from the BRP at this point. After consuming a Shot Block and some more G2, we resumed our trek to the top. From this point, the road really opens up and abundant sunshine became our constant companion. To our left were some wonderful vistas of Balsam trees and other conifers still surviving the effects of acid rain that has so devastated the conifer forests of the Southern Appalachians.

NC 215 after crossing Bridge #2

(NC 215 from bridge #2)

One of the straight stretches to be climbed.

(A straight climb to be made!)

Rock face along NC 215

(One of the rock faces along NC 215)

The many, many people out enjoying this area became abundantly clear as every roadside pull off was populated to the point of overcrowding with parked cars. Sounds of people off on the trails could be easily discerned. As I passed one such parking spot, I was greeted by a couple who said, “We sure do admire you folks climbing this road today!” I tried to reply with, “why thank you, it has been a joyous occasion highlighted by wondrous feelings of being included in this incredible environment.” In retrospect, what I think they probably heard was an out of breath “Thank you!” Soon after the encounter, I saw this very welcome sight!

Welcome to the Blue Ridge Parkway!(YES!)

One more short but very steep climb brought me to the top and a reunion with my fellow cyclists and their congratulatory greetings for having met one of my season’s goals.

Zeke at the top!(18 miles of climbing behind him, Zeke achieves a seasonal goal!)

Having reached the top, it was refueling time while Ken fixed an inexplicable flat that occurred while sitting alongside the road. The banana that I carried from home tasted mighty sweet and the Gatorade G2 was even more taste quenching than usual. One more goal could now be checked off. That’s two seasonal goals in two weeks.

But, wait – What goes up, must go down…

(Part 2 of the Cold Mountain Loop to be posted on Labor Day! Please check back!)

Until later,

- Zeke

(Of note: For clarities sake, please know that I do not receive reimbursement from Clif’s Shot Blocks or Gatorade mentioned in my writings. I simply use and like these products.)

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