Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Look Rock Ride Report

Here is my third and final ride report from my time in Tennessee. This was actually my second ride out there. My destination was Look Rock that I had originally planned for the Wednesday but went on Tuesday due to rain forecast for Wednesday morning. It was the right decision as we did get that one morning of rain and I’d rather not ride tight switchbacks on wet pavement.

I was now more familiar with the very steep descent right from our cabin having ridden it on the Sunday when I went to Bluff Mountain. I got a 7:30 start. The only place on this descent where speed can be allowed to run out was the descent of Robeson Road which contains the only straight stretch. On the other two rides, my max speed was attained here but for this ride, I’d hit that on my descent from Look Rock.

I get down to 321 but instead of taking the right, I went left on road that I hadn’t traveled by car or bike yet. The narrow and steep shoulder continued for a while on perfect newly repaved road. However, after several miles, the new pavement ended. The worn pavement wasn’t that bad but there was an unwelcome feature that wasn’t present on the new pavement: rumble strips on the narrow shoulder. I get that these are to warn cars about nearing the edge of the road but they’re a nightmare for cyclists who are already on cramped space. They simply can’t be ridden on except in an emergency.

Around the six mile point of the ride, the road pointed down with switchbacks. Most of these weren’t the really tight type so I didn’t lose too much speed. A benefit is that I could take the lane for this part. I was already thinking that taking this way back would not be pleasant because I’d be going a lot slower and would face more time dealing with the rumble strips.

I reach the 9.5 mile point of my ride and took Cedar Creek Road on my right which would end both my time on the 321 and the rumble strips. The names of the roads would change but I basically paralleled 321 riding on the opposite side of a river that flowed between both routes. If you look on the grade outline for the whole ride, this section appears as “flat” but, as I found out, that is only in comparison with the bookends of the ride – the cabin and Look Rock. This section was great as the roads had almost no cars but were full of fun riding terrain with ups, downs and twists.

I was surprised that just after the 19 mile point, I briefly rejoined the route that I had taken on my Bluff Mountain ride. I didn’t realize that the two routes shared a couple mile stretch on Old Walland Highway. I take the bridge on Melrose Station road and cross the river at 21 miles coming out on 321 again but just very briefly before getting on Rocky Branch Road on the opposite side. I saw a store, Becky’s Grocery, at around mile 24 and planned to make that a refueling point for the way back. The comparatively “flat”, up and down riding would continue on various backroads until mile 32. I enjoyed seeing the real non-tourist areas. The pavement was mostly good with almost no cars.
After doing some moderate climbing on Montvale Road, it becomes Happy Valley Road. There was a mile stretch of straight road at a grade of about 9%. Then began the series of switchbacks that topped out around 15% though the insides were probably higher than that. As with Bluff Mountain, I cleaned the climb taking it at a measured pace. It was a little confusing when I first mapped the route because I could see what appeared to be the apex of Murray Gap right where the Foothills Parkway was also showing next to Happy Valley Road. I wasn’t sure how to get up to the Parkway. I continued, now descending on Happy Valley. I really didn’t want to risk losing too much altitude because I was now 35 miles into the ride and had a long way back. I saw that Flats Road on the left was going up again so I took it hoping that it would come out by the Parkway and the viewing point for Look Rock. It actually would but I couldn’t see that initially. I ended up turning around at the Eagle Rock Retreat Center. Flats Road continued at a very steep grade up.
After a brief descent, I came back to Happy Valley Road heading back the way I had come. I regained the altitude and arrived back to the point where I was under the Parkway at Murray Gap. Here I stopped under the bridge to eat an energy gel as I prepared for the descent. My mind was preoccupied with getting in the right mental state to take on this challenging section of negotiating switchbacks with losing as little speed as possible. I also wanted to time it so cars would not interfere with my descent. I let a few cars go. There was very little traffic ascending so I knew I’d probably be in the clear. The attached photos show this location.

The descent, like the others, involved braking for the very tight switchbacks. I was more comfortable, having already done these on the descent from the cabin and also on Bluff Mountain. Then I got to that mile straight stretch and could finally let my speed go, topping out at 47MPH. I finished my water but was counting on a refill at that store that I passed earlier. I arrive back at it only to see that it’s closed! This was my most humid and hot ride and I really needed to do something about my hydration and fueling situation. I remembered that the route passed where I had come out on the Bluff Mountain ride and that there was a store there. I determined I’d just have to hold on until I got back there.

I had been contemplating my return route. If I didn’t do the out and back that I had originally planned, I could take Cedar Creek Road that I had taken on the previous ride. This would allow me to come out to 321 on the other side where I would spend less time on it and there would be no rumble strips. While getting back to the store, I passed a cyclist. I was friendly, waving and saying ‘hi’ but he had ear buds in and couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge me in any way. I found that he was now drafting me. I don’t normally mind this but was a bit miffed at his lack of friendliness so accelerated and rode him off my wheel. It wouldn’t be long before I reached the store anyway. I find a good place to lean my bike, get off and reach to open my bike bag. My heart sank as I saw it was unzipped! I don’t normally carry my license and a credit card on rides but did on this one. I see my phone, a $10 bill and credit card are still there but no license! It was right next to my credit card so I don’t know how it fell out but the credit card did not. This was a real buzz-kill. I was getting close to bonking so didn’t waste much time before going into the store. I got the necessary replenishments paying for them with the credit card that miraculously stayed in the bike bag.

I consumed them outside the store on a bench as I contemplated my next move. I was 52.5 miles into my ride. I had a fleeting thought of retracing my route. I knew it had to have fallen out somewhere in the last 15 miles from where I opened the bag at the summit of Murray Gap. Knowing the climbing I still had ahead of me, there was no way I could go back on my bike. I made the final decision to not go back the way I came but instead to do the Cedar Creek Road traverse over to 321.

I tried to still enjoy the ride through this beautiful area that I had previously ridden. It was still fun but I was definitely preoccupied. I get to 321 and repeated the ascent from Sunday. At least there were no rumble strips on this side. I then had the torturous ascent back to the cabin. I had run out of liquid again. I saw a cabin that was for sale about 2/3 of the way up. It was unoccupied but the water faucet outside of it was still on so I got some water there. I finished the ascent and got back to the cabin pleased with the epic ride but stressed about my license. Amanda and I would take the car the next morning to try and find it. I knew there was very little chance but needed to try. At least I knew that only 15 miles would be involved in what was an almost 75 mile route. We came up empty but at least we were able to continue on that Flats Road, reaching the summit and seeing the viewing spot for Look Rock. I was able to get some pictures that I would not have been able to take otherwise.

Stats:
Miles: 74.37
Time: 4:35:55
Average Speed: 16.17
Max Speed: 47MPH
Elevation Gain: 6060 feet = 81.48 feet per mile
Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/24679509

This would be my “flattest” of the three rides but I had very little left in the tank at its completion.

The place where I left my bike bag open just before the descent.

Bluff Mountain Ride Report

Here's my ride report for Bluff Mountain in Tennessee. I was able to find a few pictures plus a YouTube video that shows a motorcycle on this route.

My first ride of the trip was to Bluff Mountain and the surrounding area. I did this on Sunday, August 20, 2017. I began my ride with my first descent of the road that ended at our cabin. I had never descended a grade as steep as this on a road bike. From my mountain biking days I was very familiar with having to lean way back on the bike on such descents on trails but now I had to actually do this on a road. I began to get familiar with the technique of braking hard right before the switchback turn and then easing through the turn. I could then let off the brakes for a brief period and repeat the procedure.

I got down to route 321 and took a right. This road not only has a very small shoulder but signs warning cars about the steep drop-off in most places from the shoulder. At least the pavement had been recently redone and was perfect. I left at 7:30AM so didn’t encounter too much traffic as I proceeded to Russie Gap Road 7 miles into the ride. Parts of this section were steep enough that I could take the lane going around 40MPH and there were a few entertaining twists to the road as well. Russie Gap Road became Goose Gap and then Bluff Mountain Road. I could see from Google street view and the mapped route that there would be plenty of switchbacks on the actual mountain. The climbing didn’t really get serious until about 10 miles into the ride. The switchbacks began about a mile later and continued pretty much to the top at 13 miles. I only encountered a single vehicle. I had amazing views to take my mind off the climbing. The sun was still rising over mist filled valleys and I was in awe. I thought to myself that this is a route that you would see in road cycling magazines that promote great travel locations. I savored every minute.

I got to the T-junction where I had originally planned to turn around but I could see that the pavement was good in both directions so why not stay up on the ridge as long as possible? I first went left and did the loop taking Dupont Springs Road and then Duncan Springs Road. There were some delightful twists and continued incredible views. I got back to the T-junction and then went the other way on the ridge taking East End Road and then doing the small loop with Top Road. I hadn’t expected to able to ride this much up on a ridge so this was a pleasant surprise. I again got back to the T-junction and then began the descent the way I came up on Bluff Mountain Road.

I followed my plan and took the right on Tower Road which led to the fire tower and another small loop with Green Top and Horse Gap roads. I not only regained all the elevation I just lost but went a bit higher topping out at 3061 feet by the tower. I returned to Bluff Mountain Road continuing the descent until taking another right on Summit Trails Drive. It regains a bit of altitude before plunging down to Waldens Creek Road. By this time I was starting to get the hang of descending steep switchbacks better. I was not used to scrubbing so much speed on descents. I knew my average speed was going to take a severe hit but I enjoyed the new experience. It was fun to establish a rhythm from switchback to switchback.

I took the right on Waldens which eventually turns into E Millers Cove Road that continues all the way to 321. This section did not have the very steep climbing of Bluff Mountain but was not flat at all either. Most of it was very quiet and I went long stretches seeing no cars at all. By this time, the temperature had risen considerably and I was getting low on water. I wasn’t sure what I would find when I popped out on the other side on 321 so began looking for a water source. I passed a church that had apparently just finished its service and I saw some people in the parking lot. I asked them if I could use the faucet on the side of the church which they allowed me to do. This water replenishment plus two energy gels would be enough for the ride. So I came out to 321 and did notice a store but now there was no need to stop. I reversed direction continuing past Summit Trails to taking a right on Old Valley. This was the road I had taken getting to Bluff Mountain earlier. I retraced my way on 321 now ascending. The traffic was heavier but drivers were very respectful and patiently waited when they had to.

I arrived back at Robeson Road that led to the cabin. This would be my first time doing this crazy ascent. I am loathe to stop on any climb. I really wondered though if I was going to be able to make it without doing so. I tried but when my heart rate completely maxed out to the point where I was getting shaky on the bike, I had to stop. I didn’t walk any of it but did stop a couple of times to let my heart rate come down. I stopped on switchbacks and since there were no cars, I could get started again by aiming my bike directly across the road before pointing it upward. At times I had to lean forward to keep my front wheel on the pavement. It still came up a couple of times. I made it back to the cabin with a huge smile on my face having done a new form of road cycling that I had only imagined up to this point. This was my first ride having finally attained the gold standard of climbing: 100 feet per mile.

Stats:
Miles: 58.59
Time: 3:50:17
Average Speed: 15.27
Max Speed: 44 MPH
Elevation Gain: 6193 feet = 105.70 feet per mile
Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/24679304
Motorcycle video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gluYVJL3DFw&t=107s
Google street view: https://www.google.com/…/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sun2NpEHcALG2Hi…


Clingman's Dome Ride Report

We just got back from one of the best vacations. We had a family reunion in Tennessee timed to coincide with the solar eclipse of 8/21/2017. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the eclipse and spending time with so many family members. There was more to the vacation for me. I brought along my bike and was able to experience riding unlike any that I’ve done before. I’ve done mountain riding before but not on this scale. It was a treat that I’ll never forget. I was able to do three rides totaling 206 miles. I didn’t have a laptop nor a smart-phone to post earlier. I’ll post more about the vacation later but for tonight I’m recounting the best ride of the three (the other two were almost as good) but my ride to the top of Clingman’s Dome was particularly special.

Smoky Mountain National Park was closed the day of and the day before the eclipse so I couldn’t do the ride when we first arrived. I ended up doing this on Friday, August 25th – the day before we left. However, on the Thursday, we all drove up to the top of Clingman’s Dome taking the very route that I would cycle the next day. This allowed me to check out the roads as well as take some pictures from the top that I wouldn’t be able to do when cycling. We arrived just before sunset and saw some spectacular views.

Our cabin was aptly named Above the Clouds and it sits about 1000 feet above route 321 less than three miles below! Almost 1000 feet of that is gained in just over a mile! So, as with all rides from the cabin, mine started with an extremely steep and twisty descent having to brake heavily. I then popped out on 321 which has excellent pavement but very little shoulder. I was only on this briefly before taking the left onto Line Springs Road. There’s a bit of really steep climbing but then things moderate comparatively. I took the left onto Little River Gorge Road which becomes Fighting Creek Gap Road. Eventually it comes out to Sugarland Visitor Center at the intersection of route 441. The only potential drawback to the Clingman’s Dome ride is that route 441 doesn’t have much of a shoulder and it can get lots of traffic. I could see from the night before though that the road was fairly wide. I was able to get an early start of 7AM from the cabin so it was still fairly early even by the time I reached 441. This intersection begins about 20 miles of almost all climbing! I had never done such an extended climb before.

As I hoped, the traffic was pretty light going up and drivers were very respectful almost to a fault as some were very hesitant to pass me even when there was ample opportunity. Some motorcyclists gave me the thumbs up as they passed and I even noticed a passenger in a car also do this. They probably don’t see cyclists doing this very often and I appreciated their encouragement. I stopped thrice briefly to stretch. I passed through two tunnels but both were short and didn’t present too much of a lighting problem. After about 13 miles of climbing, I took the right onto Clingman’s Dome Road. Here the traffic was even less. The temperature had dropped some but it was not too cold. I picked the perfect day because it wasn’t too hot anywhere nor too cold. I reached the top and there didn’t appear to be any place to get water and I was almost out so I didn’t spend much time up there. I had spent quite a long time the night before so didn’t feel like I needed to plus it was mostly in the clouds.

Then began the riotous descent with an added twist of excitement! I’ve done many high speed descents but this one was different because of the turns involved. I didn’t reach the speeds of other ones but the turns made for an even more exciting experience. I didn’t have to brake but just felt comfortable enough to lean into the turns at speed. What a feeling to experience the sensation of weight as I put my body into the turns! There were very few cars but I did manage to catch up to pickup truck and after tailing it for a bit, I decided to pull over and let it go so it wouldn’t spoil anymore of the descent. I did this but then I saw it again but it wasn’t moving. It was parked in the middle of the road along with another car on the opposite side. I knew instantly that they must be stopped to watch wildlife and I was pretty sure what kind. Sure enough – a woman was halfway out the passenger window taking picture of a bear! I was about 50 feet behind the cars and watch the good-sized black bear amble away from the side of the road. Eventually the pick-up drove off and the other car came in my direction. It stopped and the woman driving it warned me about the bear AND its two cubs! I couldn’t see the cubs from my vantage point. I waited a bit longer and then decided to just go for it. I pedaled past and fortunately there was no pursuit.

I got out on 441 and then experienced another 13 miles of superb descending on such an amazing road with incredible scenery everywhere. I made it back to Sugarland where I was able to refill my water bottles. There was a bit of headwind but I still caught up to cars twice and pulled over to give myself free space.

By this time, there was much more traffic but because I was now descending, I could take the whole lane so it really didn’t matter. When I got back on Fighting Gap road, there was a surprising amount of traffic even there but I had no incidents. That last two miles to the cabin was brutal! I didn’t walk any of it but did have to stop a couple of times. My heart-rate was completely maxed out. At 112.90 feet per mile, this was the most climbing I've ever done.

My mapping software that I use for my cycling routes, ridewithgps.com, has a glitch and it won’t allow me to map past the halfway point of Clingman’s Dome Road. So the accompanying route map is missing the last four miles to the top. I was able to get the exact elevation gain though by seeing that the road ends at 6292 feet so I was able to accurately ascertain my climbing for the route. I’m attaching some pictures taken the night before.

Stats for the ride:
Miles: 73.09
Time: 4:46:54
Average Speed: 15.29
Max Speed: 45 MPH
Elevation Gain: 8252 feet = 112.90 feet per mile
Route (missing the last 4 miles to the top): https://ridewithgps.com/routes/24679712