A Dark Ascent

Published: November 8th 2003
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I left Hickory, North Carolina as early as I could manage after a late night spent speaking to the small Quaker worship group, catching up with my girlfriend and parents by phone and planning out my route to Black Mountain for the next day.

I estimated that I had a seventy or eighty mile day ahead of me. There were two direct routes from Hickory to Black Mountain, and one was inaccessible to me as it was the interstate. Most people along my ride have been surprised to learn that bicycles are not allowed on interstates. Perhaps it is only cyclists, hitchhikers, equestrians and pedestrians that notice the sign at each interstate on-ramp announcing that the interstate is forbidden to "Bicycles, horses, animal-drawn vehicles, self-propelled machinery, pedestrians and hitchhikers."

So the other route to Black Mountain was U.S. Route 70, and I was not too keen to ride that either. I expected that the road would be filled with discourteous drivers and devoid of a significant shoulder. Consequently I spent almost an hour planning out a route that would parallel Route 70 on the back roads.

But the first few miles of my ride took me back onto Route 70, and I found I was wrong on one count: there wasn't any shoulder to speak of, the white line usually running inches from the edge of the pavement, but time and again the Carolina drivers slowed behind me and gave me wide birth as the passed me.

Only five miles into my ride I found myself unable to shift into my biggest front chain ring, and so I stopped to stretch and atttend to the mechanics of my bike. I pulled off of the main road onto a quiet street paralleling a driving range, and spent an hour riding my bike back and forth, trying to adjust my front derailleur. When my friend Glenn had assembled my bike for me, I had asked him to use the new integrated brake levers/shifters. I now found myself regretting my decision because I knew the mechanical problem to be within the shifter, but I could not access it. While the integrated shifters allowed me to change gears without moving my hands from my handlebars, they were mechanically much more complex than anything I had dealt with. I had no idea how to diagnose or repair my new shifters. I contented myself with the use of my two smallest front chainrings, figuring that as I was going to spend most of the day going uphill rather than down, the smaller chainrings would be of more use. But I knew that I would be sacrificing the speed I would gain from pushing my big chainring on the downhill, and would consequently lose momentum on my way back up the hills.

After I returned my bike to working order, I realized that I had lost too much time to be able to take the longer route I had planned out for myself the night before that would have kept me off of Route 70. Since the road wasn't as bad as I had expected, I decided to stick to it, since it would be more direct.

Mentally I had prepared myslef for the challenges of the French Alps that I had faced on my bike tour of Europe as a teenager. I figured that with almost fifty pounds of gear, I would face quite a challenge climbing up to Black Mountain, even if it wasn't as steep a climb as Alp d'Huez, the premier mountain of the Tour de France that I had ridden up during my passage through the Alps. (Although I must admit that I stripped my bike down and left my gear at a campsite at the bottom of the mountain before attempting a climb that was considered "beyond classification," and challenged world champion cyclists.)

As I rolled into Old Fort, the last town at the bottom of the mountains, I looked at the mileage on my bike computer and saw that I had already ridden sixty miles. By the map I thought I only had six miles to go, but I knew the distance on the map was deceptive since it showed only the horizontal mileage, and did not show the vertical mileage.

While I had ridden down a few hills so far that day, and at times had exceeded the 25mph speed limits while passing down the main streets of small towns, I had climbed up far more hills to reach Old Fort. Throughout the day I had kept my pace slow and steady, sticking to small gears and spinning my pedals from the back of my seat instead of shifting into bigger gears and slowly grinding my way up the hills while standing on my pedals. Even though I had been on the raod for a week and had ridden seventy five hilly miles into Hickory the day before, I found my legs surprisingly frsh. Time and again I crested hills without feeling the burn of lactic acid in my thighs. As I rode up the hills I concentrated on slow, steady breaths and relaxed my upper body, letting my legs receive as much oxygen as possible.

Every hour I munched on some of the homemade power bars that my girlfriend Jenifer had sent me, and I sipped more gatorade than I thought I needed. I forced myself to consume more than I thought I needed to, conscious that if I ran out of energy on the climb out of Old Fort, I would be miserable indeed.

Before I left Old Fort I took a few remaining minutes of daylight to prepare myself for a long climb up the mountain. I filled up my water bottles, had another bite to eat, and slipped on my flourescent vest for warmth and visibility as the sun slid behind the western peaks ahead of me. In the growing shadows of the mountains the temperature was already dropping, and the light was shrinking to the west. I switched out the mirrored lenses of my sunglasses for the clear lenses and turned on my flashing red tail light.

But there were few cars on the road to be alerted by my tail light, as most people were taking the faster interstate up to Black Mountain. In fact, U.S. Route 70 joined I-40 for the ascent up the mountain, and there were no signs telling a traveler that there was an alternate route up the mountain. I knew of it only because a fellow biker had emailed me the route. I found myself winding my way between a mountain stream and the railroad, alone except for the occasional dog and a coal train. At times the road would look flat before me, but the water running downhill beside me betrayed that I was slowly gaining elevation.

As the last sliver of pink left the sky above me, I turned off of the easy road and began the final, steeper ascent up a single lane dirt road that switched back and forth up the mountain. The grey, dusty road rose ahead of me, glowing in the light of the rising moon as the grade gew steeper and steeper. My breath came quicker and harder, but I was determined not to stop on my ascent, lent alone walk my bike up the hill.

For me it is a point of youthful pride to never walk up a hill. Now my mother may boast that "There's no hill that I can't walk my bike up," but I still relish the challenge of never dismounting on a hill, even if I'm riding a loaded touring bike. I realize that my knees may not always be with me, and my asthma may one day be more of an impediment, but I will never walk a hill as long as my knees and lungs aren't exploding.

While the mountain laurel groves grew darker around me, I heard an unusual clicking sound from my font wheel. My lungs pulling for air, I stopped and leaned forward to feel more than see in the darknes that a front bag strap had wrapped itself around the front wheel axle. As a lone pickup truck pased me I unwound the strap, fastened it back in place and remounted.

In the dark I couldn't see my bike computer, and even if I could have, the mileage would have been of little use to me since I had no idea how long my ascent would be. Instead I resorted to a mental game I had learned in my youth while riding the Green Mountains. When my legs would start to burn and I would doubt my ability to keep riding, I would set my sights on the next turn in the road and promise myself that if I could make it to that turn, I could stop and rest. But at each turn I found I had enough energy to try for another turn.

I looked ahead of my to the umpteenth "next turn," and saw a road sign ahead of me. It was not until I was just a few feet that I saw its warning of a narrow tunnel ahead. Once more the road passed underneath the railroad tracks, and the hill became so steep that I was finally forced out of the saddle to stand up on my pedals. I pulled my handlebars back and forth, and labored to keep my breath from raging out of control. My knees began to compete with my thighs in painful agony, and I thought I saw the crest of the road ahead of me. But before I was into the tunnel the edges of the road had darkened about me as I began to run out of oxygen. I struggled all the more to keep my breath in check, well aware that I was experiencing the exercise-induced asthma that had plagued me since I has a teenager. As I rode under the railroad I heard my breath echoing around me, the wheezing of my lungs a counterpoint to the gentle rhythm of my bike tires rolling over the dusty road.

And then I was over the crest, and I felt my bike rolling forward beneath me without the need of pedalling. Ahead of me I saw a rise in the road, but I also could see the lights of the city as well, and I knew that my ride up Black Mountain was complete. Within a mile I had returned to pavement, and soon my path was lit no more by the moon but by street lights. A few curious drivers stared at me as we waited together at a traffic light, and I knew that they wondered why I had such a giddy smile on my face, standing astride a pack-laden bicycle in a mountain town an hour after sunset.


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