The Valley Is Easier, But The Mountains Are Funner

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North America » United States » North Carolina » Brevard
November 11th 2003
Published: November 11th 2003
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I thought that my ride from Hickory to Black Mountain, North Carolina would have been my hardest day, but I was mistaken. A ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway thousands of feet above seal level was much more of a challenge. After a rest day in Asheville, I headed out of town along the parkway before cutting east and down into the valley to Brevard. Looking at my maps, I had seen two possible routes, one along the parkway, and the other through the valley floor. Since the parkway looked to be the smaller road, I chose it over the busier, more congested valley route. From my vantage along the parkway I saw later in the day that I had chosen the better route, the valley was filled with new building developments, and the narrow roads crawled with traffic.

My day got off to a later start than I had expected, as my host asked me to take a look at her bike just as I was heading out the door. I gladly did so, although I was aware that it would cut into my time on the road. While I am not paying out of pocket for my accommodations, I often pay with my time by fixing bicycles and conversing with my hosts. I also had too swing by a pharmacy and pick up a prescription before leaving town, and that too took more time filling out unexpected paperwork. But over the past month I have become accepting of such departure delays- part of the reason that I attempt to leave early in the morning is to accommodate them.

By the time I hit the road in earnest I began to encounter the swell of mid-day traffic, and I found myself leaving Asheville on Biltmore Avenue, a tedious four-lane urban commercial strip with no shoulder or character to speak of. About halfway out of town I was met by “Cicada,”a fellow bicyclist who had called the night before expressing interest in iding with me. While I had prepared for almost every eventuality on my trip with the best gear, albeit at the lowest price possible, Cicada was a “granola” biker if I had ever met one, adverse to spending a dollar when scavenging would suffice.

Bicyclists, in general, can be divided into two groups: those in the know and those who aren’t. “Those in the know” know what they are riding and how to ride, whereas the majority of recreational riders can’t tell a freewheel from a derailleur. A multitude of distinctions can be drawn between knowledgeable cyclists on the basis of riding styles, such as mountain bikers, tri-athletes, racers and tourers. Then there are the “technoweenies,” the riders who are only interested in acquiring the latest, lightest, coolest gadgets, but have no real riding ability to speak of.

I myself fall firmly into the category of a touring bicyclist. I’m not interested in how quickly I can get from Point A to Point B, or what my heart rate and pedal cadence may be along the way. But I am interested in carrying my gear in comfort and, to a certain extent, in carrying it in style. The little uni-wheel yellow trailer following behind my bike adds a certain panache on the road: it announces to my fellow cyclists that, by gosh, I may not be the fastest kid on the block, but I cruise in style nonetheless.

As a touring cyclist, I’m willing to accessorize when doing so presents an advantage. The black fenders on my bike may add weight and aerodynamic drag, but I’m more concerned with keeping dry during a fifty mile ride in the rain. I ride with clipless pedals not because they’re the coolest, neatest gadgets, but because they offer distinct advantages in comfort and efficiency over traditional platform pedals and “toe cages.” I’ll spend the extra five bucks for a saddle made out of recycled inner tubes as an ecological statement. My girlfriend may compare me to “South Park’s” Cartman as I cruise the streets wearing my mirrored sunglasses, but they keep the bugs, dirt, wind and rain out of my eyes, and allow me to demand a certain amount of “authori-tay” when staring down discourteous drivers at stop lights.

But while I am willing to spend money for cycling comfort and efficiency, my fellow cyclist Cicada represented the “granola” niche of cycling that believes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one, and don’t buy it if you can scavenge it.”

Cicada rode a decade-old, rainbow-painted bike that sported a mishmash of components. While the frame was of an Olympiad lineage, the rest of it was of more muddied bloodline. The front chainring had two gears, but lacked a front derailleur to shift between them. The brakes were twenty year-old center pulls, but the brake handles could be dated to early 90’s K-Mart specials, and were mounted on a set of upright Schwinn handlebars from the 1950’s. The front and rear touring racks on Cicada’s bike would certainly withstand a couple mre thousand miles, but it was unlikely that the wobbling rear wheel would make it back down the mountain we were riding up together. I thought I had once seen a seat such as Cicada rode upon, but it had been quite a few years. A set of tubular bullhorns were welded to a seatpost, and two canvas straps were stretched between them. Cicada was continuously in the process of sliding forward and pushing himself back upon the straps.

Cicada himself was dressed in a pair of ratty but still wearable corduroy pants, canvas tennis shoes and a first-generation, thick shelled bike helmet that was state of the art back in the Seventies, underneath of which a bandanna held back his straggly hair. Even though I continued a proud family tradition of refusing to pay full price, my lycra jersey, thermal tights, gore-tex socks, sweat-wicking cap, prescription sunglasses, padded gloves and rigid bike shoes still costs hundreds of dollars off the rack. But I doubted Cicada had paid more than twenty bucks at a thrift shop for his clothes, if he had paid for them at all. And yet even with the odd hitch of his arthritic knees, coupled with his nearly-upright stance upon a bike that would never be stolen by any self-respecting bike thief, Cicada still led the way up to Mount Pisgah along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As we climbed higher and higher above Asheville, there was no way for Cicada to know that our speed remained firmly in the single digits since his bike was devoid of a speedometer. Even though I knew how fast we were going, it really didn’t make a difference- we were sharing the joy of a crisp Autumn ride in the mountains on a nearly-empty road. We pedaled and talked at a casual pace, discovering a shared affinity for long-distance bike touring, social activism, and the artistic application of computers. While Cicada programmed computers to utilize color palettes, I used computers to realize the saturated palettes of my world. Cicada admired the utility of my bike trailer, and related how he had bungee-corded a plywood rack to a friend’s recumbent bicycle for a thousand-mile bike ride. While I devoured a package of Fig Newtons to power my loaded bike up the parkway, Cicada had no problem keeping pace on his lightly-burdened bicycle, even though he was fasting for the day.

The beauty of bicycling for me is that anyone with a modicum of mobility can do it. My disabled brother can ride with me on his hand-pedalled tricycle, and I have reached the same summits as Tour de France champions. A $5,000 carbon fiber bike grants no more or less joy than a $50 beach cruiser. An ardent speed freak can power his way across the country with a twenty-pound bike and only a credit card in his pocket, but I’ll get there as well hauling my tent in a trailer behind me. All of us cyclists are united in the joy of the road, regardless of how fast or how much we spend to get there.

After a few hours together, Cicada turned back for Asheville, leaving me to mull over such thoughts and more as I continued my climb up the parkway to Mount Pisgah. Cicada had told me that it would be uphill all the way there, but I ahd not realized that I would gain nearly 3,000 feet in elevation over twenty miles. As I climbed higher along the ridge, I was taken back to my journey through the French Alps along the Route Napoleon, and the long hours spent climbing up to the peaks along narrow roads- the sky sparkled above me, and the valleys lay cold and distant beneath me.

When I had awoken in Asheville that morning my breaths had come in quick, shallow succession, accompanied by the familiar asthmatic wheezing that had dogged me since I was a teenager. My host Sarah Jane, a registered nurse, had commented, “Asheville does that to people,” and as a resident of sea level, I could only agree with her. While I knew that the air was not all that much thinner in Asheville, a couple thousand feet above sea level, it was thin enough to trigger my asthma and force me into a conscious pattern of deep breathing.

As I rode up the parkway I forced myself to empty my lungs with each slow breath before expanding my diaphragm as fully as possible. With only a few mild descents, the road pushed higher and higher, taking my 4,000 feet above sea level. I continued my slow climb up the Pisgah ridge, covering less than six miles an hour, and my pulse racing to 200 beats per minute as my heart tried to deliver oxygen to my legs. My head began to tingle as though I was on my second martini of the morning, and I stood up out of the saddle in an effort to stretch my legs, but soon found myself sitting down again as the anaerobic burn absorbed my legs and my temples pounded with my pulse. Time and again I passed through tunnels underneath the mountain peaks, hearing the hum of my tires and the panting of my lungs echo off the walls in competition with the sound of my pulse pounding in my ears.

Even when I stopped at the overlooks for a self-portrait, I found myself unable to fully catch my breath, or quench my thirst. High up on the ridges there were no water spigots at the rest area, and so I found myself stopping next to mossy roadside cliffs, waiting for a trickle of water spilling down from above to fill my water bottle. Cicada had assured me that I would find a gas station at Mount Pisgah, and I looked southwest towards the radio antenna atop Pisgah’s summit, anticipating a full water bottle. But with miles of road and hours of climbing between me and Mount Pisgah, I had already emptied my water bottles. In desperation I filled my water bottled at from the mossy cliffs, balancing the chance of contaminated water with the risk of dehydration. Even as my altitude crept above 4,500 feet and the temperature dipped into the 50’s, I continued to soak my jersey with the effort of riding.

I finally reached Mount Pisgah, only to find the fabled gas station closed, and the mountain top hotel shuttered for the season. Locked gates barred my entry into the parking lots, but one road was open, although it was marked, “Service Entrance Only. Public Forbidden.” I turned down the road anyway, and came upon a park worker locking a shed. I asked him with a parched tongue, “Do you have any water? I saw the sign saying that I shouldn’t be here, but I’m quite thirsty.”

“Well,” he replied in a mountain drawl as he pulled his key from the padlock, “We’ve drained all the buildings for the winter. The pipes will freeze and burst up here.” A look of dismay crossed my face until he added, “But I think I can help you out. Ride down to the next parking lot and around the gate. I’ll meet you there.”

I turned my bike around and rode a hundred yards down the parkway. In the thin air I struggled to push my laden bike over the curb and around the gate while the park worker drove his truck over the curb. He motioned for me to follow him, and we walked down the hotel to an apparently random room where he unlocked the door and pointed to the sink. I filled up my water bottle, gulped down the contents in one go and filled it up again before expressing my gratitude. Still staggering a bit with the effort of my climb and slightly out of breath, I got back into the saddle and prepared for my descent to the valley that lay thousands of feet below the ridge I stood upon.

While I had ridden for nearly thirty miles and four hours to reach Mount Pisgah, the twenty mile descent into Brevard took less than an hour. I dropped off the parkway on a two lane road, feeling the wind whipping my eyelashes behind my sunglasses. I zipped up my jersey and let out a hoot of joy as my speed rocketed past forty miles per hour. I leaned into the turns, first left, then right, and left again, relishing the freshly-paved, smooth road beneath me. Two miles down the road I braked in my descent as I approached a construction zone and a flagman holding a stop sign. I grinned at him, and he called into his radio, “I’ve got a bicycle here.” A voice crackled back, “Send him through,” and I released my brakes, rolling down the hill with nary a pedal stroke. I crouched in the drops, fingers ready on my brakes as I sped past the road crew, who waved as I rushed by and dipped into the next turn.

A few miles and minutes further down the mountain the road joined a trickle of water. I gave up pedaling when I could no longer keep up with my wheels turning at forty miles per hour, and I saw my speed creep up to 48.7 mph on my bike computer as the wind roared in my ears and the trees flew past me. Farther down the mountain the trickle became a stream, which grew into a full-fledged river as the road flattened out, and I found myself traveling at a mere twenty miles per hour. The hills about me were blanketed with the trees of the Pisgah National Forest, but too soon I found myself crossing the park boundary and encountering the commercial sprawl abutting so many parks. With my legs weary, and my ears still ringing from the roar of the road, I telephoned my host for the night, telling him that I had arrived on the edge of town. A fellow cyclist himself, Stephen could share with me the joy of a fast descent off the parkway, but also knew the frustrations of riding in rush hour traffic on narrow roads. He offered to come pick me up in his truck, and I readily agreed to his offer, my legs still weak and my head still spinning from my ride. As I waited for Stephen I sat in the parking lot of a barbeque pit, awash in the residual endorphins of a fifty mile ride that had pushed my limits and reminded me of why I loved bicycling so much.


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