Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Assault on Little Switzerland

In the last two installments of our story, I told you how RandoGirl and I ...

  • Planned a two-week tour on Le Route Verte in Canada
  • Abandoned that idea when we got an opportunity to move from Nashville, TN, to Naples, FL
  • Came up with a new plan to do a loaded tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway
Kind of makes you regret wasting your time reading those two posts, hunh?

Anyway, we left Nashville on the last Thursday in August, making a brief stop to see the RandoDaughter at college that evening. By early Friday afternoon, we were at the offices of Carmichael Training in Brevard, NC. RandoGirl's coach, Tracey Drews, had very kindly offered to let us park the WatzzWagon there while we were away. She also gave me some tips regarding the route, and even got one of the other coaches there -- a young fellow named Tristan -- to show us the way out of town.

Yes, he is that thin. He coaches cyclists, and lives in Brevard, NC. C'mon.

Of course, the lead-up to this trip had been hectic. When we got to Carmichael's offices, we had to take a few minutes to print some papers, sign them, and fax them back, since we got an offer on our house that day. And, in the rush of leaving on Thursday, I forgot my nice bright helmet-mounted light for the tunnels. We also hadn't had time to get the drag brake put on the tandem, and had decided at the last minute to just use rear panniers. But, hey, we wouldn't miss any of that stuff, right?


By 3 pm we were climbing Hwy 276 through the Pisgah National Forest. We stopped at the falls there, just before the climbing started.

And then we suffered for a couple of hours. If you've ever done a 12-mile climb, you have an idea of what I'm talking about ... almost. Next, do it on a tandem with an extra 45 pounds on a rack on the back. And keep in mind that the extra 45 pounds back there somehow makes the bike vibrate violently when you both try to stand and pedal, so that you can only get four or five strokes of butt-break that shred your shoulder muscles with the effort while taking your heart rate way into the red zone.

Nonetheless, we eventually saw this.

And then it started to rain. Fortunately, we only had three miles on the Parkway before we got to our hotel that night, the Pisgah Inn. By the time we got there, we were fairly wet and very cold, so after we checked in we enjoyed lovely long hot showers and a big dinner.

If you ever get up that way, I really recommend the Pisgah Inn for its lodging. The dinner and next morning's breakfast was less exemplary, but the Inn itself is lovely and the views are breathtaking.

The next morning, we hung around for a while. We knew that we only had 25 miles to go to our next hotel in Asheville, and that most of this was downhill. Also, during the night fog and wind had moved in, along with an occasional spray of light rain.

We finally headed out at 11 am, wearing jackets and warmers. The long descent was not as much fun as it should have been, since I was worried about overheating the rims using the caliper brakes. It would have been much more fun had I just spent the extra hour or so installing the drag brake. It was also a little scary going through some of the tunnels with just a small headlamp on the bike. The day before, we had one particularly long tunnel that drove home why you should at least put in fresh batteries before starting a trip like this. The new batteries that we got at the Pisgah Inn helped a lot, but my very bright helmet-mounted light would have been even better.

The other thing that this day showed us was that the traffic restrictions on the Blue Ridge Parkway are not followed as rigorously as they are on the Natchez Trace. During our three days there, we never saw a Park Service officer patrolling traffic, whereas you see them all the time on the Trace. Instead, we saw lots and lots of cars, motorcycles, and RVs -- particularly around Asheville -- paying little or no attention to the speed limits. We even had a parade of dump trucks at one point ... but I'm sure that they weren't "commercial."

We got off the Parkway onto Hwy 70 in Asheville, riding one mile to our hotel. Traffic on the five-lane road was actually better-behaved than it had been on the Parkway.

We stayed that night at a Quality Inn motel, but they were very nice to us. It wasn't yet 2 pm when we got there, but they let us check in early. We did a couple of loads of laundry, had lunch at a fast-food spot, and RandoGirl found a decent used paperback book at a flea market next door. We then lounged about, had a good dinner at the Italian restaurant of the Holiday Inn next door, and turned in early.

The next day was Sunday, and we wanted to beat the "church traffic" out of town. RandoGirl's stomach was acting up, so she didn't eat much breakfast before we left. I had picked up some snacks and Gatorade at a store the day before, along with a small flashlight to help light up any remaining long tunnels. We never needed the flashlight, since the tunnels from here on were short enough to see all the way through, but we probably should have brought more food.

We started to climb almost immediately. There were brief downhills, but we pretty much climbed for the rest of the morning. Regular breaks helped make it fun.

Not too far from the top, we stopped at a visitor's center. A young fellow named Chris on a Rambouillet randonneuring bike pulled in, and we talked about cycling in the area. He said that he gets spoiled living in Asheville, where he can easily do a morning ride up to Mount Mitchell, as he was doing that day. He took a picture of RandoGirl and I before he headed off to finish his ride.

From the visitor's center we had another long downhill, followed by more miles of climbing up to the entrance to Mount Mitchell. Then, we had another long downhill. We stopped every 4-5 miles to let the rims cool down, and on one of these stops I found a warm rock to sit on and rest my back.

RandoGirl had a serious bonk going on by this time. Eating or drinking anything made her queasy, and none of the usual drugs that I carry were helping. Mostly, she just needed to sit down to a real meal and take a break, but the lack of amenities on the Parkway made this impossible. It was at this point that I realized it would have been smarter to keep the front rack and panniers on the bike. Not only would it have helped better balance the load, but we could have stashed some sandwiches in the extra space before leaving Asheville.

Once past Hwy 80 -- a road well-known to anyone who has done the Assault on Mount Mitchell -- we had a series of short climbs and descents. Not short enough to get a good rhythm on, as with some Tennessee rollers, where you can power a tandem down one and get enough momentum to roll over the climb, but long one- and two-milers. We were counting down the mile markers, and both cheered when we finally saw the turn for Little Switzerland about 2:30 pm.

Rather than heading for the hotel, I went immediately towards the little town there. We parked, went into the restaurant, and demand food -- NOW! After sandwiches, a plate of cheese and fruit, and lots of Diet Cokes, we felt almost human again.

We had to wait a bit for our hotel room at the Inn, but eventually were able to get cleaned up and into dry clothes. RandoGirl took a long bath, and I went next door and bought us some chocolates. That night, we both had steaks for dinner, and decided to change our plans to ride on to Blowing Rock, NC, the next day. We had earned an extra day at Little Switzerland, and maybe a day off the bike as well.

But that's a story for tomorrow ...

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