Friday, September 23, 2011

Swan Song

My heart hurts.

Sure, living in Florida is going to be great. We're a quiet two-mile bike ride to the beach. It's warm there in February. Naples is a cycling paradise, with bike lanes all over the place and hundreds of people pedaling everywhere, and I can go diving and sailing again, and RandoGirl's new job is really great.

But there is so much here in middle Tennessee that I have come to love. My friends at the bike club and work. My band, The Kickstands. Trees that change colors.


I started to make my goodbyes months ago. We only told a few people at first, but I started going out and riding some of the roads with whom I had developed a love/hate relationship during our six years here. First were my College Grove favorites, Pulltight Hill and Choctaw ... so many intersections down there with turn arrows that I've personally painted. I rode them in the heat, and then again in the rain, and finally on a rare cool August morning under a powder blue sky, the smell of fresh-cut hay redolent on a light breeze.

There were some new roads down there, and I scouted them for the Hope on Wheels century even though I knew that I would not be around for it. They were calm and flat and green, and I hope that the organizers continue to use this route for a few more years.

While down there, we visited some of our favorite stops. The College Grove Grocery, of course, but also Bethesda Market and Marcy Jo's further south. Fresh-baked goodness and warm southern kindness, with ice-cold refreshment when we needed it most.

Even my commute to work became precious. It was harder than ever to fit it into the schedule, but I cherished those days fighting my way down Trousdale towards Harding, sitting at the traffic light sipping my coffee, surrounded by the carbon monoxide flatulence of SUVs.

On time-tight weekend mornings, I used my commute route to a quick stop at Panera, then cut west through Radnor Lake and Percy Priest parks. On a foggy Sunday morning, I hazarded my way down Granny White Pike one last time to Oman, just to do the fierce climb up to the observatory there. As the skies cleared, I retraced my route, continued on south, and finished shredding my legs on North Berry's Chapel and Holly Tree Gap.

There won't be climbs like that in Florida, I told myself. Of course, there aren't many climbs like that anywhere.

Saturday, I did one last ride with the Harpeth Bike Club. Larry Lewis and John Wallace put together a route running from the top of the Natchez Trace up through Kingston Springs, Pegram, and other areas up there that don't even have a name. For the first 13 miles, I stayed with the lead group on a series of short, steep climbs. They stopped at a store then, and I rolled on, thinking that the group would soon catch up.

In Kingston Springs, I passed a graveyard familiar from the first 200K that I had ever done. Rolling on through Narrows of the Harpeth park, there were other reminders of that first tough March ride over four years ago.

The edges of some roads were now sharper, cleanly edged with fresh graveled shoulders laid with the post-Nashville flood repairs.

The road turned upwards again, and I remembered another club ride ... maybe the same route, but on a much hotter day. I bought water at the next store stop and started to wait, but got antsy and soon rolled on. I told myself it was because of an appointment I had that afternoon.

Rolling down to River Road, I started east back towards the city. Usually, I took this road west and on much colder days, since it was part of the Music City 200K that we often ride during winter. I passed by a store that I will always think of with snow on its roof, remembering the time that I rode this route wearing winter boots with chemical warmers over my toes, while Jeff Bauer wore sandals.

Mostly, in the past few months, I've been trying to get in lots of rides with old friends like Jeff, Fredia Barry, Vida Greer, Bill Glass, Alan Gosart, and others. They've all promised to come south to visit when the weather in Tennessee turns cold, and we've promised to come back for the Harpeth River Ride in the spring. There are still good times ahead for us and these great friends, but I will miss being able to have these times whenever I want.

I will miss taking these times for granted.

Back at Kingston Springs, I rolled past the last store stop and turned right on US 70. Soon I was on part of the old Thanksgiving 200K route -- the Turkey Trot -- but going against the usual grain again. Another tough climb up something that's usually a fun descent, followed by a quick descent down something that's always been a tough climb.

Forcing my way over the rolling hills, I thought about my first Harpeth River Ride. It was June of 2005, and we had just moved here from Tampa, FL. I was a little heavier, and definitely not used to climbing that much, but I did the century, anyway. It took me a long time. Nobody knew me when I started, and not many more knew me by the end, but I met a lot of folks that I would get to know much better in the coming years.

Over six years later, I've seen those same people -- and those same roads -- from a lot of different perspectives. Hot, steamy days when their surface is hard and rough, and you retreat to the trees at every opportunity. Cold, wet, dreary days when you're just getting through it all. Those rare wonderful days when you can only feel sorry for whatever life there is on other planets because you just freakin' well know that they ain't got it this good.

We didn't even know that we had it this good.

Singing my swan song to cycling in middle Tennessee for the past few months has brought home to me how much I love these roads and these friends. All have a special place in my heart ... one that I hope to keep alive by memory and regular visits. The pain in my heart is because that place is getting ready to be severed from the Now, and knows that it must survive on mere shards of the Past and the hope of a Future.

To those we leave behind, I envy you this wonderful, wonderful Now. Get out and enjoy it while you can.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fire and Brimstone Creek

Back in May, Jeff Bauer and I scouted Big Bottom Road on a dreary Sunday, discovering a quiet shady lane that turned to gravel, rolled past calm streams and quiet farms, and then became paved Brimstone Creek to climb up near Moss, TN. It took a few weeks, but I eventually filed this with RUSA as the Brimstone Creek 200K permanent.

And nobody rode it.

I wanted my last weekend in Tennessee to include a great ultra ride, however, and so I invited a bunch of folks to come out to Cookeville to ride this permanent. Ultimately, Jeff Bauer, Jeff Sammons, and Steve Phillips were able to fit it into the schedule, as we set off Sunday at 7 am from the Key West Inn on Hwy 135.

The first miles of the route follows my 400K, heading north towards Gainesboro. As we passed through Dodson Branch, you could see fog down in the Cumberland River valley.

Somebody -- either the county or the state -- has paved this road on the descent, which made it a lot more fun. Once down by the Roaring River, the morning chill continued to lift as we rolled through the lush pasture.

We were all riding strong. Jeff, Jeff, and Steve all had plenty of leftover fitness from Paris-Brest-Paris, and I have loads of untapped cycling potential, not being allowed to ride much in the past few weeks.

Mostly through course knowledge, I even managed to grab the first four county-line sprints. Jeff Bauer got the rest, of course, since he had long-term power.

We skirted the edge of Gainesboro, staying north on Hwy 135. Just over the Cumberland River, we turned right on Big Bottom Road.

As we zipped down the quiet road, we saw signs saying that the bridge ahead was out. Jeff Bauer and I had seen these signs last time, however, and knew that the road was only out for cars. We had been able to bike over the old bridge easily ... although we saw one or two cars that must have done the same.

Big Bottom has just enough ups and downs to keep it interesting, and Jeff Bauer and I decided it would be really fun on a tandem. When the pavement ended and the gravel began, however, I wondered if the road might not be as much fun for a skittish stoker.

As we neared the old bridge, we saw a new "Bridge Closed" sign, and when we came around the corner we realized that they weren't kidding any more.

The state or county had torn up the far end of the old bridge and begun putting in a foundation for a new bridge. I guess you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

The creek here was obviously too deep to wade, and we couldn't tell how far upstream we would have to go before it became passable ... if it ever did.

Jeff Bauer -- who also climbs -- shimmied out to the edge and declared it manageable, saying we might be able to pass the bikes from one person to the next, drop them to someone at the bottom, and then clamber out. Acrophobic as I am, this idea didn't appeal to me. I frankly had trouble standing near the edge of the remaining portions of the bridge.

So, we retraced our route back towards 135. A gravel "short-cut" near the bottom of Big Bottom Road gave us an opportunity to shave off a couple of miles, plus get in more of our gravel-road fix. The short-cut required a long climb out of the gap, followed by a steep slippery descent, and I thought more than once that it may have been faster -- and easier on our nerves -- to have just stayed on the pavement.

Once back on Hwy 135, the route was simple. We were now on another permanent that uses almost the same route: Honest Abe. These two routes differ only with the Big Bottom/Brimstone Creek section, since Honest Abe follows the old Avery Trace road race route up to Union Hill-Moss Road. The mileage of the two permanents is otherwise identical.

Hwy 135 stayed quiet on the climb out of the river valley, and Union Hill Moss Road is pretty and rolling. There were a number of suicidal locusts in the road, jumping as we went by. When we got to the first control, I found the partial remains of one still stuck in my front tire's spokes.

Steve Phillips took a picture and posted it on Facebook.

We got a sandwich at the control -- Cherry's Grocery in Moss, TN. This store reminds me so much of Mr. Fly's store down in Fly, TN, with the main difference being that Cherry's has gas pumps out front, but doesn't have a pot-bellied stove inside.

The trip down Hwy 52 to Celina was fast, thanks to the gradual descent and a tailwind. We stopped for a quick ice cream at the Dairy Queen, and Jeff Sammons told us that he would need to cut the ride short. He continued down Hwy 53 towards Gainesboro, while Jeff Bauer, Steve, and I stayed on Hwy 52 east to Standing Stone Park.

After crossing the one-lane bridge, you have a tough climb back up, followed by some nasty rollers as you pass through the rest of the park. On the other side, we stopped at our next control, the Hilham General Store, where Jeff Bauer bought me a pickle. I didn't think that I needed one, since I wasn't having any muscle cramps, but the salt perked me up and I pulled us at a fairly fast pace all the way west on Hwy 85 back to Hwy 53 at Gainesboro.

Our control there was the Subway, one mile further west on Hwy 56. I bought a sandwich and wolfed it down to stave off a caloric deficit. We then retraced our route back to downtown Gainesboro, and got back on Hwy 53 to suffer on the steep climb out of town. On the way up, you pass the turn on to Hwy 262 and the "real" Avery Trace, which was once the main road between Knoxville and Nashville.

The next few miles roll through quiet farmland, with one last tough climb on the way to Granville. This portion of the ride has less shade than some of the others, but Granville makes up for it with good ice cream on Saturday's at the H.B. Sutton store. Since it was Sunday, however, we had to make due with a fresh bag of ice and lots of water.

From here, we headed up Hwy 96 -- a cool sun-dappled road leading to a gentle shaded climb that ends at US 70. We took this semi-busy road to Baxter, where we turned on to Buffalo Valley Road towards Cookeville. Jeff Bauer was smelling the barn at this point, and he got up front for a fast pull to the finish.

Maybe it wasn't the ride that I had planned, but it was as good a ride as I could have hoped for ... even with the extra 15 miles. I hope all my friends here make it a regular part of their randonneuring.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ten ... er, Seven Gaps, 2011

Early in the season, most cyclists begin planning their training based on this year's goals. For most randonneurs this year, it was ultimately Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), with a few intermediate things along the way.

When 2011 began, PBP was my goal, too. Then, I crashed and injured my hip, although I didn't realize that it would keep me away from France until spring came. So, plans changed and I decided to race some. Then, we decided to move to Naples, Florida, which meant getting our house on the market and finding a house down there ... so, plans changed.

One thing that I really wanted to do, however, was Ten Gaps. Also known as Bundrick's Revenge, this is a 200K in the North Georgia mountains that has anywhere from 17,000 to 23,000 (depending upon who's computer or software you are using) feet of climbing. Basically, for most of the 127 miles, you're either going up or you're going down ... hopefully on a road.

In 2008, this ride kicked my butt. In 2009, I rode it strong, but still had to walk part of Brasstown Bald. In 2010, I rode it easy, stayed on the bike, and had fun.

So, what was my goal for Ten Gaps in 2011? I dunno. Go. Ride, I guess. Look at the mountains. Enjoy the cool weather. See old friends.

You see, life has just been kind of a roller coaster lately. My fitness is decent, but my weight is above what I like it to be for these tough mountain rides. And I have not been my usual diligent self with my bicycle maintenance.

But, I had the weekend off, and needed to get out of town in case some buyer wanted to look at the house, and I had promised friends that I would drive them down, so I went. We got a late start, and got to the hotel even later, but we made it to the ride start just fine and I felt great as we rolled out of the parking lot. I even pulled most of the first few miles, up to where the real climbing begins at Woody's Gap. Then I decided that I was too warm, and so I pulled over to peel off my arm-warmers, knee-warmers, and vest, while the rest of the lead group headed up.

Ah, well, I thought. I didn't have any goals for this ride this year, so I might as well just ride my ride. I got back on the bike and rolled solo to the top, and then stopped to take a picture.

The sun was up in the valley, but it was still pretty chilly up on top of the mountain. I didn't want to put all of my stuff back on, so I quickly headed down toward Suches. As I started through the rollers there, I began to notice a funny click coming from my bike's drive train -- a little "tick" when the right crankarm hit about the 1 o'clock position. As I focused on it, I began to notice that I could "feel" the tick, too.

This is not a good thing to notice 27 miles in on a 127-mile ride, particularly when you have some really, really tough climbs ahead. As I started up Wolf Pen, I began to think "bottom-bracket failure," and backed off the pace a bit to baby it.

The weather was still incredible -- cool enough to be comfortable, with barely any wind and not even a hint of rain. The swoopy descent down Wolf Pen was a blast as usual, and I began to think how sad it would be not to have such a fun downhill in our new home state.

Other than the troublesome ticking drivetrain, I felt great as I hit the first control. I topped off my bottles and bought a homemade fried apple pie, and then rolled on towards Hog Pen. I finished the pie on the rollers heading to this steep climb, then downshifted to the small chainring to keep the pressure off going up.

Unlike previous times, I played with my bike computer on the way up by seeing just how long I could maintain a very low speed. My record was 30 seconds at 3.5 mph -- very easy on the legs, but tricky on the steering skills.

The roads were full of cyclists, either out training for the upcoming Six Gap Century or riding an organized Gran Fondo with the Georgia Cup series. As I came over the top of Hog Pen, a group of them was approaching from the other side. One of them yelled out, "You're going in the wrong direction," and I yelled back, "The climb is shorter that way."

I saw a lot of other riders struggling up Hog Pen as I zipped my way down, and then turned left towards Helen and the control. Two of our riders were there, and I would have stayed and chatted with them but I was not very tired -- one advantage of soft-pedaling a tough ride like this. I filled my bottles again, bought a candy bar, and headed back out.

Climbing the fourth gap, Unicoi, was the usual slog. It's not a very pretty gap, and the fast motorcycles love to race up and down on it. One fellow on a red and white crotch rocket came within inches of me as he cut inside on a corner on the climb. Three minutes later, he was zooming back down. All told, I saw him eight times as I slowly worked my way up.

At the top, I ran into Gary Carter, visiting from Europe. He had been on our RAAM crew for the Gran Fondo Fixies in 2008, and it was good to chat with him for a minute. We started down the other side together, but he stopped to check on Don Mayne, who was also on our RAAM crew. I was still worried about my drivetrain, where the click had turned into a clunk, so I continued on.

Jack's Gap is the easiest of the 10 gaps on this ride, but I had decided to use this climb to test the bike and see if it would be okay for Brasstown Bald. I could feel the clunk now, and it was starting to hurt my knee, so although I really wanted to go up the 20+ percent grades to the turnaround, I decided it was more important to get back to Dahlonega on my own power.

Jeff Bauer, who had ridden down to Dahlonega with me, was just coming down as I hit the turn. He was on his way to his fastest Ten Gaps ever. I told him what was going on, and that I was going to take the short way back and abandon the ride. He headed left to climb back over Unicoi and Hog Pen gaps, while I continued straight to skip re-climbing those and Brasstown Bald.

Now that I knew where Jeff was on his ride, I decided to slow down and enjoy the beautiful day. I stopped at the store on Hwy 19 and laid down on a bench in the sun to take a little nap. Then I filled my bottles again and rolled on towards Vogel State Park, where the climb back over Hog Pen awaited.

Since I was now going the official Six Gaps way, I was passed by a number of cyclists on this climb. Most of them called out "Good afternoon" and "How's it going" as they passed. I also was passed three times by a sheriff's deputy who was looking for speeders on this twisty road, and thought about telling him that he was wasting his time. He was probably just enjoying the shady quiet woods, because if he'd really wanted to write tickets he would have driven over to Unicoi Gap.

Soon, I was over Wolf Pen, through the rolling woods around Lake Winfield Scott, past Suches again, and climbing the short stretch to the top of Woody. The sun was up when I posed my bike at the top again.

The long easy road down from Woody was a pleasure as always, and I was back at the start about 3:30 pm. I had changed clothes and loaded up the bike when the first of our riders came in, frantically looking for someone to log his time. He had finished in under nine hours -- 8:50 to be exact -- so he had reason to be proud about winning the brevet.

I envied him that -- although I would not have been willing to ride that hard for that long. He had a goal, and he probably had trained hard to turn in a super-fast time on this ride. I didn't mind all that much when my drivetrain fouled up and forced me to DNF on this ride, but I probably should have. Although I enjoyed the ride, with extraordinary weather and gorgeous scenery, something was missing.

We tell ourselves that life is about the journey -- not the destination. But goals are the milestones along the way, and we are goal-oriented animals. It's like shooting a gun when you don't have a target to aim at -- all you're doing is making noise.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Lessons Learned: What to Leave in and What to Leave Out

I strongly believe that we should learn from our mistakes. Of course, I make a lot of mistakes, so I should be very smart by now ... which, of course, makes no sense. Or at least I don't think that it does ... but what do I know?

Anyhow ... here's what I learned from our Blue Ridge Parkway trip:
  1. Failure to plan is a plan for failure. We came to this idea kind of late, since we had to adjust for all of the other crazy stuff that was going on (we call it "life"). Nonetheless, I spent time working on our route and lodging, and not enough thinking about the configuration of the bike.
  2. This kind of ties in to the above, but you should never do loaded tandem touring on a hilly route (and the Blue Ridge Parkway is nothing if not hilly) without a drag brake. Although we did not get a flat tire -- from overheated rims or otherwise -- worrying about the heat from my caliper brakes ruined much of the potential fun from those descents.
  3. Whenever possible, use both front and rear panniers when touring. The bike just balances better. Although we were able to fit our stuff into the rear panniers, we could have left some empty space and distributed things. Also, it would have left us enough room for extras.
  4. Speaking of extras, when you know that you've got a 50-mile day with no place to stop and get a meal, go ahead and pack a couple of sandwiches, and maybe a spare bottle. A picnic on a long touring day is always nice.
  5. The Blue Ridge Parkway is pretty and well-maintained, but is not really bicycle friendly. At least, not the portions that go through Asheville, and I've heard that the same thing goes for Boone, NC. The park service apparently turns a blind eye to speeders and commercial traffic ... similar to what they do in Tupelo, MS on the Natchez Trace.
  6. The Pisgah Inn is a nice hotel with great views. You might want to eat somewhere else, though.
  7. The Little Switzerland hotel is also pretty nice and has almost as good views, but the food is better.
  8. Just because the sign says "Dead End," don't assume that this means bicycles.
  9. Epic Cycles is a great bike shop.
  10. Since it has a good bike shop, Black Mountain, NC is a place that I would not mind living in, or at least spending a few more days in.
  11. You can take a loaded touring tandem up a gravel road with a three-mile climb.
  12. Your shoulders will hurt the day after you take a loaded touring tandem up a gravel road with a three-mile climb.
That's about all I learned. One of the things that I didn't have to learn, because I've always known it, is that any kind of adventure is better when you've got someone that you really LOVE with you. RandoGirl and I may have been less than happy with life -- and, by inheritance, with each other -- occasionally on this trip, but I would not have had it any other way, and would not want to have done it with anybody else.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Return Leg

When last we saw our intrepid adventurers, they had ridden 50 miles, climbing over 6,000 feet with a fully-loaded touring tandem on the busy Blue Ridge Parkway. They barely survived running out of food and drink, and had topped off their tanks again with tasty sandwiches and steak dinners.

Monday, we mostly hung out at Little Switzerland. I awoke early and went to the lobby to watch the sun rise over Marion, enjoying a wonderful conversation about bicycle touring with the night manager of the hotel. He had spent a number of months doing a tour of New Zealand, and his description of this beautiful country merely helped elevate this destination on my bucket list.

I also used the lobby computer to begin planning our return trip to Brevard. Although it would be mostly downhill back to Asheville, I knew that there would be enough climbing to make the trip a lot of work. Also, I was tired of the descents being ruined by the lack of a drag brake and the work required to feather the front and rear brakes, worrying about the rims overheating and melting the glue around the valve on the inner tubes.

At breakfast, RandoGirl and I discussed the new plan for our return. Just as we were finishing, there was a thunk at the window next to us when a bird flew into the window. We went outside to check on him, and he seemed dazed but alive. When we looked again later, he had flown away.

We again did a little laundry -- this time by hand -- but mostly lounged about and read this day. I talked again with RandoGirl's coach, Tracey Drews, who gave me some tips for our return route. We went back to the same restaurant as Sunday for lunch, but this time we were not so demanding. They had Lavazza espresso, so I had a wonderful latte and a piece of pie.

After another excellent dinner, we turned in early again. The restaurant at the Inn did not have breakfast until 7:30 am, so we bought snacks to tide us over so we could leave early.

Tuesday, the plan was to retrace our route south on the Parkway to Hwy 80, then descend there to Marion. It was foggy and a little cool as we rolled out, but there was enough climbing to quickly warm us up. Soon, we were on 80, stopping twice to let the rims cool, before we came to the flatter sections going by the lake, and then turning onto US 70.

As anyone who's biked around Tennessee and North Carolina much will tell you, US 70 is fluky. Parts of it get a lot of truck traffic and can be horrible. However, most of it follows I-40, so the faster traffic tends to get on the interstate instead. RandoGirl found this section to be fine, and really enjoyed zipping along the gentle rollers here at about 20, cars and trucks generally moving way over when they passed us.

Tracey had suggested we veer off for a few miles onto Old US 70, which was very nice. There was one longer climb there, but we rode past a lot of parkland and even took a break at a pull-off with a historical marker and a porta-potty.

Just past this, we came to a sign saying that the road dead-ended ahead. Our directions had us turning left, but we were a couple of miles away from that. We took the right turn, instead, and found our left turn. Unfortunately, though, the left turn here took us on an unpaved road that climbed for the next three miles. Although the grade wasn't too bad and the gravel was fairly hard-packed, some of the pitches were steeper, and we were very happy to eventually rejoin US 70. It was not until later that we discovered that we should have stayed on the "dead end" road, since it was only closed to motor traffic and we would have been able to get by, staying on what is supposedly a very nice, flat, paved road.

Soon, we entered the town of Black Mountain. We were both hungry, and I had seen on Google maps that there was a bike shop here -- Epic Cycles. We found the shop, and had a great time talking to the guys there. They let us top off our tires, told us about the "dead end" road that we should have taken, gave us some route tips, and recommended an excellent place for lunch. They even watched our bike and stuff for us while we walked into the little town and ate.

After topping off our bottles and buying some fuel at the bike shop, we headed on towards Asheville. Our plan had been to stay the night at the same hotel that we had used on our outbound leg, but only if we were there after 1 pm. It was 12:30 when we rolled by, and we both felt pretty good, so we stopped at the same store that we had used last time to get more Gatorade, and then headed back onto the Parkway.

Once again, we had about 10 miles of dodging the Asheville traffic. This was the only time that we saw any law enforcement, when a North Carolina State Trooper passed us. Of course, he has no jurisdiction there, and was technically violating the "no commercial traffic" law of the Parkway himself.

We got off on Hwy 191, taking a series of turns to avoid the hectic traffic along this road. Finally, we reached the more quiet roads southwest of Asheville, and then turned onto Hwy 280 for the last 20 miles to Brevard. This road is supposedly part of a Bike Route, but doesn't have much shoulder. Fortunately, it is a five-lane road and most of the cars seemed comfortable moving over for bikes.

When we finally got to Brevard, RandoGirl and I were starving. We were only a couple of miles from the Carmichael offices, but when we saw an Arby's we immediately pulled in. After pigging out, we leisurely headed downtown to finish our 93-mile day.

Once again, the folks at Carmichael were very nice. The let us use their showers, lent us towels, and pushed drinks on us. We soon got cleaned up and loaded everything back into the WatzzWagon, then headed back to the RandoDaughter's college for another visit. Heading over the mountains, we began discussing what we would do differently next time.

But that's tomorrow's blog ...

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 ...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Here Come the Complications

In yesterday's post, I started to tell you about our bicycle tour on Le Route Verte in Canada ... or, at least, the plans for our bicycle tour on Le Route Verte. Because, you see, we didn't get to do that tour.

After Amtrak derailed our bike-shipping plan (Did you notice what I did there with that pun? Am I a witty writer or what?), we had just begun looking into other options when RandoGirl went on a job interview. Actually, it was a second set of interviews, and it was for a job that we weren't sure that she really wanted. But the folks she was talking with totally nailed the second set of interviews, and suddenly we would be moving to Naples, Florida.

Now, I love Tennessee, and I really love all of my cycling friends here in Tennessee. This is a great state, with some wonderful roads and beautiful places. But, it gets cold here during the winter. So cold that roads freeze and there are sheets of ice that make me fall down and go BOOOM when I bike over them. And, yes, Florida gets hot in the summer and it's flat, and there are a bunch of old people there. But, when we visited Naples for the interview, I saw people riding bicycles everywhere. There were bike lanes and multi-use trails all over the city, and they actually go places. Riding a bike there you feel like you may even have some rights to the road. And, of course, there's an ocean down there that is literally perfect for my second-most favorite form of transportation: sailing.

So, yeah, there are things about moving that sucks ... but the good parts easily outweigh the bad ones. Our Tennessee friends will come down to see us (probably during January or February when it's frozen in Nashville), and we will come back to visit them and join them on some of our favorite rides. The bottom line is just that we had always planned to retire in Florida, and this will make that process much simpler when we're ready to stop working in a few years.

Anyway, that's the complication that kept us from doing Canada. Between getting our house in Tennessee ready to sell and finding another house in Florida, being out of pocket in the wilds of Quebec was no longer an option.

However, we knew that we still needed a bike trip this year. RandoGirl had cleared the two weeks with her new employers, who knew that she would need the break (not to mention the time for moving). So we began looking for a shorter, organized tour, only to find that the few domestic ones we could find that would fit our timeline were already booked. I pulled out an old route that I had begun putting together on the coast of Oregon when we finished our Natchez Trace tour in 2009, but that seemed a little complicated, too.

Then, just over a week before the vacation was set to begin, RandoGirl and I both hit upon the perfect solution: The Blue Ridge Parkway.

Like the Trace, the Parkway is run by the National Park Service, with beautiful scenery and a back-to-nature approach that keeps away stores and billboard signs. Also like the Trace, it has a strict speed limit and commercial traffic is forbidden, making it ideal for the touring bicyclist. Or so we thought ...

I quickly plotted out a route that ensured we had decent hotels every night, limiting our daily distance to 50 miles or less. Although we had three straight days of 90-plus miles on the Natchez Trace, I knew that the climbing on the Blue Ridge Parkway would be rough. The first two days were only 25 miles each, with three days of 50 miles each afterwards. The last day I planned for us to ride 100 miles back to our starting location, but as the elevation profile had a lot of descending on this day, I thought it would be a breeze.

That was the plan. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what really happened.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Touring Machine

I started planning our August tour in April. When the world was simple.

You see, I'd already told work that I was going to take two weeks of vacation in August for Paris-Brest-Paris. Then, when my messed-up hip decreed that any daily cycling distance over 200 miles was off-limits, I took it as an opportunity. Like my mama always said, "If life gives you lemons, they're probably rotten. You don't get nothin' for free in this world, kid."

OK, mom didn't really say that. If life gave my mom lemons, she would make a really good lemon meringue pie. That's why I was fat as a kid.

Anyway, back to the opportunity. Since I already had the green light from work for two weeks in late August, I decided that I'd better use them. So, RandoGirl and I immediately began planning a nice two-week cycling tour, working from two basis premises:

  1. We wanted it to be self-supported -- just us, carrying panniers with whatever we needed, staying at hotels so we didn't need camping gear.
  2. It needed to be in North America, so we didn't have to ship bikes overseas and lose any days running around airports.
Since we also wanted the weather to be bearable, we immediately hit on the perfect solution: Le Route Verte in the province of Quebec in Canada.

We first heard about this in a Bicycling Magazine article. Basically, it stands for the Green Route, and is a network of cycling-friendly roads, multi-use paths, and hotels perfect for the bike tourist. As the forecast temperatures for the area sounded ideal in late August, we started researching which parts of the Route we wanted to ride.

As we looked into airfare for us and our bikes, RandoGirl hit on another fun option. If we took Amtrak, we could drive to Atlanta and catch a train to New York City. We could then spend a couple of days there, and then catch another train to Montreal and begin our tour. A nine-day loop north and west would give us some great cycling and lovely country. We would then retrace our train route back to New York City and then Atlanta.

Doesn't that sound like fun? An overnight ride on a train, then a couple of days sight-seeing The Big Apple from bikes, and then a long bike tour in the country? Almost too good to be true.

Yeah. You got it.

The first hiccup came when I contacted Amtrak to get clarification on the bicycle-baggage policy. The neat thing about this policy is that, if there's room, you can bring your bicycle on board the train and stow it in the baggage car just like any other luggage ... except that they don't charge you anything for it! Really! When I first heard about this, I started planning all kind of fun touring trips involving trains to cool cities.

So, the bikes could easily get to New York City. How about Montreal?

Oh, no, sir. You can't take them to Montreal.

Because it's Canada, right? No worries -- we'll get off at the border and bike across to Montreal.

No, sir. There's no luggage service on that train.

So, we have to carry on our bikes?

No, you can't carry on bikes. Only bags that will fit in the overhead compartment.

Grrrr. So, now we're trying to figure a way to ship the bikes to Montreal, and forget about the New York City sight-seeing by bicycle stuff. Not a big deal ... just less cool than it would have been.

And that's when life got complicated. More on that in tomorrow's post.