Friday, February 22, 2013

The Max Watzz Bar Evacuation Route

Sometimes I wonder which I like better: Designing a route, or riding it.

It's one of the reasons that I like to sometimes ramble around on my bike. Days when I'm out by myself on the bike, with no looming deadlines, I'll often just turn down a road to see where it goes. This even happens with roads that say "Closed" or "Dead End" -- I've got to see for myself if that road goes somewhere interesting, or connects up to something that would let me get to something interesting.

So when a few of us decided to do an ACP fleche this year -- the one being run by the Alabama Randonneurs to Chattanooga -- I had some choices to make. Between the five of us on the team -- Jeff Bauer, Bill Glass, Alan Gosart, Jeff Sammons and myself -- we had designed four routes for previous fleches that went from the Nashville area to Chattanooga. Any of those would work just fine ... but which one should we use?

So I reviewed them and decided that a hybrid was in order, combining the last 100 miles of a route that Jeff Bauer had created 10 years ago, and the route that I designed in 2010. Jeff's route was the almost legendary "Watts Bar Evacuation Route," which got its name from the fact that much of it follows the roads that people are supposed to use if the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant goes "China Syndrome." Mine was the Max Watzz's Fleche for Fantasy route, which got it's name because I thought it was funny.

When you combine them, of course, you get the Max Watzz Bar Evacuation Route.

After joining the routes in Pikeville, there were still some questions. Since it had been 10 years since we had been on some of the roads on Jeff's route, somebody needed to go out and take a look at them. Also, somebody needed to see what stores were still around, and if they would be open in the wee hours of the morning.

Bill Glass offered to come with me to do this, but ran into a conflict. I had the day open, and it was supposed to rain in the afternoon, so I did the scouting by myself yesterday.

The first 50 miles of the route are roads that I had either driven or done on a bike in the past couple of months, so I took the highway to get more directly to the roads that I had not seen in a while. A couple of miles down the first of those roads, I saw a "Bridge Out" sign. A few miles further, I found this:

I hate when my pessimism is proven prudent.

It was still early enough that the workers had not shown up, so I took a look around. The work is almost done, so we should be able to get through here on bikes. The alternative is busier or longer or both, so I think we will give it a shot. Maybe they'll even be finished by the end of March.

Further down, I came across "Dan Henry arrows" from somebody's route.

When designing a route, this is the cycling equivalent of animal scat on a game trail. You know that something has been this way before, and they felt safe enough to leave their mark.

The rest of the roads from my old Max Watzz route were still good. I decided to make some changes around McMinnville, and driving around there a little bit allowed me to find a better way out of town. Eventually, we will get on Hwy 30 heading towards Spencer, TN, and then head up Baker Mountain Road.

Hello, old friend.

At this point, we will be about half-way into the route, and this is the first real climb. I consider that a gentle start, and a good opportunity to get a bunch of miles done before night falls.

Ordinarily, the routes that we use go into Fall Creek Falls State Park from here, but we're going to take a different way to Pikeville this time. Again, I'd never seen those roads in person, so I drove them to make sure that they were good. They turned out great, with less steep up-and-down than Fall Creek Falls has, and an incredible view of the Sequatchie Valley as we begin a swooping descent that will even have Bill Glass using his brakes. At the bottom is a nice, flat, quiet road that we can take to Pikeville, where we will stop for dinner. I put together a list of the available restaurants there, in case RandoGirl and Bill's wife (who are driving us back on Sunday morning) want to meet us there.

Pikeville is where we will pick up the Watts Bar route. We'll go north for about 10 miles, then over the ridge using Loew's Mountain Gap Road.

On the old route sheet, Jeff Bauer had written "Welcome to Hell." As I started up the road, I thought that was a little strong. The first mile was paved and fairly level. Then came some climbing, and after a half-mile of that the pavement ended.

Okay, so it's a climb and not paved ... but not too bad. The surface was hard-packed, so it should feel about the same as many of the paved asphalt roads that we regularly ride.

Of course, if got worse.

There are parts of this road where it just drops right down on one side into a ravine. The road has one lane ... barely ... is steep, and has loose gravel. It will not be easy to ride a bicycle up that in the middle of the night.

Yeah ... it will be great!

Fortunately, it's not very long. That's one good thing about stupid steep hills -- unless you're headed to the moon, it can't go on for more than a few miles. Once on the top, the pavement comes back and it rolls along for a bit. Then we get on Shut-In Gap Road which is paved -- although not very well -- all the way to another brake-burning descent down to Spring City.

You get the feeling on these roads that they don't get a lot of outsiders here, and may even keep the roads only marginally usable just to keep it that way.

Spring City is where we pick up the "real" Watts Bar Evacuation Route. There's a 24-hour gas station, and the roads are mostly gently rolling all the way down to Dayton. I scoped out the stores down that way, identifying some good options for the penultimate control, then went down to where we will get on the riverfront bike path for the last couple of miles to the Tennessee Aquarium.

Dam. It'll be fun.

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