Sunday, May 17, 2009

1000 Words or more... Why my Smoky Ride was Epic

Since I waited so long to write this, it will likely be much shorter then if it was fresh in my mind. That's probably a good thing for my rambling post style.

Because of all the rain, what was supposed to be two days of big and long trail rides in the mountains of Tennessee turned into one long gravel road mountain ride on Friday. I took the following description from some guide online that I found after the planned trail ride ideas were washed out.

Rich Mountain and Parson Branch Bike Trails - Access this trail from US321 west of Townsend by turning south onto the road to Tuckaleechee Caverns, drive up Rich Mountain Rd (Old Cades Cove Rd) to Rich Mountain Gap and park at Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary. From Rich Mountain Gap ride up the gravel Rich Mountain Road south 3.3 miles to a view of Cades Coves, descend 3.4 miles to the Cades Coves loop road, proceed west on the pavement to the Visitor Center at the southwest corner of the loop. Take the gravel road south to the Parson Branch gate ('bout 2 miles). Parson Branch road is closed til 2007. Climb the gravel Parson Branch Road through the rhododendron tunnels to the Gregory Bald trail head (3.3 miles), then descend to 129 (another 5 miles). This descent has many creek crossings. Whew! Now turn around and ride back to the Cades Coves loop. Turn right on the Cades Coves loop road. You can take Hyatt Lane or Sparks Lane as shortcuts across the Cove to the Rich Mountain road. Cumulative climb for this roundtrip is about 6000'. Rich Mountain trail is 7.7 miles (one way); Parson Branch trail is 10 miles (one way); Cades Cove trail is 11 miles.

The initial directions for getting to the ride start were a bit fuzzy since it gives a left where you should take a right and ignores a couple of intersections where I continued to follow the cavern signs. Finally found what appeared to be the correct hill but driving up Rich Mountain Rd I quickly decided I should be riding it and not driving up it half way as the directions dictate. So, I went back down to the base of the mountain, parked along the road slightly in some random person's field and headed on up the mountain. The moderate climb along the rough but paved road was full switch backs and great little mountain houses, many of which had excellent views between the trees.

Me, looking like a dork out at the top of Rich Mountain, a view across Cade's Cove behind me. Some day I'll learn to smile and maybe not look quite so much like an A$$!

After a couple of miles I found the designated Smoky Mt park boundary and continued onto the gravel road. The initial first climb ended up being just over 5 miles with about 1300 feet of climbing. Good steady effort, not killing it but not necessarily taking it easy either (at least for me).

Along the Cade's Cove Loop, just a bit before the rain came...

From the top it was a fast descent into Cade's Cove where I shared the road with what felt like more cars then when I ride in DC. At one point I noticed a Choose Civility bumper sticker and ended up meeting a family that lives down the road from where my folks used to live and from where I went to high school. Better yet, after chatting for a minute with the lady I found out they used to live right here in GHI, just down the street from where I now live. Small world I tell ya. This one probably begins to rival the time I saw three people I knew from home in MD while on a lay-over in London-Heathrow airport with the family... Ok, well maybe not rival it but ah well...

I kept on the route and eventually it became clear the it was going to rain. There were butterflies all over the road that apparently refused to move as I rode by, but I guess they flew away before the rain came. I thought maybe they knew the rain was on it's way and they sat there with their wings up and together while it rained though I'm not so sure about that considering how heavy the rain was.

Anyway, the rain came down... hard and heavy. Better yet the thunderstorm accompanying it came fast and close and after a strike within a quarter mile from me scared me off the bike into the shelter of a sign for Parson Branch road... aka standing out in the middle of the rain trying to keep the phone and camera dry in my bag... Eventually a park service employee pulled up but didn't offer me any shelter in his big old NPS truck. A couple of Georgia in a big old pick up with their dog did let me sit with them despite my sopping wet self. Turns out the guy was a little bit of a rider himself and actually had spent a couple of years volunteering at the Tour of Georgia! Very friendly and nice couple that I was VERY thankful to for allowing me to wait out the worst of the lightning soaking their leather interior.

Once I got out I headed up Parson Branch for a ways, essentially riding up a small stream rushing down the "unimproved" "road" as the moderate rain continued to fall. Eventually though the rain stopped and the Sun began to emerge again from behind the clouds. After a bit I realized just how behind schedule I was and that I was headed out and back along Parson's and I quickly decided to cut the remainder of the road out of my ride and head back towards the cove. Once back to the cove I continued along the loop mostly stuck behind dozens of cars with people pulling over occasionally to ogle the deer or a local turkey sunning it's feathers in the fields. At one point I pulled up to some folks watching a bear slowly amble into the woods across a field which was cool to see.

The GF Paragon Poses near the top of Rich Mountain looking out at Cade's Cove.

After that it was back to Rich Mountain road for the 3ish mile climb back to the top and the long and super fast descent down to my truck on the other side. My camera turned out to be dead, which I realized as I rode up Rich Mountain initially and tried to take a "before" picture for my ride. The cell camera stepped in and saved the day, though I could only get a few with the limited storage space on it. I also realized about three quarters of the way to the top of that first climb that my camel back had leaked nearly all of it's water out on the passenger seat. Apparently the bag's weight laying on top of the bite valve caused it to open and leak the entire way out to the ride. Sucks right? Luckily I was able to refill at a water fountain at the visitor center. However, I also brought my lap top since I have a wireless modem for my Internet access just in case I really needed help finding the ride... My lap top was under the camel back on the passenger seat.

Imagine the feeling of dread looming over me for the remainder of my ride after realizing nearly 3 liters of water had leaked out on top of my lap top. And then the rain and my phone and camera; I figured my tech days were over. Apparently the portable electronic device gods were smiling on me despite the weather gods' constant frowns and all my devices appear to be in perfect working order. Phew...That would have been one hell of an expensive bike ride.

On the drive back to Aimee's parent's house I drove directly through the severe thunderstorms that were threatening to get me again as I climbed out from the cove but luckily held off just long enough. The storm called for radio broadcasts of severe weather alert warnings describing quarter sized hail and multiple lightning strikes. I saw the lightning, sometimes 4 strikes in a row but didn't have the pleasure of experiencing the hail.

Saturday morning I returned the rental Paragon to the shop (River Sports on Sutherland Ave, in Knoxville - $30 per day rentals if you're ever in the area- Very cool shop with lots of other stuff as well, including a climbing center attached...) and begged for a rain check on the second day since I didn't want to get all muddy and destroy the local trails in the process. The granted my wishes so I now have even more of an excuse to get back down there and ride. Can't wait to get down and try out some of the actual single track they've got.

The guy from the shop, Justin I think also told me about the 12 hour race they are holding on June 6th. Unfortunately its a bit too soon for a return trip for Aimee and I but I think I just may add that to the calendar for next year. Sounds like a good time and appears to be a pretty affordable and personable event.

So, maybe it didn't end up short... or maybe we should all just be happy I didn't write this while it was really fresh in my mind!

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