Great Explorations

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel hits the hills over Thanksgiving.

This past Thanksgiving I found myself in Asheville, North Carolina, the same place I had dragged my bike to several years back with mixed results. What I envisioned then were glorious climbs in the mountains; the reality turned out to be several days of misread directions that never got me to my intended goal. Sure the rides were still fun, but they included making a wrong turn and actually riding several miles on an Interstate highway, almost making it to the Blue Ridge Parkway only to find the road I was on turn to dirt…and constantly finding my knee warmers falling to my ankles. Hey, I’m a Floridian. Until then, I had never even worn them, much less understood how they were supposed to fit.

This time was different. I researched my potential routes, I knew how to properly wear cool weather cycling gear, and although I didn’t bring my own bike, I had a decent rental. My goal? To climb something much bigger than the Intracoastal Waterway bridges that are a highlight of a ride at home.

To be honest, I’m a decent climber. I actually enjoy the challenge, and I’ve discovered I’m fairly good at it. But the climb that I chose in Asheville was both steeper and longer than I had done before. The first, Elk Mountain Scenic Highway, would take me up a lengthy Category 2 (in cycling the lower the number the harder the climb), narrow road with multiple switchbacks. The next, Blue Ridge Parkway, would only throw a steady Category 4 increase at me over the miles, but continue almost as long as I wanted to keep riding. Both also had the unnerving aspect of few or no guardrails, absolutely no shoulder or bike lane, and frighteningly steep drops off the side of the road in many areas. Not to mention the irony of their names (highway, parkway) not matching their tiny, two-lane reality.

View from peak of Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. There was a “TT FINISH” spray-painted on the roadway here…maybe I’ll come back and try it! (Hard to tell from this persective, but this is actually a pretty decent drop, and that valley is WAY down below.) 

Still, I absolutely loved them. I climbed the same route both days I had my bike, winding my way up thousands of feet of elevation. On the second day, I even tacked on some additional mileage on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was cold, the skies were a mixture of grey clouds and occasional sunshine, and the leaves that just weeks earlier had probably been magnificent in color were now mostly dull, brown, or gone. But still, it was some of the best fun I’ve had on a bike in a long time. The views were fantastic, and the roads surprisingly quiet. A really cool break from my everyday routine.

Funny thing about climbs, they also include descents. Heading back into the city on the aptly named Town Mountain Road, I discovered the sheer thrill of a steep, switchback-filled descent, even if my rental did have sketchy brakes. It was awesome — and frightening — all at the same time. I’ve done steep descents before, but they were relatively straight. These curved back and forth like a roller coaster ride.

At one of the scenic overlooks along Blue Ridge Parkway…

I’ve often said running is an easier sport when you travel, simply because all you need is a pair of sneakers. But a bike truly lets you get out and explore, covering distances under your own power you’d never experience if not for the wheels below.

What about you, have you ever discovered a great ride far away from home? Ever rented a bike in a strange town and discovered something terrific? Let’s hear your stories.

Old Man Shades

My prescription shades. At the MS150, 2009.

Ever since I began biking, I’ve worn my prescription sunglasses. For the most part, they’ve been fine. But they’re my distance prescription only, and I need a bifocal for reading. So whenever I looked down at my bike computer, the numbers were blurry. And lately, the distance prescription has been getting a little fuzzy. I even asked readers of this blog for advice about replacing them.

Last summer, Pat and I were on a group ride together. At a rest stop, I noticed the ride leader Kathleen’s sunglasses. They were the big plastic kind that you slip on over your prescription glasses. Maybe not the most attractive eyewear, but effective. I asked her about them.

“I broke my prescription sunglasses,” Kathleen said. “With these, I can wear my regular glasses, and put these right over ’em. And if I ever break ’em, for just 20 bucks at Wal-Mart, I can get a new pair.”

I actually had some experience with those kind of sunglasses. But I always associated them with old people. My late father had several pair. His were the solid dark green kind that made him look like the subject of a satirical cartoon about Florida retirees. He was constantly offering to give me a pair. I vowed to avoid them in the interest of personal dignity.

But two summers ago, while we were on a driving vacation, my prescription sunglasses really started to bother me. When I left our hotel one evening to drop my wife off for some shopping, I realized I had left my sunglasses in the room. Rather than go back to the hotel to retrieve them, I went to a nearby Wal-Mart and checked out my options. The old man shades were there, but they were better than the ones my dad had worn. These made an attempt at style, with black rims and shaped lenses. I bought a pair.

Pat thought it was pretty funny that I would wear them, and for a long time, I only wore them while driving, where they wouldn’t be obvious. If anyone noticed that I was wearing old man shades, who cared? They were past me and out of my life in a second or two anyway.

After the episode with Kathleen, I thought about wearing those shades myself while on the bike. My first couple of experiences with them weren’t good. They sat on top of my regular glasses, and pressed them down into my nose. The bridge of my nose was sore after riding for an hour or two.

But I’ve since gotten new prescription eyeglasses, and although they are almost the same as the ones they replaced, the old man shades sit more easily on them. No nose pinch anymore. Two weeks ago, I decided this would be the way I would go.

Sleek and stylish. Yeah, right.

So I guess I’m officially an old man now. But I don’t care. They work. And, I can even read the small lettered information on my cyclocomputer. I wore them on the club ride last weekend, and no one said anything — at least to my face — although I recognize they could have been chuckling to themselves on the inside. I’m going to keep wearing them.

I do, however, make one concession to style. At the university where I work, they stay in the car and I wear my old prescription shades around campus. Can’t have my students thinking I’m more of a codger than they already do.

How Many Bikes?

I thought I’d piggyback on the theme of the last post about getting a new bike by asking the question, How Many Bikes? That is, how many bikes do you think you need, and how do you use them?

Now, I’m well acquainted with the old joke about the number of bikes you need equalling n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have. But seriously, how many do you need?

I’ll start. I have three bikes, my Allez, which I use for 95 percent of my riding. It’s a road bike, and goes on road rides. I do not use it for grocery runs or other utility types of riding. Then there’s the mountain bike, an old Trek hardtail. Since I am not a mountain biker, I tend to use this for errands and shopping, if I use it at all. Mostly, it just hangs in the garage. My third bike is the old steel Raleigh 10-speed, which I had long thought about upgrading, just to do it.

Lately though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Trek isn’t being used much for errands and shopping. I’d just as soon be rid of it. And the Raleigh — I doubt I’ll even get around to fixing it up. Vintage bike collectors tell me it’s not worth much anyway, and one has tried to dissuade me from putting money into it.

So that leaves me with one bike — the Allez. And that’s fine with me. It does what I need it to do, and does it acceptably well. As I alluded to in my last post, I’d be happy with something better, but there’s really nothing to dislike about the Allez. As the song says, I think I’ll keep her.

How about you? Do you find a need for more than one bike? How do you use yours? Or do you find that your bike collection is missing one, because there’s a certain biking role that’s not being filled by any of the ones you currently have? Given the kinds of riding you do, what would be the optimum number of bikes to own?