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.

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2 thoughts on “Great Explorations

  1. When I saw the pic I thought, “Hey! Who stole my bike!?” Your Trek is looking very nice and I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I do mine. I’ve rented a bike in Canberra, Australia, and Tampa, Florida. I tried to rent one in London but the machines wouldn’t accept my American credit card. I did borrow a bike in England from a blogosphere friend, which was very cool. Being on the loose on a bike in a strange city/area is a great adventure which I thoroughly enjoy every time I get the opportunity.

  2. I actually look for places that rent the same bike I own, just to make things simple! Previously, my last rental was at Mellow Johnny’s in Austin, where Ray graciously took me on a tour of the Texas Hill Country. Again, great way to explore a new place.

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