Sunday 19 April 2009

Tour de Appalachians: Our Spring Training Camp Continues

Breakfast At Fabio's

Encouraged by our first successful day, we celebrated the start of Day 2 by driving into the metropolis of Newland via the Scary Busy Road and beginning the day with breakfast at Fabio’s Restaurant. This came highly recommended by the Duck, and he indicated that this was a Newland institution. The place looked like a standard Southern greasy spoon restaurant that dated back to the middle years of the last century. What made it different, and probably quite unique in the mountains of the Carolinas, was that the chef and namesake of the restaurant actually came to the area quite recently from Italy. It was not entirely clear to me what Fabio’s origins were, but with a picture of Arosa on the wall and lots of ski memorabilia one can hazard that it was from the North, and that he settled in Newland due to the close proximity of the ski runs in this area.

Hominy Grits with Butter
photo by iirraa, Creative Commons

We didn’t chat since he was busy making our excellent breakfasts. I enjoyed a superior vegetable omelette, and my request for grits set off a small stampede for them at our table. There are few people north of the Mason-Dixon Line, let alone Canadians, who will admit to a fondness for grits: I recall reading an article by a New Yorker once who described grits as “farina dipped in cement.” It is a Southern speciality, since 70% of grits sold in the United States go to that part of the country. For those unfamiliar with it, when you grind corn, the fine grindings become cornmeal while the coarse material is grits. There are a number of mills that still grind grits with stone wheels in the South and these are the best. Every time I cooked stone-ground grits at home, the kitchen smelled like fresh corn. Since polenta is not all that different from grits, I expected that Fabio would have no trouble with grits and they were fine indeed. We finished our breakfast and paid less than we would have for a fast-food breakfast somewhere else in town, and headed back to Sugar Mountain to get ready to ride.

The weather was not looking all that great. The original forecast had been that the morning would be okay and then high winds and rain would follow. It looked like the high winds were already on their way as we collected the masses of gear we needed to get underway. The problem with cycling in such changeable weather is that you want to bring along every possible piece of clothing to deal with adverse weather. Jersey pockets are limited in size so you have to make hard decisions, invariably wrong, on what to bring.

By 11 a.m. we were finally ready to roll but then Tim discovered that his flat tire of the day before had returned to haunt him. There was obviously some piece of foreign matter stuck somewhere and while he fixed the tire we manfully went back inside for another cup of coffee since it was feeling pretty cold outdoors. We eventually got our nerve together, convincing ourselves that since we had come so far to ride ride we would, and once more we made the perilous descent down Sugar Mountain.

The idea of any training camp is to gradually increase the number of hours of riding but to take it pretty easy generally. Our goal had been to do 3 hours on Day 1, and we had clocked about 3:30, and just under 40 miles. Today we wanted to ride for about 4 hours with a bit more mileage. The Duck had to figure out a route that would keep us out of heavy traffic but not take us too far away. Options are limited when you have narrow mountain valley roads, whether in North Carolina or Switzerland. He suggested a route that would take us back through Banner Elk to Valle Crucis again, but then head along some nice roads until we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. Since the wind was expected to be high, we would ride a road below the Ridge itself, that would take us past Grandfather Mountain and then down to Newland before we would take our much-loved Hickory Nut Gap Road back to Banner Elk and then up the final climb (for which we had now mentally prepared ourselves) to the condo on Sugar Mountain.

This was a good plan but the weather turned it into something epic. There was some very light rain as we rode down the fast descent to Valle Crucis and as the most cautious descender I got to the Mast Store Annex after everyone else. The group took a short break and I went into the store to use the restroom. There were lots of interesting old-timey things for sale and I was hoping that we would return but not on this trip, as it turned out. We now had a very nice stretch of road, taking us along a small river, and going in the general direction of Boone. There were a surprising number of Porsches on the road and Duck explained that you were able to rent them to enjoy the mountain roads. If you couldn’t ride a bicycle, I suppose.

We were enjoying the ride as we passed the Ham House Restaurant, where we turned onto a Scary Busy Road, Highway 105, the main road from Boone to Banner Elk, but we only rode on the shoulder of this for a short distance (and the traffic was not too bad) before we turned left onto Shull’s Mill Road, an absolutely enchanting climb that was to take us from 105 to the Parkway, past a big golf course and then small houses. It is ideal for cycling, with a good surface and nice curves everywhere. Here is what one blogger, a motorcyclist, wrote about one of Duck’s favourite roads:

This is just about the most torturous mountain road in North Carolina, and only snow plows and lunatics drive here in January, but Shull's Mill Road has two things going for it: The 10-mile climb cuts the trip from Valle Crucis to Blowing Rock in half, and it's the driving equivalent of an amusement park ride. True story: in 1982 I was driving a van full of campers down this road when I noticed somebody trying to pass me on the left. It turned out to be the trailer full of canoes that I was towing. Got lucky on THAT one.

We had no such issues to contend with but could enjoy the ride. We would probably have enjoyed the ride more if the visibility had been better. Although we were able to see across some of the valleys, the fog was rolling in and it was getting colder. I was starting to wonder why I had bothered bringing a camera since things looked pretty dreary, between the grey skies and the leafless trees.

Duck, Young Jeff and Tim the Tornado had gone ahead but the Badger and I were taking our time. We soon came up to the sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway, and turned to follow Highway 221. The Duck had thought that we would be sheltered from the wind more on this road. If that was the case, we probably would have been blown off the Parkway as it was pretty wild on 221 already. There was thick fog and a strong strong wind that seemed to blow from constantly-changing directions. We continued to climb but were starting to get pretty cold, in spite of our layers of clothing. The bikes were hard to control in the wind but we pressed on manfully. At one point I told the Badger that I was going to have to eat something soon but there, coming out of the fog, was the Grandfather Mountain Visitor Center, and we went inside to join the others in the dry warmth.

A Bridge to Nowhere...

Grandfather Mountain is a privately-operated tourist attraction which functions as a nature preserve and has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere. Undeveloped sections of it will shortly become a North Carolina state park. At its highest point it reaches an altitude of 5,964 feet (1818 m), making it the highest peak on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. It is particularly noted for a suspension footbridge bridge that links two of its peaks (Duck tells me that it has earned its nickname of the “swinging bridge”) and for very high surface winds. When we pulled into the Visitor Center, we found out that the park road had been closed due to high winds, but that was not enough to keep us off the roads below!

After warming up to some degree, we left the Center and immediately were on a major downhill that rapidly took us towards Newland. There was no traffic which made things a bit easier. Unfortunately, we found ourselves on the Scary Busy Road into Newland then, and this was not so much fun. The Tornado and I went up front to lead a paceline and promptly dropped everyone but we regrouped in Newland and Duck took us through some back parking lots to get us onto Hickory Nut Gap Road once again, and we felt we were on familiar ground again.

Actually, the fog was so intense we could barely see anything and everyone rode carefully back to the Lees-McCrae College parking lot. Somewhere en route I had seen a sign that indicated the temperature was only 34F so it was not really the greatest day to ride. But all we had left now was the section of Highway 105 from the College to the base of Sugar Mountain, and then the painful climb up to the top.

Young Jeff’s bike had a mechanical, a problem with his cassette, so the rest of us went up to the condo, and Duck and the Tornado drove back down the hill to rescue our stricken comrade. Our plan had been to go to the nearby Italian restaurant for dinner but we were so wiped out by the ride that we decided to just turn on the oven in order to heat up Lasagne No. 2, prepared by Duck’s wife Janice, so we basically just wanted to eat and not go anywhere. Since the oven in the condo seems to be insincere in its heat indication, we had to revert to some microwaving but the lasagne was great anyway. We do not have a video of us thanking Janice for the food since we were stuffing ourselves but it was wonderful. As were the cookies I could not stop eating.

An Epic Profile

Some more beer and some more cycling videos and by 9:30 we were all pretty well unconscious. So ended our Epic Day 2, with around 94 km (58 miles) of riding in 4:22, with 1,989 meters (6525 feet) of climbing. The wind averaged 48 km/h (30 mph), with gust up to 66 km/h (over 41 mph). The forecast for Day 3 was looking good...


sarah said...

It's fun to follow along with your adventures! The first part of that profile looks fun ;) Well done on the climbing and surviving the wind!!

Pedalman said...

I would have been right beside you ordering those grits. Even though the weather wasn't with you on Day 2 it sounds like a great ride.