Best. Road Ride. Ever…Up Beech Mountain, NC

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Before he made everyone suffer on the Alpe d’Huez, Lance Armstrong made this climb in North Carolina’s mountains famous when he grinded upward through the fog shortly after his cancer was gone.

Highway 184, once you curve off 194, becomes Beech Mountain Pkwy, climbing from 3600 ft to 5400 feet in just 3.4 miles. In racing parlance, that would make it a Category 2 climb at about 5.5% grade…if the distance were longer, that grade is enough to make it a Cat 1 climb.

As luck would have it, my parents rented a house near Boone for the week following the BURN 24 Hour Challenge in Wilkesboro. After packing up the tents, tables, bikes and gear, the wife, kids and I headed over to meet up with the rest of my family for a week of hiking, sightseeing and relaxing. Of course, I had the road bike on the Yakima, too.

After a couple of days of R&R to recover  from the race, I was half paying attention as my dad was driving us up Beech Mountain and, out of the corner of my eye, caught “Viva Armstrong” spray painted on the road. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “this is the road Lance pedaled to start his comeback…I’ve got to ride this!”

When we got back to the house, Google Maps was launched and the route was formed:

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Nothing crazy…about 32 miles.

Per usual, my ride didn’t start until late morning, around 11am. I threw my bike in the back of my dad’s Escalade for the 200′ vertical drop down the much-more-than-5% grade gravel driveway. He and my mom were headed into Boone to look around. The wives and kids had left earlier for the Tweetsie Railroad, and my brothers had flown home days before to get back to work (suckaz). It was just me.

At the bottom of the gravel drive, I hopped out to the warning from my dad that thunderstorms were supposed to roll in around 2pm or 3pm. “No problem,” I thought, “this is only a 32 mile loop.” I hid my sneakers under some wood so I’d be able to change for the hike back up the driveway after the ride. Bike shoes on, clicked in, I’m off. And the road immediately turns up.

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Highway 105 runs from Boone heading West Southwest before connecting to 184, where I turned North toward Beech Mountain. Starting Elevation: 2800 feet. A few clouds, but sunny. No problem.

This wasn’t even the tough climbs, but already the air was tainted with the smell of spent diesel from the trucks  struggling up and brakes burning on the way down.

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Turning right onto 184, the dark, ominous clouds magically appeared. The stretch from 105 to 194 is only 4.2 miles, and the first half is up, the second half is down, with some nice, wide curves in there to keep it interesting. Look at the picture above and you can guess about where it started to rain…

Funny, I thought, I knew full well when I took the blinky light off my road bike that I would probably end up wanting/needing it. Sure enough, I was wishing that little LED beacon was flashing on the back of the Pinarello right now. Thankfully, the cars were paying attention.

This wasn’t normal rain. This was shooter-marble-sized drops pelting me. On the climbing parts, they were annoying. On the downhill, they were downright painful. By the time I reached 194, it had slowed to a drizzle. At lower altitudes, the hot asphalt would have become a sauna, hot steam rising in a suffocating mist. At 4600 feet, it stayed refreshingly cool.

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There’s no doubt about it, this is one tough climb. Spray painted along the way are encouraging notes like “You Can Do This.” Luckily, the wet roads weren’t slippery.

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Looking on from the side of the road. On the weekends, he has a view of cyclists using 184 to train. Today, he had only me to entertain him.

Slowly, the pedals cranked over one another while I mashed down on them from a fully upright stance. Cadence be damned, there are few spots on this where you can sit and turn the pedals in any reasonable manner. Each stop consisted of pulling the iPhone out of my jersey pocket, removing it from the ziploc bag, taking a pic and stuffing it back in. Just enough time to freshen the legs, letting me dance up the road…for like 20 meters…the the grind slowed down to the normal sub-7 mph pace. Cadence in the 50′s.

As much as I don’t like compact gearing, I was wishing for a compact crankset now.

The road called out in its yellow paint “See…You…Again…Next…Year!” Must be near the top now. Body not so much pedaling as hopping its weight from pedal to pedal, letting my mass carry the crank down the front before shifting to the other side to repeat in a slow, tired mush upward. Jeez…I’ve only gone about 16 miles.

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The view from the top opens up to let you know you’ve made it.  No more steep hills or sheer drops on the side of the road, just mountain views and the tops of clouds all around.  And the eye sore of a condo building on the top of Sugar Mountain in the distance.

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The goal going up was to stop at Fred’s General Mercantile. Their slogan used to be “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” My wife’s family used to have a house up here when they lived in North Carolina years ago, and she’s shared the story that her mom once went in looking for a hand mixer to make pies for Thanksgiving and when they didn’t have it, the owner’s wife retrieved one from their own home and brought it to them.

Fortunately, they had a Dr. Enuf. 12oz of that, which is arguably the original energy drink, and some Simbree Energy Bites and I was good to go.  During my brief rest stop, the clouds parted and glorious sunshine miraculously dried the roads for my descent.

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Another view from the top and the glorious quick drying pavement.

I really don’t know how long it took to climb the Parkway, but it took all of six minutes to descend.  That’s right, 3.4 miles in about six minutes.  And man, was I glad the roads were dry.

I liken the experience to waiting an hour to ride Space Mountain at Disney, except there are no signs along the climb saying “Wait from here: 30 minutes.”

About halfway down, the construction crew that eyeballed me strangely on the way up had traffic stopped, and now there were a few cars waiting in front of me.  Not wanted to get stuck behind them and ruin the descent, and feeling fresh from hitting 46 MPH already, I optimistically started climbing again…until my legs figured out what I was doing and made me turn around.  I gave the cars as much time as possible before releasing the brakes and letting gravity do its job.  There’s something about catching cars on the downhill that’s deeply satisfying, knowing that for once they’re the ones slowing you down.  I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire way…and probably yelled a few “whooo hoooooo’s“, too.

But wait, there’s more!

I intentionally planned my route to go up 105 and return on 194.  194 runs almost parallel to 105, except it’s much curvier, with a lot of sharp bends.  Going up that on the way to climbing Beech Mountain would have been a little more dangerous with traffic and sapped a lot of energy.  Going down on the way home was pure bliss.  Of the roughly eight miles I was on 194, about six were twisty downhill roads where the Flightdeck barely dropped below 30 mph.  Not a single car passed me, because, honestly, they would have to have been driving with reckless disregard for their own safety to keep up.  This meant I had the entire lane, and in some parts the road, to myself to destroy the corners.

There was no way I was going to stop to take pictures, but take my word for it…the road was amazingly fun.  It wasn’t necessarily the smoothest road, but it made up for it in absolute joy.

This ride had everything.

I can see why the climb up Beech Mountain Pkwy helped Lance determine whether he wanted to come back to cycling. I’m not an overly emotionally guy, at least not outwardly, so I won’t say climbing this same road had any special meaning or changed my outlook in anyway.  But that’s fine.  It’s cool to have ridden it and experienced it, but it was the whole ride that really made it special.

Everything was a challenge: The sense of exploration. Riding somewhere new.  The screaming descents. Relatively empty roads. The leg burning climbs.  The Rain. The Cold. The Sun.  It’s everything a good ride should have.  Even a hot tub at the top of the gravel driveway.

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REVIEW UPDATE:

A while back we reviewed (very favorably) the Feather road brakes, and we promised a long-term update.  I’m very happy to say they worked exceptionally well on this ride on both the dry descent down Beech Mountain and on the wet, curvy roads of 194.  I could drive into the corners, grab some brake just before coming up to it and glide out.  The hallmark of good brakes is their ability to scrub speed quickly but with good modulation, and the Feather’s do that exceptionally well.  And they’re super light…our set weighed in under their 199g claimed weight.  Read the full review here.

Comments

Gregory - 08/24/09 - 3:06pm

Simbree really is the best. Its nutritious and delicious. I know that bikers love it because it allows them to stay replenished on long rides. It also is something that will fill you up, so that you don’t rely on junk food. I would definitely recommend that everyone gives this a try.

Molly - 08/26/09 - 1:11am

I love simbree! It’s the best snack for when you’re on the go and don’t have much time. It keeps you fueled and it’s healthy!

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