176 miles and just under 20,000 feet of climbing on a cold, foggy, sometimes rainy beautiful October day in the mountains of upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina. My one goal for the ride was to get the Sassafras KOM on the Cat 1 climb from the Eastatoe Valley, but I ended up setting a few other KOMs along the way! Climbing up through the cloud layer and then riding above the clouds up on the Blue Ridge parkway was definitely the highlight of the ride. Ironically, turning around a few miles later and descending back through the cloud layer nearly crashing a few times and absolutely freezing in the mist was the low point of the ride. I’ve included a few of my favorite photos and videos below and then a detailed write-up – and then the rest of the photos, videos, and Garmin screenshots at the end of the post.
We left Birmingham right after Josiah’s baseball game so we could try to make it up to Talladega before the end of the big nascar race and the ensuing traffic nightmare – but we were also hoping to see if we could catch a glimpse of the cars high on the track visible from I20 as we drove past. We ended up arriving about 5 minutes after the end of the race, which we listened to on the radio so we were hoping to see smoke from the big crash on the last lap but we missed that too. Still, it was cool to see all the campers and all the people in the grandstands.
The rest of the drive up to South Carolina was relatively uneventful, and we arrived at the Fieldstone Farm Bed and Breakfast just outside of Seneca shortly before 10PM eastern. After an early breakfast the next morning, I was off on what I was hoping to be a 10 hour adventure (it turned out to be closer to 11 hours). It was cold, overcast, and windy on the way over to Clemson – but the clouds didn’t look thick enough for rain (I was wrong about that, too). Riding through campus, I ran into a guy with a backpack riding a nice Trek while I was taking a picture of Tillman Hall – we chatted for a minute or two and then I headed north out of Clemson up past the mountain bike trails of Issaqueena Forest towards my first goal of the day – the Sassafras Mountain KOM from the Eastatoe Valley.
I decided to target 275 watts for the climb, but my legs were feeling great so I ended up averaging close to 300 watts on the climb up to Beasley Gap. After the long downhill before the start of the final steep Cat 2 portion of the climb, I had dropped down below 280 watts. The Sassafras climb is super steep in parts with downhills in between – there is only one short section with a steady easy gradient. Everything else is either straight up or straight down. I was surprised at how quickly I made it up the last steep section to the short downhill before the final kick up to the top. Then after pushing my bike under the gate, I was able to blow through the last slippery wet steep leafy section with no problem. I ended up getting the KOM by 20 minutes.
The very top of Sassafras (elevation 3559ft) was at the bottom of the cloud layer so there was a light mist, and the air temp had dropped into the upper 30s. I wanted to get a short video at the top, but was having problems with my iPhone crashing so it took a few minutes to get the video. I was freezing by the time I was ready to head back down. Fortunately, I was out of the rain mist pretty quickly and was able to bomb most of the descent. By the time I hit the Chimneytop Gap descent, the roads were completely dry and I let it rip down the mountain pedaling hard at the top and never hitting my brakes. I ended up maxing out at 59.5 mph, but it felt much faster than S Cove because the distance traveled at that speed was far greater (close to a mile!)
Once I made it back to US178, I started the climb up into North Carolina that crosses the Eastern Continental Divide. As I got close to the divide I noticed that I was approaching the cloud layer again. Once I hit the cloud layer this time, it was a much heavier rain mist. This continued all the way across the top and then all the way down the long gradual descent to Rosman, NC. By the time I made it to Rosman, I was absolutely freezing. I had no rain booties on so my feet were freezing with the wind, rain, and cold. I spent a long time inside the gas station warming up – drinking a large cup of coffee and refilling my bottles with gatorade. I also got a couple plastic grocery bags I could use as rain/wind booties inside my shoes. They worked perfectly.
Leaving Rosman, I continued heading north (and up) towards the Blue Ridge parkway. The climb starts out very gradual on some really curvy fun roads on NC215 to reach Balsam Grove. After passing through Balsam Grove, I was starting to finally warm-up again because the rain mist had turned into mostly just fog climbing up through the cloud layer below the parkway. By the time I made it to the parkway, I had climbed up through the clouds and was rewarded with some spectacular views. After another 10 miles of rolling roads and climbing, I reached the high point of the parkway, which was again back in a layer of clouds. Cold and out of food, I stayed there for less than a minute before turning around to book it back to Balsam Grove as fast as possible.
Some of the best views on the way back were near the Rough Butt Bald overlook. Several mountains were peaking through the cloud layer and looked like tiny islands surrounded by a sea of white. Plus, there were some arms of the main ridge line extending down into the clouds that were lit up with the beautiful fall foliage. Leaving the parkway, I knew that the descent back down to Balsam Grove would be wet, but I didn’t realize how cold it would be. After nearly losing it in the first switchback I went really slow and my heart rate probably dipped down into the 60s or 70s which meant that my body was a frozen popsicle by the bottom.
Fortunately, I made it back to the gas station and warmed up again with hot food and more coffee. I was running really late by this point in the ride and I was starting to realize that I wasn’t going to make it back before dark — so I poured the coffee into a gatorade bottle and stuck it in my back pocket — perfect to warm up my body while I was letting it cool off enough to drink. By this point I was having lots of problems with my phone (it kept on locking up whenever I tried to do anything) so I didn’t end up getting any more pictures, so that was disappointing.
The highlight of the latter part of the ride was finding a really cool road that paralleled US64 for a while — Old Quebec Road — which came after all the switchbacks on Silverstein Road. These two roads are amazing low traffic roads. If I lived anywhere in the Cashiers/Sapphire/Rosman area, I’d spend a lot of time on those roads. With my phone not working, I was worried that Kristine would be worried — especially as I approached my original estimated return time of 6:30PM. I booked it down Whitewater, which again was somewhat disappointing because as soon as you cross back into SC the roads are so rutted and stacked up from heavy truck braking that it is pretty dangerous. It feels like the bike is going to break up underneath you.
When I finally made it to Salem, I saw a Dollar General employee outside taking a break and asked if I could borrow her phone. She kindly let me use it to call Kristine and tell her that I was about 15 miles out. It was 6:45PM with a sunset scheduled to happen at 7:07PM. I was going as fast as I could as I skirted around West Union via Burnt Mill Rd when I saw a “Road Closed Ahead” sign. I thought “you’ve got to be kidding me”. I chanced that I would still be able to get through on my bike, thinking that worst case there would be a bridge out and I would have to take my shoes off to cross a small creek. But fortunately, it was just a closed bridge that was still perfectly intact, but must have been declared unsafe for cars. Once past there it was less than 5 miles to home and I was running on a lot of adrenaline to be done as the sun had already set and it was getting quite dark. I ended up averaging well over 20mph for that last 15 miles of the ride making it back to our cabin by 7:25PM.
We piled the kids into the car as far as possible and drove to Clemson to enjoy our favorite Mexican restaurant and then 3 spoons yogurt afterwards … perfect ending to a perfect day!
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