Today’s ride may very well have been my toughest road ride ever (last week’s 9 hour mountain bike race at Oak Mountain may have been a smidge tougher). I’ve done rides that were much longer with twice the total climbing, but this one was particularly difficult because I was trying to go for some really long KOMs on top of the overall fast pace for the 135 mile ride. Plus, I was not quite adequately dressed for the first 4 hours of the ride in temps that varied constantly from mid 20s to lower 30s back to mid 20s to upper 30s back down below freezing again before FINALLY starting to climb up to the predicted high of lower 50s.
I got started at 6:40AM still before sunrise, and after a very short warm-up, I started out on a KOM attempt from Gatlinburg up to the top of the Clingman’s Dome tower. I set 275 watts as my power goal and ended up falling a couple watts short of that … I broke my old record by a few minutes, but it was only good enough for 5th place on Strava. When I made it to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, there were only four cars and so I was able to ride up to the tower passing two couples along the way. I made it up to the top to enjoy the view very briefly before heading back down. I was super, super careful on the descent as I passed those same two couples still walking up. See video of the tower below:
From the top of Clingman’s I started to head back down the access road towards 441. I stopped to get a few pics on the way back down since I wasn’t going for any KOMs. I also got this video below of the icicle wall melting:
The Clingman’s dome access road is on the southeast side of the ridge line for the most part so it warms up pretty quickly, but as you descend on 441 towards Cherokee you enter a narrow river canyon that is shaded by an arm of the ridge line. This was the coldest part of the ride because I was sustaining an average speed of close to 40mph at temps below freezing. My “holey” long finger gloves, which I had brought with me because I knew that it was supposed to warm into the 50s, were no match for the windchill. I think it is probably in the top 5 of the coldest I’ve ever been on the bike … #1 still belongs to another ride in Gatlinburg from about 5 years ago where it was raining in the low 30s and I had short finger gloves on … oh my goodness just thinking about it makes me shudder. Also, ironically, these gloves were “holey” from a wreck a couple years ago where I slid out on some ice on the descent from Newfound Gap back down to Gatlinbug. I ripped both palms wide open sliding along the icy road … fortunately my hands were ok, but the gloves were now “holey”.
I made it down, stopped briefly at the national park info center hoping for some free coffee and after not finding any checked my Garmin and saw that a mini-mart convenience store was only 1 mile away in Cherokee, and headed out to refuel with something hot. I got a large coffee and also a large hoagie burger that had 650 calories and 31g of protein and who knows how many grams of fat. But it was awesome. After warming up in the gas station for a good 20 minutes, I headed back out to start the climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Wolf Laurel Gap and eventually to the 6000ft overlook at Waterrock Knob.
The cool thing about this long climb at the very end of the Blue Ridge Parkway is all of the tunnels (about 5 of them). At the very beginning the road is potmarked with rockfall from the super steep wall immediately right of the road. It’s easy enough to dodge the small holes when climbing, and then when descending you are on the opposite side of the road which doesn’t have as much damage. It’s also easy to get paranoid that a rock is going to fall and hit you … I looked up a couple times just to make sure everything looked stable.
After the long climb to Wolf Laurel Gap, there is a 2 mile descent down to the bridge which crosses US-19 before the 6 mile climb up to Waterrock Knob. The cool thing about the Waterrock Knob climb is that the trail to the overlook area is paved … it averages probably somewhere around 18% with sections close to 25%. The paved trail climbs all the way up to the steps to the overlook. You have to unclip at nearly a 20% gradient with a rock wall to your left and a steep drop-off to your right and only one chance at getting it right. It’s the one time I actually get nervous when trying to unclip because of the consequences of not getting unclipped. Fortunately it was no problem and I was able to lean forward to keep from tipping over backwards. But I remember last year when I rode to this same point being nervous about unclipping. You climb a short flight of stairs to this overlook (see video below).
My original plan after this climb was to descend down the other side down to Waynesville, turn around and go back skipping Clingman’s Dome … but I chickened out thinking that my legs wouldn’t be able to handle a FOURTH hors categorie (HC) climb in this ride so I opted to add on the additional Cat 2 climb from the top of Newfound Gap to the Clingman’s Dome tower. Next year, I’m going to try to plan it out better and do that extra HC climb and skip Clingman’s Dome especially after what happened this year …
First, I got these videos of the climb on 441 and then the access road to Clingman’s. I was really tired by this point. Then, when I finally made it to the parking lot, it was jammed pack with easily 100 or more cars. There were people everywhere. Naturally when I started to ride up the path, the forest ranger stopped me and told me that bikes were not allowed. I convinced him to let me walk with my bike so I took off my shoes and ended up walking/jogging all the way up the super steep trail to the top (about 0.3 miles / 300 feet vertical gain). I still had to weave around hoards of people as I was jogging up the mountain in my socks … and I couldn’t help but think of the irony of me being faster 110 miles into my difficult ride, running in my socks, pushing a bike up the steep trail than most of the people who were trying to hike 0.3 miles from the parking lot. Kudos to them, though, for attempting the strenuous activity rather than just sitting in the parking lot and enjoying the view from there. Here’s the video I got from the top the second time:
After walking back down to the parking lot (again in my socks), I put my shoes back on, hopped on the bike, and zipped back down to 441 where I ended up unfortunately getting stuck in a long caravan of cars stuck behind a slow driver. The cars were still going fast enough on the flatter sections of the climb that I would briefly get dropped before catching up in the next series of turns. This meant I got to enjoy at least a few of the many corners on the descent at speed.
Gatlinburg was a bit of a zoo by the time I made it back down at 4:15 in the afternoon. Fortunately, the turn to get up to our hotel is the first righthand turn you can make as you get back into town so I was able to make it back to the hotel without the Garmin battery running out … 9.5 hours after first starting … the rest of the pics, Garmin screenshots, and videos are below.
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