Sunday, March 15, 2009

Struck in the Moonlight

One of my very first blog posts (way back in the old MicroSoft blog days) was about a full-moon ride I went on with some friends that went up and over Rich Mountain Road into Cades Cove (in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in case you didn't know).  On Tuesday night we did something similar, but with a little bit of modification.  Instead on entering Cades Cove via Rich Mountain Road, we rode in on the main access road and then went over Rich Mountain Road to go back out.  That ends up making it a 28 to 29 mile loop (that can be extended if desired).

Wednesday was a work day for me (meaning I had to be up before 5 am), but the ride was scheduled to start at 7 pm (while it was still daylight), so I figured I might actually get home between 10 and 10:30 pm.  I discuss what time I actually got home a little later.

I amazed almost everyone by actually showing up a little early for the ride.  That even amazed me, really.  I don't get off of work until 5 pm, which usually means I get to my car at about 10 or 15 after 5 pm.  Then it's a 30 to 40 minute drive home, I have to walk and feed the dogs, give the cat her medication and put down food and water for her, change into cycling gear, gather my stuff, and then drive 45 minutes or more (depending on traffic) to Townsend where the ride starts.  I must have somehow bent the laws of time and space (without bending the laws of traffic), because I got to Townsend at 6:55 pm.  Prepping my stuff the night before helped a lot.

The one usually getting on my back for being late is Wally.  Who do you think was late by 5 minutes?  Wally.  Think I got some payback in?

Nine cyclists hit the road at 7:15 pm or so and rode through Townsend on the greenway next to Hwy 73 toward the Park.  After the greenway ends Hwy 73 comes to a tee where it goes off to the left toward Gatlinburg and Cades Cove Road goes right.  Turning right, we got into the gradual climb that takes you most of the way to Cades Cove (there's a short downhill section just before you get to Cades Cove).

I was not in the front on the climb.

Nor was I in the back.

Actually, I was able to mostly stay with Jen, as we would pass each other back and forth as the grade would gradually change.  We did that all the way up to the top of the climb where the group waited to get back together.  Joshua was last up the hill, which wasn't surprising since he was climbing on a mountain bike with mountain bike tires (at 45 psi) and no way to lock out the rear suspension.  The cyclists among you will realize that makes for a more difficult climb.

Now, up until this point I had no need for my new, not-cheap, helmet-mounted lighting system, though the daylight had been slowly fading as we climbed up the road.  I had turned on my rear flasher light long before (as we left the greenway and got on the tarmac), but I had just enough daylight to get me to the meet-point.  Barely.  It got dark awfully fast after I stopped.  Then, a few minutes later while we waiting for Josh, the moon started to come out.

I realize that folks love a good sunrise.  I know that folks love a good sunset.  But sometimes there is nothing like a moonrise on a lovely dark night up in the mountains far away from city lights.  Gary got some pictures, though I haven't seen any of them yet, but it was wonderful.  I would guess this was sometime in the 8 to 8:30 pm range.

One problem with doing a ride like this on a weeknight is that the ride has to start early in the evening and the moon never really gets very far overhead.  I've been on rides around Cades Cove when I almost never had to have a light on at all except in the midst of thick tree cover.  This wasn't the case the other night.

We left the pull-out where we'd stopped, climbed up the road for a few hundred yards, and then started the descent into Cades Cove.  It took me a few minutes to  figure out how to turn my light on correctly (this was the first time I'd used it), but I did get it on and I was very happy with how bright it was, even at the setting two down from the brightest.  We crossed the parking area, rode around the bar gate stopping traffic from entering Cades Cove at night (except for cyclists and hikers, of course), and proceeded along the loop road until we got to the old Missionary Baptist Church, which is where the turn-off to Rich Mountain Road departs to the right.

We stood there and talked for a while, allowing all who needed it to find a proper spot for a nature break, when I looked at my watch and announced that I didn't care if everyone else decided to continue around the loop further and then back and over Rich Mountain Road, but I was going straight out.  Joshua decided to head out as well, but everyone else went on around the loop.

Rich Mountain Road starts off with a consistent climb out of Cades Cove that stretches on for a while. I would guess that it is a 3 1/2 mile climb to the top of the ridge, and it is on gravel road.

Let's talk bike selection for a moment.  Normally I would ride a mountain bike on Rich Mountain Road just because the tires are so much better for traction.  I would also lock out my rear suspension (which Joshua couldn't do) to save energy - you waste a lot climbing and the bike always feels "mushy".  However, we did a lot of riding on pavement.  Most of it, actually.  On pavement I would want my road bike which has no suspension (it doesn't need it) and tires that run at higher pressure for greater efficiency.  So, what to ride?  Well, there is a middle ground.  Most of us were on cyclocross bikes, which typically have sturdier frames and slightly wider tires than a road bike.  I rode my 'Three Week Bike'.  I still had one issue, though.  I was running my tires at fairly high pressure.  I figured I would want that for the climbing and road riding and that I could deal with it for the gravel (which is typically hard-packed) road.

Climbing up was not fun.  The road surface was not as solid as I'd remembered, though I had only ridden it on mountain bike tires at lower pressures, so maybe it had been like that all along.  Still, I slogged along as best I could and maintained a minimum ridable pace (so I didn't ride off too far from Joshua and abandon him).  About half-way up the climb is when it happened.  I got hit in the face by a bat.  No, not a baseball bat.

Ironically, we'd all been talking about usual wildlife sightings earlier, but until then I hadn't seen any.  I couldn't miss this one really.  It was up close and personal.  I heard the "thwack" on the front of my helmet and suddenly there was this soft floppy thing covering up a goodly portion of my face. Before I really had a chance to react, it fell away and then flapped off into the night air.  My question is; what's this echo-location thing I keep hearing about and does it actually ever work?  Honestly, I would bet that it was as surprised as I was when it hit me.  I think I understand the old "Blind as a ..." thing now.

I waited for Joshua at one point on the climb, and then waited again at the top.  He wasn't the one I saw at the top, though.  Gary and Philippe came riding up after having cruised around the loop a-ways.  They hadn't had any bats to the face, though.  I asked if they cared if I took off and left Joshua to them, and then headed down the descent back toward the car and the rest of bat-free civilization (relatively speaking).  But I was having a couple of problems.

First, and most importantly, my headlight was starting to flash red intermittently.  This is a design feature intended to let me know that it's not going to be long before the battery gives out.  I found this surprising, since I hadn't been using it at full power and I thought I was supposed to have a longer charge capacity.  I was informed later that the battery needs to cycled (charged/discharged) a few times before it gained full capacity.  Wish I'd know before.  The other problem I had was the lack of front suspension on the descent.  The road is a bit rough.  I had the headlight turned low to conserve power.  I didn't see quite all of the larger bumps and ruts.  Basically, I was getting beaten up.  I started riding with the brakes on full time, but I was getting more concerned about overheating my tires/rims and about my already fading battery reserve.

Happily, Jay and Jen caught up with me about half-way down the mountain.  I was able to shut my light off for a while and see by Jay's, which made me feel a lot better.  That lasted maybe five minutes until we got to the park boundary and they decided to wait a while for more of the group.  I didn't have the time to wait, so I flicked my light back on and headed down the road, which was at least paved the rest of the way.

But paved doesn't mean smooth.  I swear it was almost as rough as the gravel road I'd just left.

Jay and Jen didn't wait long at the boundary, either to catch me or because they could see more people coming down the gravel.  Jay caught me for a while, but fell back at the last few miles and I finished on my own.  Those two were less than a minute back, though, and got to the cars just as I was opening my rear hatch.  I expected the rest to come swinging in at any moment, but I didn't see anyone else before I left.  This was at 10:25 pm.  And I had a 45+ minute drive home to make.  Think I got home between 10 and 10:30 pm?

I got about half-way home before my phone rang.  It was Wally, asking if I had Joshua's phone number.  I told him I did, but it was programmed into my phone and I couldn't really get it.  So instead he had me call Joshua and tell him to turn around and go back to the Huddle House.  Apparently they had discussed going to the Waffle House, but made a change in plans on the fly, but Joshua had missed seeing it happen.  He missed my call, too, so I left him a message to let him know that he was going to be awfully lonely when he got to the Waffle House and noticed he had a message.

So I finally got home at 11:20 pm or so after stopping for a quick snack at a mini-mart along the way home.  I think I was in bed by midnight.  Was I dragging the next day?  Guess.

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