September 5-7, 2020
The web page for this route for this ride indicated a distance of 375 miles and 33,000 feet of climbing. Some of you may be asking yourself, why on earth would someone want to do a ride with this much climbing?
The main answer has to do with the sport of Randonneuring and completing an approved ride with at least 600K distance (375 miles) and 10,000 meters (32,808 ft) of elevation gain. Doing this is one of the many requirements for an award called the ACP Randonneur 10000.
The other reason is that doing rides with a lot of climbing has been difficult for me in the past. With some gearing changes made in 2019 and a lot of hill repeats in 2020 I wanted to see if I could succeed on a ride like this.
Planning for this was pretty informal. Completing an SR600K had been a secondary goal of mine all year after the Iron Porcupine 1200K. Before the 1200K I reached out to Luke Heller who administers the route and he said Audax Club Parisien (ACP) was accepting credit for these rides even though Randonneurs USA (RUSA) wasn’t (due to COVID-19). During the 1200K I told myself and others that I didn’t want to do any more rando rides longer than two days and that the SR600K was off. However, as typically happens it only took a few days for randonesia to settle in and the SR600K was back on. After a hard weekend of hill repeats and an easier following weekend I was ready to ride.
According to Luke, North Carolina weather in early September can be rainy due to hurricane remnants and is usually better in late September. However, early September would be better for my work and family calendar. About a week out I committed to the ride by reserving hotels even with a 40-50% chance of rain. As the week progressed the rain chances diminished, and it turned out to be perfect weather. God deserves the credit for arranging perfect weather just for my ride (and everyone else vacationing in the area).
The other pre-ride challenge was getting to North Caroline with my bike. I didn’t want to fly and deal with those headaches (bike assembly, ground transportation), but I’ve never driven by myself anywhere more than 8 hours and that one time required an overnight hotel. I tend to get very sleepy when driving (even had a car accident as a teen). With a good night’s sleep, I was able to do the 12-hour drive (with stops) without even needing a nap. God was certainly at work in getting me there safely.
This would be a solo, unsupported, no bag-drop ride (groups of riders are allowed, but support is not allowed). Whatever I needed had to be carried on the bike. If you are curious, the total weight of the bike, gear, and starting food (empty water bottles) was 42 pounds. The official “proof of passage” for this ride is a photo of the bike in front of various landmarks with the “Super Randonnee” badge attached to my bike. You will find these included in the photos.
Day 1: Asheville to Hot Springs
The ride started on a Saturday morning at 4:00 am at the Ingles gas station and headed straight up. I was a bit shocked when my first 5 mile interval showed I had just climbed 1270 feet! Hmmm ... never done that before, even on hill repeats. A lot for me in previous rides would be 500 feet in 5 miles. I would hit 1000-1250 per 5 miles on a regular basis, but the worst was 1950 feet in 5 miles. More on that one later.
The climb up to Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, was done in 3 stages with short descents between each. Pretty quickly I was riding through a fog layer that filled the valleys. At one point I thought it had started to rain, but it was just condensation dripping from the trees overhead (the road was also wet). After this fog layer the sky was clear and filled with stars and a three-quarter moon to provide some extra light. The night photos didn’t turn out good, but it was cool to see the lights from small towns in the mountains. This was the only morning when I was riding early enough and with an eastern view to get photos before sunrise. It was really cool to ride through the clouds (higher than the fog) as the sun was about to rise. The photos don’t do it justice. After a bit more climbing, I was well above the cloud layer and was looking down on the clouds (there were also some very high cirro or alto clouds).
The final stage to Mt. Mitchell was after sunrise in morning light and the top could be seen from the park road. Almost there. By the time I reached the top I had done over 6,000 feet in 32 miles! It took exactly 4 hours which was 35 minutes faster than my ride plan, so I was feeling good. Due to time considerations and being in road cycling shoes with cleats I opted to skip the 300-yard hike to the observation tower. I took the "proof of passage" picture in front of the parking lot elevation sign and put on my descending clothes: thermal beanie hat, rain jacket, rain pants, and rain gloves. The rain gear is what I already had that would provide wind protection. As those who were with me on the last night of the Iron Porcupine 1200K can attest to, I get cold real easy. The reward for climbing is the fun of descending. What a blast!
After the fast descent the route followed a river stream. Although this looks flat on the elevation profile, it would be considered hilly by Midwest standards. The road would often rise a few hundred feet above the stream and then drop back down.
I stopped for lunch in Bakersville at the recommended Helen’s Diner. Had a turkey sandwich, loaded baked potato, side of cottage cheese, and a large orange juice. Took a second sandwich with me to eat after the next big climb of the day.
The next climb was 14 miles to Carver's Gap at the North Carolina / Tennessee border. The first 9 miles were fairly gradual (around 5% or less), but still a long distance to be climbing after Mt. Mitchell. The second portion was brutal with 7-10% grades (avg 7.3%) continuing for 5 miles without any relaxation in the grade to recover. This steeper 5-mile section alone took 54 minutes averaging 188 watts, 166 bpm, and 5.6 mph. About halfway through this 5-mile section I wanted to stop and walk for a bit, but I knew it would be nearly impossible to restart and get clipped back in. Walking at less than 2 mph would have cost me a lot of time, so I pushed through. I’m happy to say I didn’t walk any portion of any hill the whole ride. At the top there were cars and people everywhere as they were coming and going from their hikes. I took my proof of passage photo, changed into my rain gear, and headed down the mountain.
Shortly after the descent I rolled into the town of Roan for a proof of passage photo at the post office. I had noticed that my Garmin battery was really low even though it had been plugged into my dyno powered USB port. Something was wrong. At the post office I plugged my USB into a wall socket and the Garmin still wasn’t charging. So, I decided to stop the Garmin recording and do a full power down. This fixed the problem, and it was now taking a charge.
I was now on my way from the Roan post
office after fixing my Garmin and eating the second turkey sandwich I bought at Helen's Diner earlier in the day. The route continued to follow mountain streams downhill for about 10 miles until a short 500-foot climb. After this climb there was a 1-2% downhill ride into Erwin. This was a very welcome easy segment to give my legs a chance to recover before the last big climb of the day.
Although I wasn't terribly hungry when I arrived in Erwin, I needed to buy some food because there wasn't anything until the overnight in Hot Springs which was 51 miles away with a big climb along the way. I was also concerned that there wouldn't be anything open when I arrived in Hot Springs after 10:00 pm. In Erwin I spotted a Little Ceasar's Pizza and stopped in to buy a large pepperoni pizza. How was I going to carry this thing? I asked for a plastic shopping bag and put all 8 pieces into the plastic bag and then put it into my front rando bag. I also stopped at a BP for water and two ice cream sandwiches which I obviously ate right away. After leaving Erwin I would occasionally reach into the plastic bag to pull out a piece of pizza and eat it while riding. I think I ate about half the pizza while riding and saved the rest for dinner in Hot Springs.
The last big climb of the day was to Sam's Gap. This climb wasn't so bad and the steeper portion at the end only lasted for about 4 miles (and not as steep as Carver's Gap). I was happy to have finished the climb while it was still light out which would allow for a faster descent (it would be dark soon since it was after sunset). I put on my rain gear for the descent and kept the gear on for the remainder of the day's ride to stay warm.
After the steep descent it was a nice easy ride following another mountain stream as dusk transitioned into darkness. After a while I couldn't see the stream any longer, but the sound of running water was ever present.
There was a memorable event near the end of the day. It was very dark and I suspect I was going through the town of Hurricane. This was Saturday night of Labor Day weekend and a group of about 10-15 people had gathered out near the road with houses on both sides. I rounded a corner and one of the guys darted across the road in front of me (I think as a joke). I hit my brakes to make sure I didn't hit him and as he crossed into the ditch on the other side he spilled his beer and took a tumble. Of course, most everyone had a good laugh. It would have been bad for both of us if I had hit him.
There was one final 500 foot climb and a descent which brought me into Hot Springs at 10:00 pm (1.5 hours ahead of plan!). I took the proof of passage photo in front of the post office and headed half a block to the motel.
Hot Springs is a tiny town that has a lot of expensive Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) type places that were full anyway. I was lucky enough to find a vacancy at the Alpine Court Motel for $90 on this holiday weekend. This place had a unique procedure for getting a room key. I had received a text message a few days earlier, and a reminder the day I would check in, to give me my room number and a 4 digit code to a lock box next to the room door. You enter your code, open the lock box, and pull out a physical key for the door knob. It was a great setup for a late night arrival. Quick and easy.
Although there were 1 or 2 bars open, dinner for me would be the second half of my pizza (I'm sure much faster anyway). With my early arrival and quick dinner I even had the luxury of taking a shower (this isn't usually the case on these rides).
One thing that I did for the first time on this ride was wear compression knee braces overnight to help with recovery. I learned of the Incrediwear knee brace during the Iron Porcupine 1200K where two different people had brought along a knee brace and ended up borrowing them to a rider who was having significant knee pain issues. He wore the braces while riding (and maybe sleeping) and said they worked great. My experience was also really positive. I didn't wake up in the middle of the night with knee pain (it has happened during each of my 1200K rides) and my knees held up well on days 2 and 3. I'm quite sure that wearing these overnight helped out a lot.
Day 2: Hot Springs to Brevard
I set my alarm in time to be ready for breakfast at 6:30 am at the Smokey Mountain Diner with the goal of being on the road by 7:00 am. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the diner there was a sign saying they had changed their hours to open at 7:00 am (I guess I should have called instead of relying on Google). There wasn’t any activity in the diner yet and so I decided to leave without eating breakfast. I would survive on my still large supply of Clif Builder bars, Lara bars, and homemade peanut butter balls.
Right away there was an easy 500-foot climb, followed by a short descent, and the first big climb of the day to Betsy Gap. It was mostly a nice gradual climb until it kicked up at the end, but the steep section only lasted 2-3 miles.
My digestive system wasn’t doing too well during the climb. I’m not sure if it was the pizza from the previous night or the bars in the morning, but I wasn’t going to make it another 21 miles until reaching the next town. For the first time in my life, I needed to have a bowel movement on the side of the road. Luckily, I had packed toilet paper and biodegradable wet wipes for emergencies.
After taking care of business, I removed the knee braces, put on my sun legs, and the rain gear for the descent. This one had a few fun curves before finishing with a straight shot the town of Cove. Removed the rain gear for another 500-foot climb followed by a similar length descent.
After a few smaller climbs I had reached the proof of passage photo at the Hyder Mountain street sign. From there it was only 7 miles to the next proof of passage photo at the Comfort Inn in the town of Canton.
At this point it was about 11:45 am (5 hours since leaving Hot Springs) and I was starving after surviving on bars for 42 miles and 4500 feet of climbing. This was a bigger town, so I went to McDonald’s where I bought two quarter pound cheeseburgers (one for later), a large fry, a large smoothie, and a large orange juice (dumped into my water bottle). It was a good lunch and after a short rest I was back on the road.
After getting out of Canton, the route followed a mountain stream in a gradual uphill toward Beech Gap. The climb itself was about 9 miles long and a moderate 5-6% grade except for the 2-mile section in the middle that kicked up to 9-10%.
At the top I ate my second cheeseburger and prepared for the descent. All of the descents were fun, but this one might have been the best with a lot of sweeping curves and hairpin turns.
Of course, the route continued to follow mountain streams to the next proof of passage photo in the town of Rosman. At the gas station in town, I filled up on water and toward the next control in South Carolina. After a short climb out of Rosman, there were two fast and twisty descents out of the mountains to the lower elevation in South Carolina where it was noticeably more humid and warmer. The proof of passage photo was at a gas station where I bought an ice cream treat, ham and cheese sandwich, and filled up on water.
Highway 11 heading east was busy with a large percentage of trucks pulling boats, but there was a narrow shoulder designated for bikes and the drivers gave me plenty of room. This 12-mile stretch was relatively flat and consisted of gentle ups and downs.
This final climb of the day was to Caesar’s Head State Park. As I started the climb it was dusk and so I put on my reflective vest, changed to my clear lenses, and turned on my lights. The climb was only about 6 miles total, but it was mostly a steep grade of at least 6%. Near the top it was consistently around 9-10% and the inside curves of the switchbacks kicked up to 12-13% requiring me to stand briefly for those curves. By the time I reached the top a little over an hour after starting it was completely dark. I took out my headlamp and changed into my rain gear and thermal beanie hat for the descent.
The descent from Caesar’s Head wasn’t one continuous one like the earlier ones but was instead a series of short ones with fairly flat sections in between. I was getting a bit warm with all the rain gear on, but better than being cold.
Pretty soon I was approaching Brevard and the last proof of passage photo of the day at Quotations Coffee which I arrived at an hour earlier than my ride plan. From there I had 3.5 miles to go until reaching the hotel. Along the way I stopped at McDonald’s to buy chicken nuggets, a fish sandwich, a large fry, and a large orange juice (I was bummed they didn’t have ice cream). I arrived at the Hampton Inn behind the Walmart around 10:15 pm, checked in, added some Oreo cookies and a chocolate milk to my room bill for when I would wake up hungry in the middle of the night, ate my dinner, showered, and got ready for bed.
The original plan was to leave the hotel at 7:00 am in the morning, but the hotel breakfast (bring to your room to eat) didn’t start serving until 7:00 am and the Waffle House down the street also didn’t open until 7:00 am. So, I pushed my alarm back to get some extra sleep. I wasn’t worried about a later start because I’d been riding faster than planned all weekend and I had a 2-hour buffer before running out of time.
Day 3: Brevard to Asheville
After waking up and getting completely ready to go except for eating, I went down to the lobby and waited for the food to be served. In normal life I’m a big breakfast eater and I was especially hungry today, so I asked for 8 french toast sticks, 2 oatmeal packets, 3 boxes of cold cereal, two milks, two yogurts, a blueberry muffin, and a banana. I ate everything except for the banana which I brought with me on the bike. After checking out I was back on the road by 7:40 am.
The ride started with a 7-mile gradual uphill following a mountain stream through the forest. The biggest climb of the day was 2,500 feet over 10 miles. Like most of the climbs, this one was a bit steeper during the second half and had a lot of switchbacks. At the top the route joined the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) which had nice views of the mountains to the east in the morning sunshine. After a few mile following the ridgeline I arrived at the proof of passage photo which was the Pisgah Store next to the Pisgah Inn (would be a cool place to stay with amazing views). Even though I left 40 minutes late, I rode faster than plan and took a short break, so I was back on schedule.
Again, I put on my rain gear and thermal beanie hat for the descent which was a series of 500- foot drops with short climbs in between. About half-way down I was getting warm and pulled off at an overlook to remove the rain gear. Like day one on the BRP, there were several tunnels which were interesting to ride through (one was longer than expected and I didn’t have my headlight turned on). Traffic was much heavier today and I often pulled off into an overlook to let a train of cars and trucks pass me. They wanted to go the speed limit of 45 mph, but were thankfully reluctant to pass when I was going 25-35 mph. As I was descending, I saw a lot of cyclists climbing the mountain (more cyclists than I had seen the entire trip thus far). One thing I noticed is that after each descent stage my legs had a little trouble getting going again for the short climbs. I think my legs knew it was the last day, but once warmed up I felt fine.
Once I reached the bottom, there were a few small climbs along the BRP until reaching the last big climb of the day which was only 1200 feet (half as much). Traffic thinned out along this section which made for a more relaxing ride. I stopped for a
proof of passage photo at the turn off from the BRP.
After the photo there was 200 feet of climbing left for the day and I pushed my power into the threshold zone (rarely did this the entire ride, and only when necessary). I was a little surprised I still had some power left after all the climbing.
The last 7 miles were all downhill into Asheville and the route took many interesting turns to get through the old city. A lot of narrow streets and the course even used the parking lot of the country club to link streets. One of the streets was blocked off for road construction, but there was no reasonable alternative, so I lifted my bike over the barricades. It was real slow going through town, but I had plenty of time. Eventually I arrived at the Ingles gas station for the final proof of passage photo at 1:47 pm which happened to be 2 minutes ahead of my ride plan.
I had completed the 375 miles course with 36000 feet of climbing in 57 hours 47 minutes (within the 60 hour time limit). This ride was special for me because it was my first ride in the mountains, my knees held up well, my riding speed was fast enough to get a lot of sleep, I didn’t walk up any hills, descending the curves and switchbacks was a blast, the mountain views were spectacular, I loved the sound of running streams, the roads were in terrific condition, and I had perfect weather (even though it was sunny, most of
the riding was in the shade of the forest). Afterwards I drove a couple hours before stopping at a Super 8 for the night. I was almost able to finish the medium stuffed crust pizza on my own.
Total distance: 375.3 miles
Total moving time: 32 hours, 36 minutes
Average moving speed: 11.5 mph
Total elevation gain: 36,322 feet
Total energy burned: 16,852 Calories
Total TSS: 1,485 (based on 258 W FTP)
Summary statistics for day 1 (files 1 and 2):
Summary statistics for day 2 and day 3: