I rode through Abingdon this morning after a good pancake breakfast. It is an amazing little town with lots of theater, art, etc. I'm impressed every time I ride through. Someday I need to go to Abingdon and do things rather than just ride through, but not today or any day that I'm bicycling from Abingdon to Asheville. Its roughly 110 miles and there is this big hill, called Sam's Gap, to ride over. Asheville is in, but on the eastern side of, the Appalachian Mountains. Abingdon is on the western side.
It had rained during the night and it continued cloudy with a threat of rain all day. The high was about 70 F, instead of the more normal 90 F. Actually it was nearly ideal weather for riding a bicycle over a pass. I did get sprinkled on a little bit near the top of Sam's Gap, but that was no big deal. It was much easier to ride to the top of the gap this year than it was last year or the year before. That was a direct result of the cooler weather.
From Abingdon, I rode 11 to Bristol VA. I turned south on 19E and headed for Bristol TN. 11 goes into TN as well, but at Bristol it heads towards Knoxville TN and I headed towards Johnson City. I'll have to leave the rest of route 11 for another tour: I've been told it goes all the way to Mexico!
11 between Abingdon and Bristol is three lanes with, usually, no shoulder. It was easy riding this morning because of polite drivers and a tail wind. I averaged 16 mph including the, much slower, segment in Abingdon. On my way out of Bristol TN I stopped for an early lunch. I'd covered about 25 easy miles and didn't really need lunch yet, but 19E heading down to Johnson City is a long road with few services. That road is boring but easy riding; a divided four lane with wide shoulders running through rolling hills. Moderate traffic makes it fairly noisy.
In Johnson City, which now has a 'Bicycle Friendly' sign on coming into town, I stopped for a milkshake and then headed out of town on 'the old Asheville road.' I'm not even sure what its number is there, but later it is 340 west. I had come 50 miles and had nearly 60 to go. The first 20 of that 60 is pretty flat leading to Erwin where I had a second lunch with lots of liquid. After Erwin things get mountainous.
Sam's Gap is the biggest single hill of this tour at about 2,000 ft of climbing. Not really a big deal, but a good sized hill. The total climb is over about 10 miles, but the first 8 miles have only 500 feet or so of climbing and the last two miles are pretty steep. The relatively flat section is quite pretty and, with all the traffic on a new parallel interstate, very pleasant riding. Dogs are a bit of a problem; lots of howling, barking, and baying along the way. I actually only got chased twice and neither was very serious, but if you are easily upset by dogs it could be harrowing. I was very relieved at one point when the rottweiler that was headed my way was stopped by an electric fence around his yard! Not one of those sissy invisible fences, but a straight forward electric fence that would normally be used to keep livestock in a pasture. It was obviously effective in keeping this dog in the yard.
My lowest gear is a 24 front X 32 rear. It was just about perfect for a loaded ride up Sam's Gap. I have done it with a 28X32 and a 24x28, but the lower gear meant that I could maintain a good rate of climb with out having to go too low in cadence. My cadence was in the 60s for the steepest parts of the climb. It took me over two hours to ride from Erwin to the top of Sam's Gap, with the last three quarters of an hour being used in the steep climb.
A brief discursion on gearing:
I had 24-37-46 front and 13-15-17-20-23-26-32 on the rear. Neither of these is 'stock' gearing. I spent a lot of time using a computer program to explore the possibilities for gearing and this is what I've ended up with. The changes from the standard values are the 37, instead of a 36, middle ring and the 32, instead of a 30 largest cog. I got the 37 from Rivendell and the 32 off of an older 14-32 cassette. This gearing worked very well in that I had a well spaced, wide range of gearing without many annoying gaps. My gearing wasn't low enough for the 15% grades on the Cabot Trail (but I rode up 'em anyway!) nor was it high enough to let me pedal much beyond 30 mph coming down from Sam's Gap. I coasted at 43 mph which was just under the 45 mph truck speed limit - The truck that I followed down that hill had smoke pouring from his rear brakes by the time he reached the bottom - but it was well suited to just about everything else.
The 37-46 middle and big rings in combination with the 13-15-17-20 smaller rear cogs and double shifting gave me well spaced gearing where 80 rpm corresponded pretty closely to 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19.5 or 23 mph. This worked great on the relatively flat Route 11. It really makes a difference being able to choose the right gear. I'd say about a .5 mph difference in comfortable cruising speed. I also liked the 37X32 combination as a low gear for lots of the hills on route 11 and in towns along the way. It gives 7.5 mph at 80 rpm. The only 'hole' in my gearing was the gap between 10 mph and 12 mph in the middle ring, above 12 mph I had the well spaced middle and big ring combos and below 10 mph I had well spaced gears using my small front ring. I could have filled it using a big ring - big cog combo, but the chain angle was too severe.
Back to Sam's Gap: Getting to the top meant getting back to North Carolina and getting into bicycling hell. The NC side does not have its interstate segment done and won't for several years, so all the traffic, including my bicycle, was on one, two to three lane, road without shoulders. Moreover, I-40 west of Asheville has been closed by a rockfall for more than a month and much of that traffic, especially the heavy truck traffic, is now using Sam's Gap. I survived the next 15 miles, but I had to get off the road a number of times. I'd like to see the anti-mirror folks ride that section! Really I wouldn't like to see that, since they might well get run over.
My worst moment came climbing up of a 500 ft hill after Sam's Gap where there are three lanes and a guardrail. I was overtaken by a big mass of traffic in both uphill lanes and I couldn't get off the road because of the guardrail. A big truck who was stuck in my lane slowed almost to a stop till he could safely get around me. It wasn't nice riding (!), but the truck drivers generally were polite and I was polite (getting out of their way ASAP) to them. A few of the car drivers were not.
I made it to 19/23 which is a divided four lane into Asheville (16 miles) with a good shoulder. All was well except for two bridges which do not have shoulders. With the very heavy traffic, getting across those bridges required a lot of trust. I made it but it was hairy. Some idiot blew his horn at me near the end of the first bridge as if I didn't have enough to worry about in that mess of heavy traffic.
I got home about 6:30 PM after 8.5 hours of riding. I think I'll try another way to get home next time! There aren't many ways to get into Asheville that a bicycle can use but, for now, Sam's Gap is not a good option. The only safe option, but only for those who can take the hills, is the Blue Ridge Parkway or, equally hilly and it is easy to get lost, riding back roads from Tennessee into North Carolina and over to Asheville. I could do the back roads, but a person who didn't know this area well could not.
Actually, riding on highways in NC, like riding in on highways in West Virginia, is just not a very good idea. We (NC) don't waste our highway funds on making roads safe for bicyclists or pedestrians! And, unlike our ways of spending highway funds which are tremendously wasteful, we don't waste any money at all on educating drivers about the rights of bicyclists and pedestrians. I suggest you tour in Virginia's Shenandoa Valley or upstate New York or New England, or, especially, in the Canadian Maritimes instead. Much safer as well as more fun.