A few weeks ago, the Masher was able to enjoy a return visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, well part of his journey was enjoyable! The training ride we had planned for early spring turned out much more eventful than we had hoped, and it left us all yearning for another chance to conquer the climb to the highest elevation in Tennessee, after we had to stop at the summit due to inclimate winter weather setting in. There had been some recent discussion among RAM Cycling friends about planning another group ride from the Gatlinburg area up to the top and back down, but too many schedule challenges have prevented the group event. Maybe a spontaneous ride can happen, but not planned at this time.
Masher took advantage of a weekend get-away with his wife (one last break before school and fall sports crank up for the kiddos), and caught a break in the stormy weather long enough to make the trek back up to Clingmans! I departed my cabin in the mountain village of Cobbly Nob around 7:00am, about 15 miles east of Gatlinburg, and rode along Hwy 321 into and through downtown, in route to Hwy 441, which crosses the Smoky Mountains into Cherokee, NC.
The sky was pretty cloudy, and I had already decided that if I rode into rain, I would just turn back this time (to avoid another stuck atop the mountain adventure) and ride back to the cabin, not risking my safety or interrupting my wife’s get-away to rescue me. The local forecast predicted 60% chance for scattered thunderstorms, but I remained optimistic. It was more than humid, as I was sweating heavily only 5 miles into the climbing, and by the time I reached Newfound Gap, nearly seven miles below the summit, my entire kit was soaked, gloves and shorts included. While my solo ride was not a rapid pace pushing myself for speed, I had a strong ride making it all the way to the Clingmans parking lot from Gatlinburg without stopping a single time. I had planned to stop and rest at the Newfound Gap overlook and the traffic was a little congested at the time I rolled though, so I continued onto the Clingmans Dome access rode thinking I would pull off at the first pull out.
Into the clouds I rode, as the fog was very thick in this higher elevation. I guess the visibility was probably 20-40 yards, making me a little nervous about traffic, but the amount of vehicles on this road was much lower than on the main highway. The first pull out came and went, and I thought to myself “I just may make this complete climb without stopping … what an achievement that would be.” Well that’s all it took. Now my mind was set, there would be no stopping, although my legs and butt were very ready to get a break several times over the last seven mile climb. Especially after that one brief downhill/flat portion for about a mile and a half, with only about 3 miles to summit! Nevertheless, I pushed on, and rode strong into the parking lot with a smile on my face, as I reminisced about the first time I rode into this parking lot, thinking I may be suffering from hypothermia.
Immediately reaching the top, I was cooled down a little as I spun my road bike up the pedestrian trail to the sign located in front of the visitor’s center, and felt the stiff breeze pushing across the top of the mountains, as I enjoyed my first rest stop. I calmly ate a Cliff bar, while drinking a bottle of water and basked in the glory of my accomplishment cycling to the top of another mountain, and I relished the many compliments from passers by, as they walked up to the dome. What are the odds of running into someone I went to high school with at the summit? I have no idea about odds, but I bet they increase when you attend a different school every year … and yes indeed, I was greeted by Greg, whom I had graduated with twenty years ago. He and his wife (who also happen to be cyclists and runners, even coach cross country and track teams at schools in KY) were celebrating their wedding anniversary by driving up the mountain and hiking up to Clingmans Dome.
Not wanting to tighten up too much, I changed into a long sleeve dry jersey and saddled back up for the ride home. WOW! My first twenty mile mountain descent was awesome fun! The initial take-off from Clingmans parking lot was fast, and I was a little timid due to some stretches of the roadway still being damp. As I reached Hwy 441, there were a few technical curves rolling past the Newfound Gap and in the next few miles. After that, it is all out fun rolling down the mountain, weaving back and forth, through the short tunnels, and flat out flying. The clouds made it somewhat difficult to see some of the rough part of the pavement, but it didn’t slow me down as I got to the bottom pretty quickly. I would later learn that my top speed was just over 50 mph after I uploaded my ride to Strava. Fun, fun!
The descents I’ve ridden in the blue ridge foothills on the Hincapie Gran Fondo were too steep and too technical for me to enjoy. The Assault on Mt Mitchell I’ve ridden twice finishes at the summit of the highest elevation in North Carolina. The first time I rode up Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains stopped at the top due to weather. After cycling back down this time, I’m convinced, the ride back down is now my favorite part of taking on these challenging mountain climb rides! And, as usual, it has left me yearning for more.