94 Miles Of Road Rash (or... How To Get Free Beer)

(This post was never finished… I published it “as is” when I found it in the Drafts list.)

While out enjoying a couple of beers a weeks or so ago, my buddy Lorne mentioned he was going to up Boone to visit his daughter Ariel, who is a student at App State. Heading up Friday, heading back Saturday. Was gonna maybe do some riding up there. I got to thinking that I”ve wanted to do a Parkway ride from Asheville to Boone for a while, maybe as an out and back with an overnight somewhere up there. I’ve just never gotten around to committing to a two day trip. This gave me a perfect opportunity to do the ride one way, then catch a ride with Lorne back home. Also gave us a perfect excuse to sample beers from the two breweries in Boone, as well as Fonta Flora in Morganton on the way back to Asheville. Assuming I wanted to be in Boone by 2:00 pm, I worked my way backwards and decided I’d have to leave by 5:30 am. Since the sunrise was at a little after 7pm. I figured maybe I’d leave closer to 5am and get up to Craggy Gardens Visitor Center in time to get some photos.

Circumstances prevented that from happening, and the weather made it a moot point anyway.

I rolled out at about 5:30 anyway, into a dark and dreary morning. I brought one of my smaller handlebar lights, with enough battery power to get me to sunrise (or at least until it was bright enough not to need light). Although it wasn’t raining, the roads and everything else around me were saturated. The chance of rain during the day was anywhere from 60 to 90%, so I was fully prepared to be very wet for most, if not all of the ride.

What I wasn’t planning for was a tree to be lying across the road up near Craven Gap. I had just crested the first climb of the day, from the Folk Art Center and up past Haw Valley Overlook. I found it odd that I had seen not just one or two, but four cars that early on the Parkway, especially on such a dreary morning. Two going up in my direction and two coming down the other way. As I rolled over the top of the climb, I started down the short descent to Craven Gap, picking up whatever speed gravity would give me, but not going especially fast. The road was wet and I really wasn’t in any hurry.

The second of the two cars traveling in the opposite direction slowed as it neared me, which I thought was a little odd, but otherwise didn’t give it much thought. For most people it’s probably not too often they see cyclists riding in the dark and rain at 6:00 am, so they may have slowed just to figure out what they were seeing through a no-doubt wet windshield.

Next thing I know, there is a tree lying across both lanes of the road and nowhere to turn. I am going down a 3-4% grade on rain slick smooth asphalt at 20 miles per hour. By the time my meager light illuminates the tree I know there is no way I’m going to be able to stop. I’m going to crash.

Shit.

Although I don’t have enough time to prevent a crash, I do have enough time (and presence of mind) to decide how I’m going to crash. There are two options.

First option: brake lightly, slow as much (or little) as possible, and hit the tree head on, hoping the impact isn’t too bad.

Second option: brake hard, lay the bike down and go into a slide.

Neither of these is ideal, both are going to do some damage and cause some pain, but the second one seems the better choice, so I aim the bike towards the most “open” part (fewest branches) of the tree, and grab the brakes.

The rear wheel slides out to the right, I roll over on my side, holding onto the bars, trying to spread the impact (never put an arm out!). I don’t go down near as hard as I thought I would, but I also realize that the same lack of friction that’s not tearing up my skin is also keeping me (and the bike) from hitting the tree anyway. So I put my arms up around my head and prepare for impact.

Fortunately.. it’s not too bad. I lose speed just before impact, and bump into the tree with much less force than I would have if I hadn’t hit the pavement first. I’m a little disoriented for a few seconds, and then pain starts flaring up in numerous places at about the same time. My left knee is the worst. Right elbow – ouch. Wrist I think. But there appears to be no major damage. I’m conscious, alert and as far as I can tell, nothing is broken.

Whew!

Of course, all of this happened in just a few short seconds, and this is my best recollection of events. For all I know, in reality it looked entirely different.

Wait… BIKE! Is the bike OK?

I look the bike over and it miraculously seems to be just fine. Nothing bent, nothing broken, wheels turn.. the chain didn’t even fall off. Brakes (ha ha) work, gear shifters work. Lights are still on, GPS still running.

As I’m examining the bike, I see headlights in the trees, another car coming down the hill. And I’m standing there in the road, bleeding.

Not a good place to be!

I half run/half limp over into the grass on the other side of the road and start waving my arms to warn the driver of the potential danger (not to mention making sure he sees me in case he decides to try a u-turn. The car stops and the driver rolls down the window. He says, “looks like we gotta go around”.

“Yeah, no shit buddy, at least you stopped in time.”, is what I think, but not what I say. Instead I say, “Well, I can at least go under it, but I actually slid into it.”

It’s at this moment, while I’m envying the power of two headlights,  that I realize that I had been running my light on half power, not full power, since most of my pre-dawn riding was to be uphill, and this is the only downhill section in 18 miles. I’m not sure if that would have made a difference, but I have to assume I would have seen the tree at least a little bit sooner and had more options. Lesson learned.

The driver asks me if I’m OK, and I say, “Yes, thanks, just a few scratches”. Even though I’m not really sure yet and the pain is getting worse.

To convince myself I’m OK, I push the bike under the tree, stopping just long enough to snag a photo, using the cars headlights to illuminate it.

Downed Tree
Downed Tree On Parkway – the arrow indicates where I “chose” to make impact.

I take another photo from the other side while the driver turns around and heads the other way.

Then I get pissed off. Obviously, the previous car (which had slowed down near the top of the hill) had also had to turn around. Why the fuck didn’t they warn me there was a tree down across the fucking road!?

Fucker!

It occurred to me much later that they probably had no idea how hard it is to stop a bike on wet pavement. But still… a flash of the brights, turn on the blinkers, roll down the windows and say “hey, there’s a tree down…” anything would have been nice.

I do another once over on the bike. It’s fully operational. No reason I can’t still ride it to Boone. (although I admit it didn’t occur to me at the time to see if I’m lost significant amount of tire tread in the skid) I check myself over again.. using what little light I have. Knee is bloody and stinging from multiple places. Right elbow same, but not as bad. I am now noticing pain in my left hip. I reach back and lo and behold, my bib shorts are torn pretty bad. Dammit.. my best pair!! This is getting worse.. now this is going to cost money, in addition to being injured.

I’m only 6 miles into a 100 mile ride, in pain, and my ass is hanging out of my shorts. Should I turn around and ride back home? I can either call off the ride altogether or change shorts and start back out again. I quickly decide that if I’m going to continue the ride, I’m not going back home first. To hell with the shorts.. the hole isn’t all that large, and there’s going to be very little traffic on the parkway on a day like this. So a few people see some skin. Big deal.

Besides.. now I look like one of the pros – finishing a Tour stage with blood smeared and torn clothing. (never mind that I’m not getting paid for this, like they do)

The real question is, do I really want to ride 96 more miles in the mountains, in the rain, in pain? I’m not sure which is worse, that or sitting around at home all day, knowing I got beat by a stupid tree. I also figure I’m going to be in pain for a few days either way, probably a lot more in a day or two. Right now I’ve got endorphins and adrenalin and nothing is swelling up.

That settles it.. I’m not letting a tree win. At the very least, I’ll keep on riding up towards Craggy Gardens and at any point I can turn around and mostly coast home since it’s mostly downhill.

I get back on the bike and start riding uphill.

Although I’m stinging, once I get going things aren’t so bad. I just focus on turning the pedals over and think about the story I’ll now have to tell, and wait for the light to come up so I can see the wet world around me. Not to mention so I can actually see the injuries. Here’s some on-bike shots once I had enough daylight to capture them.

Bloody Knee
Bloody Knee
Bloody Elbow
Bloody Elbow
Showin' Some Skin
Showin’ Some Skin
Lookin' A Bit Disheveled
Lookin’ A Bit Disheveled

Given the delay during/after the crash, and my rather slower speed riding uphill, “sunrise” came and went long before I got up to Craggy Gardens. This was all about all there was to see at that particular point and time…

"Sunrise" on the Parkway
“Sunrise” on the Parkway

I stopped up at Craggy to fill up my water bottles and captured a few more shots. At least here there was some break in the fog and a few patches of blue sky beyond.

Craggy Gardens Looking West
Craggy Gardens Looking West
Craggy Pinnacle
Craggy Pinnacle

When I reached the top of the climb at Craggy Dome Parking Area, I was hoping that a downhill coast would provide some cool relief from the stinging on my knee. In fact, the opposite was true. The wind blowing on the little hairs actually hurt more than it helped. But it still wasn’t too bad. Not enough to quit riding anyway. I kept on going, making my way past Mt. Mitchell, Rt. 80, and numerous overlooks, most of which offered nothing but misty grey, but it was nonetheless beautiful. With all the rain we’ve had, there are streams, cascades and waterfalls everywhere and there’s something magical about being up in the mountains in weather like this, with nobody else around. Although occasionally a car would go by, I could be alone for an hour or more at a time.

Four hours after the crash, I arrived in Little Switzerland, the halfway point of my ride. I pulled up at the Switzerland Cafe, where I had planned to have lunch, as the GPS chimed 50.0 miles precisely. My only mistake was not doing the math on “lunch” time. It was only 9:45, and the cafe wasn’t even open. Fortunately, a little coffee shop nearby was, and I got a muffin, pumpkin roll and a Coke. A patron saw me walk in and asked “what the hell happened to you?!” I told him and the shopkeeper my story and got sympathetic comments and an offer for some first aid. I thanked them but didn’t take them up on it. Putting bandages on knees and elbows would likely cause more irritation than relief while riding another 50 miles – who knows how much of it in the rain and fog.

(This is where the story ends… at some point maybe I’ll finish the tale and get around to the free beer part.)