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The Herald Friday, April 27, 1990
I've got a great idea. Since I've got the next four days off, I'll just ride my bike to Virginia and back. It'll be a piece of cake, and I'll add a new name to my list of states ridden to.
That's how it all started and a new adventure was launched on a March morning. The warm winter had left me in good enough shape to attempt such a romp, but the year since my ride to Utah had obliterated all memory of how hard a full-blown mountain ride is. Northward I rode, a forgetful student heading for a new dose of an old lesson.
The meandering backroads I use for training took me to Gastonia, where I picked up U.S. 321. Since my last passage on this road, a new four-lane section north of Gastonia had been opened up. I sailed along on the pristine asphalt, marveling at the benefits of an extra strip of pavement beside the shoulder. This road would make a great model for a bike highway from Maine to Florida.
All too soon, the fancy road ended in High Shoals and I found myself back on the narrow beaten path. The stretch of 321 from High Shoals to Newton has become a far less than desirable bike ride. I battled an endless stream of trucks and brake slammers and horn blowers.
Near Maiden, I passed a tour bus company where lots of custom buses were parked near the road. Painted across the nose of a fancy church bus was, "Expect a Miracle." Good advice. I rode along expecting as hard as I could, but the traffic kept coming. Maybe the miracle was my safe passage.
I picked up N.C. 16 in Newton, and this road made for a great ride in moderate traffic. I did a mixture of grinding climbs and wild descents before landing in Wilkesboro with 102 miles on the meter. A gusting tailwind had pushed these old bones through another uphill century (100-mile bike ride). At this point, I was deciding how much of Virginia I would ride before I turned around.
On the morning of the second day, I staged a one-man criterium event in Wilkesboro. I rode back and forth and around in circles trying to find the right way out of some serious construction commotion. Finally, I asked a local for guidance and he pointed me toward highway 16. The hill on 16 was not as steep as the one on 18, he said.
The hill. If I was going to reach Virginia, the crest of the Blue Ridge stood in the way. Yesterday's 102 miles would be a fluke compared to the groaning 50 miles I would make today.
I stopped for a cold drink and a snack in a settlement called Wilbar. What a nice mountain--sounding name. "Wilbar" is how a lot of mountain folks pronounce, "Wheelbarrow."
In Wilbar I noticed a photo on front of the local newspaper. It depicted a new firefighting airplane that can swoop down onto a lake, scoop up more than 1,000 gallons of water and fly away in one smooth maneuver. The plane will likely see some action this summer as Hugo debris dries out and lightning starts forest fires.
North of Wilbar, the ominous grade began. I kept telling myself, "I just won't let this be hard. I'll go slow and take it easy."
A likely plan. "Slow" was the only choice available. My double chainwheel gearing was about six gears too tall to haul four bags up a mountain. My legs were screaming for mercy after the first mile, and a resident in his front yard had himself a real laugh as I struggled past. "The hill's just starting," he giggled. "You've got a long way to go."
Hours later, I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. The climb to the ridge is always a killer, no matter which road is ridden. Once on top, the parkway is no picnic for a bicyclist. In her book, "Miles From Nowhere," the late Barbara Savage described the two-year, 23,000-mile bike journey she and her husband took around the world. She pointed to the Blue Ridge Parkway as being the hardest bike riding they found on the planet.
On the parkway, time and distance seem to be compressed. The cyclist's internal guidance clock declares that 20 miles have been ridden, when in fact it has been a mile and a half. Each grueling climb is followed by a rocket descent. The end result is that 90 percent of the time is spent climbing.
The crawl to the ridge and 13 miles on the parkway left me looking for the nearest bed, which I found in Sparta, N.C. I had missed Virginia by six miles, but those six miles were the equivalent of 30 miles ridden around here. I would waste nearly half of the next day if I was intent upon playing tag with the state line. Virginia could wait.
I drifted off to sleep in Sparta listening to bluegrass music from Galax, Va. Doc Watson wailed about a railroad trestle and an unidentified female artist sang about hearing the whistle blow a country mile. Train songs.
What the world needs is a good bluegrass song about a bicycle. About trying your heart out and nearly making it. About listening to music being broadcasted from a town you intended to see. About riding far enough to hear the music.
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