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I've been spending time at Google+ since I joined the social networking site a few weeks ago.

I've enjoyed the sharing and conversations taking place there. In fact, I've been doing a little of what was formerly known as blogging. Perhaps I'll start reposting some of it here, for those of you who aren't registered there.

For those of you who are, feel free to circle me.

On 18 June 2011 I did the Cherohala Challenge (route map).

I really enjoy this ride (this was my sixth time): it's (fittingly) challenging, has fantastic and varied scenery, and is only a 75-minute drive away. Even so, I arrived just a few minutes before the 7:00 a.m. start time. By the time I got myself together and was rolling, it was 7:20. The late start wasn't a problem for participating in the event--it just meant I trailed most of the other riders throughout the day.

Sunrise over Tellico Plains, TN

The ride started off with an easy 20-mile jaunt through the quiet Monroe County countryside. There were very few vehicles on the roads that early on a Saturday. It was pleasant cruising in the cool morning air (upper 60Fs at the start). There are some rolling hills, but no strenuous climbs. It's a good prologue to warmed up the legs.

Morning mist in Monroe County, TN

I wasn't the only rider who got a late start. A few minutes into the ride I happened upon a couple other cyclists. I rode with them for a bit, but our paces weren't synchronous on the hills. Then ahead I saw someone almost crash when he ran over a water bottle that a cyclist in front of him dropped. I quickly cooled on the idea of pacelining with strangers and rode solo most of the remainder of the day.

An hour into the ride I stopped at the first rest stop to refill water bottles. Past Challenges taught me to be plenty hydrated for the long climb on the back half of the route, so I forcing down fluids all morning.

After a short stop, I turned onto Highway 411 through Vonore.

Vonore, TN

Our encounter with civilization is a brief one; the stop light in the above picture is the only one on the entire 113-mile course. After a few miles on Highway 411 (to cross a bridge) we turned off on Highway 72 and left the hamlet as abruptly as we enter it. Thereafter, you only pass a handful of gas stations the rest of the day.

I'm more of a city person by disposition and I get a bit wary when I'm in the wilderness. On this ride, the remoteness heightens the epic nature of the adventure. At times you feel like you're at one with nature.

Little Tennessee River

After passing through some rolling terrain, the tour passes through a relatively flat inland stretch, then skirts the lake. This is usually the fastest section of the Challenge.

Highway 72 in Blount County, TN

Highway 72, Headed Toward The Mountains

Tellico Lake

Chilhowee Dam

Chilhowee Lake

At mile 44, Highway 129 leaves the lakeside and heads up into the woods in an extremely windy fashion. This section's 318 curves in 11 miles (commonly known as the "Tail of the Dragon" ) make it an attraction for motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts.

It's fun riding it on a bicycle, too, though not nearly exhilarating when you're climbing at 9 m.p.h. But you're likely to get at least blood pressure spike if you have a close encounter with a zooming crotch rocket.

Tail of the Dragon

Motorcyclists come from all over to ride the Tail of the Dragon

Calderwood Dam

Happily for me on this day I did not have a run-ins with a fellow two-wheeled road user. My only annoyance was the racket their machines generated, which marred what would otherwise be a relaxing cruise through the woods.

Tail of the Dragon

I stopped for lunch at the second rest stop (mile 54) at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. I had worked up a good appetite in the five hours since breakfast, so I helped myself to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, bananas, energy bars, and Oreos. The support at the stops on the Cherohala Challenge is great; the volunteers are generally very encouraging and helpful.

Once you enter North Carolina at Deal's Gap, the road descends sharply off the ridge past Cheoah Dam.

Cheoah Dam

(As seen in the movie The Fugitive.)

The route then follows the Cheoah River for about ten miles through an under-developed river gorge. The road here is a false flat; thanks to a gradual climb you ride at a speed about 3 m.p.h. slower than it feels like you should be going.

Cheoah River

Cheoah River

For twenty-five miles on Highway 129 I had been passed by kayak-bearing vehicles, and finally I discovered why. Periodically authorities release water from the Santeetlah Dam into the river for water enthusiasts, and I happened to be riding by during such a release.

As I ambled along the river, I noticed the water volume suddenly spike and the water turned browner. Then, through the trees, I started seeing kayaks and small rafts float by.

More than once, as I labored in the mid-day heat, it occurred to me that these people in the cool water had it right, while I on a bicycle had it wrong.

Kayakers along the Cheoah River

After another liquid refill at rest area #3, I followed the turn into the woods toward Lake Santeetlah and the Joyce Killmer Wilderness. It truly is a a wilderness there; the only traffic I saw on the road for several miles was a handful of toiling cyclists.

The road past the lake features the steepest climbing to that point of the ride--a prelude of what is to come. But I was still feeling good about my progress until I started seeing dark clouds peaking through the forest canopy. Then, as I made the turn onto the Skyway access road, I heard rumbling thunder.

Uh oh.

Sure enough, a mile into the climb, the rain hit. Not a downpour (thankfully), or a prolonged shower, but enough to get all wet. And once you're wet, you're wet. I don't enjoy riding in the rain, but when you are caught out in it miles from shelter, you've got little choice but to keep pedaling.

So I did, slowly, up the mountain. It takes a long time to do a 13-mile climb at 7-8 m.p.h., affording one plenty of time to deliberate such weighty topics as: "Why am I doing this?" "What went wrong in my childhood?" "Should I seek counseling?"

I didn't take many pictures after the rain started because it was a pain wrapping and unwrapping the camera to keep it dry.

Nantahala National Forest

(If you look closely just left of center you can see two V-cuts in the mountain profile where the road goes.)

I stopped at the rest stop mid-way up the climb to take a break and dry my forehead off. One redeeming factor about the weather was that we didn't have to climb under the hot midday sun (there's no shade on the Skyway). Yet even on this cooler afternoon I still managed to get sweat in my eyes.

Nantahala National Forest

For much of the climb the weather held as pictured above. But when I made a turn to the other side of the ridge, near the top, I was greeted by a blast of noticeably cooler air. A few minutes later another rain shower hit, much like the one before, only colder. Then foggy clouds enveloped the mountain. It was not a welcome turn of events,

Santeetlah Overlook (highest overlook on the Skyway)

Santeetlah Overlook

It was cool and wet at the top. Normally I feel like I've accomplished something when I reach that point. But this time my mood was much more "meh."

A number of riders were waiting for a van to take them down the mountain. Conditions weren't bad enough for me to seriously consider doing that, but I was apprehensive about what Mother Nature might still bring.

The first few miles of the descent weren't enjoyable at all. Visibility was poor, and even if it had been better I would still have been slowed because my wet brakes weren't gripping very well. I had to ride them a lot to ensure that I didn't loose control on the curves.

Finally, 12 miles downhill from the top, I broke through the cloud cover and could see again.

Turkey Creek Overlook

At mile 99-100 of the ride the Skyway turns off the mountainside into a stretch with some rollers mixed in. If you're running on fumes, this is a spot where cramps can rear their ugly head. But on this day I felt as good as I ever have--tired, yes, but not on the verge of summoning the rescue team.

I was feeling victorious when I reached the Champs-Élysées run, reentering Tellico Plains (the final seven miles are downhill), but Mother Nature had the last laugh. Three miles from the finish line it started raining--as hard as it had all day. Instead of finishing in triumph, I finished soaking wet.

But that didn't matter. Twenty minutes later, as I sat, half-wet, eating plain pasta (they ran out of sauce), all worldly discomforts had faded into white noise. I basked in a velo glow, having conquered hill and dale, sun and rain, in an all-day journey that took me right back where I started.

I had reached at the pinnacle of pointless endeavors: I was a cyclist.

On 7 May 2011 I participated in my fourth 3-State 3-Mountain Challenge in Chattanooga, TN. It had been three years since I had last ridden the event, so I was eager to return. But not too excited--it still required effort to respond to the godforsaken 4:30 a.m. alarm.

But I did arise, downed my customary pre-century tator tot breakfast, and made the 100-mile drive to the Finley Stadium staging area. By the time I gathered my registration packet and geared up, the motorcycle-led velo parade had already already started to roll. I waited a few minutes as queued cyclists slowly filed by, then joined the procession at the back of the pack.

At the start line

The first few city miles were at an easy warm-up pace, which was fitting because it was a chilly morning (low 50Fs). Within an hour it started warming up nicely and turned out to be a great day for cycling: 70Fs and dry.

Downtown Chattanooga

Crossing the Tennessee River at Chattanooga

It's funny how accidents can occur when you least expect them. The closest I came to a mishap the entire day was minutes from the start. I glanced ahead after taking the picture of the river and discovered, to my dismay, that everyone ahead was braking due to a long backup on the exit ramp. I frantically grabbed for my brake levers and narrowly averted what would have been an embarrassing collision with cyclists in front of me.

Once I made it past the bridge off-ramp logjam, the pace picked up because there was more room to pass.

Going into the tunnel on the first hill

After the first ridge, the course followed some open, multi-lane roads, then paralleled the river for several miles. The police blocked motorized traffic in this stretch, so it was uninterrupted sailing through the hills.

One of the interesting things about these kind of events is the diversity of pedal-pushers you see. A majority of participants are 30-50 year-old white male road cyclists from not very far away. But there are also women, seniors, tandems, recumbents, and riders of other shapes and sizes. They come from all over, too. At a picture stop I met a guy from Iowa. Judging from the labored climbing I saw from many riders, he wasn't the only person who came from flat terrain.

Recumbent bicycle

After about 11 miles the route reaches the first "mountain," Suck Creek Mountain. The climb itself isn't bad (5 miles at a 4-6%), but a couple things about it were annoying.

First, the riders near the back where I was were too slow. I'm hardly the fastest rider around, but my natural climbing rhythm was 3-4 m.p.h. faster than almost everyone around me. So I went the entire way up the left side of the lane, often going into the opposite lane to pass people. I felt like Lance Armstrong, passing hundreds of riders.

The problem was that there were also cars on the road, in the opposite lane, attempting to pass going both directions. (You can see one in the picture below). It seemed more unsafe this year than on prior rides. I even saw one car passing another car that was passing cyclists . . . going around a turn! Event organizers should rethink traffic control on this mountain--it's an accident waiting to happen.

Climbing Suck Creek Mountain

After a cool, somewhat unpleasant descent on the other side (curves + crazy cyclists are unsettling), the route changed character with a nice long stretch of valley riding. I seldom get to ride extended flat terrain so this section was a rare treat. Along the way I mingled with ad hoc pelotons and was surprised how little effort it took to maintain a 21-22 mph cruising speed in that manner.

A couple hours into the ride I decided it was time to eat, so I stopped at the second rest stop for a snack. It was at a new location this year.

Authorities were prepared for the worst

After a relaxed break, I returned to the road with renewed energy. Most of the larger groups had disappeared by this point, so I rode solo most of the remainder of the day.

Autumn SEC rivals mingle on a spring Saturday

Nickajack Lake

Bridge crossing

Approximately 50 miles into the route the ride reached Sand Mountain. Normally the course ascends the mountain on a quiet, windy back road through the woods. This year, however, it went up a state highway. (I would soon discover why).

The rerouted climb was similar in difficulty to the normal climb (2-3 miles at a 6-7% grade). It's enough to make you work. And in my case, it brought sweat to my eyes, which always makes ascending even more miserable.

A first-time climb almost always seems worse because you don't know how long it lasts. And, true to form, I was fooled into thinking I was approaching the top when the road leveled off, only to discover more climbing around the bend. Oh, the humanity!

Climbing Sand Mountain

One detour benefit which I thought we were going to enjoy was that we would avoid the horribly rough Alabama back roads. No such luck. Shortly after topping Sand Mountain we turned down a side road and started to rumble. I looked for as smooth a line as I could find, but there weren't any. It was the Alabama third-world appreciation segment.

The jarring was not for naught. There was a nice overlook which offered a panoramic view of the valley. Below you could see why we had taken a different course--a tornado had gone right over the normal road.

From the mountaintop, you could trace the path of destruction for miles across the valley. I had never seen extensive tornado damage before; it was quite a spectacle.

Brown path of fallen trees

Me, enjoying the overlook

After enjoying a second round of food at the Bryant rest stop (all of which were well-stocked with sandwiches, snacks, and drinks) I followed the eastward turn toward Georgia. It's an easy 17-mile cruise along the brow of Sand Mountain. The only remarkable thing I encountered was the number of fallen trees across Northern Alabama and Georgia. I doubt I went a mile on the backstretch without seeing at least one tree or large limb littering the wayside.

Northeast Alabama countryside

Georgia Mountains

About 70 miles into the ride I reached the second major detour. Event organizers axed the third mountain: Burkhalter Gap Road/Lookout Mountain. [Someone on a forum posted that it was because the Town of Signal Mountain opted not to support the ride.] Whatever the reason, I was disappointed because I was looking forward to testing my metal on the ride's signature climb, which features a 16-18% grade at the top.

To add insult to injury, the revised "century" route wasn't even 100 miles--it was approximately 88! I understand that there were extraordinary circumstances which the Chattanooga Bicycle Club could not control, but I believe they could have at least sketched out a revised 100 mile route. Fail.

Returning to the homeland

Cyclists get their own lane riding back into Chattanooga

Traffic backed up near the stadium (finish line)

After recharging with post-ride food at Finley Stadium (Subway sandwiches), curiosity got the best of me and I decided to survey storm damage up close by rerouting my drive home through Ringgold, GA, which was hit by an EF4 storm.

It didn't take long to find where the storm hit--you could see the path of destruction from the highway exit ramp. I went back and forth for a mile on the exit road, looking at damaged/destroyed businesses and former gas stations.

Destroyed signs

Traffic was backed up on the main roads--filled, in part, with other disaster tourists. I wasn't sure where to go to see the full extent of the destruction when I noticed about a 1/4 mile wide brown path on the ridge to the east. I lined it up with my location, and, sure enough, I had discovered the tornado path.

I followed the rubble compass back through the business section into a several-block-wide, low-end residential area (bordered by the middle school) that had been hammered. Dozens of homes and the school itself were damaged. Workers used the parking lot of the latter as a staging area for reconstruction.

Restoring power lines

I felt conscientious about gawking where people had been killed or were trying to salvage their houses. I tried to be discreet by taking pictures from inside the car or where no one was around. The roaming sheriff cars were an additional reminder to keep a low profile.

Church remains (note the overturned vehicle in the middle

I've never been in a destroyed area so soon after a disaster. The devastation is much more striking in person than it appears on TV. It's awe-inspiring witnessing how intense natural forces can transform property and trees--which took many years in the making--into rubble piles in a few seconds. I recommend that you avoid being caught in a tornado, if at all possible.

All in all, it was an eventful day. I enjoyed the spring ride in the tri-state area (except for the part that got cut off). And encountering the storm damage made me even more thankful that I had a couch awaiting at home to relax on.

Tour de Dogwoods (2011)

It's spring in Knoxville. Last week I rode around a few west side neighborhoods, taking pictures. They don't do it justice.

Jean Teague Greenway

West Hills

Westmoreland Trail

Tennessee River

Sequoyah Hills

Brief Escape

Why do I cycle?
If I push myself, I can
drop life's frustrations.