My good friend “Rocket Man” asked me to distribute the following article. We’ve engaged in several VERY LONG conversations on the subject, while exploring the realm of anaerobia during long ascents. Any similarity between Rocket Man’s writing style and my own is purely coincidental. -Tom Sheffield

Rocket Man's Ride Ratings

bicycle chain

When they’re not riding, cyclists are capable of eloquent communication. Prior to a pickup ride, they often become very philosophical about route selections. “I ain’t ridin no Century today…No Way!” During post-ride bull sessions, they will utilize their robust vocabulary to extol the virtues of their latest space-age cycling hardware. “That there tube is genuine butyl rubber.”

However, during a ride these highly literate individuals regress to their pre-historic roots. Conversations on a climb such as Sauratown Mountain are typically reduced to “Oohs”, “Aahs”, and “Ughs”. To the uninitiated, eavesdropping on these conversations is about as useful as trying to understand a convenience store cashier, but it’s the native language of veteran cyclists. Since this unique vocabulary is the basis for ranking my favorite rides, I’ve provided some examples below.

“Oohs” are the “wow factor” for a ride. Before I started cycling, a non-cyclist told me about an annual event where hundreds of cyclists would ride their bikes to the top of Mt Mitchell. I was impressed – and that was before he told me that they started the ride over one hundred miles away in Spartanburg, SC.

When non-cyclists join in conversations about century rides, they typically ask how many days it takes to ride 100 miles. Among cyclists, ride duration is always a major topic of conversation - and pride. Merit badges are awarded to those who finish many mountain centuries, and they are well deserved, but once you’ve completed a century, your cycling “friends” will want to hear about your fastest century. The “wow factor” of your response will certainly depend on which route, and the year that it was ridden. For example: a response of 5 hours and 56 minutes is greeted with “Ooh”, only if you follow that up with “in the 2001 Bridge-to-Bridge”. If you want to get a similar response for a ride in the Triangle area, you need to reduce the duration of the ride by at least and hour. For example: “4 hours and 36 minutes in the 2000 Tour de Moore century.”

I’ve had many conversations with sightseers in the parking lot at the top of Pilot Mountain during which they questioned the sanity of anyone who would ride up that mountain on a bike. Upon learning that it was only the midway point of a 60-mile ride that also includes climbs of Sauratown Mt and Hanging Rock, they quickly move away from me while shaking their heads and suggesting that my next climb should be a visit to Dix Hill.

“Ughs” are the ride experiences you’d rather forget. Imagine riding to the best of your ability for 80 miles, and after you’ve settled into a respectable rhythm while climbing NC80, a SAG volunteer on a motorcycle pulls up beside you and cheerfully announces that “the leaders have just passed the Mt Mitchell park entrance”. Later - shortly after reaching the Blue Ridge Parkway - you start a long, gradual climb that seems to go on forever. At the top, you look off to your right and see that you’re almost at the same altitude as the peak of Mt Mitchell, and then you take an extremely fast (and cruel) downhill plunge, during which you come to the realization that you’re going to have to regain all of that altitude before you finish the ride.

A list of “Ughs” must include the ride’s “fear factor”. I’m not talking about negotiating “blind” switchback curves, or screaming (literally) downhill in excess of 50mph. What really scares me are big, fast moving, packs of cyclists, many of whom have never ridden in a pack of any size. When you add oncoming traffic to the mix, with the resulting accordion (slowing, skidding, stopping) action in the pack, you have a perfect recipe for nervously expending 50% of your precious energy during the first 25% of the ride.

Traffic is a “fact of life” for a road cyclist. In the Triangle we “share the road” with a steadily growing population of drivers, so a truly great route will maximize the use of less traveled roads.

Routes come in three basic flavors. Listed in my order of preference they are: Loop, Out-and-back, and Point-to-point. Presuming that a suitable cue sheet or map is available to provide directions, the Loop and Out-and-back rides have the logistical advantage of ending at the same location where they start, while the Point-to-point ride requires the rider to make arrangements for transportation to be available at the end of the ride. This is a major inconvenience; especially on rides such as AoMM where weary and cramping riders must endure a long and sometimes nauseating van ride back to Marion.

“Aahs” are the pleasant attributes of a ride. During the 2001 “Blood, Sweat, & Gears” ride, I was greeted at the top of Snake Mountain by a SAG volunteer offering an ice-cold bottle of water. Not having to stop to fill my water bottles was like having my own personal SAG, and that cold bottle in my jersey pocket certainly felt good resting against my aching back during the descent.

Another great SAG experience happened during the 1999 “Blue Ridge Brutal”. While I was waiting for traffic to clear so I could turn left onto US221 (85 miles into the ride), a SAG volunteer came over to me carrying a tray of fruit and cookies, as if he were a waiter in a restaurant. Just before I reached that SAG stop at the entrance to US221, I had the pleasure of riding along the New River on the “Historic Todd” Railroad Grade. While I’m not sure why Todd is “Historic”, I always feel a sense of personal accomplishment when I reach that uniquely beautiful segment of the ride.

The “Hilly Hellacious Hundred” route briefly skirts the edge of Lake Lure. It offers a brief, but scenic interlude, during a ride that is appropriately named.

Ride the “Roan Moan” in August and at the lower altitudes you’ll be treated to the blur of many purple and yellow flowers typically seen in late summer, but on the upper slopes of Roan Mountain you’ll find flowers (eg. daisies) that you’re more accustomed to seeing in early summer.

As your car is gasping for air while you’re driving up Grandfather Mountain on your way to walk across the mile-high swinging bridge, consider riding your bike for 100 miles before you get to the park entrance on US221, and then using your oxygen deprived mind to convince your cramping muscles to haul your sweaty body to the finish line at the top of the mountain. With several switchbacks left to negotiate, you’ll begin to hear the cheers of encouragement from spectators and fellow cyclists that grow louder as you slowly climb toward the finish. Regardless of whether they finish first or far back in the pack, each cyclist receives this boisterous and well-deserved reward.

Ride Ratings
Accounting for all of the above, these are my Top-10 rides:

  1. Bridge-to-Bridge (Century)
  2. Three Mountain Metric (aka Triple Hump)
  3. Blue Ridge Brutal (Century)
  4. Assault on Mount Mitchell (Century)
  5. Blood, Sweat, & Gears (Century)
  6. The Roan Moan (Metric +)
  7. Triple Headed Snake (Metric)
  8. Blowing Beech (Metric)
  9. Tour de Moore (Century)
  10. Hilly Hellacious Hundred (Century)

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