About a year and a half ago I realized that I needed to do some climbing in preparation for my first Assault on Mount Mitchell (AoMM). My friends said that Pilot Mountain would be "educational". Before going, I took my backup bike (a Giant CFR-1) to my local bike store (SpinCycle) and had it fitted with a Shimano Ultegra Triple with 52, 42, 30 rings and a 12:27 Cassette. Because I knew the proprietors, I did not have to provide proof that I was over the 40 year age limit that's required for purchasing a triple.(1)
The Pilot Mt. "course" is approximately 2 miles long with 1200 feet of climbing. I was told before going that I should repeat the course until it took longer than 20 minutes to get to the top. My fourth trip to the top took 22 minutes and by that time I was happy to follow that advice. During those 4 ascents I learned that weight distribution is important. I also learned how difficult it is to "keep the rubber side down" when your forward speed is only "one above falling over". Another rider who rode with me that day placed an order for a triple almost immediately upon returning home. Note, I don't believe he met the minimum age requirement, so he had to hang around outside the SpinCycle until he could convince an older gentleman to purchase the triple for him.
Later, while I was sharing my experience with other cyclists I was told that there was a Metric ride that included not only Pilot Mt., but also Hanging Rock and Sauratown Mt. My search for a route description lead me to Ed Downing who provided me with some encrypted directions. It seems that "Oh Mello Velo" uses secret hieroglyphic markings, which can only be deciphered by actually riding the route. I convinced a couple of brave souls to join me in reconnoitering (using dead reckoning) this route and found Ed's directions to be quite accurate and amazingly easy to follow while you're on the road.(2)
There are probably a half-dozen ways to get to Hanging Rock State Park, but no matter which route you choose you should plan on spending at least 2.5 hours getting there from Raleigh. We like to park in the parking lot near the Visitor's Center and, more importantly, near the restrooms (which don't open until precisely 9am). The entrance to the Visitor's Center is on your left, near the top.
The ride starts with a screaming descent (some go fast, some go slow and still scream) with a couple of sharp left-hand turns which heighten your awareness much faster than caffeine. The "rollers"(3) you encounter on Moore's Spring Road, as you pedal toward Sauratown Mt, provide an adequate warm-up. By the time you've ridden the first 100 yards of Sauratown Mt. Road, you'll know that this is a "special" place. While the summit isn't particularly notable (or accessible on a road bike), there are some spectacular views along this 3.2 mile dead-end road. During the ascent you'll see the "Adopt a Highway, Sauratown Mt. Cliff Dwellers" sign. There's a challenging switchback about 1/2 way to the top. As you approach the top on a clear day, you can see Winston-Salem and beyond to your left. Sauratown Mt Road is fairly exposed. During warm weather it's a good idea to get there early in the day. While descending, you'll see views of Hanging Rock Mt that were behind you during the ascent. Note that sightseeing is not recommended while negotiating the switchback during the descent.
The short ride (4.5m) from the base of Sauratown Mt to NC268 is really fun. The hard part (Sauratown Mt.) is behind you, the scenery is great, and the road twists and turns through short climbs and descents. From NC268 to Pilot Mt is a good place to form a pace-line. The scenery is great, with Sauratown on your left and (as the road changes direction) Pilot Mt is liable to show-up anywhere on the horizon ahead or to your right. As you approach Pilot Mountain, beware of unscrupulous riders who have previously ridden this stretch. You'll probably be distracted by the breathtaking scenery (more likely the breathtaking "rollers") and these veterans will steal the "Surry County Line Sprint" from you. Don't worry, it's happened to the best of us. Right Kurt?
I never really appreciated how challenging Pilot Mt is, until my second Bridge-to-Bridge ride a few weeks ago. As I was climbing Grandfather Mountain I realized that Pilot Mt provided great training, without the pressure of the large crowd cheering for you. On a clear day, the view from the parking lot at the top is incredible. Somewhere to the west is Grandfather Mt. and to the southwest is Mt. Mitchell. Here's a benchmark. On one ride, I reached the top of Pilot Mt (the first time) exactly 2 hours after we started at Hanging Rock. The descent is so fast, thrilling, and fun that you're willing to climb to the top again, just for the fun of it. Once is not enough, so we usually do this twice. The water seems to be better at the bottom of the mountain than at the top. Stop at the Visitor's Center and top-off your water bottles on your way out of the park. There's a bathroom there too.
The route from Pilot Mt. back to NC268 is slightly different and you don't completely retrace your inbound route. The "rollers" seem to be tougher in this direction. Probably a close inspection of my Delorme Topo map would show that NC268 is positioned on a ridge top. Anyway, there's a store where you cross NC268 and it's a good place to stop for a break. The last time I was there, they still had a 25 cent drink machine outside. The lady that runs the place once told me how "Water is good for your health". She said that after washing down a long drag on her cigarette with a swig from a water bottle.
After the break, the first 2.5m is pretty easy and mostly down hill. At the bottom, you have the idea that you're at the bottom of a pit (and probably are). At that point, the only way to go is UP, so you do for about 2.5m to get to NC66. There's a pretty neat series of twists and turns on this section that brings you to the intersection with NC268. At this point, you're back to where you initially got on NC268 after you rode Sauratown, but you don't retrace that route. Here you hang a left on NC268 and take it over to NC89. This stretch will remind you of the riding around the Triangle. You can get into a rhythm and once again, it's a nice place to form a pace-line (or in other words, wheel-suck). Along NC89 there's another series of twists and turns that are a lot of fun and you'll cross the Dan River a couple of times. There are a couple of "rollers" along this stretch, so you will not be bored. Eventually you'll see the Hospital which is strategically positioned where you turn onto Hanging Rock State Park Rd. From here you only need to negotiate one large "roller" before a long downhill that brings you back to the entrance of Hanging Rock State Park.
The Hanging Rock climb is about 2 miles long with about 750 feet of climbing. The road is well protected by trees that provide a reasonable amount of shade and block the wind. The middle third of the climb is pretty tough. On the way to the parking lot at the top you get a great view of the mountain lake. If you ride here during the summer, you might want to bring a bathing suit so you can enjoy a refreshing dip prior to your drive home. If you're there after the leaves fall, there are some great views on your right during the ascent. Since you're almost finished, you might as well get your money's worth and give yourself something to talk about during the next club ride. So you get extra credit, not to mention extra fun, for doing this final ascent 3 times.
An average speed of >14mph is very good for this route. On one occasion, we completed this ride in 5.5 hours, with just over 5 hours of riding time.
Here's something to think about on your ride home. Without doing any repeats, this ride, including "rollers" adds up to about 100'/mile over about a Metric. With the repeats, it becomes 125'/mile over approximately 73 miles. Where else can you have that much fun that's only 2.5 hours from Raleigh?
1. Mere mortals have been known to ride this route without a triple. I'd suggest using whatever gearing you normally would use for a "Mountain Century" like AoMM or BtB. If this is your first climbing experience, I'd recommend a 39:26.
2. Maps are available on request. Send me your FAX number or ask me to bring one to a local ride. Better yet, I'd suggest going with a group. Ed leads 2 (or more) rides per year.
3. The definition of a "roller" is dependent on the local topography. By Wake County standards, Purnell Road consists of a series of rollers. Farther west in Lenoir County, Falls Dam hill would be considered a "roller". The bottom line is that you should consider the local topography whenever the section of a route is described as consisting of a series of "rollers". It's also important to consider the "source" of the information.
Page maintained by Tom Sheffield and last
revised on Friday, November 5, 1999.
[ NCBC home page ]