Blue Ridge Parkway 2019: The Pilgrims' Progress
THE PILGRIMS’ PROGRESS 2020
Have you ever seen the
Blue Ridge Mountains boy
Or the Chatahoochee
To the Honeysuckle Blue
~ Kevin Kinney
Nature abhors a vacuum, so the Uncola Tour 2020 rushed in to fill a small space in the enormous void left by Covid-19, slipping quietly onto the calendar and promising its participants a savage, long distance romp through the ancient deciduous forests and steeply sloped gaps of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Flying Frenchman Cyril Deseveux, the Left Leaning German Erik Gruenwedel, the Hillbilly from the Holler Frank Crumley, and the Suave Sophisticate Yours Truly initially planned to travel to Colorado to take part in the epic Double Triple Bypass Bike Ride, a 120-mile bike ride ridden twice—out-and-back—over two days through the high mountains between Evergreen and Avon. And after covering 240 miles over two days and climbing three iconic passes twice, we planned to decamp to Steamboat Springs where we would throw down three 100-mile gravel rides over the course of three days. The Colorado sortie promised to be another top shelf adventure, but alas, Covid-19 thwarted our plans. But while sheltering in place, isolated from the rest of mankind, the weeks started to stack up, a touch of madness set in, and in the crucible of the pandemic, the Uncola Tour was forged.
The Uncola Tour 2020 was slated to be a 4-day voyage, starting and ending in Athens, that would cover over 400 miles and ascend a total of 34,000 feet—if we weren’t going to Colorado the proxy need be a worthy substitute. The 4-day loop headed in a straight line north- by-northeast on Day 1 for 135 miles to Brevard, North Carolina, a raucous start. Crumley, who confirmed he was horse crazy as far back as 2017 when he mapped the cross-country course, also charted the Day 1 route, which boasted over 10,000 feet of vertical climbing and was pegged as the Queen Stage—so much for easing into the debacle. The parcours on Day 1 rolled up and down like a stormy sea until Mile 110, where it kicked up for 8 miles to Highway 64 and the ridgeline on which Brevard is situated. On Day 2 the route climbed up into the clouds and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway via the iconic Highway 215 from Rosman, and from there we planned to ride the last 50 miles of the BRP to the southern terminus in Cherokee, where we would seek refuge for the night. Day 2 was only 85 miles in length but we faced two Monster Climbs and 9,500 feet of climbing—comparable to Day 1 but 50 miles less roadway. On Day 3 we would pedal back down into Georgia, tackling two more Monster Climbs, cruising through downtown Highlands, and descending past Sky Valley along the way. After descending into Georgia, we’d pedal around Lake Burton and over to Helen the hilly way, where we planned to bed down for the night. Day 3 would be another day of distress and unease as it tipped the scales at 106 miles with another 10,000 feet of climbing. The final stage, Day 4, would see our triumphant return to Athens on an 80-mile day with only 4,500 feet of climbing, a well-earned reward after three days of toil and tumult. Though the Uncola Tour 2020 would tax our bodies, pedaling through the rippled terrain deep in the backwoods of the Blue Ridge Mountains would be soul food for our psyches, a counterbalance to a bizarre and turbulent year. In fact, as we were readying to leave, Covid-19 was spiking again, and the Black Lives Matter movement continued to gain ground in long strides, leaps and bounds.
We recruited a sag driver because like barnacles on a ship’s hull, with age comes a cement-like attachment to certain creature comforts, and divesting myself of said amenities at this late stage is a preposterous notion. I require hot coffee in the morning, cold beer at night, and decent food in between, including an adequate supply of fresh ground peanut butter and dark chocolate, preferably with a touch of sea salt. And a hot shower, a firm bed, ice cold Gatorade during the ride, my special non-toxic deodorant, clean clothes, air conditioning at night, a lounge chair to sit in during rest stops, and a post-ride massage. Also, I can’t possibly go without comfortable sandals because I have tender feet, and I need clean socks every day and a fresh pair of underwear every night. The motel should also have a washing machine and a pool, but other than these basics, I need nothing, I’m a simple man…except nail clippers, I can always use nail clippers, I like neat, trim nails. Dirt under one’s nails is unsanitary and reflects poorly on a person’s character.
The final results for the Uncola Tour would not be decided by a pilgrim’s total time, and in fact, the point of this excursion was not to arrive first. The object of the Uncola Tour was to slow down and absorb our magisterial mountain environs, to savor each pedal stroke while simultaneously pushing our bodies to the limits of possibility. We are travelers who seek experiences outside our comfort zones, pilgrims on a sacred journey, not tourists who stay within the comfortable confines of the main thoroughfare. The fact that I was the least fit of the four pilgrims, still becoming accustomed to a fancy new titanium rod affixed to my left femur, undoubtedly influenced my hopes for a more benign Tour, but I dared not utter a word, the other pilgrims will circle like sharks as soon as they smell blood.
On a serious note, we thought long and hard about our safety, and the safety of our families, before embarking on this trip because of the risks of contracting Covid-19. We did not plan on stopping at any stores during the four days because we have a sag car, so our main contact with other people will be when checking into motels and eating, and we planned to take extreme precautions during these encounters by taking our own food and eating out only at night, outside on a patio. We all believed we could complete this trip safely, and though we knew the Uncola Tour might kill us, be damned if Covid-19 would! We packed our bags, stuffed a cooler with ice cold drinks, each filled a big bag with dry food, and left spare wheels in the garage at Yours Truly’s house. The sag driver would pick the items up on his way to meet us the next morning, all we had to do was wake up and roll.
Day 1: Athens > Brevard (Wednesday / 8 July)
The queen stage of the Uncola Tour proved to be a beast as the Pilgrims tallied 135 miles and 10,200 feet of climbing as they drove north into the Blue Ridge Mountains and their Day 1 destination at the Sunset Motel in Brevard. And though the forecast predicted rain by afternoon, the Pilgrims managed to finish their long march without a droplet pattering off their helmets. In fact, not only did the roads remain dry for the entirety of the misadventure, but Old Sol was roaring late in the day, blazing like a fiery furnace stuffed with bone dry kindling. When the temperature topped 90 degrees approaching Mile 110, the percipient Frenchman sensed cracks forming in the other Pilgrims’ shells and he dropped the Belgian Hammer at the base of the day’s 8-mile Monster Climb. Strife and discord followed as the others tried to match his torrid tempo, and though the Hillbilly hung nearly the entire ascent, a hammer-blow of heat eventually enveloped his head. By the time the others reached the top of the crushing climb at the Continental Divide, the Frenchman was on the ground doing pushups while the other three Pilgrims were suffering from a medley of ailments including heat stroke, extreme cramping and the shiver-shakes, but thankfully the sag driver was waiting again with ice cold drinks. While three of us attempted to recover from the body shock of the first Monster Climb, the Frenchman surveyed the damage and was pleased at the wholesale slaughter. Yours Truly swore a solemn oath to give up French fries for the remainder of the Tour.
The Pilgrims hoisted anchor and set sail at 6:30 AM on Day 1 just as daylight dawned, and as they pedaled north on Milledge, they were joined for the first 15 miles by the Flying Stork Mike Edmonds, who is looking fit and trim and built for speed. The Pilgrims, single-file and muzzle to muzzle, took long turns at the front, sharing the day’s enormous workload and hoping to conserve strength for the push into the mountainous terrain of Transylvania County and the Land of Waterfalls. Around Mile 50 the Pilgrims passed Mount Curahee outside Toccoa and continued their push northeast into terra incognita and roads not ridden before, rural backroads with low traffic and plenty of green trees, pastures and cows. Though it was cool and comfortable when they left Athens, the temperature began to climb into the 80s as the Pilgrims rode over Prather Bridge, which spans the Tugaloo River, and crossed into South Carolina at Mile 62.
The roads in this section of Oconee County, South Carolina are choked with steep hills and run through bosky, green backwoods and narrow, shoulder-less roads. There had been so much rain during the spring that the lawless vegetation on each side of the road was intruding onto the asphalt; grass was creeping onto the outer two inches of blacktop on each side, narrowing the already narrow lane even more. Long stretches through this section were only a thin sliver that ran like a ribbon through a riot of giant bushes, green grasses and tall trees with overhanging branches that stand only a few feet from the road and created a cool, verdant tunnel to ride through. The tall trees and the thick vegetation not only provided shelter from the direct impact of the sun, they created a cool, temperate clime, a safe haven from the typical July Georgia heat and humidity that can smother, suffocate and kill.
At Mile 85, the four Pilgrims progressed to Walhalla, where they met the sag driver for the first of many Sag-Wagon-Courtesy-Stops to follow. When we pulled into the parking lot in downtown Walhalla where the sag was waiting, we saw four lounge chairs arranged in a semi-circle beneath a shaded oak, and the back hatch of the big blue Ford truck, our sag wagon, was open and a sweating cooler with ice cold drinks sat on the lowered tailgate. No matter how verdant the damn forest was, this was July in Georgia, Brothers and Sisters, and after five hours in the heat and humidity we were thirsty, hot, tired, cranky and sore, so when we saw the sight described, Lefty thought he heard angels singing, but quickly he realized heaven, for him, could only be a dream. The sag stops were a luxury throughout the trip and we scarfed down bananas, turkey and cheese wrapped in lettuce, protein bars, ice cold drinks, all while sitting in lounge chairs.
The Pilgrims reluctantly left the shade and pushed on from Walhalla after a little gentle nudging from Hillbilly and continued on rippled roads featuring short but steep climbs. There were few flat sections and the punchy hills came in constant waves so by the time the Pilgrims reached the base of the first Monster Climb of the Tour at Mile 110, they already had amassed over 8,000 vertical feet. We traveled on the Cherokee Scenic Highway (Highway 11) for a 9-mile stretch beforehand, which wasn’t a horrible experience, but it was the busiest stretch of the day, and it was a relief when we turned off. While approaching the Monster Climb, the sky turned purple and bruised and the predicted rain looked like it was destined to fall. But we were already 110 miles in, and with only 25 miles to go, we’d dodged the bullet for most of the day already, so we plunged forward with no hesitation onto the dénouement of Day 1, the climb up the Moorefield Memorial Highway into North Carolina and beyond.
As we pedaled up the climb, instead of rain, the sun broke clear and bore down like a boss. As long as we pressed the accelerator gently we could avoid overheating, but the Frenchman reminded me in a subtle way that some folks like himself have turbochargers in their genetic makeup that deliver maximum engine output while others, like myself, prefer the traditional aspirated route, which can lead to choking, wheezing, shortness of breath and death. In other words, the Frenchman turned the heat up even higher by lighting a fire on the lower section of the climb, and the effort to match his pace required an enormous outpouring of power and energy, which after seven hours in the saddle was a cumbersome demand. Hillbilly was the last to succumb to the relentless push by the Frenchman, nearly making it to the crest before being overpowered by the sizzling heat. Lefty and Yours Truly rolled over the top in drips and drabs and after a good cry, we took the short plunge down into Rosman.
From Rosman we hopped on Highway 64 and rode 6 miles into Brevard where after 8 hours, thirty minutes (actual ride time), the Sunset Motel beckoned like a lighthouse. That evening we ate outside on a picnic table at Oskar Blues and naturally Yours Truly wolfed down a socially distanced bacon cheeseburger and a stout ice-cold beer to kill the pain. And after staring at my plateful of warm crinkle-cut French fries, straining to honor my vow, my resolve waned, I cracked, and I ate every one, cursing the Eiffel Tower with every bite.
Day 2: Brevard > Cherokee (Thursday / 9 July)
Day 2 of the Uncola Tour promised to be another Homeric epic as the Pilgrims were slated to ride from Brevard to Cherokee via the Blue Ridge Parkway. Though the trek only clocked in at 85 miles, it boasted two Monster Climbs plus a Baby Brute, and the total elevation gain was over 9,000 feet, close to the Day 1 tally but 50 miles less in distance—the Frenchman couldn’t help but smile. The Pilgrims would also have an opportunity to ride the last 50 miles of the Parkway to its southern terminus outside Cherokee, a section renowned for its splendor, magnificence, and abundance of scenic overlooks. This was destined to be another monumental day, one Yours Truly approached with fear and trembling.
We rolled away from the Sunset Motel at 7:30 AM and it was cool and cloudy, so we all slipped on arm warmers. Today we expected to be pummeled by the rain we’d artfully dodged the day before, especially as we were headed higher into the clouds and further back among the peaks, but we hoped to pedal a healthy distance before we were soaked—rain at this elevation, even in summer, can be either cool and refreshing or cold and miserable. We rode Highway 64 back towards Rosman and only 8 miles into the day’s festivities, turned onto Highway 215, an iconic but lesser-known North Carolina climb. Highway 215 ascends from Rosman for 17 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway and gains 3,000 feet in elevation along the way, over 2.000 feet coming in a 7 mile stretch—this was not only the longest climb of the Uncola Tour, but it gained the most elevation of any also. Yours Truly had good reason to fear and better to tremble.
Highway 215 tilts up immediately and when I shifted into my small ring I knew right away all power in my legs had abandoned me, fled back to the lowlands on the first bus; the effort from the day before had drained my tank, my poor quads were crushed. I had no choice but to hoist the white flag of surrender and kick back and climb the mountain at turtle tempo. The other three Pilgrims quickly rounded a bend in the distance and rode out of sight, leaving me to fight my own battle, so I focused on soaking in the spectacular scenery and savoring the experience, which meant I needed to find a rhythm to both my pedaling and my breathing—this climb takes between 1.5 and 2 hours to tackle and my quest for a kind of pedaling quietism was made easier by the natural world surrounding me.
Highway 215 cuts through a dense, green forest—there are no commercial establishments on this road and none on the Parkway. Bushy, green trees provided a leafy overhead canopy and kept me cool for several miles as I pedaled, but as the road climbed, streaks of sunshine began to splash the road with light. The oaks which cover the shaded lower slopes gave way to a cool spruce and fir forest as I climbed, which is typical in the higher elevations not only in this region, but in many mountain environs. Spruce and fir forests are usually peaceful places that lie far from commercial centers and mass consumerism, and to arrive in a mountain forest usually means Yours Truly has undertaken an epic journey, making the experience even more memorable. Japanese scientists have shown that immersing oneself in nature, even for short periods, is restorative for the mind and body, and urbanites who practice “forest bathing” report green settings have positive effects on mood, stress, self-esteem, fatigue, and feelings of depression. And since we’re preaching, now is a good time to repeat what environmental iconoclast Edward Abbey once said: “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” Can I have an “Amen,” Brothers and Sisters, and feel free to stamp your feet.
The higher slopes of Highway 215 also have long sections where sheer rock walls tower on the left only a few feet from the edge of the blacktop while on the right a spacious, green valley rippled with hills and smaller mountaintops roll away in the distance for several miles. A gauzy blue hue colors the ridges in the distance, providing the inspiration behind the name “Blue Ridge.” In some of the higher sections of roadway there is a guardrail and in other sections there is not, so woe to the cyclist who gazes out over the valley and continues to ride. Highway 215 intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway at Beech Gap (5,300 feet), and when I turned onto the motor road and saw the sag car, I knew I could survive—I had stayed within my limits on the climb and could ride to survive for the rest of the day. The others had waited too and after taking in fuel, we began our 50-mile pedal on the Parkway—this section was the apogee of the four-day loop, the pièce de résistance of the entire trip; this 50-mile stretch of roadway was the reason we’d come this way.
As we pedaled along the ridge on the Parkway dark clouds gathered quickly and we all slipped on our rain jackets for the first time, and though we didn’t know it at the time, it would be the last. We pedaled by the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway (6,053 feet) and I pulled over for a quick photo so I could prove I was here. In the photo I am smiling, and the roads are dry, but the sky is darkening. As soon as we snapped the shot the smile morphed into a serious expression and I hurried away—I knew rain was coming: Dickens be damned, there would be no artful dodging today. Along this section of the Parkway there are dozens of overlooks with stunning views and though we were hustling, we soaked it all in. The sag driver drove ahead and periodically pulled off at an overlook and waited until we road by—like a mother hen he was looking after his flock.
And then the other shoe did drop. Just before we launched ourselves down one of the longest, steepest and fastest descent of the Tour, it started to rain, and as we started the drop, the rain clobbered us; it came down in sheets, the proverbial Noachian deluge. But thankfully, it was a cool and refreshing rain and we weren’t bothered in the least. “Watch this,” Hillbilly said, just before he dove down the mountain like a fired bullet. Though this two-word, two-syllable phrase has been used to impugn the character of good southern folk and to sully the reputation of those from Appalachia, Hillbilly turned the tables and jumped away with the speed and strength of a wild boar. Rain was no impediment to Hillbilly as he dropped out of sight and rode away. “It must be his density,” we all agreed. The rain did let up to a steady pour and the Parkway is engineered so its roads have big, sweeping turns, allowing a rider to let go of his brakes and fly, even on wet roads, so we did—we tucked and sailed for a very long time.
There are three massive descents on this 50-mile section of the Parkway, separated by a Monster Climb and a Baby Brute. The first descent, which the Pilgrims completed in the rain, lost roughly 2,700 feet over 10 miles, a stupendous amount. And descending, especially in the rain, requires immense effort and extreme concentration—it’s not the respite some assume it is. The effort comes in tensing the body and holding it taut, gripping the bars hard, holding the neck down and the head up, the elbows and arms pressed against one’s ribs, centering one’s gravity by balancing on the pedals, lifted ever so slightly off the seat, tucked into one tightly curled position for an extended period—try holding a difficult Yoga pose for 30 minutes with no break for a comparison. But your life isn’t hanging in the balance during a Yoga pose, and it is when you are flying down a mountain at nearly 50 miles an hour, so one must remain laser focused. When a cyclist is climbing, he can afford to shut down mentally and allow his mind to drift, but no such luxuries are permitted when scorching down a steep mountain road.
The Pilgrims also rode through half-a-dozen tunnels on the Parkway while they pedaled in the rain. When the Pilgrims hit the tunnels, they had no idea how long each was, and the first dark entrance sprang into view with little warning as we rounded a wet corner on a downhill. The three other Pilgrims were together and hit the first tunnel and were swallowed in darkness—they couldn’t see the other end and they had no time to turn on their lights the entrance was upon them so fast. Like three blind men they somehow made it through the 60 second ordeal and popped out the other side no worse for the wear. Yours Truly, who was hanging back, allowed the sag car to enter the tunnel first and I followed the red taillights, and I pulled the same maneuver on the remaining five. But the rest of the tunnels weren’t long and light could be seen on the other end when first entering, allowing safe passage. The tunnels were just another added bit of spice to this incredible motor road.
By the time the Pilgrims reached the second Monster Climb of the day at Mile 45, the rain had abated and Old Sol was humming in a white cloud sky. The second Monster ascended nearly 2,400 feet over the course of 7 miles, a significant obstacle, and one of the five major climbs of the Tour. The smooth asphalt on the Parkway continued to slice through a mountainous wilderness filled with tall trees and large boulders on the side of the road in this section, however, the grass along the border of the road is well-manicured along the entire BRP giving a traveler the feeling one is in an outdoor sanctuary. At the top of the 7-mile climb, pulled over in a paved parking lot with a spectacular view, stood the sag driver with 4 lounge chairs arranged in friendly fashion. The sun was shining, the drinks were cold, food was fuel, and the Pilgrims were happy—it was one of the best sag stops of the Tour.
After a 1,400-foot drop, we climbed the 3-mile Baby Brute at Mile 59, gaining 700 feet, then we dropped down the steepest grade of the Tour, losing 3,000 feet in 10 miles. We all flew down at supersonic speed, though once again, Crumley outdistanced us all. Though this descent was hair-raising, it was nothing but a party because the major climbs for the day were done, always a reason to celebrate. At the bottom, we exited the Parkway and rolled through downtown Cherokee and began a fast-paced run to our motel, which was about 7 miles out of town, and required multiple crossings back and forth across the broad Ocanaluftee River. We were excited to be headed to the hotel, so the Left Leaning German drilled it full tilt boogie like it was the last kilo of a race, and we raced beside a brown, fast-flowing river which was at times on our right and other times on our left. We even scurried down a dirt road for a mile at one point before eventually popping out at the Two Rivers Motel, a one story structure with front doors that open into the parking lot, my favorite type of lodging on a cycle-tour. Clouds had rolled back in by this time, the temperature dropped, and a rainbow formed like a multicolored halo in the sky. Ricardo made post-ride expressos and we agreed life was good, life is good.
That evening we ate outside and had a less than memorable meal in Bryson City, which was only 5 miles away, but the less than stellar meal didn’t detract from the luster of the day. When we returned to Two Rivers, we limped to our rooms and called it a day. That night I stuck pins in a tiny kewpie doll named Cyril that I carry around with me. My voodoo magic didn’t appear to be working so far but stabbing long pins into Cyril’s kneecaps provided temporary satisfaction.
Day 3: Cherokee > Helen (Friday / 10 July)
It’s difficult if not impossible to rank one day over the rest on the Uncola Tour, but if a gun was placed to my head and I was forced to answer, I’d pick Day 3, though going in, the third stage was a giant question mark. Crumley mapped and had ridden Day 1 on two prior occasions, and Day 2 involved only two roads for the majority of the ride, one being the Parkway, so we knew in advance the first two days were top shelf routes highly suitable for cycling. And on Day 4 we were back on well-known roads for most of the day, but Day 3 was a patchwork quilt of unknown roads cobbled together that zigged here and zagged there in favor of more rural byways. I used every mapping skill I’d ever mastered plotting routes over the past 40 years stitching together a route from Cherokee to Helen that was safe, scenic and challenging, and it was on Stage 3 that I secured the award of Best Mapper, even though I prefer the title “5 Points Resident Gentleman Cartographer.” Regardless, I deserved a damn medal, so I created a category, and gave myself one. As the Frenchman said, “Without a map, we all stay home.”
Day 3 measured 106 miles with another 10,000 feet of climbing, and to borrow Hobbes’s famous phrase, was “nasty and brutish,” but certainly not short. The profile showed two more Monster Climbs on the day’s route along with a dozen or more sharp Baby Bumps, but there was ample descending, and the majority of the uphill came in the first half of the ride. For the third day in a row, the Pilgrims were climbing the equivalent of the famed Six Gap Century ride in North Georgia, a total of nearly 30,000 feet for the first 3 days, gargantuan numbers even by Pantagruelian standards. True, that’s about the height of Mount Everest, and the kindred spirits who summit the tallest peak in the world walk or climb to the top instead of using a (human-powered) mechanical aid, but they take two months to do so; we accomplished the feat in 3 days, so put that in your peace pipe and choke on it. I try to be humble but sometimes it’s hard, my horn starts blaring, the damn thing sticks, and it won’t shut-off no matter how hard my wife presses the clicker.
Pedaling out from Two Rivers early Friday morning after indulging in morning expressos, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Though I generally don’t believe in magic, I threw a little salt over my shoulder and stepped out my front door backwards, just in case. Again, it was cloudy and cool and we all donned arm warmers and the first 20 miles of the route we rode again beside the broad, brown waters of the Ocanaluftee River as it wended it way in serpentine fashion to its mouth at the Tuckasegee River. The first 20 miles were also relatively flat, which gave us over an hour to warm up before hitting the lower slopes of the first Monster Climb, which came around Mile 22.
After motoring beside the Ocanaluftee for over an hour on a desolate, meandering road, and riding by the campus of Western Carolina, we turned away from the river and shortly began the ascent up Mount Cullowhee via Tilley Creek Road, a steep 5-mile climb that gained almost 1,700 feet in elevation. The sun exploded into view above the horizon as we climbed through the brilliant green wilderness on Tilley Creek and smoky clouds floated in the tops of trees. Tilley Creek also features a series of switchbacks near the top where a Pilgrim can look down at his feet and see the road he’s just climbed below curling back on itself. We topped out at Cullowhee Gap around Mile 28 and began a super-steep 7-mile drop that lost 1,600 feet. I feathered the brakes the grade was so severe while the other Pilgrims dropped like falling bombs. At the bottom, we regrouped and began a trek down Ellijay Road as it ran beside and sometimes crossed the rambling waters of Ellijay Creek on its tumble down the mountain.
Outside Franklin, we briefly hopped onto Highway 64 for 3 miles before turning off at Mile 41 and beginning the assault up the last Monster Climb of the Tour, a vicious 10-mile ascent of Buck Creek Road that gained over 2,000 feet in elevation. At the top of Buck Creek we planned to work our way into Highlands through a backdoor. It was hot and dry as we began the climb, and again, Super Cyril could not hold back as he powered away into the clouds. Behind, the 3 other Pilgrims settled into a rhythm and did their best to keep the Flying Frenchman on a short leash, but he was off the chain and climbing like a goat, stamping an exclamation point on his Best Climber award. As the Flying Frenchman faded to a speck, we spat on the ground and cursed Emmanuel Macron.
It was sunny, crowded and hot as we inched our way through traffic in downtown Highlands and onto the 14-mile descent to Dillard, passing by Scaly Mountain and Sky Valley and crossing back into Georgia on the way. Friday afternoon traffic was fairly heavy on the Dillard Road as weekenders and vacationers fled the lowlands to the mountains and this stretch of roadway is one I wouldn’t repeat, especially on a Friday afternoon, but we rode safely in single-file fashion, blitzing down the blacktop at over 40 miles-per-hour the entire way. At the bottom, we were joined by another Pilgrim, Farmer G Greg Schisla of Murphy, N.C. fame. Farmer G had parked in Helen and ridden the route for 40 miles to meet us; now he’d turn around and ride back. The sun was shining, the major climbs were behind us, and Farmer G was in the house: Life was good, life is good, as I’ve mentioned before.
Though the major climbs were behind us, significant bumps remained, and the final 30 mile run to Helen boasted several significant hurdles including the abrupt 1 kilo climb up Blue Ridge Gap, the multiple sharp hills on Charlie Mountain Road, and the vertical wall that is Burton Dam Hill—in other words, the hits kept coming. We must have been excited knowing the Monsters were in the rearview mirror because we hit it hard on all the aforenamed baby bumps, standing and stomping and rocking from side-to-side, momentarily forgetting we were brothers-in-arms, trying to inflict a fatal blow. But it was all in good fun, though we did push ourselves into the red zone late in the ride on this difficult day, and rolling into the Unicoi Lodge outside Helen at the end of the 6.5 hour day (actual ride time), we all knew we’d just taken part in another epic event. Once again, we’d journeyed beyond ourselves and into an outer realm where few dare to tread.
That evening we ate outside again at a restaurant near the river and I ate my third socially distanced cheeseburger and a plateful of fries. I also drank a 24-ounce Tropicalia in a special plastic gift mug—apparently a patron could take the mug to bars in Helen later that night and obtain discounts on certain brands of draft beer. Word in Helen the next morning was that some tall German with a tan was seen stumbling down the street the night before, spilling beer from a plastic gift mug and cursing “some fool named Crumley, some heathen called Crowe, and the entire region of Champagne.” I thought the criticisms were fair, other than the slander directed at me. That night, with 24 ounces of high-octane beer sloshing through my bloodstream, and over 100 miles in my legs, and while Lefty cruised the streets of downtown Helen, gift mug in hand, I slept snug as a bug in a rug, a fat cat bedded down by a warm, cozy fire. Imagine my shock when at 6 AM the next morning I was startled awake by Hillbilly banging on my door yelling, “Wake up, girls, it’s time to go home.”
Day 4: Helen > Home (Saturday / 11 July)
Day 4 was a victory parade, a final 80-mile run to Athens with a modest 4,500 feet of climbing, and with more downhill than up. We left Helen early and cruised down Main Street and out the southern end of town, turning left at the Native American burial mound, and headed for home. It was warm early and hot quickly. We cruised through Alto, flew down the Triple Stairstep, and cut through Commerce, where we were joined by yet another journeyman, the Running Man Sir Brad Frink. We cruised home beneath the scorching heat, happy, content and satisfied. We pedaled through downtown Athens and down Milledge Avenue and finish the Uncola Tour in my driveway. The final stage took 4.5 hours to ride and the sag again provided comfort and support.
We totaled 405 miles and 34,000 feet of climbing over the course of four days in the Uncola Tour 2020, and the other Pilgrims pushed me beyond my limits. But when the trip was over, it’s only the good times my mind remembers, but Brothers and Sisters, my body remembers the pain, but that was another main point. The Uncola Tour was one of the hardest four days I have ever experienced on a bike, but four days I’ll never forget, four days I am happy to have shared with a few like-minded friends, all Pilgrims, like me.
Best Climber: Cyril (the Frenchman)
Best Descender: Crumley (Hillbilly)
Best All Round: Erik (Lefty, the German)
Best Mapper: Crowe (5 Points Gentleman Cartographer)