I’ve grown to trust my bikes, though I didn’t always. I used to fear the carbon fork would splinter when I hit a bump sending me face first into the asphalt, I used to fear the headtube would snap off sending me cart wheeling to my doom, and most of all I used to fear my front tire would exploded causing loss of control and a skid over the guard rail to the hazy depths below. The countless wicked Southern Illinois down hills helped alleviate me of these fears then when I rode the Bicycle Tour of Colorado and saw what actual mountain descents were like I thought I was cured for good. It turns out the cure is worse then the disease, fear is healthy.
I went to bed Saturday night going over my plan, leaving at first light and riding up Newfoundland Gap Road to Clingman’s Dome Road climbing 5000 feet to hit the highest point East of the Rocky Mountains. So Sunday morning I got up at 4AM and realized it was way to dark to leave, I got back up at 5AM and it was still dark. I fired up my borrowed laptop and checked the temperature, it was 41. I did throw my arm and leg warmers in the bag, but wasn’t sure if that would be enough. I really wish I’d brought my vest. By 5:30 there was a little light and I started getting dressed. Over my jersey went a 4XL tie-dyed T-shirt from my fattest days, I hoped the neon swirls would make me more noticeable, but the phrase, “cotton kills” kept going through my head. My pockets were stuffed with Cliff Bars and I had some Gatorade in my bottles, and with that I pushed my bike into the elevator and went down.
I put my cap on, then clicked my helmet into place over that. As I said in the past I don’t usually wear a helmet, but considering the 15 miles of downhill I made a risk management decision to wear it.
The morning air chilled me to the bone and my breath wasn’t too far from resembling a steam locomotive as a pedaled my way down route 441 and into the Smokey mountains. Let me put the story on hold for a second to give you a bit of background information.
In 2008 a friend talked me into doing the Bicycle Tour of Colorado despite my insistence that I was far to fat and out of shape. The first day had 3 mountain passes and 15,000 feet of climbing. I made it, but I was short of breath and barely able to turn over the pedals on every climb. I had to stop about once every ten minutes, I was riding around 3 mph with a ridiculously small gear (24×27) and couldn’t catch my breath. I was passed by a really amazing man on a hand cranked bike. It was bad, really bad. The thing was the grades weren’t really that steep, it just seemed like there was something wrong with my lungs. Apparently the 7000+ feet of altitude wasn’t working for me. My main reason for taking my bike on our Anniversary trip was to ride a similar mountain climb and compare. I was going to do 5000 feet of climbing in 20 miles, pretty much solid climbing with the occasional less steep section to rest on. My goal was to get to the top in under 4 hours. Riding back would be a breeze. I figured I could make it back to Gatlinburg in under an hour. This ride would top out at 6500 feet, that was the low point for the Colorado ride.
As I climbed my way up into the mountains I saw the scenery as I never had before, unobstructed views from a bike at 5 mph beats a car trip every time. I began to get worried about fog as I got near 3000 feet, it seemed like I was going to ride into the clouds that were brushing along the mountain tops. All morning it always seemed like the clouds were right above me but I never actually rode into them. I was finding the climb to be pleasantly uneventful. Traffic was very light and gave me plenty of room, I had no problem holding a 5-6 mph average and wasn’t even breathing that hard. I stopped a few times just to stretch and eat, but I never had to stop from fatigue. The slow speed and quiet of being alone gave me plenty of time to admire the engineering of Newfoundland Gap road. There is an amazing section where the road loops over itself like something from a Hot Wheels play set.
I arrived at Newfoundland Gap at 8:14, I’d been riding for about 2 and half hours. I had 7 more miles to go to the top of Clingman’s dome and only another 1000 feet to go up, even though I knew that first couple of miles of Clingman’s Dome road would be downhill. I was stunned to find out that the Dome road was closed to all use for construction; I
stood at the entrance to the road for several minutes thinking about going around the gates to finish my ride. I ultimately decided to continue 5 miles on past Newfoundland Gap on route 441 and turn around, Giving me about 5600 total feet of climbing. These five miles were rough, it was really, really cold. I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes and the steeper grades on the way back were the first time I had to really push myself climbing, but it was still magnitudes easier then Colorado.
After hitting Newfoundland Gap for the second time I began the real 15 mile decent back to Gatlinburg, it was warmer now and I was much more comfortable. I was flying and hitting speeds of around 40 miles an hour. I had to brake all the way through the first curve and then the next as well, I began thinking I was riding to fast. The next curve I though my bike felt a bit odd but I attributed it to nervousness and going just a bit
to fast in the curve. I was catching up to cars, which is always exciting, and heading into the next curve which was much milder then the last ones. This curve felt real weird and I began to think something was wrong, I could barely hear for all the wind in my ears but I thought I heard a lot of noise coming from the front wheel so I began to slow down a bit and rounded the next slight bend. Surprisingly my front wheel began sliding sideways and I jerked it back upright sliding my weight back as far as possible. “Oh shit,” I yelled trying to keep my bike upright as the front wheel keep trying to move laterally.
My worst fears had come true a front tire blowout on a mountain decent. I got stopped and got off my bike, the first thing I noticed was that my front wheel was missing its valve stem. Once I got the tire off I found that the inside valve stem hole had been broken and caved in making it twice as big. I had no way to contact my wife and I had one tube. I bit a section out of the old tube and tore a hole to slide the new valve stem through, I had no idea if it would work but it was the only thing I could think of. I continued down the mountain 13 miles, and rarely ever pedaled, instead riding the brakes to keep my speed under control. I was sure that the tire would blow out and this time I wouldn’t be able to get the bike under control, and if it did blow out I had a long walk back.
I pulled into Gatlinburg with a flat tire, it had been slowly losing air for the last few miles of the ride. My wife was waiting right at the edge of town to cheer me on. I counted my blessings on this ride and related the tale of my brush with disaster, and then we walked back to the motel. When I inspected my tube I found that I had a slow leak and it wasn’t at the new big break near the valve stem. Instead it was in the exact spot where I’d had a front wheel flat last week ago. It looks like my rim strip was loose and allowing the tube to slide under it. Pretty stupid.
So I didn’t make it to Clingman’s Dome, and I nearly wiped out at 30 mph on a mountain. Not exactly what I had in mind when I planned out the ride. But I learned that I can climb a mountain as long as I can breathe. I learned to check and maintain my equipment better. I did the 42 mile ride in a little over 4 hours, and that includes walking a mile back to the motel, even better I didn’t feel to bad after the ride, I drove back to Southern Illinois keeping awake the entire time. So who knows, maybe I’ll get an oxygen chamber and try Colorado again, the sky’s the limit.