Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Fat tyres abroad

Rather than hit Europe in tour time, as originally planned, this year we ended up in the US instead.  And rather than take the roadies, at Kev's suggestion we lugged the mounties. Destination Charlotte, North Carolina, three hours west of the Indian ocean, two hours east of the southern reaches of the Appalachian mountains, the range that runs down the eastern states, and safely in Republican territory.  Unbelievably it is 20 years since I arrived for my New York sojourn.

After a gruelling 16 hour flight to Dallas, followed by a short connection, we were transformed from chilly Sydney winter to standard southern heat and humidity, which was quite a shock to the system.  Slow fans on the balcony with a cool drink in hand as the cicadas hum.  But Kev and Dee's home was well shaded, air conditioned, and aside from usual jet lag issues, felt comfortable immediately. 

I put the bikes together.  We crammed into cars and headed west to Asheville in the mountains proper, to a palatial cabin to while away the next four days.  Kev, Dee, Lisa, Ham, the Mudge and I were joined by Dee's twin sister Aline and her husband Matt, who was deep in training for Leadville (one of the premier single day mtb classics on the US calendar) just a month away.

We awoke to cooler temperatures and a plan.  Matt was keen for a "6 to 7 hour" hit out and I was deemed most likely to keep up with him.  We left early to beat the heat and made a day of it.  Ham was in need of a rental bike, and Anita was nursing a sprained ankle collected in transit (them airports be dangerous places), so Kev, Ham and Anita made a more relaxed start before hitting a different set of trails.

The ride Matt had planned turned out to be one of the most enjoyable big days out on a bike I've ever experienced.  So good!  Approximately two thirds of it was on fire-roads of various grade and quality, but constantly weaving under a canopy of lovely forest and jungle, crisscrossing meandering streams, which were reminiscent of NZ.  Welcome to the breathtaking beauty of the Pisgah mountain area.  The canopy kept the temperature sane (just).  As we climbed and descended we could feel ourselves punching through micro climes of temperature and humidity, matched by changes in vegetation.  I had no idea that the understorey would be dominated in places by groves of Rhododendrons, some heavily in flower, with plant size coupled to altitude. 

We eventually popped out at a sealed road and climbed to gain the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road which winds its way across the spine of the Appalachian range through Virginia and North Carolina.  Terrific views. We eventually attained our local high point for the day (the highest point on the parkway, approx 5500 ft.... think Charlottes Pass) just as the heavens opened with a taste of what seems to be the daily afternoon thunderstorm.... or two.  As the local saying goes...if you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.  Heading for home we pinned the ears back to descend the best part of 20 km at 40-70 km/hr before plunging back onto fire-roads for the final run home.  125 km in 7 hours with almost 3 km of vert.  So Good.

With Matt's departure, our second day was to be one of whooping it up on singletrack in the Black Mountain area of Pisgah.  The best laid plans got waylaid by the male contingent ignoring the female minority.  And once a few tree-log bridges have been traversed, and bikes carried two dozen times to get through terrain that horses apparently have no trouble with, male logic dictates that pushing on is easier than acknowledging lostness.  In any case, we did eventually get back on track, in the sense that we eventually worked out where we were on the map, and aimed for a track that was reportedly Pisgah's finest, a ridge which descends Black Mountain. Again, it's nearly always worth reading the fine print.

Initially we just assumed that a couple of dozen stairs were the price one pays for single track nirvana.  But these sections of steps went for the best part of 2 km, which was spiced up even more so by all of us being attacked midway by the local chapter of hornets, the benignly named Yellow Jackets.  They certainly packed a wallop! 

We eventually gained the summit ridge before tackling the first of an endless series of muscular descending chutes, the kind that give one the full body workout.  Progress was slow, none of us wanting to break anything, and further hindered by Kev's deflating front wheel.  But the tire change did provide opportunity to marvel at a pile of what we thrillingly assumed might be bear poo (the girls had a bear visit the porch of the lodge the day prior), and which we later realised was more likely deposited by a large cat.....extra incentive not to be dawdling at the back [postscript – no credible recent sightings of mountain lions in the east – bobcat or coyote more likely].  A long time later we finally hit the trail we originally intended on riding, which did indeed provide the flowing magic carpet experience we'd sought in the first place.  But the heat, the wasps, the pounding, and dehydration had all taken their toll.  Four and a half hours for 25 km....not a day we'll forget in a hurry.  We were just happy to get out of there alive.

Day three of riding turned out to be absolutely top shelf.  Brilliantly manicured on the bermed playground of DuPont forest - another part of the Pisgah area.  Just like Rotorua, well worth getting on a plane for in its own right.  So good!  Nuff said. Just pour me another beer.

By this stage another bear had been seen at the lodge, this time by Lisa, who was well on top of most of the birds too.  We bid the lodge farewell and spent another few days in Charlotte, hopping between air conditioned buildings, riding some nice local trails (National Whitewater Centre), birding some lovely local gardens, and staking out bird feeders in Kev and Dee's backyard.  The suburban bird life had Anita, Lisa and myself mesmerised, especially the prospect of good views of ruby-throated hummingbirds.  So much more variety than what the average Sydney garden throws up. 

Alas, time to give Kev, Dee (and Tommy) back their space, bid Ham and Lisa safe travels (hang onto that passport Ham!) and give the San Francisco area a look in before heading home.

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