Wednesday, May 27, 2015

North Carolina's own Strade Bianche

Last weekend I rode the Wilkes County Gravel Grind, a 200k RUSA Permanent route that starts in Clemmons, NC. It's a perm that I've had on my list for a couple of years because of three things: #1 It's tough, 126 miles with 7,500 feet of climbing... #2 It's unique- it includes about 18 miles of gravel roads, with one of those sections being the big climb of the day... And #3 It starts just about 20minutes from my Mom's house!

No one answered my invitation to join in the fun, so I rode solo all day. I chose to ride my Soma Doublecross with 700x32 Pasela TG tires. I had a nice conversation with Jimmy Williams, the perm owner at the start and heeded his advice on tire pressures. The first gravel section was just a taste- an easy 1.4 miles, but I could tell I was set up well. The bike had a nice floaty feel on the gravel and my legs were feeling good. I pushed a bit to see how fast I could go on the dirt roads...

The scenery aint too shabby

Paved roads for awhile and then the cue sheet tells me I'm approaching the 2nd gravel section, but it never comes... The state has been busy and they went and paved the road! Fresh asphalt took over about a 1.5 mile section of what looked like it was good fun dirt road. Oh well, it's on to the first control at a convenience store- but it's Memorial Day weekend and the store is closed. I lurked around the buildings a bit looking for a spigot to fill my bottles, but to no avail. I was down to about half a bottle of water and the next section included the big gravel climb up Brushy Mountain.

During our conversation in the early morning, Jimmy told me lots of stuff about the route- more than I could possibly recall, but when I saw a sign for Love Valley I remembered him suggesting I could go past a turn half a mile to visit the town. "Real old west" feel to it he said, horse country with hitching posts outside the general store and whatnot. I'd pretty much figured I couldn't take the extra time, but now I needed to go look for water. What I found was a real watering hole! The owner was quite a character, and when I told him I was heading up the gravel roads to climb Brushy Mountain he gave me another bottle of water for my jersey pocket. Full up with H2O and a dash of good rando luck I headed up the mountain, passing friendly folks on horses and enjoying some beautiful weather.

 Gravel climbing

Turns out I climb on gravel just about as slow as I do on paved roads. This is a serious climb, too with a few steep turns that had me losing traction and sliding out sideways. I walked a couple or 3 times.  Each time I was able to get going again once the steepness wore off. Finally I got to the top and back on paved roads. My reward for the climb was a really fun descent with fast switchbacks on asphalt. I'm glad I didn't have to go back down the gravel road!!

I stopped... to take a picture...

The control in North Wilkesboro is the Coffee House, and by this time it was after 1PM and I was hungry. I sat down for a ham & cheese sandwich and fries. Refilled the bottles and got back on the road in just about half an hour. There aren't any more controls for the last 50 miles or so back to Clemmons. The cue sheet does mention one store, but I missed it and after awhile I began to worry about water again. The day had gotten hot and I was riding in some of those areas you just know it's a long way to a store. Twice the road was closed due to a bridge out. the first one was a scramble down rocks and hop a creek, but the second was a river crossing. The bridge workers had stretched a couple of I-beams across the river to go back & forth.

Extreme rando cyclocross! 

Did a couple more easy gravel sections and then stopped at an old gas station that was closed but had a spigot out front. I was down to less than half a bottle. The water was rust-colored at first, but then became slightly less rust-colored so I filled my empty bottle and carried it in case I ran out before finding a store. A little while later I passed a school with a ball field and went on the hunt again, finding a much better spigot. I dumped the rust water, rinsed and filled up for the last 20 miles.

Nice paved roads, too

The last gravel section came at 11 miles to go, and I was happy to be well ahead of time limits- now it looked like I'd finish in under 12 hours so once I got back to asphalt I texted Jimmy and let him know my ETA. Rolled up to the Starbucks finish at 11 hours, 46 minutes! I had a great time, and this was a beautiful & challenging route. Afterwards I've looked at the RUSA results for this route and I am just the 6th person to finish it. Jimmy is the only one who had done it twice, and no one had ridden it since 2012! There really are some great gravel roads still in Wilkes County, but watch out- the state is out there paving them...

Yep, still in NC

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