Across The Blue Ridge Mountains By Bike And Van

Illustration for article titled Across The Blue Ridge Mountains By Bike And Van

It's a cool and slightly rainy morning here in the aptly named mountain-side town of Buena Vista, but yesterday's trek from Roanoke to here was mild and sunny. Perfect weather for a bike ride and for driving a van with no strong need to get anywhere quickly.

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As we've already covered, I'm driving a new Nissan Quest along the Blue Ridge Mountain while a group of four friends make the trek on bike.

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Yesterday I awoke to find the parking lot had become something of a Cars & Coffee for military vehicles and equipment. A Cars & Carbines, maybe? There was an enlisted men's convention of some sort going on and the members of the First Battalion 116th Infantry Regiment out of Lynchburg was in force showing off their gear.

Illustration for article titled Across The Blue Ridge Mountains By Bike And Van

There were three Humvees, a HEMTT, various weapons, a TOW missile trainer, and a pair of sniper rifles. With typical Virginia hospitality, the assembled soldiers happily shared their stories, good humor, and a chance for a nerd like me to play with their stuff.

Illustration for article titled Across The Blue Ridge Mountains By Bike And Van
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They even let me hold the 30-pound 50-cal sniper rifle, which they told me could punch a hole through an engine block. I've got the feeling if I tried (it wasn't loaded) the recoil would more than likely punch a hole through me.

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After a kind offer to sign up (the Army is apparently short a few 30-year-old writers with bad backs and bum knees), I had to say goodbye to my new friends and take my old friends to this bike riding adventure.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles of two-lane road connection North Carolina's Great Smokey Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. With views into both valleys and scenic overlooks or vistas seemingly every mile, there's no need to hurry.

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Yes, the road can get twisty and there are elevation changes, but as Top Gear so clearly demonstrated, it's not a place you can drive particularly fast. Biking is another matter. On some of the downhill sections the bikers can approach the posted speed limits of 35 mph.

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That wasn't how we started the day, though. Chrissie, Nathan, Wes, and Dan had to spend a good portion of the 66-mile journey fighting their way up into the peaks of the mountain, slowing their speed just a tad.

I was in the van, mostly following, while Kendra in another truck went ahead to provide water, fizz tablets, energy bars, and other devices designed to transport electrolytes and calories to athletes deprived of them.

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Illustration for article titled Across The Blue Ridge Mountains By Bike And Van

Other than transporting gear, my job was mostly moral support during the day, cheering on the bikers as they made their way to the top, all the while my audiobook copy of David McCullough's "1776" blaring in the background.

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Watching other people exercise while you sit extremely still can make you feel lazy, but I felt I'd earned a day away from the computer. There wasn't even a 3G connection for most of the trip so it was just me, nature, McCullough's soothing voice, and beautiful views in every direction.

While the Parkway itself isn't great for spirited driving, nearly every twisty road off of it is, and we took Highway 60 under Rockbridge County's rock bridge towards the motel. As the riders hit high speeds (up to 40 mph) on this steep downhill grade, I decided to get ahead of them and shake out the Quest a bit.

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Illustration for article titled Across The Blue Ridge Mountains By Bike And Van

Despite its weight and girth, the van handles itself surprisingly well around the bends. Grip is good, steering is predictably light but not incommunicative, and when it's time to get on the power the v6 managed to get you enough power to stay out of the way of any bikers flying down the hill behind you.

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Plus, it'll carry a full load of seven people to the local Mexican restaurant to carbo-and-calorie load and then to Gigi's Ice Cream for a late night treat. For some reason my party thought it necessary to blast Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror."

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It's a weird bunch.

I must now repair to the van which, in light of the cool rain falling, is likely to be the more comfortable way to travel. There's beer at the end for all of us, right?

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DISCUSSION

Yes, the road can get twisty and there are elevation changes, but as Top Gear so clearly demonstrated, it's not a place you can drive particularly fast. Biking is another matter. On some of the downhill sections the bikers can approach the posted speed limits of 35 mph.

At roughly age 14, I did the "Betcha Can't" century: 100 miles from Madison, NY, to Skaneatles, and back to Madison along route 20. That's basically across the finger lakes, which were carved out by retreating glaciers in the last ice age.

The upshot of this is that you're always either climbing a massive hill at 4 MPH, or coming down one at VNE. For pilots, VNE is short for Velocity Never Exceed, or the speed at which the plane basically comes apart. For a bicycle with half-inch-wide by 1 inch long contact patches, that's somewhere below the 55+ MPH I was doing. I passed cars, at what was at the time the state speed limit.

On another occasion, I went wandering around near (unfamiliar to me) Binghamton, NY. Coming back in, I came down this awesome descent, where I discovered a tight turn at a very inconvenient time. I was doing something around 45 MPH when the road took a 90 degree bend. Somehow, so did I, despite that bike having limited braking authority.

One last anecdote: I have a tandem (bike for two), on which my 13 year old son serves as Rear Admiral. He's built like a fireplug; most of the time I drag his weight in addition to my own. However, he can put out bursts of energy that are just amazing. Tandems have about twice the power, half again the weight, but maybe 1/3 more wind resistance, and at speed, wind resistance is what slows you the most. So tandems are very slow to climb, quick on the flat, and insanely fast downhill. There's a short drop into a very slight uphill near my home; on that drop, we can easily top 45 (in the 35 zone) and maintain 40 on that slight uphill for about 3/4 of a mile.

'Nuff babbling. Hope they're having a good ride, and you a good ride in the country, Matt.