Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ride to Mt. Mitchell -- Highest Point East of the Mississippi

Our church riding group planned a trip to the highest point east of the Mississippi, Mt. Mitchell, in North Carolina. Though I had never been there, the roads on the way there were somewhat familiar, including the previously-reported-on US-178 and a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is to be our longest ride thus far, so we start out an hour earlier than usual, at 8:30.

We are gratified that four new guys show up to join us for the ride. They are all from Easley, and have been interested in riding with us but never had the chance to get away on the days we scheduled previously. Even so, today they have not allocated enough time to do the entire ride, so they decide that they would break off part way through and return home.

The weather report has predicted rain chances for several days, but the latest report gives only a 30% chance, so we prepare to get started.

An aside:
I continue to be surprised at how little protective gear most riders wear. Nearly all of the riders I see in town have very little protective equipment in evidence. In the mountains, a higher percentage wear it, but even there it is, many times, not complete. A few are well protected. So I am in the minority as far as dressing for the ride is concerned.

As you recall, I never throw a leg over the bike unless I am fully geared up. For me, this is a leather suit, hard armor, motorcycle boots, gloves, and full face helmet. For most others, the protective gear consists only of a helmet and gloves. Sometimes the helmet is not included if they are not riding outside of South Carolina. Tee shirts, jeans, and light jackets in the summer time are the rule. We strongly urge our riders to dress for the fall rather than for the ride, but few actually do.

I recently purchased some new CE-rated hard armor for my white Fieldsheer one-piece leather suit. The modern armor is sold by Fieldsheer, and fit this old suit very well: The suit is about 17 years old. I bought it from a guy about thirty years my junior
(Whew, I'm getting old!) who raced an '86 Honda VFR 750. Amazingly, the suit is very good condition for its age. I always wear my VelocityGear back protector under the suit as well.

I have become even more of a gear preacher since last weekend when a fellow rider went down while we were riding together. He ended up with his bike wedged under a guardrail, and sustained a broken wrist and other injuries. If he had not been wearing a leather jacket, leather pants, motorcycle boots, gloves, and a full-face helmet, his injuries could have been much worse. He will be hurting for some weeks, but he is alive to tell about it.
Anyway, back to the day's ride.

There is a bit of mist at the start, but it soon gives way to partly cloudy skies and comfortable temperatures.

We have our usual pre-ride briefing. I think this is important, so everyone knows where we are going, the pace we will be riding, where we will stop and gas up, what the road conditions are likely to be, etc. One of the most important instructions is to ride your own ride -- don't try to keep up if your fear level is rising or you are making mistakes. Easy advice to give, but sometimes hard to follow, since there is a marked tendency to be more confident than your level of experience should dictate.

Oh, and we say a prayer before leaving for protection, enjoyment, fellowship, and a chance to talk with someone about our faith.

Today, we are following this route:

View Larger Map

We make our way to Pickens and US-178. This road is moderately curvy south of SC-11. As usual, we stop at the Holly Springs Country Store for a quick break. As I have previously posted, this is a meeting spot for motorcyclists of all types. Today is no exception, and I see two of the students from the Collision Avoidance Class held at the church a couple of weeks ago. They cannot ride with us today, lacking the time to go as far as we plan. They happen to be heading the same way we are to start, and they leap frog us on their way, having left after we did from the store.

US-178 becomes quite technical in places north of SC-11 until you reach Rosman, NC. All of the riders today make it through in about the same time.

Interestingly, our ages range from mid-forties to late sixties for this ride. I am about the least experienced in riding, and the only one on a sporty bike. I am the leader today, since I worked out the route.

I note that I am less tense on this road the more times I ride it. Perhaps I am becoming more adept at negotiating the curves and trusting the bike. I have certainly not memorized it like many of the more experienced riders here. I have to read each curve as it comes, though I have begun to recognize two or three especially tight turns ahead of time. Lest you think that I am burning up the road, I'll tell you that I am slower than many who tackle this route.

We stop in Rosman to hydrate, since there is only one more place to do so until we reach Asheville, NC. The four guys who joined us at the start must turn off here, as they have not planned to be out for the entire day. They will go east on US-64 and return to Easley via. US-276, SC-8, and SC-135. Bon voyage, gentlemen!

Next for us is a very short stretch of US-64, then on to NC-215. The latter is not as twisty, and is not in as good a condition as 178, but holds no major hazards, just some bumps and patches in the pavement.

The entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway is quite unobtrusive, in keeping with the non-commercial nature of the road. Only a couple of small signs mark the turn. The rock overpass that you pass through before this entrance is another clue. Back in the thirties, the Parkway was a make-work project, and many construction techniques requiring hours of manual labor were specified to make the project provide more jobs. As a result, things like this overpass are quite attractive and of a type of craftsmanship not often seen today because of its cost.

We enter the Parkway at milepost 430 and go to the north. I have gone this way several times before, so am familiar with it. There are many overlooks along the way (about twenty-two between here and Mt. Mitchell), with vistas popping up on both sides of the road. This is possible because the highway traverses the highest points in many areas, so either way you look is downhill.

There are twenty-five tunnels all together on the Parkway, with several in this stretch at the mileposts listed.
  • 422.1 Devils Courthouse Tunnel 650 ft long.
  • 410.1 Frying Pan Tunnel 275 ft long.
  • 407.4 Buck Springs Tunnel 380 ft long.
  • 406.9 Little Pisgah Tunnel 500 ft long.
  • 403.9 Fort Mountain Tunnel 350 ft long.
  • 401.5 Ferrin Knob Tunnel No. 3 230 ft long.
  • 401.3 Ferrin Knob Tunnel No. 2 310 ft long.
  • 400.9 Ferrin Knob Tunnel No. 1, Trace Ridge 60 ft. long.
  • 365.5 Craggy Flats Tunnel 335 ft long.
  • 364.4 Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel 176 ft long.
It is wise to slow down through these tunnels, as many of them are long and some are curved so the sight distance is limited. It is easy to miss seeing a stopped or slow vehicle. In the cooler part of the year, ice can form in the tunnels, so extra care is needed then. Bicycles use this road extensively as well, and they are not easy to see.

We go along at the speed limit of 45 MPH, occasionally stopping to look or take a picture. We pass the US-276 entrance, milepost 411.8, where we exited the last time the group rode here. We next pass the Mt. Pisgah Inn where we had lunch that time through.

We gas up at a station near the NC-191 entrance. The North Carolina Arboretum is located here as well -- another good place for us to visit in future.

Once we get back on the Parkway, we continue north and start through the Biltmore Forest. This is land that was owned by Mr. George Washington Vanderbilt, who erected the largest private residence in the United States not far from the road. Vanderbilt was keenly interested in forestry, and had a good portion of the trees and other vegetation planted on his land, much of which had been logged out. The mansion is privately owned and is open for tours. It takes no government funds, so the price is higher than some other attractions, but it is well worth visiting.

There is also an interesting place to visit back on US-276 south of the Parkway called the Cradle of Forestry. It has both indoor and outdoor displays about forestry development. Early foresters got their start in this area of North Carolina. I went there last October for the annual Forest Festival Day and Intercollegiate Woodsmen's Meet. Teams of college students compete in log rolling, cross cutting, pole climbing, and such. It was interesting to watch.

From the Cradle of Forestry website:
"The 6,500-acre Cradle of Forestry Historic Site...contains the first official school for forestry in America – the Biltmore Forest School. After purchasing land in the Asheville, NC area in the mid to late 1800's, George Vanderbilt was prompted by Frederick Law Olmsted to hire a forester to maintain his property. Vanderbilt selected Gifford Pinchot to restore and manage his massive expanse of lands. It was during this time that Forestry in America began....

"These events paved the way for Dr. Carl Schenck to open the Biltmore Forest School in 1898. For 15 years, the students practiced the science and business of forestry and eventually produced over 300 foresters who began the profession of forestry in the United States."
This Biltmore Forest section of the Parkway has only a few overlooks and the curves are generally more sweeping than the section we have just left. It is noticeably cooler through here, too. The road is almost canopied in many places by the tall trees. The road is smooth and I enjoy the ride. There is a busy section south of Asheville, NC, where I suppose local traffic uses the Parkway for commuting. After that, it is again lightly traveled.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Destination Center is next up, at milepost 384. This visitor center, opened in April of 2008, covers the entire length of the Parkway. Displays inside show the history and features of the Parkway and surrounding territory.

Two of our bikes enjoying a rest while we look around.

The design of the Parkway was carefully engineered, down to the types of plantings to be installed.

You can get this key fob at the Destination Center. It is a reminder that the road is beautiful, but can be dangerous because of drivers taking in the views instead of watching the traffic, and because of the curving nature of the road.

I bought the zipper pull shown below. It depicts an actual sign on the Parkway, though not in the section we are riding today. I am not sure that a descending radius curve is the correct term, but decreasing radius certainly is, and there are some of those.

Here is a picture of a guy I know posing next to the real thing.

[photo courtesy of Ryan]

Precious children playing with bubbles outside the Destination Center.

After this, we head out again toward Mt. Mitchell.

Near Craggy Gardens, around milepost 364, the road is under construction. There had been a rockslide here in March of 2008, and they have been repairing it ever since. The road has only just reopened in the last few months. The pavement here is pocked where the top layer has come away. There is even one section where it is one lane with a traffic signal to regulate traffic coming from opposite directions. This is the only traffic light on the Parkway, and fortunately, it is only temporary until they get the pavement down again.

We arrive at the road to Mt. Mitchell, NC-128. This is an interesting road because it does not touch any other state highway. Rather it is a spur off the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a twisty road advisory sign, but I am surprised how easy the turns are on the way to the highest point in this half of the country. Except for one moderate hairpin, the road is quite manageable.

[photo from]

We pass the restaurant -- we will come back there in a little while for lunch -- and arrive at the large parking area near the peak. We find a place amongst the many open slots. There are lots of motorcycles and cars as well as bicycles here waiting for us. Some of the bicyclists are no spring chickens, either. There are a few who look to be in their fifties. Rugged, fit individuals, these.

It is noticeably cooler here at the top of Mt. Mitchell -- about 60 degrees, just a bit cooler than comfortable on the bike. Once we start our walk to the observation tower -- all uphill of course -- my leathers provide about the right amount of insulation for comfort with the exertion. The elevation at the top is 6684 feet above sea level. Easley is at 1079 feet, so we have climbed over a mile so far today, not counting the hundreds of other ups and downs between here and home.

From Wikipedia:
"The mountain was named after Elisha Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who determined its height in 1835 and fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls in 1857, having returned to verify his earlier measurements. [O]n the summit is the tomb of Dr. Mitchell."
The view is fairly good, considering the cloudy conditions. Though we cannot see that far today, some of the most distant points that can be seen are eighty-some miles away.

The sky almost looks like a painting, doesn't it?

Did you notice how variable the lighting is today in the pictures above? One minute it is bright and sunny, and the next it is overcast and gloomy.

After we have gawked at the surrounding country, we head back toward the small visitor center and souvenir shop. There are displays inside describing the mountain, the weather, and the flora and fauna. An interesting fact is that the climate here is about the same as that in Canada, due to the elevation. Hikers who are ignorant of this have spent nights unprepared for the low temperatures and high winds.

When we have looked at the displays, we mount our steeds and motor back down to the restaurant. It is in a nice building, and the menu has a good selection. I order a $7.00 smoked turkey sandwich, envisioning a pile of succulent meat with some tasty garnishes. Alas, the sandwich has only two thin layers of turkey, one leaf of lettuce, and a greenish-red Styrofoam-textured tomato slice. Well, the scenery out the window is pretty anyway.

[photo from Romantic Asheville website]

We spend a little while in the restaurant, but decide to start on our way back so it would not be too late when we get home. The return is the same as the roads in here until we reach NC-191 again, south of Asheville. The Parkway is a bit clogged at the construction area. We have to wait, so I snap a picture of the lone traffic light.

At 191, we reluctantly exit the Parkway and head toward I-26. We stop for a few minutes to gas up again, and I survey the sky and comment that we have avoided rain all day long and that there is no chance of getting wet now. How fortunate we have been!

The superslab is busy and we watch traffic for an opening to merge into. I do not have a lot of experience riding on expressways, but it goes OK. The pavement is grooved through here to reduce hydroplaning, and the grooves cause the bike to weave and wander a bit. If you don't panic and stiffen up on the bars, the bike finds its way without incident.

After some miles, we veer off onto US-25 and continue toward Greenville. About two minutes later, the Heavens open up without warning. Cats and dogs are swimming for their lives in mid-air. There is no place to stop and put on our rain gear, so we press onward. We fall in behind another rider and his passenger, and hunker down. The rain is cold, and after a short time I feel it pooling in my nether regions: Not a good feeling.

Just as quickly as we entered the downpour, it stops and the sun comes out about when we get to SC-11. We turn onto it and go toward SC-8, Pumpkintown, SC-135, and then Easley. By the time we are half way home, the sun and wind have mostly dried my leathers -- including the sensitive spot -- and I am warmed up again.

We break off and scatter to our homes. When I turn off the bike, I note that I have ridden 253.3 miles -- shy by only five miles of being the longest single day ride of my career. My longest ride was with a group of sportbikers into Georgia last February.

I pull the bike into the garage, and begin to put things away. My leathers are still damp, so I ask our son to apply a dressing of Lexol before I take off the suit. A coat of the same on my boots helps them as well.

I peel off my suit with new-found ease because I have that new armor I told you about earlier in the suit's pockets instead of the full VelocityGear armored shirt on under the suit. I don't need help getting out any more! Here is a picture of that suit.

[photo taken at Wigington Byway overlook, July 27, 2009]

I hang the suit on a padded hanger in the house so the air conditioning can dry it slowly. I made the padded hanger from a wooden coat hanger covered with a section of foam pool noodle. It is much cheaper than a ready-made soft hanger.

It has been a long day -- it is about 6:15 PM -- but I have enjoyed the trip very much. I find that I am not too tired because we stopped several times and went along at a relaxed pace most of the way.

If you go:

Some excellent, tank-bag-size, printable Blue Ridge Parkway maps are available on the Blue Ridge Parkway Association website.

The Blue Ridge Parkway by Virtual Blue Ridge website has panoramic photos of many of the overlooks. Click "Parkway Tour," then "Overlooks."

The WikiTravel website has a mile-by-mile listing of overlooks and entrances to the Parkway.

A very good book with many illustrations is Building the Blue Ridge Parkway By Karen J. Hall, Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Inc.

A website with some pictures taken along the Parkway is here.

Bon voyage!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Collision Avoidance Class


Our church riding group sponsored a one-day class called Motorcycle Collision Avoidance. Four instructors rode in from Charleston South Carolina to put it on for us. Two are motorcycle cops and the other two are experienced riders. One of the cops is also a riding instructor in his department, and, on occasion, for groups all over the eastern half of the country. All go to the same church down there in Charleston.

All of the instructors ride large cruisers, and they can scrape the floorboards at their whim. They handle their nearly 900 pound bikes as though they are lightweight bicycles.

The class started out with some orientation, how to check over the motorcycle before riding, and an introduction to the exercises that were to be practiced later in the day. Some of us looked just a bit apprehensive about doing a few of them. Nervous laughter could be heard at times during the descriptions.

We went outside from the classroom, and the instructor reviewed the basics of inspection. He told us that we were free not to do any of the exercises that we didn't feel comfortable with. He told us that we might drop our bikes today, so he proceeded to drop his onto the crash bars -- as we all gasped that he would do such a thing to his fine machine, and to show us how easy it is to put upright again.

The students' bikes were varied from sporty bikes like my Ninja 650R, to cruisers, standards, and one dual sport.

The morning was spent doing low speed maneuvers. These are especially useful in parking lots, in making U-turns, and in other tight places. Duck walking the bike and making multiple-point turns is greatly reduced by learning how to turn and lean the beast at low speeds.

Principle amongst the lessons was giving the right amount of throttle, feathering the clutch, and applying the rear brake. Now dad always cautioned me about slipping the clutch in the car when I was learning to drive, but on a motorcycle, the clutch is made to withstand considerable abuse like that because it is [or should be] an often-used technique.

Feeling the friction point consistently was first. A 2 by 4 was used to gauge how well we were doing. (No, they didn't have to use the 2 by 4 on any of us directly.) If we could start out with the rear wheel just in back of the lumber, then feather the clutch enough to go over it without kicking it backward, that was about right.

Once that was mastered, the simultaneous throttle opening to just above idle RPM, the use of the rear brake, and the feathered clutch proved to be the winning combination for low speed turns. If you feel as though you are falling down, let off the brake a little, release the clutch a little, and the bike stands back up. What a difference compared with trying to regulate speed with the throttle only or with the clutch in or out completely! The throttle, just above idle, is too sensitive to regulate these low speed maneuvers.

Oh, one more thing. None of this works at all unless you are looking where you want to go. You should NOT look here:

If you look at the ground, you will end up there. Believe it or not, if you look at that traffic cone way over your shoulder, that is where the bike will go. It is like magic. Our necks were thoroughly limbered up by the end of the morning, having turned our heads like owls to look where we wanted to go.

We did figure eights, easy weaves around cones in a straight line, and slaloms around a forest of cones that looked impossibly tight.

Note the illuminated brake lights, indicating that the rear brake is being used here.

Bucky getting some one-on-one instruction.

Again, note that the brake light is on.

The instructor showing us the way to look where we want to go.

The teachers stood nearby on each of these,

gesturing and giving instruction: Look at me! Don't look down! Give it some more throttle! Good job! That's it! Go, go, go! Let me help you pick up that bike.

Yes, it did happen. Several of us dropped our bikes. Usually this was caused by looking in the wrong direction or not adding sufficient throttle to pull the bike through the tight maneuvers. Fortunately, no real harm was done to either man or beast.

Incidentally, there were three women students amongst the ten who took the class. Each of them did well. And, did you pick up on the number of students versus the number of instructors? Yep. Ten students and four instructors. Each of us had almost half of an instructor's attention for the entire day. That is pretty intensive training.

Just before noon, the instructors showed off their skills a bit, riding the same courses we had -- and more, but much faster and more aggressively. There was a lot of scraping of floorboards on the tarmac, but under complete control. Later, one of them said that when they are demonstrating a technique to the class, that it is actually somewhat difficult for them to slow it down to a speed that the student is likely to be able to run.

At noon, we rode back to the building for lunch and to cool off. The day was warm -- about eighty-eight degrees, and partly cloudy. It was just about ideal, considering that the temperature could have been in the high nineties with high humidity. Still, the air conditioning was a welcome change.

After a sumptuous lunch of hot dogs, potato salad, pasta salad, brownies, and other goodies, catered by volunteers from the motorcycle group, we asked questions of one of the instructors while the other three want out to prepare for the afternoon's festivities.

Soon it was time to go see what they had wrought. All of us eagerly rode back to the course and found the cones lined up in a row. We were to learn threshold braking next. The cones were set up so that two riders could be on the course at once and we were to get up to thirty miles per hour and use mostly the front brake, but a little rear brake, to stop as quickly as possible. This was entirely different from the morning exercises where we were using the rear brake exclusively to regulate our low speeds.

The instructors demonstrated how only a little rear brake pressure is correct. You just want to take out the slack on the rear brake when you begin braking because the pitching forward of the bike on its front forks and the consequent change in posture of the rider adds about the right amount of additional rear brake pressure.

Squeezing the front brake lever as though it were an orange was given as an example of correct technique: You apply the brake, not grab it.

We then proceeded to practice: We grabbed front brakes and skidded rear tires until we began to master the correct technique. There was plenty of rubber left on the course from our rear tires, but after about twenty tries, all of the students got the hang of it and were stopping much more rapidly than before, mostly without leaving any rubber on the road. Again, that was real progress. ...and the instructors were unfailingly patient and encouraging through it all.

Next a little nuance was added: We had to apply maximum braking, then swerve through a tight Z-path as though we had just braked to avoid hitting some road hazard, then had to maneuver around it at low speed.

Thought process: Slow down quickly using threshold technique, then switch to the throttle open/feathered clutch/rear brake method to get through the tight spot. My brain was reeling, trying to practice in my mind's eye what I would have to do. I said a prayer to give me ability beyond my own. After a try or two, I was actually able to do it. ...and it wasn't that hard. Prayer works!

But at first....

Reflections in the side cases.

We went down the course in pairs.

Next up was swerving. We had to swerve in the direction the instructor indicated. It seemed as though he always waited until the rider was impossibly close to the cones before indicating which direction to swerve. Actually, there was plenty of room, but it didn't seem like it initially. Yet again, before long, all of us were swerving right or left at the instructor's whim. He only had to dodge one time.

All right, now let's put this together, swerving right, swerving left, or threshold braking as directed by the instructor.

The clever instructor gave no indication of what he was going to do, then indicated what he wanted us to do at the last possible nanosecond. On this one, he had to dodge more than once, and the rear tire skids and less-than-threshold braking reappeared. Nevertheless, we did catch on for the most part after some practice.

An important lesson was learned here: That we must practice, practice, practice until the techniques become second nature. Old habits can come back all too easily if we don't continually review them correctly.

The last exercise of the day was curve negotiation. The instructors set up some cones in a curved pattern, and had us sweep through, apexing at about the midpoint.

Once we had a few practice runs, they introduced a hazard -- one of the instructors -- when we were in some part of the curve. If they stepped into the curve or waved their hands or yelled, we had to straighten up and stop. The key word here is straighten up and stop as quickly as possible. By apexing, that leaves room for straightening and stopping in the unleaned position. If you don't apex, you could be too close to the edge of the lane and go off if you have to slow or stop.


Motor on, girl.

Every student participated in all of the exercises. Some students were so enthusiastic that they didn't want to stop when the instructors gave them the signal. All in all, everyone in the class learned a remarkable amount in the short time allotted.

One key is that we had only been introduced to the techniques and skills. It is up to us to practice them. They recommended that we practice one or two skills every time we go out.

The instructors also cautioned us that we can easily become overconfident and ride beyond our skills. We must be on the lookout for this by recognizing when our fear level is going up, when we start to panic, and when we start to make mistakes on the road. Riding partners, too, can help us spot these things and gently remind us to take it easy, rest, or quit riding for the day.

Incidentally, the four instructors gave freely of their time and talent and expected nothing in return. They were truly Godly men, giving freely to us -- and unafraid to share what being a Christian means.

They are all members of the Carolina FaithRiders.

The next morning, before the parking lot began to fill, the skid marks are still evident.

This had been a worthwhile day of learning and fellowship.