Outrunning storms, overcoming mechanicals, and enjoying the sights of North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas
One of the best aspects of a route that covers 5,000+ miles is the guaranteed variety in views, terrain, and climate. There’s always something new to experience, and if I find myself tiring of a particular environment, I know I’ll soon be out of it.
The first 200 miles of the ATR take racers on a relatively easy cruise over the rolling hills of the coastal plain, predominantly on paved roads.
While I found that a couple of days’ worth of pavement was a nice way to warm up the legs for the weeks to come, I prefer dirt to tarmac and soon found myself longing to transition from the pavement to some lesser-traveled dirt roads. On Day 3, I was pleased to start hitting dirt more regularly as I left those rolling hills for increasingly-steep climbs through the foothills and into the Great Smoky Mountains.
Conveniently, the transition to a larger proportion of dirt also marked the start of rain that lasted for 2 days and frequently consisted of torrential downpour 😛 Luckily for me, the resulting mud was rideable, and the landscape was gorgeously misty when the rain occasionally let up.
When I started bikepacking in 2013, I viewed rain as an annoyance; I had to stop to put on rain gear and cover my stereo, the muddy roads gunked up my bike and slowed me down, and even with the best waterproof clothing, I eventually get wet from condensation building up on the inside or water finding a way in after hours of use. I’ve tried seemingly every version of waterproof gloves and socks and have always ended up with soaked hands and feet.
With time, however, I’ve gotten used to riding in the rain and occasionally welcome it. If the temperature is right, I don’t even bother putting on rain gear and I’ve found cheap alternatives for keeping my hands and feet dry even in the longest downpours: dish gloves never let the water in and plastic shopping bags over my socks keep my feet dry.
This particular storm system had the longest stretches of hard rain I’ve ever dealt with, but right during the worst of the downpours, I came across a gem in the middle of nowhere: Betsey’s Ole Country Store 😀 This delightful stop is located on 90 along Estes Mill Creek in Mortimer, NC. I got to visit with some super-nice locals and campers and had several delicious hot dogs.
About 110 rainy miles from Betsey’s, I rolled into Hot Springs, where I found a muddy cyclist’s dream: an outdoor, single-occupancy bathroom at a gas station, perfect for cleaning up before heading inside to get snacks. While I was prepping for my ride out of town, I watched the snails soak up water in the parking lot and talked to a nice woman named Julie, who was touring by motorcycle with some friends. Two days later, I saw her again at the Tail of the Dragon restaurant/shop, which sits toward the base of the famously-winding mountain road it’s named after. Having fun encounters with kind people along the route is one of the best parts of these long races.
The rain lifted by the time I’d downed two hot chocolates and finished visiting with people, so I enjoyed a stunning ride out of town. Sun rays broke through the clouds, water dripped through the trees, and birds sang, sounding as happy as I was that the rain had stopped. Other than a strong storm in Oklahoma/Kansas, I lucked out and this was the only heavy rain I’d see for the 47 days I was on the route.
The route through the Smokies has no shortage of gorgeous views, from top to bottom.
I enjoyed a few stress-free days of riding, soaking up the lovely views in solitude. Only occasionally did I encounter obstacles and they were of the benign type, like trains and downed bridges.
Soon the winding mountain roads led me into Tennessee, where the views and people are just as nice as those in NC.
A couple of days into TN, I broke my rear derailleur and had to switch to riding single speed. For those unfamiliar with bikes, this means I couldn’t use my gears anymore. Since I was in the mountains, I had to set my chain up so that I could both go up hills relatively easily and pedal on flat stretches without losing resistance quickly.
I had never ridden single speed or had the desire to abandon my precious gears. How could I possibly climb hills without them?! 😮 How could I quickly escape the stray dogs that seem to be waiting around every corner in TN, itching to gnaw on my heels?
Surprisingly, I found several aspects of single speeding appealing. I loved never needing to think about shifting, I felt powerful as hell going up hills, and there’s a peace of mind that comes with having fewer components to worry about breaking. After 7 days I was pretty thrilled to get a replacement derailleur put on in Arkansas, though 😀 I will forever be in awe of people who single speed on purpose.
Several days through Tennessee to Salida, Colorado, I leap-frogged with Mark Snidero and Rob Colliver. This was the first time I’d seen other racers regularly during an event and it was fun to have the company when our paths happened to cross.
Often when I talk to people about this type of racing, they assume that participants ride together in groups. Really, people are pretty spread out after the first couple of days and unless they are trying to stay with friends or family (which is rare), will only see other racers if they happen to be putting in similar mileages per day. Since everyone is riding at his/her own pace, we might pass by one another on the road and chat for a few minutes, or we may end up at the same lunch stop, but most of the time we’re riding alone.
For me, it was motivating to be in the mix with Mark and Rob. Both ride much faster than I do, so my strategy for keeping up was to check the online tracker in the evening and if either of them had stopped to camp, I would try to ride at least 20 miles past his campsite. I then had to shuffle out of my sleeping bag and hit the road early in the morning so that I wouldn’t get passed while I was still sleeping. This worked most days and it was fun to have a brief bit of company when either of them passed me by, usually before noon. A few times, I ended up at the same lunch stop or camping spot as Mark and it was nice to talk about our experiences along the road. I enjoy the solitude that comes with this type of racing, but I found that it helps my mental and emotional state to be able to occasionally share stories of interesting encounters or bitch about the weather/dogs/mechanicals with others who are out there experiencing the same thing.
I enjoyed the Mississippi section because the ecosystem had unexpected delights (I’d never seen kudzu vines before), and I passed several sunflower fields. Plus, there were far fewer dogs chasing me here than in the previous two states, which was fantastic 😀
Arkansas brought on stormy skies, amazing sunsets, a beautiful ride through the Ozark National Forest, and, at the end, a happy return to geared riding for this woman 😀 😀 😀
⭐ Coming soon – Last stop on my photo tour of the 2017 ATR: Racing to the Oregon coast via the flats of Oklahoma/Kansas, snowy Colorado passes, a looong desert stretch, and the isolated climbs of Oregon ⭐