Monday, February 01, 1999

A fool and his bike hit the skids on Bent Mountain

Dan Casey

Dan Casey



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Barely melting ice blanketed long and shady stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Where it wasn't crunching under my sliding tires, the street slicks on the mountain bike kicked up cold water onto my shoes. The road was empty.

I'd gone around the parkway's closed gates at the Adney Gap access up on Bent Mountain for a northbound roll back to Roanoke. But this was one day when a traffic-free ribbon of asphalt was little comfort. Especially riding alone.

What if I had a bad wreck on this 8-mile-long hill coming down the mountain? It wasn't like there would be any passersby to find me. By the time my wife called out the rangers, it would be dark and I would be shivering, perhaps injured, and wishing I'd turned around and gone back down the way I'd come up -- on U.S. 221.

These thoughts nagged me as I surveyed the next treacherous stretch up ahead: about 400 yards of road topped by an inch or two of ice. I slowed sharply, tentatively sliding/riding across it. As I wrestled with the handlebars and gently pumped the brakes, each tire cut a noisy swath through the ice -- twin groves that intersected clumsily in a trail behind me.

Suddenly the bike slid too fast and I lost control. For about 25 ungainly yards I fought it and the slick parkway, like a novice skier hitting his first big patch of ice. As the bike picked up speed and headed toward the road's right edge, I gave up. It hit the road with a metal-on-pavement screech and I went down cursing.

I slowly picked myself up. No broken bones. I'd lost a little skin on my right elbow and my right thigh was sore. The bike was okay, too, except for a twisted water bottle cage. I took the remaining few miles of the parkway very slowly down to the Merriman Road overpass, where I climbed off and headed home through southwest Roanoke County.

Big mountain, big challenge

I'd been eyeing a ride up Bent Mountain since 1994, shortly after I moved to Roanoke and took a drive up U.S. 221. There aren't many roads like it in these parts.

Unlike many slender, twisty and pretty uphills in Western Virginia, 221 is wide and ugly. It pushes up the mountain with muscular, dramatic switchbacks beneath immense walls of jagged rock. It's more like mountain passes through Montana's Rockies or Washington State's Cascade range. Almost all the way up there's an unobstructed northward view into the Roanoke Valley.

How Bent Mountain got its name is matter of debate. According to Delores Kagey's "A History of Roanoke County," one theory holds the name came from brothers James and William Bent, surveyors from Pennsylvania who mapped land here before heading west across America. Others believe the name comes from Bent's peculiar shape. From the air, it appears bent in the shape of a horseshoe.

"Bent Mountain curves in the shape of an amphitheater, where the circling ranges might have been seats for an audience of mythical titans, who viewed the ceaseless colorama of storms that moved the great oaks and pines and poplars in ballet measures," longtime resident Grace Terry Moncure says in Kagey's book.

The mountain's elevation is 3,202 feet above sea level, or roughly 2,400 vertical feet above Roanoke. Poor Mountain, just west of Bent, is higher. But not much else around here is.

From cabbage patches to suburban sprawl

Bent was settled around the mid-1700s by four hunters who visited what we now know as the Roanoke Valley. Their names were Heckman, Willet, Martin and Webster. Kagey writes that they were so impressed that they returned home to Pennsylvania, packed up their families and returned here around 1740. Willet, Martin and Webster eventually made their way up Bent, where some of their descendants continue to live today. Heckman took his family to Franklin County.

Bent's fertile soil was well-suited to farming. Its orchards produced sweet apples that have commanded premium prices in Roanoke markets for years. It's also known for cabbage. They grow big up there -- up to 5 pounds.

Although the orchards are still producing pippins and you can still buy the cabbage at stalls in downtown Roanoke each summer, the mountain's farming days appear to be numbered. Suburban sprawl has crept out U.S. 221 and up the mountain, in the form of high-dollar housing developments.

With the sprawl has come commuters, and increased traffic on the shoulderless two-lane road. The only place 221 spreads out a bit is on the climb up to the peak, where it's two lanes going up, one of them for slower trucks.

The route

This ride starts at the Cave Spring Corners shopping center, near the intersection of Virginia 419 and U.S. 221. Head south on 221 for a long stretch until you begin climbing the mountain. When you get to the top, keep going for 3.5 miles until you see a left turn marked Blue Ridge Parkway. This is Adney Gap, mile marker 136 on the parkway.

Take a left on the parkway (north) and follow it about 12 miles back to the Merriman Road overpass, near mile marker 124. Merriman Road intersects with Starlight Road right near the overpass. (There's railroad tracks on the other side of Starlight, and the bridge also crosses a creek there.) Climb off here down a path on the bridge's northwest side.

Downtown Roanoke, topped by the First Union Tower, is bathed in a swath of sunlight. The photograph was taken from the top of Bent Mountain, looking northeast toward the city.

Kelly Hahn Johnson | The Roanoke Times

Downtown Roanoke, topped by the First Union Tower, is bathed in a swath of sunlight. The photograph was taken from the top of Bent Mountain, looking northeast toward the city.

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Map

Take a left on Starlight (which turns into Merriman here), then a right on Starkey Road. Follow Starkey across Virginia 419, and up to Tanglewood Mall, then turn left on Ogden. Take Ogden to Colonial Avenue, go left, and make your second right on Poplar. Follow this twisty residential road back to Brambleton, take a left, and it'll take you back to Cave Spring Corners.

Ride info

There are stores and restaurants for the entire distance of U.S. 221. If you're hungry on this ride you better stop at one of them, because there's nothing but smooth downhill and great views along the parkway on the way back.

This ride is on the long side, roughly 36 miles. It is dangerous. Most of U.S. 221 between Cave Spring Corners and the bottom of Bent Mountain is two-lanes, with little or any shoulder, and cars and trucks that are speeding by at 50 mph. This also is a ride for strong cyclists. It's about 3.5 steep miles up 221 to the top of Bent Mountain. Don't try it unless you're used to riding in traffic and are unafraid of the biggest hills.

Finally, don't do what I did -- namely, go around the parkway's gate up at the Adney Gap access for the northward ride back to town. When the gate is closed, it's for a good reason, not because the Park Service folks forgot to open it. Even on a day in the high 50s (one day after a day in the 60s) you can still find long stretches of ice on those downhills. It's especially foolish to do this alone.

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