Wednesday, July 07, 2004
Monster ride, magnificent views
The sun beat down on us as we stood on the shoulder of Merriman Road. It was a windless June Saturday, and Manly Aylor, Ted Remandaban, Erin Garvin and I were in southern Roanoke County atop the fearsome "Starkey Wall." The half-mile-long drop is as steep as a downhill ski run and rides like your bike's been shot out of a cannon.
Aylor pushed off with his left foot and gripped the handlebars tightly as his bike started rolling. He clipped his shoe in the left pedal and within seconds was blasting down the hill. Hot air pummeled his face as he moved faster and faster, and the bike's stainless steel spokes became a blur of gleaming metal. The numbers on his speedometer kept rising -- 50, 53, 60 -- till it topped out at an astonishing 68 mph.
"And that was with my brakes on," Aylor said with a grin after screeching to a halt at the bottom.
Garvin and I had reason to suspect the measure. For one, I've never heard of any cyclist getting up past 60 mph on Starkey Wall. For another, Garvin's speed never topped 55 mph, and she was right on Aylor's tail. Bad calibration aside, either rate is deadly fast on a bicycle.
But it sure was a memorable way to finish off a monster ride.
"You've got to be kidding"
Mill Mountain in Roanoke. Bent Mountain in Roanoke County. Cahas Mountain in Franklin County. Each of these peaks individually makes for a challenging climb. When Garvin began talking two years ago about stringing them all together in a giant 58-mile loop, my first reaction was, "Oh my God. You've got to be kidding."
The mere thought made my legs tired. But Garvin, a much stronger bicyclist than I, kept pressing. She'd already done it a bunch of times, and a couple weeks before this outing she brought it up again.
"It's the quintessential southwestern Virginia epic ride," she cooed enthusiastically.
I've got to concede that she is right. This one is probably the longest hard loop you can do from Roanoke. It'll leave you with a wonderful post-ride weariness in your legs. Your hamstrings will twinge later in the day when you climb a flight of stairs. Each of the three mountains will get you huffing and puffing to find the top around the next bend. In all, the total elevation gain on this ride amounts to more than 4,000 vertical feet of climbing.
But that effort is more than made up for by the sheer majesty of the views: 50- and 60-mile misty mountain vistas, roadsides lined with springtime flowers, and long, thrilling coasts down the Blue Ridge Parkway and later, into the hollows of western Franklin County.
In most places, this former Conestoga wagon road (2.3 miles at about 7 percent) is about as wide as your average bike path. Its sharp switchbacks twist and wind up the rural mountain like a back road through the Swiss Alps. Then it suddenly dropped us down through old apple orchards into southern Roanoke County, where we shot down Starkey Wall and headed for home.
A reasonably fit cyclist who can pull off a 3-hour ride in western Virginia's mountains can conquer this loop with a bit of planning. (Aylor doesn't ride a lot, and until this ride had never ridden more than 35 miles in one jaunt. His first leg cramp hit him only two blocks from the finish.) Including the breaks, we started around 7:30 a.m. and finished at 2 p.m. If you start early, the air will still be cool when you do you hardest work.
This ride begins with a climb up Mill Mountain in Roanoke, continues on the Blue Ridge Parkway, then heads south for 16 miles on the parkway up Bent Mountain. Then we turned east and descended into Franklin County, headed north over Cahas (the correct pronunciation is ka-HAZE) Mountain, into southern Roanoke County and back to the city.
The old road up Mill Mountain was the steepest climb (2 miles at 9-10 percent grade), and it's a good thing we got that one behind us first. Bent Mountain was the longest (6 miles at 6 percent) but the morning air was still cool and the traffic light. We were rewarded with a breezy 5-mile shot down Callaway Road (Virginia 602) into Franklin County, then spent about 20 miles rolling up and down the county's red clay swells to the base of Cahas on Wade's Gap Road.
Dan Casey | The Roanoke Times
This is Wades Gap Road heading up Cahas Mountain. The pavement twists and turns behind the farm buildings pictured. The total climb is 2.3 miles at an average 7 percent grade.
- From downtown Roanoke, take the Walnut Avenue bridge across the Roanoke River then your third right onto Sylvan and follow the old (closed to traffic) road up Mill Mountain. Go down the mountain on its opposite side (on the parkway spur road) and hang a right at the stop sign onto Fishburn Parkway.
- Follow it about 3 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn right (south).
- You'll follow the parkway for about 16 miles up Bent Mountain to the Adney Gap access road. Go right and follow it a quarter mile to U.S. 221.
- Take a left on 221 for about 300 yards, then another quick left onto Callaway Road (Virginia 602).
- Follow 602 downhill for 4-5 miles until you see two large grain silos and make a left onto Gap Gate Road (Virginia 739).
- Follow Gap Gate to Bethany Road (also Virginia 739) and go left.
- Stay on Bethany until it ends in a T-intersection with Bethlehem Road (Virginia 643) and make a left. (There a Baptist Church here; water's available from a spigot).
- Follow Bethany to Dillons Gap Road (grocery store here) and make a left onto Dillons Gap (also Virginia 643).
- Take Dillons Gap until you come to the Monte Cristo Church of the Brethren and bear right onto Wade's Gap Road (Virginia 726). Take it up and down Cahas Mountain.
- At the bottom of the mountain, Wade's Gap ends in a T-intersection with Naff Road. Go left on Naff (Virginia 613).
- Make your first right onto Merriman (also Virginia 613). There's a bit of climbing, less than 1 mile, then you shoot down Starkey Wall.
- Follow Merriman until it ends in a T-intersection, go left (also Merriman), and take it for a half-mile to Crystal Creek Road and take a left on Crystal Creek.
- Follow Crystal Creek about 1 mile to the T-intersection with Brambleton (U.S. 221) and make a right and follow it about 3 miles back into town.
Second, bring plenty of food and water because there's only one convenience store along the way. (I carried 100 ounces in my Camelbak and two 20-ounce bottles on my frame -- and added 40 more ounces at the Baptist church near Cahas Mountain.
Third, take plenty of breaks. The star overlook on Mill Mountain is a natural one, as is the top of Bent Mountain where the Adney Gap access road intersects U.S. 221. You'll want to stop on the notch at the top of Cahas for the stunning view south back towards Callaway. In Franklin County, there's a Baptist church at the intersection of Bethany and Bethlehem roads where you can get water. Look for the spigot just outside the front door.
Hodges General Store is at the intersection of Bethlehem and Dillons Gap roads.
The dogs on Cahas Mountain aren't leashed, but their barks are worse than their bites. None of them gave us any trouble.
If you're dead tired by the time you get to the top of Bent Mountain, turn around and roll back down into town on the parkway. It's a killer descent that you won't regret.