This is the fun time, the #wintermiles are adding up and the fitness is coming. I’ve ridden more solo miles this winter than Id like and while there is solace and peace sometimes in that the accountability and motivation are hard to generate by yourself some days. I’ve “stoked on” a little tandem time with Emily and always love finishing up a ride with a dash around the mountains with Pippa but some of the best, most memorable, and also challenging of these winter rides have been epic rides in the Pisgah and Smokey mtn ranges west of Asheville with amazing new friends. Waterville, Hartford, and the Pigeon River hold some of the most incredible dirt and gravel road networks Ive been on anywhere and the raddest crowds from Asheville, Knoxville, and beyond all gather there to shred.

Barnabas “Go-Big” Froystad and I have been lucky enough to hit up this area together a couple of times and every single time has been absolutely epic. Epic by virtue of locale, epic by virtue of difficulty, and epic by the way that area just seems to want to make your day big; conspiring to change your plan and challenge what you had in mind. The hills are high, the roads are steep, and the climbing just seems to go on for ages. Its not uncommon for your climbing to outpace your mileage pretty substantially. The whole area is just one of those places that never disappoints. It is always epic, there is no “diet” epic in the Pisgah range.

Barnabas, Chris Brown, and I had planned to meet in Hartford TN early Thursday morning to hit the plentiful gravel. It sounded like Chris’s morning had been a little rowdy and he had to unfortunately bail on us but onward we soldiered. BJ with his Felt cross shredder (I dont think that bike would recognize a cross race, I think it believes it is one of the wild animals), and I on the trusty, lusty Raleigh RXS. The bike that has defied all odds to me and just keeps taking whatever I throw at it and grinning. More on that later.

Our ride started out relatively mellow, though Barnabas did inform me when he breezed through our halfway point to drop food and water he had seen quite a lot of snow. Up we climbed out of Hartford,  steep narrow pavement pushing us straight into the deep backwoods communities or far western North Carolina as we headed into the Smokys before later entering the Pisgah range. We missed an isolated patch of gravel we intended to catch before hitting the 32 road. 32 is a wild strip of pavement that ive heard tell about for years. What a rad pavement ribbon through the mountains.

We paced along up and up together nearly side by side most of it, just saying things we needed to say. A good ride companion will hear whatever youve got to say and not judge, recognizing the catharsis of just putting the words in your mind and heart into existence. Our conversation elevated and our altitude elevated we caught the end of the 32 road and immediately all was right with life. Where pavement ends…

A blazing descent down a sloppy wet, and ever whitening dirt road and we bottomed out at the base of Mt. Sterling. A quick stop to let out the morning’s hydration and to quickly inform BJ of the One-Thousand and 1st use for the “Buff” and we were starting up. This was the third time Ive climbed Sterling and damn if it doesnt just seem to get LONGER! Each and every dang time! And with each and every foot of altitude we kept facing more and more ice, more and more snow, and as we finally crept into the saddle to Mt. Sterling we looked out into a fully ice and snow covered descent down to Harmon Den. Descending the snow was wild. I love that ive never once raced my “race-day” Raleigh RXS cross bike. The bike is a belt drive sscx with hydraulic discs that absolutely screams to be raced hard. And I may not ever. It is such a fun, capable, friendly to ride bike. Its got no water bottle cages, its geared super heavy for extended efforts right out of the box, and the brake lever rattles a bit (though the brake performance has been flawless) but I still keep coming back to it for some of my biggest rides in the past couple months. Peeking at me from the corner it kinds of challenges you to get out and push it. And coming down Sterling it met another challenge I threw at it.

Bottoming out at Harmon Den and crossing under I-40 we came face to face with the start of the long Harmon Den climb COVERED in snow. Ice is fine, and snowpack can make ice safer, but this was a new unknown. This snow had probably seen a few freeze thaw cycles and who knows what lay underneath it. We grabbed some food out of our food bags and quickly decided we were both pretty good and trucked on. Last time I went up Harmon Den was in the pouring rain and 30-degree weather of the HARDford 50 in the spring. Today was kind of a good full circle, fewer gears, a whole season later, but back at the training. Different company, same goals. It was a good time to reflect. And reflect we did as I churned the pedals up the loose wet sloppy snow, gaining and loosing grip as I altered from the smooth circular motions that let me keep moving forward. Standing wouldn’t be much of an option on this one…

Harmon Den just kept getting worse and worse, deeper and deeper. The Subaru CrossTrek that we saw at the bottom of the mountain had turned around long before this point, leaving to find another way to its destination. Barnabas and I tossed around some conversation about future routes in the area but mostly just urged our tiring bodies (mine anyhow) onward and upward. We passed our descent noting that the snow had to be around 8-10 inches deep and had only one couple day old track through it. That was gonna be fun. Topping out we headed towards the mountain top bald known as Max Patch before our descent. We reflected for a few minutes on how the two bikes wed just ridden were so far outside of their built purpose, but as riders we had made it our credo to push so far beyond the “manufacturer’s spec” that it seemed dead on that our bikes were doing the same.

Seeing clouds in the distance we didn’t pause for long. We started out trip down, ripping, gripping and grinning the whole way. BJ leading the way for most of the descent we would cackled back and forth as we lost and got grip. Ripping the snow up behind us and laughing as we teetered on the edge of safety. Im a safety minded rider, I seldom push what I perceive as my own limit of handling ability, choosing to ride tomorrow rather than hit that momentary high and so Barnabas got the better of me on the descent, Im sure having the capability to downshift didn’t impair him either!

We rolled out hard and fast, snow turning to ice turning to slush turning to sloppy wet tarmac beneath Which ultimately gave way to our cars parked at a truck stop where those funny red hamburgers were about to get crushed just like the miles behind us.

I called this ride the “No Diet Epic” because of the area. Every single ride there finds a way to be completely big and amazing. Views, character, friends, the whole deal.

Get yourself there, itll be “Epic.”