It wasn’t a bucket list climb but was certainly one that I wanted to do. I was traveling with my mother, age 90, and we diverted slightly, on our way to Florida. By slightly, I mean 115 miles. Or I guess 129 to include the seven-mile access road to Clingman’s Dome.
Bad weather would have scrubbed my plans but the weather forecast looked good for Gatlinburg with a high temperature of 70 forecast – for Gatlinburg, but not for Clingman’s Dome. It was in the low 50s when I decided to push off from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
The instructions to my mother were simple. Follow the highway (U.S. 441) 13 miles to the top of the mountain then turn right to Clingman’s Dome. If she started to go down the mountain she went too far. I realized as I was riding that I should have had her leapfrog from pull-off to pull off and she would be more comfortable knowing where I was.
I wore a long-sleeve Under Armour underneath my Schleck jersey along with a light vest. Gloves and a thermal cap complemented my kit.
Newfound Gap Road (U.S. Rte 441) from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina is a 36-mile road. At Newfound Gap, which is the border of Tennesse and North Carolina, there is a seven-mile access road to Clingman’s Gap. It is a two-lane road with no shoulders but plenty of pull-offs. The speed limit is generally 45 mph and I reasoned, maybe incorrectly, that the majority of traffic would be park goers in no hurry. But this is also U.S. Rte 441 and the only way over the mountain. Surely there were some drivers trying to get over the mountain as quickly as possible.
As I started climbing I also got passed by a few cars. I would play a game and simply count the number of cars that passed me on this ride. And I would tweet out how courteous the drivers were. This lasted 91 cars, The 92nd came by me and almost hit me. I reacted badly. I screamed out.
I don’t ride on the white line. I’m not coordinated enough to do that as surely I would go off the road. But I ride constantly about 1-2′ to the left of the white line. And this driver seemed determined that he would drive right in the middle of the lane whether I was there or not.
We used to always think these were aggressive drivers meaning to punish cyclists. But some are surely distracted drivers who come upon cyclists quickly. And if you were driving 45 mph, you come upon a cyclist traveling 8-10 mph pretty quickly. Assuming there was no cell service to be messing with a phone (maybe there was?), I believe the driver was aggressive and not distracted. But it sure scared me.
I would start my count over. I got to 31 before a second car passed me very closely. Then I got to 161 before a pickup truck driver tried to put its hood underneath my left elbow. Literally. I looked at the driver. I yelled. Then I moved to the center so he knew he didn’t have room to pass in the lane. It was quite harrowing.
Part-way up the mountain was a construction zone. Traffic was being held for one-lane travel so at times I basically had the road to myself. But when the traffic was released by the construction flagger, I pulled off the road and let the entire group pass. There may have been 50-60 cars at a time that I would let pass while I stood safely off the road. And I did not include them in my totals of the number of cars that passed me. I was glad to pull over and let them by while waiting for that empty gap to resume riding.
About three miles into the ride I pulled over to unzip the vest, removed the gloves, and my headcover. I was sweating pretty nicely on this November day. Near the top of the Newfound Gap climb, I pulled over to zip up the jacket and put my gloves back on. It was getting cold.
I was glad at the gap to turn onto Clingman’s Gap access road. I was surprised to see that it was closed from December 1 – March 31. I hadn’t even thought of that. But I beat it by 15 days. I hoped there wasn’t a lot more climbing, picturing the road traveling alongside the mountain top. Of course, I knew it still climbed. It was a slog. The entire ride wasn’t overly difficult but it sure was a constant slog.
As I climbed to the top visibility dropped to about 100′. I saw my car but my mother wasn’t in it. I went a bit farther and saw she was at a restroom. I went to the base of the observation tower and found some willing person to take my photo.
I really wanted to keep riding to Cherokee. It was all downhill and who wouldn’t love a 20-mile downhill. But it would also mean trusting my mother to drive down the mountain and I wasn’t going to ask her to do that.
I sincerely doubt I will get the chance to ride down either side – back to Gatlinburg or ahead to Cherokee. I have no desire to ever ride this one again. I do not recommend this climb. The road surface is great. The scenery is wonderful. But the traffic is crap. Cyclists have the right to be on the road. But I don’t want to be dead right.