On the sunny and unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon of January 6, 2008, I took a shake-down cruise for the first mountain biking exercise on my new bike. Debbie gave it to me for Christmas. I drove my Bronco Moses with the bike on a rack to the Ranger station at Kerr Scott Lake, whose parking lot is the eastern end of the Trail.
The trail approximates a small portion of the route taken by the Over Mountain Men. When several southern states were threatened by Colonel Ferguson of the British Army during our Revolutionary War, men gathered from NC, VA, SC and from “over the mountain” in Tennessee. They walked and rode horses several hundred miles in less than a week and cornered the British at Kings Mountain in South Carolina. They dealt the British their first significant military defeat of the war in the battle named for the mountain.
This section of the trail was built by volunteers from the Brushy Mountain Cycling Club, so it is compatible with mountain biking and hiking. It is maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The first, and main, section runs through rolling, hard wood forest, roughly west about 6 miles between the southern lake shore and NC-268. I was familiar with the trail [I thought]. I planned to ride a couple miles west on the main trail, then turn off onto a new section that is a 2 mile loop to the north.
While looking for the new intersection, I saw some buildings through the woods with which I was not familiar. I wondered if I had mistakenly taken some other fork [there was not supposed to be any]; or perhaps I had reached the new loop and somehow had gotten onto it, without seeing the intersection.
Along the way, I met Gwen Temple hiking with another lady. She warned me of major mud ahead. I blew it off as the excessive caution of someone without Ranger Bob’s qualifications to handle the rough and tough outdoors. My mistake.
After finding the loop, I was still half-unsure of my location. The loop was newer, less beaten down, and the dirt was softer than the main trail. Due to a recent rain, much of the loop was heavy mud. Fortunately, there were a lot of dead leaves mixed in the mud to give it some grip. But on the steep sections, prior bikers had spun and slip enough to scrub off the leaves and leave a quagmire.
Soon, my wheels, bike frame, shoes and pants legs were caked with mud. Sticking out of the mud were festoons of leaves. I looked like the charlatan described by Mark Twain in "Huckleberry Finn," in early 19th century America, tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.
I soon learned that I could not bike the steeps in the usual way. Uphill, the tires got no grip. I quickly stalled and had to jam on my brakes just to keep from sliding back downhill. Then would begin a duck walk up the hill, straddling my bike, both feet sliding around in the mud. Downhill, the bike sailed along on a muddy plane, like skis in mushy snow; or like a canoe in whitewater. The only things that kept the tires on the trail were the sloped banks and the trees from which I would push off.
The mud was bad enough. Adding to my consternation was the bike, because it was still new to me. I was not used to the geometry of the frame, so it balanced differently than my old bike. Within the first 5 seconds of getting on the trail, I lost my balance, ran off the trail and fell over. That sequence was repeated a half-dozen more times, before I got the hang of it.
The new bike has 3 more gears than the old one. Previously I was used to staying in 1st gear about 90% of the time, and in 2nd gear the other 10%. On this bike, 90% of the time, 1st gear was too low. When I used it, except on the longest and steepest up hills, my pedals turned too fast to engage the wheels and I had no momentum. If the rear wheel did engage, there was too much torque, so the back tire dug in too hard, spun out and I lost traction.
The solution was to move back and forth repeatedly between 1st, 2nd and 3rd gears. All that switching meant I had to be much more diligent to watch the trail ahead and anticipate when, and which way, to shift gears. Most of the first mile, I forgot to shift, or shifted too late, or I hit the wrong lever - and shifted the wrong way. So, naturally, the bike would bog down, lose momentum, run off the trail, fall over…you know the drill. Then I would slog the rest of the way up the hill with my shoes sliding in the mud.
One final trick I learned was in the switchbacks. These were hairpin tight turns where the bike swapped directions quickly. The trail builders banked the turns heavily, like a NASCAR race track. They also built into most of the turns a dip in the middle, so the bike accelerated by gravity, giving it enough momentum to shoot up the exiting bank and out of the curve. That system is great, except that in this mud, the banked track was slick as grease. It was much tougher than on a dry trail to line up the bike’s angle. Lean too far to the outside of the curve, and your body would fall off the uphill side of the bike. Lean too far towards the inside of the curve, and the front tire would dig into the soft downhill dirt, bog down, run off the trail…you know the drill.
After a half dozen tries, I got the hang of the hairpin curves. It really was like snow skiing or white water canoeing. Sometimes I would go into the curves with the front tire turned way too far to the outside, and instead of going over the bank, it would just slide along the muddy bank, like a sliding ski turn, or like a rear rudder in a canoe. Whee!! For my next trick, I hope to learn how to accelerate into the hairpins, and shoot out the far side even faster…maybe another day.
A final set of issues was the uncertainty of exactly where I was on the trail. I started fairly late in the afternoon, and the winter days were short. I became concerned that it would be dark before I got to the end of the trail. Then I would be in a pickle, trying to see well enough to get back to the truck.
The trip was engaging, in that I learned a lot of things about the new bike and its handling in the mud. But I can’t say that it was a fun trip. It was pretty intense. I did get a good aerobic workout. I later found, after exiting from the loop, that I was still on the main trail when I saw the strange buildings. The reason they were new to me was because I had not ridden the trail when all the leaves were fallen. Fortunately, I made it out before dark.
A couple weeks later, I did the whole OVT from the ranger station to the campground, out and back, without using the highway, for the first time, for a total of about 10 trail miles. It was just about too much workout. Added to the difficulty was the factor that I started about 4 p.m., and I typically need 1 hour for the trip, one way. Two ways would take 2 hours, or until 6 p.m. But the sun set at 5:30 p.m. I had a good head lamp, but I did not relish being on the trail when it got real cold after dark. During the daylight, it was already so cold that my water bottle froze. So hustled out by 5:45 p.m., with the sorest thighs I have felt in many years. At the end I literally could not stand up on the pedals.
On this trip, I learned more about handling the gears and switchback turns. I frequently got up to 4th gear. And I was able to enter the switchback curves at a higher speed, not brake, pedal sooner and in a higher gear upon exiting, to keep up much better momentum. One of the tricks seems to be to shift sooner and more often.
Then the next week I attempted the out-and-back route again. I ran into the biggest mud goop mess I have experinced in my entire life. The mud was not so much deep, or wet, or soupy, as it was adhesive clay. About half way through the route one way, the clay built up on the wheels and bike forks so thick that there was no room for the wheels to turn. Added to the mix was big, fist-sized chunks of leaves, sticks and roots stuck in the clay. Eventually the wheels seized up and would not turn. About the same time, I was on a long, downhill section of trail that was as slick as glass. The bike lost all traction and began sailing free from the dirt, like a car on black ice. With no control, I promptly enjoyed my first high-speed wreck on the new bike. Fortunately, I landed on my feet and rolled into a soft area.
I had to walk out to the closest road, but the trail was so glass slick that I could not even walk on it. Nor could I push the bike, since the wheels would not turn and just plowed a furrow in the dirt. I had to hike through the woods carrying my bike. Upon reaching the side road from NC-268 to the marina, I biked down the road and coasted downhill, as fast as possible, to sling as much mud as possible from the wheels. Nearing the NC-268 intersection, peering through the fountain of mud, I was horrified to see a gate closed across the road. I slammed on the brakes, the bike shuddered and skidded, and stopped right at the gate. I am sure that without disk brakes I would have broken some bones.
Back at the Park headquarters parking lot, I coasted on the bike down to the boat ramp and into the lake. My idea was to wash of the mud. Nothing doing. The slick, viscous clay was essentially waterproof. I had to use a big stick to knock off most of it. Back at home, it took 20 minutes with a high pressure hose to clean up.
I later learned from Dwight Levi, former President of the Brushy Mountain Cycling Club, that this adhesive clay is the result of a relatively new, unpacked dirt trail, combinded with the annual winter freeze / thaw cycle. When the ground a couple inches deep is still frozen, but the upper layer is melted, then various geographical, physical and chemical changes cause the clay to be just wet and silty enough, but not too wet, to be purely viscous, or adhesive.
For the next several weeks, I could tell how long the OVT trail remained adhesive, by the bikes seen around town on car top carriers, covered with thick mud.