1 of 2
The pretty water body is surrounded by a series of four loop trails that total 42 miles of great riding.
2 of 2
Josh Shaffer's Bike Ride
The pause that refresher? Josh Shaffer's inaugural ride included rain, sore muscles, solitude, minor wounds and an ultimate sense of triumph among friends.
A rookie gets his feet (and head and everything else) wet as he takes in great views, enjoys great camaraderie and experiences an agony-to-pride conclusion that is “like finishing a marathon, on a smaller scale.”
I’m flying through the Smoky Mountains on a mountain bike, and my forehead is so hot, my hair so drenched with sweat that my glasses fog up like a bathroom mirror. I can barely see doom approaching.
It sits at the bottom of a rocky, rutted trail as steep as any ski slope – an oak root big enough to bite off my front tire. I squeeze the brakes and smack into it, flipping the bike and sending myself sprawling over the handlebars, flying for what seems like a full minute.
It’s almost peaceful as I soar through the air. Cardinals and robins flutter past, and the leafy mountaintops jut in the distance. Then I hit the dirt like a sack of cement and roll 10 feet down the mountain, landing in a confused and crumpled heap, laughing at death with my feet in the air.
“I take it by your laughter that nothing is broken,” says my friend Jim, who pedals back to scoop up my bruised body.
In mountain bike lingo, this sort of crash is called a Superman, and for the next 24 hours, I hear the Man of Steel’s theme music playing in my head.
I had driven eight hours to Tsali Recreation Area for this abuse. The campground sits in a shaded valley 90 miles west of Asheville, in the pointed west end of North Carolina.
For the third consecutive year, my friend Rob had organized a gang of 15 hardcore bikers for a three-day ride – no girls allowed. He called it the Boys Mountain Bike Trip, or BMBTIII, and this year, there were T-shirts.
I was a cub among grown wolves. These guys were mild-mannered in their day jobs as school administrators or lobbyists, but they were madmen on the trail.
Jim had a bike chain tattooed around his left ankle. Most of the others wore shoes that clipped onto their pedals. They said things like, “Dude, I bonked early,” when they meant, “Gosh, I got hungry and tired very quickly.”
Disputes tended to get settled by wrestling matches.
I didn’t make this year’s trip until the second night, and when I did, the veterans made all the first-years participate in some humiliating initiation or other. I was made to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” while doing an interpretive dance. Another newbie performed Tai Chi to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven.”
The only thing that kept me from being intimidated by these men were their bright yellow and red biking socks, all embroidered with butterflies or happy-face suns. None of them would be caught with their feet in these socks outside the wilderness, especially in the company of women.
We strung up a plastic tarp big enough to shade Grandfather Mountain and parked ourselves around a fire pit surrounded by coolers of beer and meat. We grilled ribs and salmon, ate Oreo cookies like they were mixed nuts and belched into the mountain air.
It’s 11 a.m. on the third day and I’ve already biked 10 miles. I managed to stay on the seat, and to arrive back without any broken bones, so I’m ready for a well-deserved hamburger and a Bud Lite.
There are four loop trails at Tsali – two of them about 11 miles and the others about eight apiece – and the veterans have ridden them all at least once. I figure the rest of the day will unfold in this slow-paced way: bad jokes around the fire, bike folklore, naps…
But a few hours later, the gang is suiting up for another ride.
I don’t want to go. I don’t want to squeeze into those shorts, tighter than a sausage casing. I don’t want to sit on that seat, which feels like straddling a football, and bounce over boulders.
Still, I can’t sit still. I can’t wimp out. So I strap on the helmet and climb weakly aboard. Rob comes over to adjust my helmet, which is hanging back on my head like a backward baseball cap.
“Dude,” he says, adjusting it over my forehead, “the difference between having your helmet here and having it there is the difference between getting a headache and having a lobotomy.”
With those inspiring words, we are off. On the first hill, I lose the pack. My leg muscles feel like they will soon burst through the skin, and I seriously consider turning around. But after a few pedals, I decide to finish at my own pace.
I ride slowly, as if I were going around the block, stopping to admire Lake Fontana and the peaks from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stand across from it. It’s welcome solitude, away from the fraternity and intensity of the group.
Then it starts to rain – not the light drizzle that has fallen all weekend, but a pounding, punishing downpour. I’m only two miles into an eight-mile trail, and turning around would mean biking uphill all the way. So I pedal on.
I’m sliding over wet leaves and pine straw, splattering mud all over myself. The trail is blurry through my glasses, like the highway through a windshield with bad wipers.
I wonder what would happen if I broke a leg out here, and as I think it, riding the brakes down a steep hill, my back wheel skids and throws me into a puddle. My fingertips are wrinkled like they’ve been in the bathtub too long.
I count the miles on the wooden markers and imagine dry clothes, a fire, a beer, a sandwich, my sleeping bag. The fantasy becomes a sort of trance, and long before I expect it, the campground appears.
This must be what it feels like to finish a marathon, on a smaller scale. Agony on the trail turns to pride as soon as the pedaling is done.
That night, Rob holds an awards ceremony, handing out pairs of gaudy socks for various accomplishments. I win the year’s Bad Beer Award, having shunned Rob’s microbrews, and he duct-tapes a bottle of Samuel Adams to my chest.
Soon after the sun sets, I am nursing wounds in my sleeping bag, feeling more like Daniel Boone than Superman, dreaming of the mountains I taunted with knobby tires.
The Tsali Recreation Area is about 17.5 miles from Robbinsville, N.C. Travel east out of Robbinsville on N.C. 143 until you reach the junction with N.C. 28. Turn right at the stop sign and proceed south on 28 for approximately 8.4 miles. The entrance to the Tsali Recreation Area will be on the north side of the road and is well marked with signs.
Four loop trails wind along the shores of Fontana Lake and onto the wooded, steep interior ridgelines for 42 miles and range from one-foot-wide rugged paths to flat, well-beaten roads.
For more information contact the Nantahala National Forest, Cheoah Ranger District, Route 1, Box 16-A, Robbinsville, NC 28721 or 828/479-6431.