The bridge overt he inter-coastal waterway connects the mainland to Holden Beach. The two dots in the middle are Mary and me.

The bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway connects the mainland to Holden Beach. The two dots in the middle are Mary and me.

The Epiphany started with a window decal

Mary and I stopped at a red light on Route 130 not far from Shallotte, NC.  The pickup truck in front of us had two decals on the back glass that read Kicks for Jesus with a mixed martial arts image underneath.  As we waited for the light to change, my mind tried to filter how turning the other cheek might work out in an MMA bout.

As we resumed pedaling back to our beach rental, an even bigger question emerged. Is it better to ride these flat roads than the mountain roads surrounding our home in Roanoke, Va.?

You might think the answer is easy.  The terrain near the beach must be easier.  I mean, who wants to battle long climbs, when you can enjoy the road stretched out before you with virtually no obstacles?

Upon further review, the answer isn’t so clear.  Consider the wind, the scenery, the fun factor and all of a sudden the mountains of Southwest Virginia are looking pretty good.


The Beach seemed so easy…

I’ve been vacationing at Holden Beach, NC for more than two decades.  Every year I looked forward to the break from the mountains and the chance to just maybe sustain 20 mph at the beach.  How glorious I thought, to put the hammer down and record rides with an average speed that began with a two!

At home, it was rare, even when I was younger, to average over 17 mph.   The mountains just didn’t allow my moderate ability to do any better.  Ah, but the beach.  Here was a chance to put it in the big ring and just go.  Just me against the air.  How fast could I push it without the hills to slow me down?

And I was right. I could go faster at the beach.

In the early days, I didn’t know a time trial from a criterium.  I didn’t know much about anything related to cycling strategy, training or best practices.  I just knew I wanted to ride faster and faster.  A tenth of a mile per hour mattered when it came to average speed.

And average speed mattered more than anything.  Go hard, or go home.

Every morning I would dutifully swing my leg over the bike on the beautiful beach road, ride over the bridge linking the mainland to the island that is Holden Beach, pedal to the nearby town of Shallotte and return.  It was an even 20 miles.

Twenty miles of hell.

The best scenery is from the bridge over the Waterway. Unfortunately is not a safe time to be looking around.

The best scenery is from the bridge over the Waterway. Unfortunately, it’s not a safe time to be looking around.


Bleary eyes and tired legs at the beach

How badly did I want to average 20 mph?  What was the value of the number on that little bike computer?  At the time, it was like gold.

Every moment spent below the magic 20 was time that had to be made up later.  That meant no warm up.  Get on the bike and start pedaling as hard as possible. Keep it over 20.

And don’t stop for sixty minutes.

Every day of vacation.  Get up early, before the wind begins to blow.  Watch the road.  Glance at the computer.  Damn the pain.  Go go go.

For a couple of years, I actually did it.  Once or twice I even hit 21.  I remember walking into the beach house triumphant in my success, and nobody caring.

So what, I had hit my goal.

I was the man. I loved riding the beach roads.

Mary and friend Karen Deer, riding near Glacier National Park in Montana.

View from Going to the Sun Road.  Glacier National Park

Mary and friend Karen Deer, riding near Glacier National Park in Montana.

Mary and friend Karen Deer, riding near Glacier National Park in Montana.

Age, Experience and New Thinking

The more I learned about training, the more I understood that it is not a great idea to go as hard as you can every time you ride.  It also became evident that riding was supposed to be enjoyable, not a sufferfest.   Mary and I have ridden in Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Montana’s Glacier National Park.  It’s clear there is more value to mountain vistas and covered bridges than the little number on my Garmin.

All of which begins to negate the value of beach riding.

Now in my 50’s and suffering from a condition called sarcoidosis, it’s clear my fastest days are behind me. Instead of hammering to Shallotte, it was time to sit up and smell the roses.

Only there weren’t any.

The mountains are looking better and better

Riding in and around Roanoke is always beautiful.  Even when pedaling through an industrial area, you can look up and see the mountains.  The view is seldom missing from the horizon.

That’s not true at the beach.

Oh sure, riding the island along the shore is fun.  The beach homes have clever names.  The architecture is a marvel, million dollar homes built on stilts to survive the inevitable hurricanes.  But after a while, the beach strip begins to look the same.  It’s a nice break from home, but hmmm.

Riding near Cahas Mountain in Franklin County, Va.

Riding near Cahas Mountain in Franklin County, Va.

Wind vs. Grade

Riding uphill is a challenge.  But, on most hills, you can get “on top of” your gear.  You can find that place where there is comfortable resistance from the pedals and you just ride along as best you can.  Riding into the wind, in my mind, is worse.

Given the choice of a seven percent grade or a seven mph headwind, I’d take the grade.  Really.

The wind never lets up.  You can’t get ahead of it.  You never find that comfortable place in your gears.  At the beach, except for an hour or so after sunrise, the wind is always there.  You never get a break.

Another plus for the uphill is that it’s almost always followed by a downhill.  That means rest.  It means fun.  It means speed earned by the effort on the other side.  At the beach, you pedal constantly.  There is no coasting.  There are few times in which you say “Wheee!”

Chalk one up for the mountains.

My trust Guerciotti after a ride to Shallotte.

My trusty Guerciotti after a ride to Shallotte.

The comfort factor

Maybe my bike doesn’t fit right.  But the only time it raises its tingling head is at the beach — where you pedal constantly.  In the same position.  Forever.

My butt gets numb.  Nether parts get numb.  Arms and hands are all pins and needles.

In the mountains, I’m constantly shifting positions as the terrain tips up and down.  I slide back and forth on the saddle searching for different muscle groups to handle the challenges. On longer downhills, I level the pedals and lean into a tuck to find new speed.  Seldom do I feel the numbness that torments me at the beach.

Another strike against these vacation rides.

Back to the “interest” factor…

Once you get off Holden Beach, past the ice cream stands, souvenir shops, and putt-putt courses, you break out into an area dominated by service businesses.  There are glass repair shops, boat storage warehouses, maybe a pizza joint.  Beyond the ring of those who service the beach tourist trade, the terrain becomes dotted with residential properties.

The homes vary from modest, working-class ranches on the high side, down to tar paper shacks.  Some of the nicer homes have mowed lawns, white picket fences, and flower beds — but just as many have cars up on blocks, and are badly in need of a weedeater.  It is rural North Carolina, and one gets the impression that it is hard to make a living here.  The contrast between the wealth at the beach and the surrounding area is stark.

I find it interesting — but not beautiful.  Not the roses I was sitting up to smell while trying not to focus on my average speed.

Thus I found myself focused on that decal on the back of the truck.  A bit further down the road, there was a cardboard sign, on which words written in magic marker declared “Mattresses for sale.”

Did some guy have a garage full of mattresses he was trying to move?  Who would buy a mattress from someone advertising as if it was a yard sale?  I mean, you need to sleep on this thing for years, right?

For all I know, it’s the best mattress deal in the world.  I’ll never find out.

Without scenery to distract you, stickers on cars and handwritten mattress signs become more interesting than you might think.

Happy cyclists at Raven's Roost overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Wintergreen.

I’ll Take the Mountains

Oh sure…  Rural southwest Virginia has more than it’s share of run-down properties.  The term, “hillbillies” didn’t appear from thin air.  I’ve ridden in plenty of places where moonshine was not far away.  One of my favorite trails even has a still, long ago destroyed by ABC investigators.

But somehow it’s prettier when the terrain isn’t so flat.

I’ll take mountain views over an endless, sandy landscape.  I’ll suffer up a mountain vs. riding into a headwind.  And, that numbness from riding in the same position — well you can have it.

And don’t get me started on the heat and humidity.

Will I still ride at the beach next summer?  Of course. I’ll even look forward to it.  It’s a nice break.

But it’s no ride in the mountains.

Look closely and you will see us riding the bridge!

Look closely and you will see us riding the bridge!