Morning is an especially nice time for a summer mountain-bike ride at Bent Creek: The bugs aren't mobilizing yet, the thermometer hasn't hit 90 degrees, and you don't have to fret about afternoon storms. Hoping to avoid those terrible three, I recently confronted a gray, wet rag of a sky that seemed sure to let loose on me halfway through my ride. (In fact, the drizzle started before I even got out of my car.) One good thing about morning rides is that, when the unexpected happens, you may be able to reschedule for the afternoon.
But I'm not a patient man.
Hoping the clouds would move on, I came back to the trailhead around lunchtime, only to find the rain falling with more gusto. I left, vowing to return.
This time, the skies were a calm, Caribbean blue, though much too still to stay that way. Storm clouds lurked in the distance, the darkest ones emitting rumbles and booms accompanied by jagged, white hisses across the far sky.
But surely, I rationalized, wanting so badly to make the trip out there worthwhile, the storm would pass over or go the other way: It wouldn't loom all day right over the very area where I planned to ride.
Bad reasoning like this always gets me into trouble.
A route popped into my head: From the Hard Times trailhead, turn right onto paved Wesley Branch, hang a left at Rice Pinnacle, go up to Five Points and descend via Ledford Gap. Then hang a right and eventually pop out onto Bent Creek Gap, a dirt road. Take a left and keep left till you're back to Hard Times.
On the long pedal up, I plugged in the earphones and cranked up my MP3 player. Soon, however, I felt the wind sucking at me and brushing the back of my neck — and then the spray and an invisible clap interrupted my music. I snapped around, as if I could somehow stare down the beast. But those darkening skies lurched closer: The creature had caught my scent.
Cranking as hard as I could, my head pulsed and my knuckles turned white on the bike grips. When I finally reached the high road at Five Points, I thought I might have eluded the tempest, but I couldn't tell for sure amid the eerie fog that hung there like the ghost of something the storm had snacked on and discarded. Apparently still hungry, though, it lapped at my heels again, the ghost fading into the advancing wall of water as I wobbled and rolled down the mountain.
Normal dips in the path were transformed into bogs that yanked my front tire at every turn. Between thunderclaps, I pondered how it would feel if I were struck by lightning. Maybe my earphones would be welded to my inner ear as the electricity zipped around my body. Yanking them out, I tried to focus on the important things, like staying on my bike while threading puddles, slick roots and mercurial orange clay.
Then I saw some other riders coming up the mountain. I didn't even talk to them: They had to be completely mad to be heading straight into the very storm I was fleeing.
As I descended, rear tire stuck in a perpetual fishtail, I realized my pants were now coated with mud and debris— and some of the gunk was working its way in. Aha moment: Fenders really aren't just for show! Damn. Belatedly, the rain was beginning to ease, though I was practically back to the car by then.
Thankfully, it hadn't been as battered by the storm as I was. I rode up and patted my trusty vehicle, which seemed to stare back at me as if to say, "You better wash me when we get home — and, by the way, how'd all that peat get up in your seat?"
Long about then, two guys showed up and asked me how the weather was up there. With mud sliding off my legs and puddling at my ankles, I eyed their fenderless bikes as they prepared to take off. "Really," I replied, "it's not that bad at all."
[Jonathan Poston lives in Asheville.]