Written and captured by David Zell
Featured image by Logan Watts
Ready, Set, Bike!
When I saw on Instagram that Overmountain Cycles was partnering with bikepacking.com to host a group start of the 125 mile gravel bike packing route known as Wilson’s Ramble, I immediately signed up. Completing a shorter gravel route solo earlier this year in the same area left me wanting more. This was the perfect opportunity to allow myself to further explore the Linville Gorge Wilderness and Wilson’s Creek areas of Pisgah National Forest by bike. The only questions I had were, which bike do I bring and who is coming with me?
After a few texts with my friend Evan from ENO, we decided to roll out and do this thing together. We chose steel, drop bar gravel bikes with 650b wheels and 1x drivetrains equipped with an assortment of frame bags loaded up with water, filters, tools, food, and camping with ENO hammock systems. I rode my wife’s Kona Rove, which she purchased this year from Oak City Cycling in Raleigh. Many other folks rode mountain bikes but wanting to complete the route in two days, we chose the speedier option for a bit of underbiking. The route starts and ends at Fonta Flora Brewery in Nebo, NC and is comprised of flowing single track, graded gravel roads, double track, a bit of pavement and a handful of creek crossings and chunky single track sections over nearly 15,000 feet of elevation.
We met at Fonta Flora on a Friday night in late May, and camped in their backyard by the creek with 50 or so others. I slept really well the first night in my ENO SkyLite Hammock slung between two trees with the nifty, yet intuitive, Helios Ultralight Suspension System next to a gurgling Paddy’s Creek. It was my first time seeing fireflies this year, and I dozed off gazing at the stars through the bug net, impressed with the comfort of my new sleep system.
Early Saturday morning, after preparing our bikes and taking a few photos, we headed towards Lake James State Park’s flowy single track and fern gullies. It was 7:30 AM and we were ready for a long day of riding. We aimed to reach 80 miles by nightfall. Two hours later, we filled bottles at the trailhead parking lot of the Fonta Flora County Park before heading into the wild of the Linville Gorge Wilderness where we were rewarded with close up views of the Table Rock monolith after a strenuous climb and hike-a-bike section that left us sweat soaked and slurping fluids.
Forty miles in we hiked barefoot across the ankle to thigh high Steele’s Creek and lunched on the other side where we were joined by a handful of others. I took the opportunity to cook a quick hot meal and cooled down in the rushing waters while my lunch water boiled. We filtered and ingested as much water as we could, knowing that the day was only half done at 1:30 PM, six hours into the Ramble.
We climbed up double track and gravel, crossed Highway 181 for the first of two times, and descended Craig Creek Road when the first storm rolled in. The easy drizzle trickled over me and seeped salty sweat down my face and into my mouth as we continued on. Evan began to cramp up as the day turned into early evening. We continued onward into Wilson’s Creek, climbed Wilson’s Ridge Trail and connected to the infamously beautiful and winding, Maple Sally Road - one of many gated forest service roads in the area.
Sixty miles in, we made the difficult decision to split up and part ways. Evan called it a day and phoned for a ride to Asheville when he found cell service, while I continued on for another two hours, being chased by lightning, rain, hail, and getting a bit lost in the process. 80 miles and 12 hours in, I was completely spent and struggling to eat, but managed to filter water and put down as much fluid as I could. I set up my SkyLite Hammock and ProFly XL Sil Rain Tarp, put on dry clothes and fell asleep as soon as I was horizontal in my SkyLite only to be awoken an hour later by claps of thunder over the valley below. I was dry, resting and thankful to be tucked away in the woods engulfed in my ENO gear and totally content.
The next morning I arose with the birds before 6AM pleased that my ProFly XL Sil Rain Tarp kept me and the gear I stowed under it dry. I repacked everything back onto the bike, ate some granola and electrolytes and filtered 70 oz of water. I felt rejuvenated and was ready for the 45 miles I had ahead of me. I proceeded back to the route and climbed Yancey’s Ridge Trail and Pineola Roads while enjoying views of Grandfather Mountain in the distance.
I spent the whole second day riding solo, which although unplanned, was magnificent. I stopped at an outpost in Jonas Ridge on 181 and bought cheddar cheese Ruffles, Cheetos, a Yoohoo, Gatorade, 48oz of Smart Water, a veggie breakfast burrito, and a Snickers and ate most of it on a rocking chair on the covered front porch before heading on.
One of the best things about endurance riding is the amount of calories I get to enjoy for fuel and replenishment. The final leg of the route, which took me down Old NC 105 in the mid-day sun, was a tough experience as the road is rutted and has many diagonal washouts. The vistas and views are breathtaking, the plethora of dispersed camping spots drool worthy, and the descent at the end is ripping!
I was pleased to arrive back to Fonta Flora at 1:15PM to zero fanfare, pomp or any semblance of a finish line which, to me, made this ride so much more remarkable than a typical organized event. I simply packed up my bike, called Evan and my family to check in, and was on my way home. If I did it again I would choose to complete it in three days instead of two or split the mileage a bit more evenly between two days.
This trip brought me so much closer to the majestic beauty that surrounds us in Western, NC, and furthered my appreciation of our natural open spaces and protected lands. The sense of freedom and wonder that accompanies a challenge like this where we push our bodies past their limits reminds me that I am the master of my own destiny and I’m responsible for where my life leads me. The best part for me was continuing to find my flow on a bike in the woods and being self-sufficient for almost two days, while having the chance to grow closer with an old friend and continue to learn more about myself on my unending quest to become a more enlightened person.
The gear! Packed into my seat post bag were the ENO SkyLite Hammock, the ENO ProFly XL Sil Rain Tarp, and ENO Helios Ultralight Suspension System. What I loved most about the SkyLite was the DAC spreader bars, which provided for a much flatter sleeping experience than my ENO SingleNest Hammock. It was super cozy being able to stretch out and move my arms and legs freely throughout the night. The adjustability of the Helios ultralight straps allowed me to infinitely customize the tension of the hammock to my personal preference and the ProFly XL Sil Rain Tarp kept me and my belongings dry throughout what turned out so be a night riddled with rain, lightning, and hail. I really appreciate the reflective element to the anchor cords of the ProFly Sil XL Tarp; such a solid feature. More than once my headlamp illuminated the cords and prevented me from tripping over my shelter. Setting up everything was quick, straightforward, and intuitive even in my somewhat catatonic state. Very into this. Thanks, ENO!
David Zell is a stay at home father in Raleigh, NC. When he’s not cycling or spending time with his four year old daughter, he enjoys exploring the world of trail ultramarathoning, cooking, reading and camping with his wife, Sonya and their rescue pup, Boogie.