Day 28: Asheville, NC - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 10, 2011

Day 28: Asheville, NC

I wake up with my legs talking to me. My calves ask me to go back to sleep. My hamstrings just want some easy downhills. My quads beg me not to ride at all.

Tom leaves before 8:00, so I stand outside in the early morning with a decision to make: pedal back up to the Parkway or head down into Asheville. The gears turn in my head. I check the forecast and see that today's going to be a hot one. I look at the guidebook and find out I won't come across another city like this for almost a week. My body feels tired just standing there after three days of riding in the mountains. Then I remember what Tom told me over breakfast: Asheville was recently named the best beer city in America, with more microbreweries per capita than anywhere else in the country. I don't know if that's true, but it doesn't really matter. I start down.

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Basketball happens on the court. Hockey players skate at the rink. Bicycle racers ride in the velodrome. Everything I know about velodromes revolves around the serious pursuit of speed, from carbon frames and forks to lightweight wheels, skinny tires, the lack of brakes, and drivetrains that cost thousands of dollars. They exist as an arena where intense, competitive riders wearing colorful, skintight lycra can mash the pedals and push their bodies to the limit. It's the polar opposite to bicycling touring, and I think that's why I've always wanted to ride my loaded bike in a velodrome.

Today in Asheville I get my chance. Called the Mellowdrome by the locals, the place started as a race car track back in 1962, where legendary drivers like Richard Petty competed at the highest levels of NASCAR. That's the reason the track takes such an unusual shape. It isn't long and narrow with high banks and sharp corners but instead takes on more of a bull ring shape. There aren't any straightaways, just a combination of smooth, low-banked curves that run about a third of a mile. After crossing over a wooden bridge to the infield, I take to the track and share space with two skinny cyclists who can't figure out what the goofball on the bike with all the crap hanging off of it is doing here, or why he keeps jamming up the middle of their lane. My fenders rattle and my panniers bang around on their racks as I push hard down the front stretch and struggle to break 20 miles per hour.

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I ride up one hill and down another into downtown Asheville. It's a slice of Seattle or Portland or Austin dropped into the western edge of North Carolina. I ride in bike lanes to a brewery, where I sit on a covered patio along the street, drink a delicious white ale, and listen to Phoenix, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Death Cab for Cutie, and Rogue Wave play over the speakers. Hipsters walk by in front of me, their hair messy but stylish, wearing creative band t-shirts, rocking five-day stubble and carefully placed tattoos, and driving 25-year-old Toyota Land Cruisers with dents in the doors and Obama for President stickers on the rear bumpers. If the breeze blew cold instead of warm it'd feel just like home.

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I check into a hostel. It's amazing—loft-like, new and modern and beautiful, with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, stainless steel appliances, blown-up maps of the surrounding areas hanging from the walls, a giant flat screen TV, and the most comfortable leather couch ever made.

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A guy sits on a big chair in front of the TV and intently watches History Channel shows about the predictions of Nostradamus. He looks like his in his early 30s. He wears a mustache and a goatee, his hair curls slightly at its ends, and a tooth on the top-right side of his mouth is missing. With a thick Southern accent he tells me his name, but I can't remember what he says, so in my mind he becomes John.

An hour later, John sits on a stool in the kitchen.

"You havin' a good day, John?" one of the women who works at the hostel asks.

"Haven't had a good day in two years," he says with a sad look on his face.

"How come?"

"That's how long it's been since I seen mah kids."

It sounds reasonable. Earlier he told me how he left North Carolina behind and headed out west to San Francisco to live somewhere new and let his gay flag fly. If he hasn't seen his kids in a couple of years, that could be why.

But then things go off the rails.

John tells the woman that he nearly died a few years ago, and that his kids are actually being raised by someone who claims to be him, who took over his identity for a reason he never explains. That happened shortly before he went to work for the U.S. government in the Middle East, where he managed to capture at least one terrorist. That's when he made a critical mistake.

"I accidentally escorted a member of Al-Qaeda into one of our nation's most secure facilities," he says matter-of-factly. "They caught it all on hidden cameras. They knew mah name, they knew mah face. And then, ya know, they came after me."

That sent him on the run, but he never felt safe.

"This was right after Princess Di was killed in France," he explains, even though I'm pretty sure that was back in 1997. "Mah trust in the witness protection program went way down after that. I knew I had to take care of mahself out there."

John told me earlier that he came to Asheville to take driver education courses and reinstate his license after it was revoked following a driving-under-the-influence conviction from a few years ago. Now I realize it's probably just a cover story designed by the feds.

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I hear barking as I walk up the hill to McCormick Field, home of Asheville's A-level minor league baseball team. It's Doggies at the Diamond night and the stadium is filled with Westies and Huskies and Dachshunds. Every time the crowd claps, barking echoes all around the field. A few of the big dogs growl and show their teeth and try to attack Ted-E, the mascot with the giant brown bear head, whenever he walks past their section. I watch where I step.

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I sit a hundred feet behind home plate. It's 20 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year and a beautiful night for watching a baseball game played by skinny young guys who don't look old enough to buy a beer. Asheville's team is called the Tourists, which is the least intimidating name in the history of sports. Between the second and third innings, two sets of three kids each climb into a giant pair of underwear and try to outrun each other down the first-base line. It's called the Tighty Whitey Race. Later, a nine-year-old races the mascot around the bases, beats him, and wins a bucket of fried chicken. Slingshots fling t-shirts into the crowd. A brother and sister compete in the Build a Human Burrito contest. 50-year-olds who have been sitting quietly all night suddenly go nuts when "Who Let the Dogs Out" plays over the P.A. system.

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Not even an overly aggressive ass slap from the catcher can help the other team's pitcher. He runs six-foot-six and 235 pounds but lasts only two awful innings. The Tourists pull ahead 4-0 and never look back. The thousand other people watching the game are somewhat impressed by the play on the field, but go completely bananas when the Asheville pitcher gives up no hits in the top of the seventh inning, because it means that everyone wins a free Krispy Kreme donut.

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I walk out of the parking lot and pass a 20-year-old guy who stands between two cars with his jeans unzipped, pissing on the side of an SUV with one hand while talking on his cell phone with the other. I'm impressed by the skill and the total lack of shame.

Today's ride: 15 miles (24 km)
Total: 1,453 miles (2,338 km)

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