The Ramble Ride invited Cyclocross Magazine contributor John Proppe along for an expenses-paid trip to the Asheville Ramble. Read on to hear how a relative bikepacking newbie survived a three-day adventure on his bike in the Pisgah National Forest.
Riders from Ventura, CA to Banff, Alberta to Cleveland OH, converged at New Belgium Brewing in Asheville, NC. Their purpose: a three-day semi-supported bikepacking trip into some of the best gravel and country roads the Pisgah National Forest and Western North Carolina had to offer.
The ride is called the Asheville Ramble.
I was able to sneak away from my other responsibilities to ride the inaugural Asheville Ramble with other like-minded media folks. Our on-bike gear was provided by Blackburn, camping gear compliments of Big Agnes, but besides that, we took in the Ramble the same way the common people do: one pedal stroke at a time.
Taking stock of the Asheville Ramble before departure on day one, the come-as-you-are-nature of the ride became apparent via the participants — a mix of locals and visitors, canti-equipped ’cross race bikes and wide-tired adventure bikes, fully-kitted-out racer-types and flannel-equipped bike punks.
This was all new for me, and I soaked it in, not knowing what the Asheville Ramble had in store for me. As someone who had never bikepacked — or toured, as they used to call it back in the day — fully-loaded or fully-supported, I pedaled off with my riding partners out of town and into the Blue Ridge Mountains with a nervous energy and a belly full of Ramble-provided coffee.
The Ramble Ride concept, which includes the Asheville Ramble, is the brainchild of Peter Discoe, a bike industry vet, who among other things, previously ran Swobo.
On the second day of the Asheville Ramble, before dinner, Discoe explained to our group of world-weary riders the origins of the Ramble Ride. Based out of Fort Collins, CO, Discoe and friends would get together for rides starting at New Belgium Brewing, head out into the mountains surrounding town and spend an overnight out in the country swapping stories around the fire while enjoying each other’s company and some cold ones.
Enchanted by the community aspect and the come-as-you-are nature of these overnights, Discoe said that he knew he had something special, and the Ramble Ride was born — a supported bikepacking adventure.
Supported you say? Let’s take a deeper dive into what that means.
Riders are on the hook for carrying some of their gear on-bike, but the Ramble provides breakfast and dinner, a mid-day lunch aid station and schleps gear back from campsite to campsite, so participants can go a little lighter than a fully-loaded tour.
Ramble organizers suggest you carry on-bike:
- Sleeping kit, consisting of a sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent.
- Extra riding clothes, warmers, jackets or a flannel if you really want to embrace the bikepacker life and ditch the lycra.
- Your phone, sunscreen, riding food and anything you’d need while out on course away from camp.
The organizers allow you one camp bag that they tote from campsite to campsite for you, in which they recommend you pack:
- Long pants, fresh undies and a clean shirt
- A heavier jacket for when the sun goes down
Thanks to Blackburn and Big Agnes, my gear was ultra light and dialed in, and I erred on the side of caution with my camp bag, making sure I had spare riding kit and a few jacket options for camp. I even brought my foam roller to appease my cranky IT bands.
The Equipment — Run What You Brung
Dedicated ’cross race machines, mountain bikes, purpose-built gravel adventurers; looking around camp each morning revealed a hodpodge of bikes.
As the name of our publication may give away, we’re fans of the ’cross bike! I took my race rig, a Felt F4x, and added an XD driver and SRAM XX1 10-42 cassette to my FSA SL-K wheels, and I was ready to tackle anything the Asheville Ramble threw at me. If I had packed heavier or lacked in fitness, a lower gear would be key. Your mileage may vary.
Blackburn Designs set us up with a full offering of their Outpost bikepacking gear. As someone who had never bike packed or toured before, this was a learning experience for me. Sorry to my riding partners, I was slow packing up every morning.
I loaded up the Blackburn bags as follows:
- Outpost Handlebar Roll and Dry Bag — Held my Big Agnes Air Core inflatable sleeping pad, along with my Big Agnes Flume UL 30 sleeping bag packed in the dry sack. I lashed my tent poles to the outside of the dry bag.
- Outpost Frame Bag — Assorted tools: Blackburn Craftsman multi-tool, Outpost mini-pump, Plugger tubeless tire repair kit, a lightweight wind jacket, arm and leg warmers and gloves, which were peeled off as the day got warmer.
- Outpost Top Tube Bag — The most important piece of on-bike storage, as it carried the snacks! I jammed as many Honey Stinger waffles (provided each morning at the Rambles) as I could fit, along with my phone.
- Outpost Seat Pack and Dry Bag Combo — The dry bag held my Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL tent and all the fixin's: rain fly, stakes, and most importantly; my coffee mug.
The format of the Ramble promoted flexibility on bike and equipment choice. The ability to store your heavier or less bike-bag friendly gear in your camp back, which was transported by Ramble staff from campsite to campsite, allowed participants bring everything but the kitchen sink and make their existing rig work great for three long days in the Pisgah.
Thanks to the Pisgah National Forest, there’s a nearly-endless inventory of gravel and country roads surrounding Asheville.
I’d ridden extensively in Asheville, both while in town for 2016 Cyclocross Nationals and during other assorted trips, so I had some expectations coming into the Asheville Ramble, which I feel were more than met.
The three-day, 188 mile route featured 19,000 feet of climbing and was broken down as follows:
Day One: New Belgium to The Bike Farm in Brevard, NC
As a title sponsor of the Ramble Ride, New Belgium took great care of us throughout the duration of the Asheville Ramble. Day one departed from their impressive facility on the banks of the French Broad River in West Asheville. The route took us along some fishermen's trails and on a quick urban jaunt until we reached Bent Creek, where we were greeted by our first gravel of the trip. The day one route was just right — challenging in areas without being impossible and featured a hidden cache of New Belgium, which kept riders in good spirits.
The 53-mile-day took us south and ended at The Bike Farm, a dedicated mountain bike guide service and campground, where we were treated to a warm shower, a meal and some laughs around the campfire.
Day Two: The Bike Farm to Panther Ridge Campground
While the come-as-you-are ethos of the Ramble Ride is important, day two would be a friendly reminder that these are, at times, long and very challenging days on the bike.
The Appalachian Mountains are old, and old mountains are steep. The long day combined with some steep climbs on a loaded bike had me at my limits towards the end of the day, and I pride myself on being fairly fit.
Day two was the most difficult by design. It took riders from Brevard, out west deep into the Pisgah on rolling farm roads, both paved and gravel, and was punctuated by a short stretch of more than 30% grades up and over Wolf Mountain. New Belgium put a case of beer on the line for anyone who could clear this loose gravel, but despite my best efforts, I only made it ¾ of the way.
While the climb was a slog, Wolf Mountain is capped with a granite dome, at which New Belgium had fortuitously had parked their Winne-beer-go—a New Belgium-wrapped Winnebago camper van—at the top of. Along with picturesque fall views, riders had their choice of libations and aid-station food.
The laissez-faire nature of folks' departure in the morning left people out past dark on day two, but much like the Scouts, the Ramble Ride tells participants to always be prepared — so on-bike lights were burning bright into the night and aside from being a little worse for the wear, folks were in good spirits at dinner.
Day Three: Panther Ridge Campground to New Belgium
After some tough stretches on day two, day three was, by design, smooth sailing back to New Belgium.
After a long climb up 276—an iconic Asheville road—the route meandered along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was resplendent in fall colors during the mid-November dates of the Asheville Ramble.
After two days of going deep into the country, day three’s route had us dealing with the reality of getting back into the city. It was about an even split of pavement and gravel, and we saw much more auto traffic as a necessary compromise to see the beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
With visions of a shower and libations dancing in our head, our group swelled to ten, and we cruised along swapping war stories about our trials and tribulations during the last three days. The large group made quick work of the remaining miles of the Ramble, and before we knew it, we were back in West Asheville, right where we started.
As we rolled into New Belgium, we were greeted by our handlers with an offer of showers and a row of tap handles — a perfect way to wrap up our 190-mile adventure.
Support and Good Riding Partners — A Beginner’s Best Friend
As someone who barely dabbles in the outdoors, a three-day bikepacking trip into some semi-remote areas of Appalachia had me on edge, I went into the Asheville Ramble apprehensive, and am glad to report that I left no worse for the wear.
The Ramble Ride organizers know that everyone’s outdoors experiences differ, and that’s the beauty of format: if you want to be more self-sufficient, you certainly can, but if you’d like to lean on them as you learn more about yourself, your gear and your riding partners, you’re more than welcome to make full use of the aid stations, course markings and camp bag.
I went in a little under-prepared, and the Ramble Ride organization was a life saver. They kept me warm and clothed and the next time I go bikepacking (which I will!), I know the basics of what to do and what to avoid.
The small nature of the Ramble Ride, which is capped at 60-ish, riders led to me becoming fast friends with many folks on the ride, which included a mix of locals, first-timers and seasoned travelers who have done multiple Ramble Rides.
With good people to B.S. with, the miles go by fast, and as the Ramble Ride days progressed, I found myself settling in with some like-paced folks. Our ability to share the work and swap some life stories helped make some long, and sometimes challenging days, on the bike full of levity, and most importantly, fun!
Is the Ramble Right for You?
Sure, $300 seems like a lot for something you can conceivably do for free, but the Asheville Ramble’s creature comforts went above and beyond what your normal bikepacking trip would include.
Gone were some of the reservations I previously had about overnights and bikepacking in general: Am I going to get lost? Where am I going to sleep? And most importantly, what am I going to eat? The Ramble Ride helped me stay worry-free
If all the New Belgium beer you care to drink (within reason, duh), camp chef-provided breakfast and dinner, fully stocked nutrition and aid stations aren’t enough, the true value of the Ramble Ride was having your camp bag transported.
As a first-time bikepacker, it allowed me to experiment with my on-bike packing, knowing that if I flubbed it too badly, I’d have my warmer clothes or heavier items waiting for me at camp. This margin for error was key. Without it, I can think of a few things I wouldn’t have packed on my bike and would have suffered a little bit as a result.
Worry-free bikepacking is a boon for a beginner. If you want to dabble in overnights without truly roughing it, or maybe even more importantly, if you want to unplug and not stress about anything but pedaling for three days, check a Ramble Ride out.
- Cost: $300
- Distance: 188 miles
- Elevation: 19,000 feet
- View gear requirements here
- Dates: Nov. 19-21, 2017 — 2018 Ramble Ride dates soon to come
- More info: newbelgiumramble.com