Blood, Sweat & Gears is a huge ride. Nearly 1,000 riders were bunched in the Valle Crucis Elementary School entry-way, slightly off the main road. I arrived late and found a spot near the back of the pack. No worries. I didn’t want to go too fast anyway. I squinted to see the Mast General Store at the starting line. After a few announcements, the ride officially started. I could see movement at the front of the pack, but it would take another minute or two before I would funnel through.
We started in a dense fog. The forecast was for clear and sunny skies, so I knew it would burn off soon. The massive pack of riders left Valle Crucis at 7:30am, turned onto Highway 105, and made a quick left onto Schull’s Mill Road to start the climbing.
I’m a habitually slow warmer. My muscles are not ready for a climb at mile four, but part of the challenge is taking what is thrown at you. I was not afraid of this climb, having conquered it before (link to B2B). Schull’s Mill is a gorgeous stretch of road. Most of it is under heavy tree cover. I could tell we climbed out of the fog because sunlight pierced through the trees, leaving gorgeous sights like the cover photo above. My legs hurt, but I didn’t care. I pushed through the crowd and made sure to stretch out on the following descent.
The route took us beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not to worry, it would be back shortly. We coasted through downtown Blowing Rock, across the connecting highway, and jumped back on the Parkway a few miles later.
This was a new section of the Parkway for me. It was gorgeous and scenic all throughout, naturally, but this time in a different way. The elevation was around 3,000-4,000 for most of this stretch, which is a little lower than many Parkway sections to the west. There were a number of short rolling climbs, and subsequent descents, all at that lovely moderate 6-8% grade that is characteristic of the Parkway. There was a lot of greenery and even some farmland, with only a small handful of overlooks. I stopped at one for a photo opp. The short, easy climbs went by quickly and soon we were escorted back onto country roads.
All of these short climbs were window dressing for what was coming up. The big climb of the day would be Snake Mountain, and that was all anyone was talking about. I encountered Gary, a rider from Raleigh who had done this ride a few times previously. He told me some great stories about Snake. There was one time when kids were pelting him with rocks at the top, which was nothing compared to the punishment of the 20% grade. I heeded his warnings by taking it easy and leaving something for the punishment up ahead. Ready or not, here it was coming.
There was a short climb followed by a short descent. “This is the easiest it’ll get for a couple miles,” Gary called out. He was right. The climb began easily enough, but I knew from his warnings and what I had heard from others that it would stiffen up soon enough. The more we moved ahead, the steeper it became. It settled into double digits, which were not fun, but I could handle.
I kept on turning the pedals, slowly but surely making my way upward. We went around some switchbacks. Gary had mentioned that when you see those, you think the climb is over, but the worst is to come. After traversing the curves, I faced what many called “the wall.” The pavement was covered in chalk writing, ranging from clever sayings to encouraging words for people I didn’t know. I kept pushing. People were on the left and the right, cheering the riders on. The first people I saw were two little girls. I playfully asked them if they would ride my bike the rest of the way. It wouldn’t fit, they said. Good answer! After a couple hundred more feet of beastly grade, I was over the top.
After descending Snake, we crossed the Tennessee border and then, moments later, we were back in North Carolina. The next big climb was George’s Gap, a grinder as Gary put it. That was about right. It was in the 6-8% vicinity, with enough variety to make you work and give you couple of breaks. At this point the temperature had crept up and I could tell it was having its way with people. A guy was struggling on George’s Gap and asked me how much longer. Guessing, I said three miles. It was closer to one more. Glad to have been wrong on that one.
After that, we had to ride through another gap on Rush Branch Road. There was a short climb, a big descent, and then another short climb. I knew that once we were through the gap, we would be home free. The problem with this climb was that it was totally exposed to the sun, with little shade. At this point the temperature was flirting with 90 degrees and the sun was taking a toll on me.
The miles crept by and I could tell we were approaching the finish. But what’s this? One more climb? Mast Gap was waiting at mile 98. What cruel, cruel person threw in this one at the end of a mountain century? It was short, barely more than a bump, but it was steep — the final punctuation on a challenging ride.
It was a gorgeous, very well organized ride. It was slightly less challenging than I expected, but I’m happy to have passed it regardless. My official time was 6:32, which was good considering I wasn’t riding for time. I was just there to enjoy the experience, which I most certainly did.
EDIT: This was my Ride of the Year for 2012.