It was a mild and overcast morning when I, along with 280 other riders, departed Ashe County Civic Center for the Blue Ridge Brutal. I’ve now been on a few other timed non-racing events, all of which are careful to call them a ‘ride’ and not a ‘race.’ Not so for this event, which brought the big boys out to play. Congrats to Ryan Jenkins for ‘winning’ with a 4:38 time.
You would think that after trying out some of Colorado’s finest climbs, I would be a monster on a southeastern century. Not the case. I knew almost immediately that I was not the same rider as a couple months ago. In a way that turned out to be a blessing. I decided to ride my own ride. I didn’t want to get caught up in the pack racing mentality and burn myself out. Frankly, this course is just as good as a ‘ride,’ as it is a ‘race.’
The first several miles are mostly downhill, with a few humps just to keep riders honest. I lined up towards the front of the middle of the pack, close enough to get a free, early ride, but not to be in contention. There were a handful of people that didn’t belong up front (myself included), so my being near the back caused me to watch out for gaps. There were a few occasions that I had to sprint to catch up to the pack. I stuck with them as we climbed up Idlewild Rise, which is a gradual climb of about 300-feet. I lost them on the descent at mile 12.
We entered the Blue Ridge Parkway unceremoniously. Most entrances I’ve been on have an on-ramp with a distinctive stone railing (like this image). This one had no sign, no railing. We just turned left, and there we were. I asked a rider next to me if we were on the parkway. It sure looked like it. There was an overlook soon enough that confirmed it.
One thing I really liked was the European way that the volunteers handled the rest stops. I wasn't planning on stopping at the first stop. To my surprise, they handed me a full bottle of water. They were also handing off musettes, which are canvas bags full of goodies. I was not quick enough to grab a bag for myself, but I grabbed the bottle, downed most of it, then chucked it to the side of the road with the others.
We stayed on the Parkway for just over 20-miles. To me, unless you're heading to a Southern Sixer, Parkway climbing is not too difficult. Usually you are going either up or down without ever exceeding a 6-8% grade. Most of the climbs on the stretch that we rode were short, followed by an equally short descent. There was only one time I remember descending that it really felt like I opened it up.
After leaving the parkway and riding a few miles, I was thinking that this was a surprisingly easy ride. I even mentioned this to a fellow rider, who warned me not to get too confident. "The thing about this ride," he said, "is it gets more difficult the further you go."
The course was put together well. Many of the roads in the 40-70 mile range were truly rural, farm roads — my favorite! I saw far more cattle than cars. Unlike a lot of rural riding I've done, the pavement was smooth. This also meant that since I wasn't riding with packs, that I was riding alone in the middle of nowhere for a lot of the time. That said, I was never concerned. The SAG wagon passed by numerous times, and I knew the ride was well supported. I would tell someone after the ride that there were 'yellow shirts everywhere.' At times it seemed the volunteers outnumbered the riders.
As I had been warned, there were climbs to trifle with. The big monster was Buffalo Road, or 'Buffalo Hump,' as I've heard some call it. It is just under two-miles, but is very steep. It begins with an easy grade to lull one into a sense of comfort before it cracks the whip. I noticed the grade being consistently at a 12-13% range for much of the upper climb. Let's just say that I was not a Buffalo Soldier. I was a Buffalo casualty, as that climb kicked my tail.
After descending Buffalo, we turned onto 3 Top Road, where more misery was awaiting us. I'm still not certain whether we were on 3-Top mountain or not, but I know that we continued climbing. We turned left on Highway 194, uphill for a couple miles toward Todd, NC. It wasn't as difficult as Buffalo, but was a lot tougher than the Parkway or most anything else.
Unlike a lot of other rides up here, there were not a lot of lengthy sustained climbs. Many of the bigger climbs were a mile or two. That doesn't mean that it was easy. Not by any stretch. In this sense, it reminded me of Isaqueena's Last Ride, which is almost all rolling hills, all day, save for one big climb. After Buffalo and 3-Top, we rolled around the neighborhoods in the Jefferson outskirts. I remember a particularly steep neighborhood road where I encountered some construction workers. "Only 5 miles to," they yelled at me. Thanks, but this isn't my favorite of those miles, I joked back. They laughed, "I think you'll like the next mile a little more." It was a steep descent, so yes, that was awesome.
The course brought us back along the Highway 221 shoulder. Usually this would not be comfortable riding because of the traffic, but the shoulder was clean and the drivers respectful, so it was not a problem.
After the finish line, where I clocked in at just under 6:30 (unofficial, results should be posted on the website Tuesday), I had a big challenge still remaining.
The cities of Jefferson and West Jefferson are under the shadow of the 4,665 foot Mount Jefferson. The Blue Ridge Brutal allows no more than 50 riders to ride up the mountain. I failed to register in time, and was placed on the waiting list. At first I was worried that I wouldn't be able to ride. That turned out to not be an issue, as only 22 riders gave it a try. When I started the climb, I understood why.
The total climb was 3.3 miles, and gained just over a thousand feet. After riding around the high country for 100 miles, that really hurt. Especially after I had barely touched anything steeper than 6% in a month. The average grade is somewhere between 8-9%, and I was tired. I huffed and puffed, and gradually made my way to the top. According to Strava, I am in 17th place out of 18. Last place is someone who took an hour longer, so I'm pretty sure he walked. That puts me in dead last. I was tired.
The Blue Ridge Brutal lived up to its name. With Jefferson included, it was one of the more challenging rides I have tried in the southeast. I only hope that next year, more people will harden up and give the big hill a try.