Centuries of the High Country

This article was first written for Carolina Cycling News in October of last year. They shut their doors just a few months later. With Blood, Sweat & Gears coming up this weekend, and the other rides following up in the months to come, now seems like a good time for a re-publish.

The sun creeps through the trees as we climb out of fog.

Traveling north on Highway 321 through North Carolina takes you through Hickory, Lenoir, and then into a different world. The highway ramps up and gains about 2,500 feet before arriving at Blowing Rock, NC, a quaint town that is the gateway to the High Country.

The area of Blowing Rock, Boone, and Banner Elk is affectionately called the High Country for a couple of reasons. It sits at a considerably higher elevation than the foothills below. Towering over the urban centers are peaks of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The most notable is Grandfather Mountain, which is nestled between Banner Elk and Blowing Rock. It is called the country because once you escape the lodges, ski resorts, and Appalachian State University, it is mostly desolate, quiet country.

The natural geography, 100 miles of Blue Ridge Parkway, and some fantastic cycling clubs make this area a Mecca when it comes to road cycling in the mountains. As a result, they have some of the most popular and reputable mountain centuries in the Southeast.

This year I participated in the three most challenging centuries of the area: Blood Sweat & Gears, Blue Ridge Brutal, and Bridge to Bridge. These are all highly difficult events that require months of training, if not longer. I found that they share a lot in common. Despite their similarities, they have a distinct flavor that gives each one its own personality.

Blood Sweat & Gears (BSG) is easily the most popular event. The limited field of 1,000 riders is sold out within hours of going on sale. They could undoubtedly attract more attendees if not for the rider limit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It takes place in warm July, leaving from Valle Crucis, home of the original Mast General Store.

Bridge to Bridge (B2B), out of Lenoir is later in the year, usually the third weekend in September. It may not be as well attended as BSG, but it attracts quite a following. Many people choose it for their last challenge of the year. It begins by rolling around the foothills for 50 miles before getting serious and climbing to the High Country, finishing on top of Grandfather Mountain.

Blue Ridge Brutal (BRB), leaves out of West Jefferson and overlaps. It does not have as many riders as the other two, which makes it an often overlooked and underrated century. After riding around the country roads, it allows riders to climb to the top of Mount Jefferson. Not surprisingly, only a few take the challenge.

All three are timed events, and all three bring out highly competitive cyclists. While they are not technically certified races, the timing chip makes the riders treat them as if they are. Even if people are not competing against each other, they are competing against themselves. People will return to the rides, hoping to improve on their times.

All spend a considerable amount of mileage on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Blood Sweat & Gears escorts riders onto the Parkway eastward after passing through the heart of Blowing Rock. Interestingly enough, Blue Ridge Brutal’s route enters the parkway on the same route that BSG exits, continuing further eastward. By participating in both events, riders will get to experience nearly 50 miles of unique Parkway sights.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Linn Cove Viaduct

Bridge to Bridge’s Parkway stretch also starts near Blowing Rock, but it extends westward toward Grandfather Mountain. Of the three, this is the most challenging and scenic stretch. The route climbs from Price Lake to nearly 4,500 feet over Linn Cove Viaduct, a suspension bridge and engineering marvel that sits in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain. The Viaduct is a lengthy climb, around four miles, with an extended section of grades in the 8% range. This may not seem like much, but this comes just after climbing a 6-mile stretch up to the Parkway via Schull’s Mill Road, and is followed by climbing up Grandfather Mountain.

The Parkway east of Blowing Rock has a lot of mini-climbs and descents of around one-mile in length. This up-and-down riding makes for a more pleasant experience, but they mask what is to come later. Riders on BSG and BRB can be lulled into a false sense of comfort, not knowing the pain that waits for them towards the end of the course.

All three rides have a truly ugly, sufferfest of a climb. BSG has Snake Mountain. Technically it is four-miles in length, but the beginning of the climb hardly counts. The last couple of miles are the true quad killers. The climb finishes with ‘the wall’, which boasts a grade that tops out in the upper teens.

Brutal’s signature climb is eerily similar to Snake. Buffalo Road, or Buffalo Hump as many call it, is overall a shorter climb, but its bite is just as vicious. It very similarly has a steep section with grades in the upper teens.

Last climb of Grandfather

Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain lives up to its name, as it is the Granddaddy of all of these climbs. It is just over two miles, but the steepest pitch is not restricted to a short section. It smacks you in the face from the first pitch. Most of the climb is in double digit grades. The finish really is a wall, a 200 yard section that exceeds a 20% grade. What adds insult to injury is that this is where spectators see the riders, who are trying to squeeze their last remaining energy to will the bike upward. Many people will tack from side to side, hoping to make it easier; others will stand up and grind it out. Unfortunately there are plenty that will stop, and not be able to clip back into their pedals. There is no shame in walking up such a vicious climb, but that doesn’t make it feel any better.

Bridge to Bridge and Blue Ridge Brutal get progressively more difficult as they go along. The climbing on B2B starts with Highway 181, an epic 10-mile climb. In my opinion, 181 is the toughest climb of all rides, not because of the steepness (although 8-10% is no cakewalk), but because it just seems to go on forever. It is mostly highway climbing, which means there is little scenery to distract from the effort. In addition to Buffalo Hump, BRB has climbs on 3-Top Road, Highway 194 in Todd, and of course Mount Jefferson for those brave souls that didn’t get enough.

After climbing Snake Mountain on BSG, most of the hard climbing is finished, but there is still George’s Gap and a number of smaller climbs to deal with. Just when you think you’ve arrived at the finish line, they throw Mast Gap at you, a short and steep hill. It is over quick, but it punctuates a difficult ride.

It gets harder, as this poor guy discovered.

Snake Mountain

Which ride is harder? I’ve heard a lot of people argue this topic. For me, Bridge to Bridge is the most difficult, because the majority of the elevation is gained in the latter half of the ride. I also feel that 181 and Grandfather Mountain are the two toughest climbs of all three rides. After that, I would say Blue Ridge Brutal, but only if adding Mount Jefferson. Otherwise, Blood Sweat & Gears is tougher, mostly just because of Snake Mountain.

All three rides are exceptionally well put together, and a lot of fun if you enjoy that type of thing.

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