After making the decision to cancel my travel plans for Blue Ridge Breakaway, I was disappointed and bummed. This event was at the top of my priority list for the year, and with the nasty weather continuing to roll in through the weekend, it looked like a wash out weekend.
I had been emailing Cecil, the Ride Director, about the forecast. As I posted on Friday evening, there were some major systems coming through, and one of them was threatening the event. He noted that a lot of the heavy stuff was pushing into South Carolina, and despite the forecast, they had a surprisingly nice day on Friday. He was optimistic; I was a little pessimistic looking at the same info.
The last thing I emailed him was “I’m pulling for you to have a great day of riding, even if that means I’ll be kicking myself for not going.”
After getting to bed early, I awoke at 2am with some coughing spasms. I looked at the clock and groaned, but since I was awake, figured I would check the radar and see if I would be kicking myself.
What Cecil had observed yesterday was happening again today. The bad stuff was flowing into SC, while the Smokies were going to be unscathed for a lot longer. The chance of rain at the start had reduced to 0%, with gradually increasing chances as the day progressed.
I did some quick math, then bolted out of bed. It was a 3.5 hour drive. I could actually do this thing. Within 15 minutes, I had my bike bag ready, praying that I didn’t forget anything important. Soon enough I was on the road heading to Lake Junaluska. The drive down there was through an ugly monsoon until I reached the NC state line, where it then calmed down.
I arrived at the Visitor Center at exactly 6am. Cecil was behind the registration desk when I walked up. He looked at me curiously, recognizing me, but not believing his eyes. “Cecil, Aaron, I said.” We erupted in laughter and man-hugged. The look on his face was priceless.
I was there, but I was totally unprepared. I had eaten chicken and salad the night before, not the type of fuel for 105 miles of mountain riding. Fortunately with this ride, I pretty much just needed my bike, some gear, and a little sense. The ride is so well organized that there’s not much else to worry about. The only major concern was the afternoon weather, but I was relieved to hear about their comprehensive tracking center and communications. That would come into play later.
We saddled up and several hundred riders left the the Lake Junaluska Welcome Center. It was easy early riding, as we were escorted via police with silver medalist Lauren Tamayo leading us out.
We had to deal with just a small amount of rain within the first 20 miles or so. None of it was very bad, and I think a lot of it was coming up from the road. As we rolled around the mini-climbs, we started to see signs of the sun. Things were looking good.
Unlike a lot of mountain centuries, the pack breaks up pretty early. Most of the separation starts at Coleman Mountain, continues through Rush Fork, and then splinters at Hyder Mountain. It is easy to forget about the earlier bumps compared to the later climbs, but they were substantial. Many of these had steeper grades and, to me at least, took more of a toll on the legs. During these early climbs, we were riding with people on the shorter rides (“Trout”, “Panther”, “Rabbit”). The 105-mile century was called the “Hawk,” and we finally set out on our own course as we rode further south through Clyde.
On the south Highway 215 climb to the Parkway, I caught up with John from the Raleigh area. On a climb this long, it’s good to have a companion for some conversation. We chatted it up as we rolled through the mild grades. This climb is not the most challenging in the world, but it goes on forever, and gains over 2,000 elevation. I remember that last time the road had been chewed up, and had been repaved since. It didn’t seem that smooth, but it was certainly an improvement.
As we got near the top of the climb, we approached a heavy cloud cover. We climbed through the mist, into the clouds, and they remained with us most of the day. We had some remarkable views from the parkway, where we could see into the horizon under the clouds on the left side, while the right side was just vast, puffy whiteness.
The next climb would be up to Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Most of it is up and down, a few hundred feet at a time. The final climb was just about 500 feet at a mild parkway grade. Even though it counts as a climb, it felt like easy riding.
John and I stopped for a photo op at the high point.
The big descent followed. I’ve already talked about how much I love this descent, although I’ll admit, it loses a lot of its luster coming down through the clouds. After a lot of gliding, some pedaling for the little bumps, and before we knew it, we were through the dark tunnel and down to Balsam Gap.
The last climb of the day would be Waterrock Knob. Been there, done that, and wasn’t looking forward to it today. Again, it is a mild grade, but it goes on for awhile, about seven miles at a continuous incline. Having John around to chat helped matters, and then about midway through the climb we bumped into Kelly, a website reader who I had yet to meet in person. It was good company for this climb, and that took the bite out of it.
As we settled into the last rest stop, a gentleman volunteer said, “Look I don’t want to rush you, but I understand there is a storm system just south of us. You’ll be heading away from it towards Maggie Valley.”
He might as well have shot a gun in the air or yelled “start your engines,” as I was immediately back on the bike, descending to Soco Gap. Here it became real damp and misty, and the moisture was more apparent in the air. I’m not sure how close we were to the weather, but we escaped without issue.
Finally I reached Soco Gap and made the turn towards Maggie Valley. It would be mostly downhill from here. The drop here is steep and you have to deal with some traffic. I remember from the last Breakaway that the road is bumpy and chewed up. That wasn’t the case this year. It was quite smooth and a nice descent. Traffic also wasn’t an issue. They had a huge sign at the side of the road that said “Bike Race in progress. Bicycles sharing highway next 6 miles.” Thanks guys. All the motorists were respectable and kept a comfortable distance behind us.
John and some other guys caught up through the 5-mile sprint from Maggie Valley back to the start line. This section is mostly flat or slightly downhill at 1-2% grade, which was nice, easy riding to finish the route.
Cecil was right. The weather held off, and we were able to have a tremendous ride. I found out later that there were some close calls with storm pockets. They had weather alerts at all the rest stops, just like what I encountered at the last one. The showers got closer as the last riders rolled in, but fortunately the major weather missed us completely. There were no accidents, good riding weather, and the event was yet again a huge success.