We woke up with a groan on Friday. The legs were tight and people were tired, but ready to get this thing over with. Today would be the final and arguably the toughest day of the ride.
We kept hearing all week about a closed section on the Blue Ridge Parkway through Asheville that might thwart our plans. We heard that the Parkway could be closed anywhere from a few days to two weeks. We were prepared to make a detour when Steve Sperry inspected ahead to see if it was passable. It was clear for both cars and bikes. Phew. We went forward with our plans, and the guys started towards Mount Pisgah.
Pisgah is yet another long climb, the first of three for today. The climbing was difficult, but after five days on the Parkway, everyone was pretty much used to it. One issue was with the tunnels, of which there are several on the way up. A few of them are long enough that you cannot see the very end, which can be disorienting and scary when riding through. Not all riders had lights, so I was going to try to position myself to light their way. Unfortunately I had a weird bout of car trouble, and wasn’t able to get to them until they reached the top. No worries. They passed through without issue.
After Pisgah, the next obstacle would be Richland Balsam mountain – another 6,000 foot behemoth, and the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. From Pisgah, the road rolls up and down, and the mini-climbs are a little steeper than usual. On top of the soreness, the day was sunny and warm. It was taking a toll.
Most of the riders made it up to Balsam tired, but without issue. Chuck had to leave early to make it back home for an event tomorrow, and arranged for a car to be there. He was riding strong, and if he had the time, he would have easily completed the ride. Will had cramped the day before, but he rode strong the entire day, finishing with the front group. The same for Guy, Steve, and of course the pros had no problems.
Julie, Nancy and Wes rode together, and Julie was struggling. They urged Nancy to go ahead, and she absolutely crushed the remainder of the course. She finished in most impressive fashion. Wes had helped Julie up the climbs, and when she saw me at the highest point, she was ready to give up. ‘Please tell me we have a long descent!’ she said. As luck had it, we did. The descent down Richland Balsam is roughly 12-miles, and one of my favorite descents of all time. She told me that she expected to get in the car afterward. It simply wasn’t fun anymore I understood.
Meanwhile, I was expecting Scott from Cullowhee to meet us for the final climb of the day, up Waterrock Knob. Since I was keeping a close eye on Wes and Julie, I wasn’t able to meet up with him, but he connected with the front group. He brought Brent, a friend of his. They were very familiar with these roads, and had also ridden the entire Parkway previously.
I must have failed to tell them that Bobby and Christian are pros. As they were climbing, Scott warned Bobby that he was going at an unsustainable pace, and that he might blow up in a couple miles. This was no problem for Bobby, and I’m glad he got a few opportunities to get in some training for his upcoming trip to China. Scott and Brent could not stick with Bobby, as he destroyed the mountain. If he ever gets his Garmin working, he’ll surely have the fastest time on Strava. Christian rode with the guys and having ridden 5 days with Bobby at a blistering pace, was cracked and in no mood to attack.
I parked just a little further up from Balsam Gap, at the base of the Waterrock Knob climb. When I saw Julie and Wes, I was ready to put Julie’s bike away. To my surprise, she kept on going. She felt better having recovered on the descent. I was honest that the climb was 8-9 miles at a consistent pace. She would give it a go.
By this point, riders were slightly immune to the beauty if the Parkway. After every corner we turned, there was yet another beautiful and majestic mountain. Today was no different, with colors at 5,000-6,000 feet very close to peak. The colors on all the peaks and Graveyard Fields were stunning, a sea of orange and red. Even in the summer, Waterrock Knob is a gorgeous climb, but it was on another level today. Maybe that is what propelled Julie along, or maybe it was just mental toughness.
I kept checking on them, still fearing that the climb would be too much for Julie. She and Wes kept at it, and I’m sure that without his support and encouragement, she would have failed. They kept going, and going, and soon enough, they had reached the summit.
Another descent followed, not as long as the last, but enough to give them a chance to recover again. The last climb of the day was to Wolf Laurel Gap, just under three miles. Again, they stuck with it. A tunnel was at the end of the climb, so I made sure to be there to light the way. I yelled at Julie that this one disproved her theory about Gaps, as this was the last bit of climbing for the day. She didn’t hear me.
The day ended the day with a rush! The final descent to Cherokee is steep and exhilarating. They had earned all of it. The only obstacles were more tunnels and an overbearing sun. We had to slow down in order to see, and some of the tunnels were too long for them to see the end. I helped with the first couple, and they struggled through the remainder.
I could see the joy and relief when Julie and Wes coasted over the Oconaluftee River bridge, the last few hundred feet of the Blue Ridge Parkway. They, along with all the other riders, had completed an amazing task.
Congratulations to everyone. It was truly an honor to experience it with you!
The first thing Bobby said to me was that I’d be riding next year. Definitely. He also said that that since there was a 100% success rate this year, that next year would be tougher. Ugh!