I cannot thank Kevin enough for posting such a detailed report of his Blue Ridge Breakaway this past weekend. As I noted in my intro post, Kevin is someone that I’ve been in contact with occasionally over the years and have enjoyed following his exploits over at DoboVedo’s Journal of Journeys. Since I was still sidelined with injury, I asked him if he’d be willing to contribute something for me since I absolutely love this ride. Kevin wasn’t planning on riding until I asked him, and I’m glad that he agreed. The below post is an abbreviated version of his report with a couple of pictures. You can read the entire thing over at his blog, which I highly recommend. I left off some of his personal details, such as his experiences with Tom, his meet-up with Kent from Motion Makers, and yes, even a little bit about how I asked him to write this post.
The Blue Ridge Breakaway is an annual bicycle ride starting from the Lake Junaluska Conference and Visitor Center in western North Carolina. The event features four routes of varying distances. As the name suggests, the ride is held in the Blue Ridge Mountains and historically the event’s 105 mile route, called the Hawk, features over 30 miles of riding along the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge Parkway. In past years the next shortest route, called the Trout, has been somewhere around 60-65 miles (a metric century), and has not gone up along the Parkway itself. There are also 50 and 25 miles options, called the Panther and Rabbit, respectively.
The only questio was whether to do the Hawk, which I have done every year prior, or do the Trout instead? Normally this wouldn’t even be a debate, I always opt for the longest route or time option in any riding event, but this year they did something a little different with the Trout that had me intrigued. By bumping the route distance up to 75 miles, they were able to use the same Parkway miles as the longer Hawk route. This was accomplished by cutting 30 miles of lower elevation – yet still hilly terrain – out of the beginning of the ride. Ironically, every prior year Scott and I have ridden the Breakaway together, we have joked in the early miles that we should cut the course, knock about 25 or 30 miles off of the route, and head straight for the big mountains. We’d never do it of course, but it was always good for a laugh. And now there was a legitimate route that did exactly what we had joked about.
With the route changes this year, the 75 mile Trout riders were held 15 minutes while riders for the other routes started at 7:30. In the interim, the announcer asked if anybody had ever done the Breakaway in prior years. When many people, myself included, responded with shouted yeses and raised hands he said “OK, you people should not do what you did last year, unless you want to be lost right from the beginning”, which resulted in quite a few chuckles. He then explained the various turns and landmarks for the beginning miles of the Trout route, which would basically take us into nearby Clyde in as few as six miles. After that we would be following the same route as the Hawk riders, sans 30 miles of smaller but still significant hills.
We took off more or less exactly at 7:45. Tom and I started out somewhat near the front of the pack but felt no burning need to stay with them. As we went up the first few moderate grades however, it seemed that although the lead pack of about two dozen riders was going along at a brisk and steady pace, they didn’t appear to be getting aggressive. At least.. not yet. I found myself hovering with that the group in just close enough proximity that it seemed silly not to get into the pack and enjoy at least a little bit of draft. I accelerated just hard and long enough to catch on to the back, and soon enough we rolled in to Clyde.
Over the next 10 miles the route gets relatively easy. It rolls gently with just a minor rise here and there, at an average gain of only 1%, bringing riders to Lake Logan, a pristine little lake in a lush green valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, at an elevation of 3000′. During this time I felt myself getting into a good rhythm and settled into the drops, feeling pretty good. I passed by a few more riders here and there, and figured there were probably no more than ten or a dozen still in front of me. So I started debating how I wanted to spend my day: hammering away or keeping things more chill and enjoying some fun in the sun?
If it had been like that yet again this year, it would be easier to just keep riding hard and get the ride over with. But this year the weather was just about as good as it gets in August in the mountains of Western NC. Mostly sunny skies with high wispy clouds, a gentle breeze, and temperatures starting in the 60s and reaching a normal high in the low 80s, staying nearly 10 degrees cooler in the higher elevations. Picture perfect!
We rolled out and began our ascent up the first major climb of the day.. 215 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. From here we’d be riding about 10 miles and gain roughly 2300′. The climb starts gently for the first three miles or so, and then gets markedly steeper as you enter the Pisgah National Forest Boundary near the Sunburst Campground. From there it stays pretty steady but gets gradually steeper towards the top. Along the way is cascading waterfall in a beautiful setting. Along with Lake Logan, it is one of the visual highlights along 215. I stopped there to capture a few images and also took a few more towards the top.
Nearing the top of the 215 climb, you come around a bend you see the “Blue Ridge Parkway Ahead” sign. Just prior to that, one gets the feeling that the grade is going to back off. Things level out for just a short moment and then BAM! the grade kicks up to near digits. “Ahead” seems to go on forever, but a few painful moments later, you do make the turn onto the Parkway.
For the Breakaway, the organizers are kind enough to put an Aid Station at the next overlook, just a quarter mile further up the road. I stopped there to regroup and spent some time chatting with the volunteers. The Blue Ridge Breakaway is one of the most well-organized and friendliest rides I’ve ever done, and it has been consistent every year I’ve done it.
Once on the Parkway, the next 8 miles take riders up to Richland-Balsam Gap, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at just over 6000′. There are a couple descents mixed in, with a total elevation gain of roughly 1500′.
Upon reaching 6000′ the first big descent of the ride begins. Well.. sorta. It’s 12 miles down to Balsam Gap at 3400′, but there are a few small rises in the early going. Most of them are really mild grades and can be ridden in the big ring. I’ve even done them in 50×12 at times, but not this time.
Once the rises are finished it is 7 or 8 miles of descending with no brakes, no slowing… just pure fun. Although at one point we did see a deer on the side of the road and slowed a bit, just in case it bolted into the road. Fortunately, it stayed put and calmly watched us go by.
At Balsam Gap the climbing begins once again. This is the Waterrock Knob climb, eight miles at a nearly unchanging steady grade. It’s not too difficult, but can feel relentless due to the length, and the curves can begin to look repetitive. I’ve done this climb countless times and know it by heart, so I called out some of the landmarks and clues to Tom, letting him know when it would finally let off about a mile from the top.
Normally this point of the Breakaway ride is where I start to crack. On three prior occasions, I’ve really started to suffer halfway up Waterrock. On the second of those three I turned the 105 mile route into a 155 mile day by riding to and from Lake Junaluska, so that much was to be expected. The first year, it had poured rain all day long and I was cold and wet and miserable.. the legs just wouldn’t stay warm. Last year wasn’t as bad but I still wasn’t able to go as hard as I wanted to and lost a lot of time in the overall.
This year was so much different. I still felt great and was having a blast riding up what is my favorite section in the entire length of the Parkway. I grudgingly admitted to myself that I really did like doing only the 75 mile option and skipping those first 30 miles. Will I do the shorter route again next year? That remains to be seen. Ego and desire will factor in, but right now I’m thinking “Drop some weight, do the 75 and go for best time.”
(Aaron: Kevin has convinced me to give the shorter route a try next year)
All along I had tried to predict when the fastest 105 mile riders might catch us on our 75 mile route. I figured it would be somewhere around 5 hours and nearing the top of the Waterrock climb. Sure enough, just a few hundred yards from the top I heard a voice behind.. “Hey Kevin!” and it was my friend Nick, who was a bit surprised and elated to find himself alone at the front. We chatted just briefly, and he then disappeared up the road, climbing with seeming effortlessness.
Since Tom had never been up to Waterrock Knob before we decided to take a few moments and add in the quarter mile climb (sorry Tom, I know I said a tenth of a mile!) up to the overlook. The view up there is stellar, looking in both directions off the ridge. The Smokey Mountains were their trademark smokey, but beautiful nonetheless.
At that point, the climbing is done. The only thing remaining is a 15-mile descent down the Parkway to Soco Gap continuing a steep descent down 19 and then a gradual downhill run thru Maggie Valley until reaching the finish line back at Lake Junaluska.
Tom and I started down the super fun 4 mile descent to Soco Gap. Unfortunately, Tom and I didn’t have as much fun on the descent of 19 as we had hoped. The traffic on this 2-lane road between Maggie Valley and Cherokee can be very heavy, and we got caught behind a line of about five cars that was trailing a pickup truck going much slower than normal. As it turns out he was looking to make a left turn up ahead and apparently wasn’t sure where it was. Once we got around that backup though we had more fun on the lower part of the descent and then I put in a long hard pull, taking Tom thru Maggie Valley at a good clip.
We had a grand time finishing out the ride and got back to the visitors center in just under six hours. All in all, it was a really great day out on the bikes. We grabbed some really good food after, chatted, and made our way home. Another Blue Ridge Breakaway in the books.