2014 Blue Ridge Breakaway

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.

lake logan

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.

Tom on 215

Tom on 215

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.

Waterrock Overlook

Waterrock Overlook Above

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.

2014 Breakaway From Afar

Wes and Julie complete the climb up Waterrock Knob.

If you had told me after my January 31st surgery date that I wouldn’t be back up to full speed by August, I might have punched you in the mouth. Honestly, I thought there was a chance I could recover quickly and be ready for Mitchell in May. Alas, that didn’t happen. I put two rides on my calendar as goals for the fall, one of which is my favorite century ride in the mountains, the Blue Ridge Breakaway. While I’ve made progress and should be back on the bike soon enough, to my disappointment, I don’t have the fitness to even think about Blue Ridge Breakaway this year.

How much do I love the ride? As some might remember, last year when the weather report was sketchy at best, I woke up in the middle of the night to see if it had cleared out. It had, and I drove in the wee hours of the morning, rode 100 miles, and drove home later that evening. You can read about that experience here. It was not something I’ll want to do again – the driving that is. I’ll certainly do the riding again.

I am particularly envious this weekend, because the weather may be the best the event has ever had. The low is in the 60s and the high is in the 80s. I imagine that once you hit the higher elevations, you’ll be in perfect temperatures with the sun on your back.

Instead, like I’ve been doing lately, I’ll be living the event through others. Kevin Dobo has a blog called Dobovedo that I have read occasionally. Like me, he has a thirst for the higher elevations. He used to live in Sylva and has migrated to Asheville. We’ve corresponded a couple times on rides, and he seems like a good dude. He has ridden in four of the five Breakaways, and I am officially dubbing him my surrogate rider. I’ll live the experience through him. He’ll post what I’m sure will be an excellent ride report on his blog, and I’ll post some of the high points here, maybe with some commentary. If any other readers want to chime in about their experiences, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll include you in the recap post.

Highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Richland Balsam Mountain, highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway

I’m particularly interested in the ride this year because they have two rides that reach the Parkway this year. In year’s past they have experimented with the shorter routes. At one time the metric was nearly an out-and-back, and the century riders would cross paths with the metric riders about when the big climbs start. This year the “Trout” is a comparable challenge to the full century dubbed the “Hawk.” Rather than 106 miles, is is a mere 76 miles, but with nearly 8,000 feet of climbing, some on the Parkway. The “Hawk” is the granddaddy, which I can personally attest is a tough century and it has some tough, longer climbs and two of my favorite descents in the world. As curious as I would be about the “Trout,” my personality is go big or go home, and I’d be all over the longer route.

Thanks for riding for me again. I look forward to hearing about and envying your adventures. Soon enough I hope to be back up in elevation. Armchair cycling is for the birds.

To all those riding, Godspeed and have a terrific ride!

Not Biking in NYC


New York City is arguably one of the best bike cities in the country. People bike everywhere, and it’s a great way to see the city without putting too much wear and tear on your feet. While the city can be tricky to navigate and drivers are aggressive, with a little research and safety precautions, it is a great place to ride.

Or so I’ve heard and seen.

I didn’t ride at all in New York, as tempting as that was. As a cyclist, I observed a lot. That made it tough to stay off of wheels, and there were a couple times I considered either renting a bike or grabbing a Citi bike, but I exercised caution rather than risk hurting myself and ruining the vacation.

This post is just about the biking that I saw during this vacation.

The Three Tickets

This cop was on it!

This cop was on it!

We saw bike lanes practically everywhere in New York. At first I cringed seeing riders ‘sharing’ the road with aggressive taxi and Uber drivers, not to mention dodging walkers and dealing with traffic. I could tell that riding in Manhattan is not for the squeamish if you ride surface roads along with cars. There are plenty of isolated lanes that allow for a more safe and quiet ride, but those are generally scenic areas and not necessarily a way to get from point A to point B.

One of the coolest things I saw was while walking not far from the United Nations. There were a lot of bike lanes in that area, but as usual in NYC, not much parking. We walked along a road where three cars were idling in the bike lane, using it as a parking place. We thought nothing of it until we heard yelling behind us. Our heads snapped around and we saw that it was a cop, and he was yelling with authority.

We almost stopped in our tracks, wanting to watch the human drama that was about to take place. Instead we walked slowly and inconspicuously as we saw this police officer yell at the first guy. He swaggered up to the car and handed the first guy a ticket. The guy protested, tried to give an excuse, and he didn’t even listen. He then was upon the 2nd car, also delivered a ticket. By this time our slow walk had placed us in front of all three cars, and we saw the driver of the 3rd car looking concerned through his rear view mirror. Bam! The officer ticketed the 3rd guy. The entire thing took place in about two minutes, and I was lucky to catch a picture of the final ticket. I don’t know this officer’s name, but he immediately became my hero. People better not park in the bike lane on his watch!

Running Red Lights

When I hear or see something in the news about a cycling incident (usually an accident, and unfortunately sometimes a fatality), a lot of people point the finger back at cyclists for not obeying traffic lights. Stephen Pastis even twerked us in his Pearls Before Swine article by saying we are above everyone and allowed to do this. The truth is that most that cycle for sport are extremely safety conscious and they obey traffic laws. I pride myself on riding like a car would. The gray area is stop signs, which we will coast through without putting the foot down, but we first make sure that passage is safe. Essentially that is a stop because we are going slow enough to see danger in the area, but unclipping and putting the foot down, and then having to clip back in slows us down and makes it take longer for us to get through the intersection, which is a different type of danger.

Many of the traffic laws in New York are out the window for bikes and pedestrians. If the coast is clear, we walk or pedal through the intersection, red light or not. The cars will stop, but that’s because they would get a ticket otherwise and there are police everywhere. The law looks the other way with walkers and bicyclists. That’s all well and good, but I saw some people doing very dumb things on a bike. Usually these were locals or tourists. There was one time I saw a bike dart out into an intersection where I had already stopped because I saw three cars coming. He didn’t see them, and for a split second I thought I was going to witness a horrific accident. Instead he turned the wheel towards the right once he saw the cars. I still thought he was going to get hurt, just not as bad, and then he kept on turning. He did a U-turn right in front of us, and was fine. Mad props to him for his reaction, but I guess you learn survival instincts while biking in New York.

The Citi Bikes

Someone stealing a ride.

Someone stealing a ride.

At many major intersections, we saw rows of the familiar blue bikes from the Citi program. We saw people riding them often. The program has to be a huge success, and it really makes sense for Manhattan where many people do not drive (we didn’t either). These riders were mostly tourists, and a lot of them did not wear helmets, but they also tended to ride in safer areas like Battery Park City and across the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the biggest temptation to me, and I almost pulled the trigger on a Citi bike to ride over the Brooklyn Bridge on my last day in town, but I passed. The worst case scenario would be that I would flare up my scar tissue injuries and have a miserable flight back. There wasn’t a good chance of that, but I still didn’t want to risk it.

One of the funniest sights we saw during our trip was someone using the Citi Bike as an exercise bike. He even had headphones on and everything. Most people, myself included, would far prefer to ride in scenery than in one place, especially along the Hudson River, which was where this guy was riding. Not to mention, the bikes are relatively inexpensive. This was a kid, so maybe they were expensive for him. Either way, we got a good laugh and I hope he got a good workout.

The Central Park Ride

Riders were all over the place in Central Park.

Riders were all over the place in Central Park.

This was the toughest temptation for me. We visited Central Park twice, one day from the west side and the other from the east side. We were bombarded by people trying to rent bikes when we got off the subway. When we got into the park, we understood why. There were bike lanes and bikes everywhere. As we navigated through on foot, we were only able to see a small portion of the park, and even that little exhausted us. I’m the type of person that likes to explore and see everything, so it felt wrong to pack up and leave without seeing the main park attractions like the reservoir or Strawberry Fields.

Just because we were in the park, didn’t mean that bikers were any less aggressive. This time we had to watch out for them when walking around. There was one time that I was crossing the street when all of a sudden a road cyclist was darting right towards me. I stopped in my tracks. He nodded to motion that he would take the inside lane, and I was able to continue crossing. Just like in downtown Manhattan, the Central Park cyclists have built-in instincts on how to get around safely.

Even though I wasn’t able to cycle, I walked dozens of miles and the hip held out, so I should not be too disappointed. That said, I love to ride and that’s one of the major attractions for going to New York City. No worries because we loved the city so much that we’ll definitely be back again. I’ll make sure that next time I’ll be healthy enough to ride, and Central Park will be at the top of my wish list.

I’m Walking Here!

Before heading to New York City for a non-riding vacation, I was wary. It’s no secret that to really experience New York, you have to walk for miles and miles. A couple weeks ago I was dealing with nasty scar tissue that kept me on the couch. The doctor gave me prednisone that helped clear it up temporarily, but once I got back on, the pain was starting to come back. It was gradually becoming worse last day or two before flying out.

Today is the 6th day in New York before flying back on Sunday. I’m happy to report that the trip has been an unquestionable success. We had a busy first full day, doing both the Statue of Liberty tour and the 9/11 museum. I was on my feet a lot, either walking, standing up in subways or ferry boats, or worse, standing in line. The lines were the toughest part. If I kept moving, the hip wouldn’t hurt so bad, but it could be agony when I stayed still. Anyone who has been to the Statue of Liberty knows that half the trip is waiting in line.

That first day was pretty tough, and we decided to go easy the second day. Then, after having an anniversary dinner and a beer in Eataly, my wife asked “wanna go to Times Square?”. Why not, I thought. The reason why not was because all of the walking, but I went on undeterred. We ended up getting a little lost, then wandering around the core of Times Square, then all the way over to Radio City Music Hall, and then back to Grand Central where our hotel was. I’m not sure the exact distance, but it was miles. And I felt alright.

As the week progressed, I kept walking more, and the hip kept feeling good. The strongest medicine I had to take has been Aleve, and even then I’ve felt okay for short periods without it. Now that we’re about ready to go, I’m pleased as can be that the hip feels better than it has for months.

So walking has been a breakthrough. I did not ride here, although I was tempted since this is such a terrific bike city (more on that later), but I didn’t want to tempt fate. Just being able to walk at this capacity gives me one more thing I can do when I return. I will be walking some for exercise, to put more pressure on my surgery-recovered hip, to create more bone density, and to simply get outdoors. I’ll also be able to ride sporadically, although I’m not going to push that. For some reason riding tends to inflame the scar tissue, so I’ll need baby steps to get there.

When I get back next week, an anesthesiologist will inject some cortisone into my pelvic region, which will further break up the scar tissue. I’ve seen him before pre-surgery and even then when I had a torn labrum, I noticed results. This time there will definitely be some results, but I will have to take a few days off after the shot. No complaints since I’ll need some recovery from the vacation.

Little by little, I am coming back.

Here are some NYC shots while I’m here.

Freedom Tower can be seen almost anywhere, and it is a beautiful structure.

Freedom Tower can be seen almost anywhere, and it is a beautiful structure.

This is where the ball drops on New Years in Times Square.

This is where the ball drops on New Years in Times Square.

Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty

"Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh.

“Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh.

Scar Tissue

I’m long overdue for some good news. The last post was a bit of a bummer, primarily saying that I was giving up in order to end the pain. My doctor was out on vacation, things weren’t going so well, and I suspected that I’d had yet another major setback. There had been talk of scar tissue complications, but given the amount of pain I was experiencing after each popping instance, my PA thought it sounded a little worse.

Finally last Thursday I was able to visit with my doctor. He gave me some good news, but rather than blab about it, I wanted to let it situate a few days and make it sure it would prove correct.

He said that it was almost definitely scar tissue. His way of wording was convincing. He said that of the top 5 things that it could possibly be, 1-4 would be scar tissue. The chances of the injury not being fixed and requiring surgery later are almost zero. I still have a labrum. It’s just that my pelvic muscles are inflamed because the scar tissue rubs them the wrong way. Every time the hip moves in a new direction, there’s an actual cut with bleeding deep down, and pain is completely normal. As I’ve found with everything involving hips, the pain can be worse than other parts of the body and takes longer to heal, so what I was enduring was completelyreasonable.

So what now?

Scar tissue does not heal. It is going to be there, although it will likely become a lesser issue over time. Some people find that they can never get completely away from it, and have to find ways to tolerate the pain. Others find that with patience and not overdoing things, it’ll gradually get better and they can be themselves again. For some people it takes longer than others.

He started me out on a low dose of prednisone. I groaned. I’ve taken it before and loathe the medication. It makes me feel bloated, keeps me up at night, and just gives me an overall blah feeling. I reluctantly took it, wanting to try anything at this point.

The problem is I had to stop taking my anti-inflammatory altogether. That had been the only thing taking the edge off the constant pain, so for the first two days on the medicine, I had a tough time. Not only did I have the prednisone side effects, but the hip felt like it was about to burst. That was Friday and most of Saturday.

Late on Saturday, as some pain medication had worn off, I felt surprisingly good. I went to sleep, and woke up the next morning still feeling good, and found that throughout the day, I didn’t require a single pain reliever. On Monday morning I still felt good. What do you know? The doctor might have been right. The prednisone has definitely helped.

Of course I cannot and don’t want to take prednisone forever. It is possible this dose will get me over the hump temporarily and I can continue improving. There’s also a possibility of getting a shot into my iliopsoas that will reduce the inflammation for a time.

The other good news is that I’ve recovered enough that my doctor thinks I am finished with physical therapy. As long as I can get around the scar tissue pain, I should be able to bike and swim as long as I don’t go too hard.

This coming weekend, my wife and I will be leaving for New York City for a week-long celebration tour of her Jeopardy win. By then I should be back on all of my anti-inflammatories, and I should be able to walk around mostly like any other human being. The thing is, as a tourist in New York, I’ll be walking a lot. It could get painful, but it’ll also be a test, and might actually be good for me to finally strengthen the hip without excessive impact. We’ll be leisurely and careful, and will make sure to have enough downtime to recover.

So this is definitely good news. At least better than last time.