Tag Archives: blue ridge parkway

Back to the Parkway

I began increasing volume a couple weeks ago, going from right around 100 miles per week to above 200 miles. This past week turned out to be my heaviest workload yet, with 270+ miles between Saturday and Thursday. These were not easy miles either. My ‘recovery’ ride on Wednesday ended up with me fighting a 15 mph headwind up steep hills and running out of gas.

The plan for Saturday was to head back to the parkway and then Richland Balsam Mountain from the Holly Springs, Pickens area just north of Greenville, including the lengthy climb up Highway 215, which I had never attempted before. This would usually be the perfect excursion for me, if not for my wasted legs. Trying to climb with all that volume would be a first for me. I relaxed on Friday and spent a little extra time massaging my sore muscles via a foam roller.

The climbing began almost immediately. We started on Highway 178, crossing Highway 11, and headed towards Rosman via Rocky Bottom. I had been there once before when climbing Sassafras Mountain. Thankfully that behemoth was not on the menu today. 178 is not a difficult climb, but my legs said otherwise on this day. My legs felt like they were lined with bricks, barely moving. With every pitch, I became slower and slower, struggling to turn the pedals, grimacing with pain all the while. Was this the way the entire day would be?

Fortunately the 178 climbs are not terribly long. There are a few breaks with descents and that helped give my muscles some recovery time. My legs would scream every time the road pitched up.

I’m usually headstrong and rarely a quitter, but during those first 1,000 feet of climbing, I seriously considered turning back. I wasn’t sure I had the constitution to get myself up the epic climb ahead. I put off that decision until I could take no more. Fortunately that moment never occurred.

We passed through Rosman and my legs were finally getting warm. I was able to sprint and sustain 23-24 mph on a slight downhill, which is slower than usual, but good for that day.

The next climb would be Highway 215, one that I had heard about a number of times, but for some reason had never attempted. It starts out with rolling terrain and a few easy mini-climbs. The gorgeous views helped me forget my muscular woes. In the early going we were riding between rock formations while overlooking the French Broad River a few hundred feet below. We lost the river as we climbed higher, but then we had distant mountains and scenic vistas from above, eye candy of all sorts.

The big climb began just after a trout hatchery. It was right around seven miles and we obtained about 2,500 feet in elevation. It was not as difficult as I had been led to believe. It reminded me of a slightly more difficult Caesar’s Head Mountain. Most of the grades were in the 6-8% variety, with occasional easier and steeper sections. Even though I had not climbed this particular road, a lot of the far off landmarks looked familiar. It became a game to try and recognize them, and I don’t mind that I was wrong probably 99% of the time.

I felt great when I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. From here it would just be a short trip, maybe 800 feet total of climbing, until we reached Richland Balsam Mountain, a familiar site that I’m always pleased to visit. The problem was the nasty weather up top. We saw a number of ugly looking fast-moving storm clouds, threatening to get in our way. We weren’t too worried about thunder or lightning, but rather cold. With a forecast in the upper 70s, we were not appropriately dressed for mountain rain. The wind was already plenty cold. Rain would be excruciating.

We plodded along until we saw a huge storm that looked to be consuming the Balsam peak. Gary wisely suggested calling the rest of the climb off. I and the others agreed. We’ve all been there before and will visit again.

After passing back through Rosman, we still had some climbs remaining. I had forgotten from the way up that 178 had some nice descents. Those are not as nice going back up. To my surprise, these mini-climbs were on the steep side, sometimes above 10%. My muscles protested, but did enough work to get me over and back home. Despite my difficulties in getting warmed up, climbing back to the mountains was definitely worth it. Next time I’ll taper a little more.

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Strava GPS Link


Richland Balsam Mountain

After conquering a Southern Sixer the day before, I found myself with a couple hours to kill and decided to take a stab at another. Richland Balsam Mountain, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, was literally in the back yard of my hotel.

I had already been there on the Blue Ridge Breakaway route, which went along Lake Logan Road near Cold Mountain (another Southern Sixer). We had descended down from that point and then climbed back up Waterrock Knob on the other side. This time I would climb up hard way, the same 12-miles I had descend the first time. Since I needed to get back home later that afternoon, all I could manage would be an out-and-back route, but that was fine. My legs were a little cooked anyway.

I parked at the bottom of the climb near Balsam Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway and immediately started the climb. Without the opportunity to warm up, my legs were a little stiff out of the gates. I found my hamstrings to be especially sore in the early going. What made it more difficult is that the first four miles of this climb are the steepest, averaging a 7% grade. It was quite the chore on cold legs.

I knew right away that this would not be a hammering ride. I was as much cyclist today as I was tourist and photographer. I stopped often along the way up. This was mostly to take in the sights on such a beautiful day. The first time in this area everything just blurred by as I screamed down the mountain. It was nice to stop smell the flowers this time (not that there were many flowers in early March). I got a picture at every overlook on the way up, some of which you can see in the gallery below.

My legs came back about mid-way. This was probably mostly due to the climb easing up. In the first four miles I had climbed close to 1,500 feet and the last eight climbed another 1,500. My leisurely pace continued. I saw that there was a forest near the top named after Senator Roy Taylor, and a nice overlook a little off the beaten path that I would have otherwise not noticed. These are the things you miss when you don’t stop.

Finally I reached the top. There were a couple other people marveling at the “Highest Point on Parkway” sign. They were nice folks and even took a picture of me with the sign (didn’t come out well). When they saw me they said, incredulously “dang, did you ride your bike up that whole thing?” Sure did.

The descent was just as fun as I remembered it from last September, albeit not quite as colorful. I had forgotten about the tunnel and had to stop, pull out my phone and use that to nervously guide my way through the pitch dark. I’ll have to make it a point to invest in better lights later this year.

The 12-miles flew by. I saw my car parked at the overlook and was disappointed. The descent ended there and I wasn’t about to climb back up. I’ll get to experience it again.

Strava Link

IMAGE GALLERY

Taking the Scenic Route

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Today was my travel day. I left early enough that I had plenty of time to get to Franklin. As I sped down the freeway and crossed the state line into North Carolina, I was practically hypnotized by the Fall colors. Rather than speed through the mountains, I decided then to take some time and make an adventure of it.

The adventure started by stopping in Saluda for lunch at the bakery. Of course I have made this stop many times, but seldom off the bike. As I ate my sandwich, I watched other cyclers struggle their way to the counter. The one thing they had in common was they were freezing, looking for warm beverage. Yeah, I know how that goes.

This was also a reminder that I’m a cold wuss, and feared that I was underprepared. The next stop — REI, where I picked up a couple other layers and a nice, heavy windbreaker jacket. While this was an impulse buy, it’s something I’ll need if I plan to ride over the winter.

The adventure really began as I approached Asheville. I’ve travelled highway 74 more times than I can count now. It was too beautiful of a day for the ordinary route. I took an early exit and hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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The drive was heavenly. I stopped at a couple overlooks to breathe in the scenery. I kept going, admiring the golden yellows, ruby reds and pumpkin oranges that highlighted the mountains above and below.

After traveling a couple dozen miles, I passed through the Devil’s Courthouse and immediately recognized familiar territory. This was the same route I had taken in the Blue Ridge Breakaway ride. It was cool to revisit the same climbs and descents and see how they look with color. I passed by the Richland Balsam overlook, the highest point of the parkway, and began the 11-mile descent. Needless to say, it wasn’t nearly as breathtaking in the car, pretty colors or not, but it was still cool to revisit the area. The blind tunnel seemed to go on forever. No wonder I struggled so much. I passed the stretch where the mother bear and cubs had been last time. They were probably somewhere warmer today.

It was tempting to climb up to Waterrock Knob, but I knew I had to grab my packet in Franklin and pick up my brother in Sylva. We grabbed some dinner and still had some daylight left. At first we drove around the mountains just to talk.

As we kept going, we came closer to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Why not? We got back on and climbed the 10 miles to the top. When I told him I had taken my bike up here, he said I must be some sort of masochist. Yeah, something like that. When we got to the top it was below freezing. At first it didn’t feel too bad. We watched the sun set as long as we could stand it. The cold caught up quickly. My brother was wearing shorts, so he was done.

I wanted to take the short hike to the top. My brother waited in the car. I’ll be back in two hours, I joked. It was a quarter mile to the overlook and half mile to the peak. The walking trail was quite the climb. It is hard to estimate on foot, but my guess is 20%. Soon I found myself breathing heavily and getting colder. The sun was dropping and I didn’t want to hike back down with it much darker, so I cut my losses at the overlook. The peak will have to wait. I sprinted down the hill, not really by choice. Probably have some lactic acid stored thanks to this jaunt.

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It was a fun adventure, a nice prelude to tomorrow where I’ll be spending more time out in nature.


Blue Ridge Breakaway, 2011, Lake Junaluska, NC

Blue Ridge Parkway The Blue Ridge Breakaway was yet another fascinating ride, perhaps one of the most scenic I have yet experienced. It consisted of 105 miles traveled, almost 10,000 feet climbed, including the ascent of two of the ‘Southern Sixer‘ mountains, and nearly 40 miles of riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was both a challenging workout and an amazing experience.

The ride started out under a light fog as we maneuvered through the rolling hills north of Lake Junaluska. When looking at the overall elevation profile of the ride, the beginning 50 miles appears flat by comparison, but that was misleading. There were some good rolling hills, some of which had some difficult climbs. The steepest that I recall seeing was one that pitched up to around 14% grade at one section, which ended with a painted ‘Ugh’ on the road. Ugh, indeed. Most of the rollers were in the 6-8% vicinity, with a few around 10-11%. These hills did a good job at keeping the course relatively challenging and getting the climbing legs warmed up for what would come ahead.

We had a big mishap early on in our group. One of my riding friends broke his chain at mile 17. It looked like the end of the road for him, as he had no idea how to fix it and did not have the proper equipment. A gentleman by the name of Fred Nash from Charleston came to the rescue. He had a link that could be used to fasten the chain back together and the ability to make the repair. He had some help from the SAG patrol, who were able to get the chain on and my friend back on the road. A huge shout out to Fred, who literally saved the day. Hopefully someone will be able to share this with him.

The chain incident cost us around 20-30 minutes. While this was certainly not a race, that much time did make it a more difficult ride. We lost the pack and any hope of working with others to conserve energy. Instead we rode together the rest of the way and did not push ourselves. That was fine by me as I was coming off a nagging cold that I had not altogether shaken. I wanted to pace a little bit and not wear my lungs out.

Lake Logan

Lake Logan

The real action began around mile 50. We rode up on highway 215/Lake Logan Road, to Lake Logan. From there came the first category-1 climb, a 10-mile slog up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Aside from Mount Mitchell, this was the longest climb I had yet done. Again, a good reason to take it easy and make sure to pace. As it turned out, the climb was not terribly difficult. That is, it wasn’t too steep. It was just long. It started out gradually with a light grade, perhaps 3-4% or so, and continued this way for several miles. Somewhere around the middle of the climb there was a slight leveling off, then the road pitched a little steeper afterward, perhaps in the 4-6% range. It was very scenic, as we climbed alongside a stream. Hearing the water flowing around was very therapeutic and calming. It reminded me of the Greenville Watershed climb, pleasant and not too challenging.

End of Lake Logan climb

Towards the end of the Lake Logan climb

Around mile seven or eight, we could finally see the objective of the climb. It seemed like far off, so we just continued to push ourselves along. It continued in the 6-8% range again until another brief leveling off. The last mile or so was the toughest as it turned up to at most around 10% and an average of probably around 8%. Here is where I saw some road casualties. A few people had stopped and others walked their bike a little ways. We kept plugging along and finally arrived at the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The great thing about this ride is that so much time is spent on the parkway. Every time I visit, either on the bike or a car, I am simply amazed at the sheer beauty of the parkway. It has not disappointed yet. It is both an engineering marvel and an American treasure.

Highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway

After Lake Logan, we had a little bit more climbing to do, with some descents in between to give a little time for recovery. We eventually made our way up to the top of Richland Balsam mountain. This was the first of the Southern Sixers and also the highest elevation point of the Blue Ridge Parkway. After posing for the above picture, the motorcyclists behind challenged me to carry their bikes for another picture. Funny guys.

After reaching this point, we knew there would be a refreshing break from the climbing. What followed was perhaps the most enjoyable descent I have yet experienced. The great thing about Parkway descents is that the grades are steady and the turns gradual. There is no need for a lot of braking or leaning. You can pretty much just launch yourself down the mountain and let fly. The descent down Richland Balsam was around 12 glorious miles, beginning at about 6,000 feet elevation and ending at around 3,500. The air temperature had been cool at the top of the parkway, but as we descended and the temperature rose, it warmed us back up again and felt great. The most difficult part was to focus on the road and try not to stare at the beautiful vistas and valleys around every corner.

Blue Ridge Parkway

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Midway through this descent was a blind tunnel. I had been warned about it, and the ride mandated that every bike have a headlight. It still came as a surprise and I was not prepared. I could not tell if my headlight was on when I entered the tunnel. It was pure blackness and I could not tell whether I was in my lane, near a wall, or what. I immediately braked to a sudden halt rather than hurt myself. I pressed the headlight button a few times to make sure it was on. It was, but it wasn’t making much of a difference. I continued slowly until the daylight peeped through the other side and guided my way.

After struggling in the tunnel, I descended pretty fast and came back upon my friend. He was completely stopped and I saw what looked to be a small black dog by his wheel. What would a dog be doing on the parkway? When I caught up, I asked about it. “That wasn’t a dog,” he said, “That was a bear cub.” Wow, so what was a bear cub doing by itself? “You didn’t see the mother?” Apparently in my fumbling through the tunnel, I missed a bear sighting with four cubs. My friend wisely stopped at a safe distance. He said the bear looked at him for a split second before moving across the road with her cubs. Once they were out of reach, he continued on and that’s when I caught up.

We reached the bottom and it was time to climb again. This would be another category-1 climb up another of the Southern Sixers, Waterrock Knob. We knew that the climb would be eight miles in total, so we buckled in and prepared to grind it out for the next hour. Even though this was slightly shorter than the first climb, it was a little tougher. It was steeper, for instance, consistently around 6-8%, about par for the course for a parkway climb. This type of climb goes so long without a break that it is mostly a mental challenge. You just have to tune out and keep moving your body.

Waterrock Knob on parkway

Nearing the end of the Waterrock Knob climb

Finally we reached the apex of the climb and a welcomed rest stop. This would be the last of the climbing with 15 miles to go, all of which was downhill. We continued down the parkway a few miles and then turned off at Highway 19. From here we plunged down at around an 8-10% descent. This was the one I had worried about, as I heard it was a technical descent. I found that not to be the case. The road was cracked in some areas, but relatively straight. Those last several miles went by fast. Soon we were on the highway through Maggie Valley, which was still a 1-2% descent, but slow enough so that we could gawk at the t-shirt shops and tourist traps.

Finally we arrived at the end. A little tired, sure, but energized by the experience. My hats off to the organizers. This was a seamless ride. I particularly liked the painstaking attention to ride details. They had a number of signs that pointed out road hazards, sharp turns, steep descents, etc. If anything, they were overcautious (probably justified given some experiences last year), but it made for a smooth, comfortable ride.

Garmin link


Linn Cove Viaduct, Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway signWith a big event just a week away, this weekend was supposed to be light and relaxing. Rather than do anything with the bike, I planned to visit some family in Chapel Hill, NC. To my surprise, they decided to rent a mountain cabin instead and invited me to stay. I cannot avoid the mountains even when I try! Naturally I brought my bike and had a couple mini adventures, even if the trip was not dedicated to cycling.

The cabin was in the Boone, Banner Elk, Blowing Rock area, not too far from Grandfather Mountain. That was another coincidence, as I’ll be climbing to the summit next month.

Since I was still in rest mode, I only had one bike ride. There were many areas and routes to choose from, but it was hard to resist the Blue Ridge Parkway. I found a short stretch that begins at Schull’s Mill Rd near Blowing Rock, and rides over the Linn Cove Viaduct right by Grandfather Mountain. I thought it would be right around 20 miles, which turned out to be 24. Because this was the Parkway, it was pretty much either uphill or downhill the entire time.

I parked at the Schull’s Mill rest stop and climbed up to the parkway. It was relatively early in the morning and I started in a light fog. Although the initial fog burned off quickly, it would be back. Once I hit the parkway, I immediately started descending at a 7-8% grade. While this was an easy way to warm up, I knew it would be a tough way to finish. The temperature was in the mid 60s, which is usually ideal for cycling, but going downhill on a lightly misted parkway made for a slightly chilling start. The fact that I have been riding in 90-100 degree temperatures didn’t help matters. The descent continued for a couple miles until it leveled off and then started the slow ascent up to the Viaduct.

Blue Ridge Parkway scenic view

One of many scenic views from the Parkway

The Linn Cove Viaduct is an engineering marvel. As I understand, it was the last completed part of the of the parkway, finished roughly 60 years after it’s beginning. It is a constructed bridge along the shelf of a mountain at around 4500 feet elevation. In addition to the viaduct, there are a few similarly scenic bridges before and afterward.

To get there, I had to climb about 1,000 feet — no easy task. Thankfully the parkway is never particularly steep. I hardly noticed when the climb began as it was very slight. The road looked and felt flat, but the GPS told me it was around 1-2%. That went on more or less for a number of miles. It then kicked up to a more difficult 6-10% climb, which went on for another 2-3 miles. Since I’m within the taper period, I made sure to spin comfortably and keep my heart rate down. This was about the experience more than the performance.

Grandfather Mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Grandfather Mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway

The best distraction to excessive cardio is the type of scenic vistas found all along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This route was absolutely gorgeous. When I first turned the corner that revealed Grandfather Mountain, I was almost blown away by the beauty. As I got closer, I could also see the bridges along the wall of the mountain, some of which were obscured in clouds. I continued to climb and the faraway bridge came closer and closer, until I was upon it. Once I reached it, I was fittingly enveloped in clouds.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Linn Cove Viaduct

Shortly afterward I decided the ride had gone far enough. I had to get back to family activities. It was a great ride and a nice taste of parkway riding. Next week I’ll get another, longer dose, as I undertake the Blue Ridge Breakaway.

Garmin GPS Link