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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.