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Blue Ridge Breakaway, 2013, Lake Junaluska, NC

Scott, Spongebob and Captain America at the front.

Scott, Spongebob and Captain America at the front.

After making the decision to cancel my travel plans for Blue Ridge Breakaway, I was disappointed and bummed. This event was at the top of my priority list for the year, and with the nasty weather continuing to roll in through the weekend, it looked like a wash out weekend.

I had been emailing Cecil, the Ride Director, about the forecast. As I posted on Friday evening, there were some major systems coming through, and one of them was threatening the event. He noted that a lot of the heavy stuff was pushing into South Carolina, and despite the forecast, they had a surprisingly nice day on Friday. He was optimistic; I was a little pessimistic looking at the same info.

The last thing I emailed him was “I’m pulling for you to have a great day of riding, even if that means I’ll be kicking myself for not going.”

After getting to bed early, I awoke at 2am with some coughing spasms. I looked at the clock and groaned, but since I was awake, figured I would check the radar and see if I would be kicking myself.

What Cecil had observed yesterday was happening again today. The bad stuff was flowing into SC, while the Smokies were going to be unscathed for a lot longer. The chance of rain at the start had reduced to 0%, with gradually increasing chances as the day progressed.

I did some quick math, then bolted out of bed. It was a 3.5 hour drive. I could actually do this thing. Within 15 minutes, I had my bike bag ready, praying that I didn’t forget anything important. Soon enough I was on the road heading to Lake Junaluska. The drive down there was through an ugly monsoon until I reached the NC state line, where it then calmed down.

I arrived at the Visitor Center at exactly 6am. Cecil was behind the registration desk when I walked up. He looked at me curiously, recognizing me, but not believing his eyes. “Cecil, Aaron, I said.” We erupted in laughter and man-hugged. The look on his face was priceless.

I was there, but I was totally unprepared. I had eaten chicken and salad the night before, not the type of fuel for 105 miles of mountain riding. Fortunately with this ride, I pretty much just needed my bike, some gear, and a little sense. The ride is so well organized that there’s not much else to worry about. The only major concern was the afternoon weather, but I was relieved to hear about their comprehensive tracking center and communications. That would come into play later.

We saddled up and several hundred riders left the the Lake Junaluska Welcome Center. It was easy early riding, as we were escorted via police with silver medalist Lauren Tamayo leading us out.

We had to deal with just a small amount of rain within the first 20 miles or so. None of it was very bad, and I think a lot of it was coming up from the road. As we rolled around the mini-climbs, we started to see signs of the sun. Things were looking good.

The sun peered through the clouds as we rode on rainy roads.

The sun peered through the clouds as we rode on rainy roads.

Unlike a lot of mountain centuries, the pack breaks up pretty early. Most of the separation starts at Coleman Mountain, continues through Rush Fork, and then splinters at Hyder Mountain. It is easy to forget about the earlier bumps compared to the later climbs, but they were substantial. Many of these had steeper grades and, to me at least, took more of a toll on the legs. During these early climbs, we were riding with people on the shorter rides (“Trout”, “Panther”, “Rabbit”). The 105-mile century was called the “Hawk,” and we finally set out on our own course as we rode further south through Clyde.

On the south Highway 215 climb to the Parkway, I caught up with John from the Raleigh area. On a climb this long, it’s good to have a companion for some conversation. We chatted it up as we rolled through the mild grades. This climb is not the most challenging in the world, but it goes on forever, and gains over 2,000 elevation. I remember that last time the road had been chewed up, and had been repaved since. It didn’t seem that smooth, but it was certainly an improvement.

As we got near the top of the climb, we approached a heavy cloud cover. We climbed through the mist, into the clouds, and they remained with us most of the day. We had some remarkable views from the parkway, where we could see into the horizon under the clouds on the left side, while the right side was just vast, puffy whiteness.

The next climb would be up to Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Most of it is up and down, a few hundred feet at a time. The final climb was just about 500 feet at a mild parkway grade. Even though it counts as a climb, it felt like easy riding.

John and I stopped for a photo op at the high point.

The obligatory photo op!

The obligatory photo op!

The big descent followed. I’ve already talked about how much I love this descent, although I’ll admit, it loses a lot of its luster coming down through the clouds. After a lot of gliding, some pedaling for the little bumps, and before we knew it, we were through the dark tunnel and down to Balsam Gap.

The last climb of the day would be Waterrock Knob. Been there, done that, and wasn’t looking forward to it today. Again, it is a mild grade, but it goes on for awhile, about seven miles at a continuous incline. Having John around to chat helped matters, and then about midway through the climb we bumped into Kelly, a website reader who I had yet to meet in person. It was good company for this climb, and that took the bite out of it.

We climbed through a lot of clouds on the parkway.

We climbed through a lot of clouds on the parkway.

As we settled into the last rest stop, a gentleman volunteer said, “Look I don’t want to rush you, but I understand there is a storm system just south of us. You’ll be heading away from it towards Maggie Valley.”

He might as well have shot a gun in the air or yelled “start your engines,” as I was immediately back on the bike, descending to Soco Gap. Here it became real damp and misty, and the moisture was more apparent in the air. I’m not sure how close we were to the weather, but we escaped without issue.

Finally I reached Soco Gap and made the turn towards Maggie Valley. It would be mostly downhill from here. The drop here is steep and you have to deal with some traffic. I remember from the last Breakaway that the road is bumpy and chewed up. That wasn’t the case this year. It was quite smooth and a nice descent. Traffic also wasn’t an issue. They had a huge sign at the side of the road that said “Bike Race in progress. Bicycles sharing highway next 6 miles.” Thanks guys. All the motorists were respectable and kept a comfortable distance behind us.

John and some other guys caught up through the 5-mile sprint from Maggie Valley back to the start line. This section is mostly flat or slightly downhill at 1-2% grade, which was nice, easy riding to finish the route.

Cecil was right. The weather held off, and we were able to have a tremendous ride. I found out later that there were some close calls with storm pockets. They had weather alerts at all the rest stops, just like what I encountered at the last one. The showers got closer as the last riders rolled in, but fortunately the major weather missed us completely. There were no accidents, good riding weather, and the event was yet again a huge success.

Strava Link


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