Our Scenic Cycling Journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway
This is a tale (from our Blue Ridge Parkway Journey) of our practical response to the ancient adage, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
In our case, the journey would be the navigation of the entire Blue Ridge Parkway from northern VA to Cherokee, NC. The thousand miles would only be a few hundred miles. The steps would be bicycle wheel rotations, up and down mountainous terrain, in the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). We would do it in the course of a long week (including weekends on each end), and we would make it cost effective, so others could do it with us in the future.
I had ridden sections of the BRP (pronounced burp) many times, as it has been one of my training routes for years. The road is void of commercial traffic, and the speed limit is 45 or less in all places. That meant no pickup trucks pulling trailers, drinking coffee or cell phone drivers. Those are the folks who routinely kill cyclists in rural NC.
What made this trip attractive at this time in history was that it didn't require air travel. We scheduled next year's trip the week after Duathlon Nationals and when school gets out for the summer in the South. From our home in Central NC, we could drive to either end of the Blue Ridge Parkway in less than 5 hours, and we could use all of our own gear and vehicles for support and gear. It was ideal trip in that locals would be putting it together.
For this exploratory trip, we picked some dates on the calendar that didn't interfere with anyone's current plans, and we created lists upon lists of what to bring, what to do, and where to go. We picked places to stay that would accommodate our needs in places that we would not otherwise visit.
Alex and I would cycle the Blue Ridge Parkway, starting in the early am, while Linda and Rachel (Alex's plus 1) would be our support, dropping off food and drink at specific mile markers, as concessions are scarce on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The girls would also explore the areas in and around each night's destination, looking for fun things for other plus 1 to explore while we cycled. We picked distances that we could complete each day by early afternoon, so there would be time to clean up and recover before a group dinner each evening.
Perhaps the best thing about this route is the lack of need for a map. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a single road, with almost no opportunity to get lost. Mile markers are predictable, and the terrain beautiful. I can't imagine a safer cycling trip. But it is not an easy trip. The Blue Ridge Parkway wasn't designed with cyclists in mind. It was designed with everyone in mind, and long, flat sections of road didn't make the architects list of what to include We knew that we would either be going up or down, all day, for a week.
-Jeff is in traditional
Alex is in bold.
Day 1: The drive to the start
Jeff: I am glad that we drove up the night before we started, as it took 6 real hours to arrive, due to all of our potty and beverage breaks. We selected Waynesboro, VA, as our pre-ride hotel, as it is the town closest to the Blue Ridge Parkway northern terminus. I am excited to get this party started. Get me out of the car and on the bike seat. This trip empowered and motivated me to overcome all my broken bones and overcome adversity in my life. Let's go, Baby!
Jeff: It was exciting to take the bikes off of the truck and do our final checks before starting. We attached a repair kit and checked our phone levels before heading out. We forgot water bottles, so we purchased drinking water in what we hoped would be reusable bottles at a gas station, confirming first that they would fit in our bike cages. Good news! They worked.
Before mounting our seats to start this epic adventure, we said farewell to Linda (Rachel was still asleep back at the hotel) at the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and started our journey. One minute later, all we could hear was the birds and the air whistling on our helmet straps, as we rode through a forest of blended hardwoods and pine. It was as if human development didn't exist within 100 miles of our location, and only the sounds of nature filled our helmets for the next few hours. Truth was the opposite-we were a quarter of a mile from a highway and had no idea.
There was nearly no one on the BRP on Thursday morning, as the parkway is closed to all commercial traffic. However, the day was wrought with memorable difficulties.
- there was a construction zone from milepost 22 until I don't know where. We stopped at a road construction sign and talked to Cornell, the stop/slow sign keeper. We finished up our first Cat 1 climb only to find ourselves riding in gravel for 5.25 miles, as they were resurfacing a large section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stopped for our first pit stop and loaded our bikes in the truck, and we asked the girls to drive us to the end of the construction zone. Normally, riding through a bit of gravel is easy. However, I watched Alex nearly wreck twice, as he traversed some unexpected gravel piles covering on the pavement. The climbs with the gravel beneath our wheels weren't bad, but the multi-mile descents were downright dangerous on our skinny tires.
- on the final climb of the day (An H/C, according to UCI standards) we ran out of water. It was hot outside, and we had hoped we would be done less than an hour. We weren't. Fortunately, we pulled over at a roadside rest area to get out of the heat as two motorcycles pulled up to take photos. They shared some of their water with us, and it was a best tasting, coldest water, EVER! We finished the climb and descended into the Peaks of Otter Hotel before the vehicle showed up, and we had to convince the staff to check us in without ID or credit cards. I think their primary concern was getting two stinky cyclists out of the lobby.
The shower and nap after the riding were priceless. We woke to views of a beautiful lake and more warm weather. Matt and Chelsea drove in from Lynchburg to have dinner with us, and they enjoyed their time out of the house. Slept like a baby.
Alex: Started off with several shorter climbs, seeing a couple cyclists along the way. Lots of road work was underway, which is to be expected on at least some portion of a full parkway ride. A single short tunnel was enjoyable to ride through. I enjoyed the latter half of the ride more, which featured a long, straight descent (which is perfect on my aero bike) and views of some streams, ponds, and rivers. A long climb at the end was time consuming, but not too difficult. No uphill sections of any significance after the descent from Apple Orchard Gap. The lodging grounds were very aesthetically pleasing, which made up for an average room. Despite a limited menu (at the time), dinner was good, and the views eating outside at sunset were even better.
Jeff: We quietly woke up to avoid waking up Linda and Rachel, and we gingerly emptied the hotel room and loaded the truck before hitting the road. The early morning views on the parkway were gorgeous, and we had the road to ourselves, seeing no traffic for about an hour. We cycled as far as we could before losing the road to road construction around Roanoke Mountain. After a detour, we got back on the Blue Ridge Parkway to find that we had missed the hardest climb of the day, and we covered ground quickly before we reached the finish. The detour was expected and turned out to be a godsend, as the day was hotter than we had expected. We ended up travelling less than 60 miles and were done ahead of schedule.
We arrived at our hotel in Floyd, VA, early afternoon, and took a shower and nap. The girls were gone when we woke up, and we had a multi-hour stint of Tom and Jerry re-runs. We had dinner and ice cream together, as I enjoyed eating calories like I had a teenager's metabolism. Lots of great views today, and lots of animal crossings. Rained really hard after we got back to the room after dinner, and tomorrow appears to be forecasted cooler than today. Legs are fine, but the idea of cooler weather than this mid-July stuff sounds great!
Alex: Road quality was significantly worse, but easy enough to get around holes in the road. The first bit of the ride was lots of up and down, which was made more difficult by the previous day. Very scenic riding in the early morning on this section. We missed the middle third of the ride due to a road closure, resulting in a delightful breakfast in downtown Roanoke (which, to me, made a lucky break even better). The final third of the ride was once again on up and down roads with enjoyable scenery. The heat by this point in the day made riding at any intensity rather difficult. No single climb was difficult in this last section. Arriving in Floyd (by vehicle) was interesting, with a fun looking downtown area and overall feel. The hotel was very nice, with all rooms having a unique theme. After a filling dinner of Italian food and ice cream, we weren't able to view the nightly bluegrass performance due to rain.
Jeff: We overslept and did not start until 7:30; not the best decision on what was scheduled to be our longest day. We met a woman in a parking lot who was writing an update to her Blue Ridge Parkway cycling guidebook. Too bad she was a grumpy-head. That convinced me not to read her book.
Oh, I already had a copy in the car.
The good news was knowing that a storm had come through the area the night before, and our starting temperature was 62. When we finished riding 85 miles later, the temp was 76 degrees, and for that blessing, I was grateful. We escaped the consequences of oversleeping. Fortunately, next year we are doing the ride in early June, and we are much removed from the risk of hot weather.
We rode about 2 hours before stopping at a caf for a Hobbit would call a 2nd breakfast. Alex got cold in the restaurant, and we left after only 20 minutes, instead of our allocated 45 minutes. The nutrition and time in a cool seat recharged us. It was Saturday, and the traffic on the parkway started to pick up, as we expected. I never felt unsafe, though. With a speed limit of either 35 or 45 the whole time, we were concerned about crazy driving.
However, Linda and I did not clearly communicate on what time we needed to have food and water available at today's aid station at Cumberland Gap, and we arrived way long before they did. We called them on our phones and decided to travel the next 18 miles in the mountainous terrain without the nutrition that I was expecting. That was a dumb and consequential choice. When we arrived, I was void of any muscular glycogen and laid down in the grass as soon as I got off my bike. We ate and drank, and we gave our bodies a chance to recover. Alas, my strength returned, and once it did, I was ready to ride the last hour to finish off the day's climbs (a Cat 2 and a Cat 4) before reaching our stopping point at 85 miles for the day. Linda and Rachel were at the finish line, ready to pick us up. Alex was grateful that the longest day was over.
The BRP animal show continued today, with a fox, racoon, and a bright orange salamander visible on today's ride, along with the mandatory deer sightings that happen about once an hour.
Alex: The length of the day was intimidating, causing me to not sleep well. The beginning of the route featured some noteworthy hills and a nasty headwind which really pulled my spirits down. After about an hour, the parkway resumed its usual rolling up and down, but the headwinds persisted, and it truly drained my energy. There were a lot of interesting sights in the morning, from the scenery itself to wildlife like cows and even a fox. Breakfast at mile thirty or so was a much-needed break, and my mood shifted for the better after sitting inside out of the wind for a while. The next section of the parkway had a lot of time in the sun as well as some great views. The temperature was much more forgiving compared to the previous two days. Crossing over the state line was a cool sight to see, letting me realize how much we had already achieved. Another long and speedy descent made me quite happy to rest in my aero bars. I used this good feeling to push through up and over the final climb of the day, and the view from the top was well worth it. I said final in quotes because there were multiple steep (but not as long) climbs to follow the descent. There was a real pride that emerged at the end of the ride seeing a sign for Roanoke (where we were yesterday morning) being listed as more than one hundred thirty miles away. The hotel was nice enough, and the town looked promising and restful despite the construction that closed main street. The best part about the day was realizing that sleeping in the next day was on the agenda.
Jeff: At first look, today's route seemed easy. Distance was half of yesterday. However, we were climbing 80% as much as yesterday. That meant a lot more up and down per mile. The route delivered in its difficulty, but the weather was cool and the scenery was beautiful. We rode 3 hours and ended the day at the entrance to a resort entrance. Since we live in the shadows of COVID, we were stopped by a security guard outside the Chetola Lodge and had our temperatures scanned. I was sure we would register as having high temps, since we had been cycling all morning. Instead, he reported that I tested at 96 degrees, 2 below normal. Same for Alex. I have no idea how this was possible.
The employee who had scheduled a tour to show us the facilities we could use next year didn't show up, so the front desk folks gave us a $100 free meal in the restaurant. I think I had 3 Pepsi colas with my lunch. During our tour, we got to see the views, paddleboards, walking trails, firepits and banquet halls-it was as impressive as any Caribbean resort. We picked a couple of places to consider having our group stay next year, and added an extra day here, for folks to take a day off from riding to heal and explore Blowing Rock and Boone.
Since we arrived at noon (just as we will the rest of the week at all our other stops), we have the time to do other things, now. Linda, Rachel and Alex traveled to Boone to go shopping. I napped and caught up on my sections of this story.
Now that we have cycled about 300 miles, I am starting to get my cycling legs. For the first day, when we hit a hill, I would often power up and go above my threshold power to get up a climb with some intense pushing on the pedals. Alex figured out that this strategy was dysfunctional. Instead, he paced himself on the climbs, and I have now fallen in behind him. Perhaps I hit 300 watts on a climb, but not 400 or more, as I used to on the first few days. My net training stress for the day is reduced, but I feel that I am physiologically getting stronger as a result.
Alex: I was woken up at seven by my hunger, meaning I couldn't enjoy my extra hour to sleep in. We had a breakfast of things we got at a grocery store the previous day, and we started out on a day featuring much less distance but a respectable amount of climbing. The ride featured lots of shade and scenery that changed frequently. All of the longer climbs had nice panoramic views at the top. Since it was a Sunday, the parkway progressively got more and more busy throughout the day. For the final thirty minutes, the number of cars was concerning, but cars weren't aggressively trying to pass us when it wasn't safe. The ride ended going into town and entering our very nice hotel room. Lunch on site was very good and it was easy to sleep in the comfortable beds. We finished early enough in the day to spend some time in downtown Boone, which is nearby Blowing Rock. After the previous two days, the soreness really took a toll on my body, which made the fifteen or so stairs into the hotel painful to go up (and down).
Jeff: Today was our shortest distance, but it was a difficult route in that we vertically climbed more per mile traveled than on any other day. We arrived at the hotel in Little Switzerland before lunchtime, and we soaked in the views of the valley below from the firepit and dinner patio. The views were beautiful, and the food was great. We played games and laughed, and we walked to an ice creamery for some post dinner sugar hits. Regardless of what the future may hold for our group, I know that Linda and I will come back here in the fall.
Today was easy. I am ready for whatever is thrown at me. Tomorrow is a dual climb day, as we head to the base of Mount Mitchell. From there, we have 18 miles of straight downhill in Asheville. That is really sexy sounding.
We added the missing animal in our wildlife experience today, as we got to see 4 bears. That was the only large animal that was missing from our list of critters. Alex saw them first. Last time we saw bears in the wild was a fishing trip to Canada.
Linda and Rachel were gone when we arrived. They headed into Spruce Pine to get pedicures. I was grateful to see that she finally felt comfortable enough to leave us on our own and go have some fun. We really don't need any help showering and napping.
Alex: The day began with some long uphill, but road quality was notably better today than usual. Very cool views at lakes and good views at the top of longer climbs as well. We passed over the Linville Viaduct, which is a bridge famously featured in many pictures of the parkway. Today was a good mix of longer climbs, short climbs, long descents, and flat sections. We saw some bears on the parkway today as well. The end of the day featured two long climbs, but nothing too steep. The hotel was less than one hundred feet off the parkway, and the entire facility was very nice. This was everyone's favorite lodging. It had a spa, restaurant, outdoor pool/ hot tub, outdoor games and plenty of seating areas to view the surrounding landscape (and stunning sunset). The room was very spacious and updated as well. It was very easy to relax here.
Jeff: Today was bittersweet, in that a mechanical failure ended the trip, prematurely. Alex's rear wheel had lost its tread, and the tube was exposed. We didn't know it, but the front tire/tube was the same way. Considering the upcoming lengthy downhill, there was no way Alex could safely descend on rough roads that long, safely. We put his bike on the truck and stared at each other.
I had a choice of finishing the ride, or at least the descent, on my own. Last time I rode alone on this road, I almost died. I knew this section of the road well, unlike the Virginia section, of which all was new to me. I had to revisit our real goal here: gather enough intel to create a trip that we can share with others, in the years to come. I decided we had accomplished that. Our hotel that night was in downtown Asheville-we already know how hotels in the city work. The final ride the next started with a long detour followed by a trip into Cherokee-I had already ridden every inch of that section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I did want to descend into Asheville, though-that section of road is a lot of fun and really fast. However, that would mean that everyone else would have to wait on me as I climbed Mt. Mitchell and descended it all alone-a 3.5 hour proposal from Little Switzerland.
Alex, I am joining you in the truck. We are formally done.
The truck seat was soft, but it was also a bit sad to train as hard as we did and overcome the adversity of 7 broken ribs and a blown AC joint in my right shoulder only to sit in a pickup truck when it is time to go fast.
When we arrived in Asheville, we checked out Rachel's college (UNC-Asheville), and went out to one of her favorite restaurants. We visited a local grocery store and the girls did some shopping. At 3 pm, we didn't really have a good reason to stay in Asheville-it was really hot, now that we were at a lower altitude, and the kids and Linda proposed driving the 2 hours back to the house. We all agreed that was the best idea, so we jumped on the highway and drove home.
Alex: The tires on my front and back wheels were significantly worn by now to the point that it was unsafe to keep riding. It wasn't caused by the parkway, but by the many miles I had done training for this ride throughout the spring and summer. We rode through the rest of the route in the car, and the day featured lots of climbing before a long descent into Asheville. If given ample time, there is plenty to do, see, and eat in downtown Asheville. The hotel room was nice and nearby downtown. It was a little disappointing to end the trip premature, but I had definitely done enough by this point to be proud of what I had done.
Jeff: I woke up in my own bed, and I went upstairs to begin updating the Blue Ridge tour page on the website and the budget with what we had learned. I knew that as each day passed after we got home, the risk increased that I would forget something that we learned. We learned that we could take up to 11 people, comfortably. We need another driver with a van, so Linda can uniquely focus on the plus 1 in the group. We added a day off on the trip. We added extra water bottles and snacks on our list of carriables. We added swimsuits to the clothing list. We included language about early to bed and early to rise. We put down the mile markers that we will convert into aid stations.
We updated one of the hotels, but we kept the others. We thought through who would like this and which couples would find it memorable.
We added to the spare parts list to prevent what happened to Alex to happen to others.
In retrospect, we tested our plan, and it worked. We refined it, and now have something reusable that is cheaper than what anyone else is doing. And we have an offer that is safer than air travel to a foreign country that does not include quarantining or international transfers.
I told Alex, now that I had ridden in the Alps, Pyrenees and Blue Ridge Parkway, that what we just did was as good as any of the other two, if not more scenic, and it was assuredly safer than either of those other routes.
I am so blessed in that I get to do this ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway again in 4 June, 2021. Come join us.