The Blue Ridge Breakaway. 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 mile options, called the Panther and Rabbit, respectively.
For a couple months leading up to the event, I had debated back and forth whether I was going to ride the Breakaway this year. I have done the ride in three of four previous years since it was started in 2010, missing 2012 for reasons I can’t recall. It’s a terrific event but as anyone who knows me can attest, I hate getting out of bed early on weekends to do organized rides (or unorganized ones for that matter). I prefer to sleep late and do things on my own schedule. Not only that I had just done 105 miles on a solo ride two weekends prior, including the climb up 215 to the Parkway, and wasn’t feeling the need to do it again. But then I got an email from Aaron West of steepclimbs.com, wondering if I would be riding and would I be interested in writing a story about the event for his blog. Aaron and I are acquainted with each other through a mutual friend, Scott Baker, a local Sylva rider I’ve known since my very first ride upon moving to Western NC. Unfortunately neither Aaron nor Scott were able to do the Breakaway this year due to injuries and fitness issues, so I told Aaron yes, I would indeed do the ride and would be happy to contribute an article in his absence. Aaron posted a pre-ride article here: 2014 Breakaway From Afar
The only question remaining 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” 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.
Not long after I decided to do the Breakaway another friend, Tom, asked if I was going to do the 75 or 105. He said if I was doing the 75 he would be interested in joining me. That sealed the deal… I’d ride the 75 with Tom and in doing so, get to experience what it would have been like had Scott and I ever cut the course as we had joked about. I also justified it to my admittedly large ego and competitive nature by telling myself it was for “journalistic purposes”.
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. The first aid station of the day was here, which made sense for some of the other routes, but for us “Trouts” was really unnecessary at only six miles in. Everybody rode on past and I did as well, and when I looked back and did not see Tom anywhere. I couldn’t remember if I had said that I was going to skip that first aid station or not, I slowed going through a major highway intersection just a few seconds, debating whether to slow down for Tom or keep going until the next aid station near lake Logan, roughly 20 miles into the ride. I decided to keep on going since I was still with the group.
Unfortunately, in my brief moments of deliberation I lost contact with the lead group very quickly. They were already topping the next short rise heading out of Clyde, dropping a few riders here and there along the way. I pushed the pace for a couple miles trying to catch back on, but was not able to. I realized I was fighting a losing battle for no reason, since they would most likely have dropped me again as soon as we hit the next steep climb. At around mile 10, there are two short but relatively difficult climbs of 8-10%, the first only about a quarter mile long and the second closer to 3/4 of a mile. On those climbs I passed and was passed by a couple other riders, all of whom had lost contact at various places in the early going.
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 in search of a top 10 placing* or keeping things more chill and enjoying some fun in the sun?
*Side note: although the Blue Ridge Breakaway is not a sanctioned race and is not officiated in any way, the organizers do provide chip timing and post unofficial results of each route. The results are somewhat inaccurate every year because a handful of riders will sign up for one route but then opt to ride a different route, thus distorting the results. Said results are really only intended for bragging rights among friends and knowing how long it actually took to do the ride (for those who don’t use cyclometers or GPS units).
On the one hand, I was feeling pretty strong and with the elimination of the 30 miles up front and the first big climb of the day looming just ahead of me, I was really tempted to take off and just run with it. I was still questioning my decision to opt out of the 105 miler and this would be a way to go hard and “earn it”.
On the other hand, my friend was probably just a few minutes behind me and the intention had been to enjoy the day together. It seemed wrong to race on up the road and leave him behind. Another factor in favor of backing off was the weather. As I mentioned, I’ve done the Blue Ridge Breakaway on three of the four prior years of it’s existence, and the weather has been anywhere from slightly inclement to downright miserable each time. The first year, 2009, was one of the most wet and difficult ride experiences I’ve ever been through, rivaled only by a handful of others, the most memorable being Shenandoah 100 in 2012 and PMBAR in 2013.
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!
I decided to keep my head down and press on, and then let the scene at the next rest stop decide it for me. If there were no riders there, meaning all the riders ahead of me were already on the 215 climb, I’d stop, wait for Tom, and ride for fun. If a few of those dozen riders were stopped and I could get out in front of them by skipping the aid station… I’d keep going and ride for time/place.
Side story: Just before I got to the lake, a horn honked behind me and Kent Crawford, owner of Motion Makers Bike Shops, flew past.. heading up the road to set up a booth at the next aid station, in support of the riders. Motion Makers has been a strong supporter of Blue Ridge Breakaway since it began in 2009 and is a supporter of a majority of local road and mountain rides and triathlons as well. It was somewhat ironic, that I had just seen Kent in this same location two weeks prior while out on a solo ride of 105 miles. He was supporting the Lake Logan Triathlon that weekend.
As you can see by the images, I didn’t even get to the aid station before making my decision to back off from the hard effort. I knew as soon as I reached Lake Logan. The weather was just too nice and the scenery too beautiful to mess about suffering for no reason other than ego. I stopped at the bridge over the stream that feeds the lake and took some pictures. Meanwhile, a number of the riders I had passed caught back up to me.
I strolled the next mile in to the aid station and waited for Tom to catch up.
Side story: As soon as I pulled in to the aid station, Kent (Motion Makers) saw me approaching. He fished out his phone and showed me a picture from Facebook and said “So… this is going on in Sylva right now.” At first I couldn’t wrap my brain around what he was showing me, but then I realized it was a photo of a fire in downtown Sylva.. and it was the restaurant next door to Motion Makers! The report Kent got from one of the employees was the restaurant building was suffering heavy damage and was getting worse, and that the firefighters were dumping water on the adjacent building to keep them from going up as well. My stomach took a lurch as I thought about what that meant.
Kent, to his credit, betrayed very little emotion and said, “It’s just stuff. Fortunately there aren’t any injuries.”
That’s the kind of guy Kent is and just one of the many reasons why I have been a Motion Makers customer for as long as I have lived here. His store is being threatened by fire, and ruined by water, and here he is supporting riders at an aid station, doing everything he can to ensure their good time, with a smile on his face. Truly a class act.
As the story developed a day later, the fire was electrical in nature originating in the restaurant. That building has a collapsed roof and upper floor and has been condemned. The Motion Makers store is closed indefinitely pending further investigation but shows sign of structural failure and will also likely be condemned. At the time of this writing the latest details can be found on the Sylva Herald website.
A short time after talking to Kent, Tom pulled up and we chatted about how the ride was going so far. Tom was all smiles and having a good time, as was I, and a few minutes later we rolled out and began our ascent up the first major climb of the day… Rt. 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, 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.
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 with Tom once again 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′. I stopped and took a few photos along the way and then Tom and I took photos at the marker. This was Tom’s first visit to the R-B Gap.
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 there are 7 or 8 miles of descending with no brakes, no slowing required… 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. 8 miles at a nearly unchanging steady grade. It’s not too difficult, but can feel relentless due to it’s 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.
Normally by this point on the Breakaway ride, this 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. (Scott.. if you’re reading this.. we may have been joking but it really is a different ride.) 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.”
But that’s next year.. let’s get back to this 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 of the “race”. 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 Smoky mountains were their trademark smoky, 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. We were caught – barely – by another friend of mine, Patrick on the 105 route. He was pretty sure he was in 2nd behind Nick and was shooting for 6 hours. After we turned onto 19 he took off even faster and we never saw him again until after the finish line.
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.
That was when I sprung a little surprise on Tom. All day long I had been telling Tom (as had others) that it was “all downhill from Waterrock. Well.. that’s not quite true. Towards the last few miles there are “a couple uphill rises – nothing major”.
On the fourth uphill rise, Tom once again called me out as a liar. “Those couple rises were two rises ago!”, he shouted into the headwind. Well, it wasn’t exactly a lie. The first rise is so mild it doesn’t require a gear change so I don’t even count it. And the second and third I tend to think of as one climb. On the other hand, I forgot that the last uphill grade is steeper and longer than the others, and actually requires a drop down to the small ring. For us mortals anyway.
But those little white lies and mistakes aside, we had a grand time finishing out the ride and got back to the visitors center in just under six hours. All in all a really great day out on the bikes. We grabbed some really good food after and chatted with Nick and Patrick and some other riders for a while, then made our way home. Another Blue Ridge Breakaway in the books.
I’m crossing my fingers for three things:
- Scott is able to ride next year. No more dog incidents!
- Aaron is able to ride next year – thanks for letting me to share my experience Aaron!
- That thinks work out OK for Kent and Motion Makers, and all the other businesses in downtown Sylva that were affected by the fire.