I did something rather stupid, no I’m not talking about riding a bicycle on the Blue Ridge Parkway, no the stupid thing I did was to leave my cameras at home while riding the blue ridge. So as a result I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time. I’m going to write an old school BARN DOOR CYCLING RIDE REPORT. Fortuitously I can illustrate the report with some photos I took with my phone.
As he powers away from me at the base of the Blue Ridge Parkway one might observe that Ryan and I could not be more different. He’s skinny, I’m fat. His bike is an old school classic steel ten speed adorned with a huge saddle bag and kickstand. I’m riding a modern carbon road bike more suitable for racing than touring. Ryan stands out of the saddle in his big ring and powers the bike up the mountain with aggressive pedal strokes while I sit on the saddle and spin away at 70 rpm as fluidly as possible. One might think, what the heck are these two guys doing together?
THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY
The Blue Ridge Parkway has a reputation among cyclists, especially those of us closer to the East then the West, friends have told me to avoid it unless you really enjoy climbing. As an overweight and undertrained cyclist climbing isn’t exactly my forte, but I do consider myself somewhat of a downhill expert.
My touring friend Ryan and I have been loosely discussing our next tour since we finished our last one where we rode part of the Trans America trail in Missouri. After that ride I didn’t really care to ride my bike for most of the rest of 2017. In all honesty I just kind of dropped the ball on it and did zero planning, but Ryan, being the great guy he is, wouldn’t let me off the hook. He wanted to loaded tour the Blue Ridge. I refused. I couldn’t imagine carrying the food and supplies required up the mountains, and the Blue Ridge has next to no services on it. I swore to him loaded touring the parkway was impossible.
Ryan is nothing if not persistent, he gave me a copy of the Blue Ridge Parkway and talked me into going. I decided to drive and ride, while he would only ride. This turned out to be a good idea since I’m doing GOBA in a week and didn’t want to be burnt out after a week of crazy hard riding.
After a 7 hour drive we arrived in Seiver County TN. I’m sure that I drove Ryan crazy as we passed through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and I told him about all the “cool” stuff Shauna and I have done there over the years. “Hey Ryan, there’s the wax museum, and the Titanic, and that book store has a huge basement, oh there’s my favorite Log Cabin Pancake House,” I was a wealth of knowledge.
Ryan wasn’t interested in sight seeing so we powered on through across Newfoundland Gap to Cherokee NC on Friday and did a 20 mile ride around the area. The highlight of this ride was the elk which were blocking traffic on 441 near Oconaluftee Vistors Center. The big creatures were everywhere, but neither of us had brought our phones to take photos.
The next day we rode from the Vistors Center which is a half mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway begins it’s Northern Journey with a 10 mile climb that ascends over 3000 feet and averages around 6%. So yeah, that hurt. But wait there’s more, you descend about 900 feet and then climb another 1500. It took awhile for me to get warmed up but when I did I felt really good on this climb and probably went a little too hard.
I descended 1800 hundred feet to hit 25 miles and then turned around, back tracking to the car so Ryan could continue on and finish his 60 mile ride, my legs felt like chopped and tenderized steak when I was finished.
INCREDIBLY REPETITIVE BEAUTY
The views from the Parkway are breathtakingly beautiful. Imagine vast, expansive, majestic hills spreading out in grand vistas that fill 180 degrees of your vision. It’s incredible, the first couple times. The Parkway has constant scenic overlooks, like every mile or closer. I could say they are all amazing beautiful and unique, but the truth is that you begin to get numb to the scenery and soon it all looks the same.
We stayed at the excellent Mount Pisgah campground that night, which was nearly full and ate at the Mount Pisgah Inn, which was one of the fanciest restaurants that I have ever sat foot in, but that’s not saying much as I consider Cracker Barrel fine dining. Ryan was ravenous after 60 insane climbing miles in which he ran out of food. He ordered a huge salad and plate of pasta that looked good, having already ate I had soup and some vegetables, I wasn’t that impressed, but since it took them 30 minutes longer to bring me a bowl of soup then it did to bring Ryan two meals they gave us a free order of blackberry cobbler.
For our second day of riding the BRP I drove 70 miles to the next campground which was called Crabtree Falls. On the way I stopped and hiked a mile up to to Craggy Gardens which was breathtakingly beautiful. It was like walking through a forested meadow of blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron bushes, because that’s exactly what it was.
When I began riding I could tell I just wasn’t right, my heart rate was low and trying to bring it up into my “performance” range would leave me slumped over the bars gasping for air. The road seemed to be consistently uphill, because it was, just far more gradual then the day before. My legs ached from soreness and burned from any effort. I rode slow and stopped often to check out amazing scenery. I was nearly at the base of the famous Mount Mitchell when I met Ryan. Mount Mitchell is around 6800 feet and the highest peak in the East, climbing it would be an epic accomplishment. I didn’t even consider it.
We camped at Linville Falls after dropping off the Parkway for gas and food. Doing this without a car would have been insane to me. It was 16 miles and 4 thousand feet down to the nearest town. Here Ryan and I experienced our only disagreement of the trip when he wanted to stop and buy ice cream from a road-side trailer called “Dots Dario.” Since I didn’t know what a Dario was I kept driving. He never forgave me.
At Linville Falls we met a young man doing the impossible, loaded touring the parkway. He said he was spending a majority of his day in the granny gear and spinning up hills.
Monday we continued on with me driving 60 miles down the parkway and experiencing the Linn Cove Viaduct. The road is more like an alpine mountain coaster track here, it seemingly floats above the trees and was stunning in its beauty and engineering genius.
I parked at the Northwestern Trading Post and hastily rode back to the South hoping to get in 20 miles before I encountered Ryan. My comptuer read 19.5 when I turned around, good enough. Near the end of this day I finally started feeling a bit more like my old self, and the terrain was beginning to become a little more friendly. Hills were merely a mile or two and constrained themselves to climbing less than a thousand feet.
Once finished with the ride we packed up and drove immediately home to arrive back in Southern Illinois around 1 AM.
In three days of riding Ryan managed to cover about a third of the parkway and I accumulated a measly 125 miles, but we tackled the most difficult part. The riding was really excellent in regards to conditions. Traffic was mostly motorcycles and vehicles always gave us plenty of room, the road surface almost always very smooth and I could take nearly every downhill without touching the brakes. Climbs were consistent, grade rarely went over 6-7% on my garmin.
Despite the positives I quickly grew annoyed with the rhythm of the parkway. I would climb for 30 minutes to an hour in my lowest gear, then descend in 5 minutes. Because the road straddles the mountains it’s always up or down and my body struggled with finding a pace. I was craving a section where I could just pedal at a moderate pace for awhile.
All that being said I’d love to ride more of the parkway, especially if I could manage to become a svelte 200 pounds.