By Shelley Booth
FOUR FAMILIES THRU-RIDE THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY
Four hundred seventy miles, 48,000 feet of climbing and descending, eight bicycles, five toddlers, and one grand adventure—that’s the scorecard from our multi-family, end-to-end cycling tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Asheville-based “Team Parkway” consisted of the Booth, Leroy, Bifaro/Hoy, and Walker families. Since we all love to ride—and all have children age three and under—it seemed natural that the 13 of us would load up all our gear and hit the road for a week of cycling the Parkway.
ROUTINES AND RHYTHM
Each day was divided – the women rode around 30-45 miles a day and the men logged between 50-80 miles. Usually the women rolled out first, leaving the dads to watch the kids, pack up bags, check out of the hotel, and drive to our lunch-time meeting place. At predetermined overlooks or parking lots, we’d wolf down lunch, change clothes, then go on duty with the kids and chaos as the men rolled out for their afternoon ride. Between each couple, we’re proud to say that we now know just about every inch of the Parkway from mile marker 0 in Waynesboro, Virginia to mile marker 469 in Cherokee, North Carolina.
A key component to making this vacation a success was planning. All our hotels were reserved in advance, and we selected our lunch time meeting point/kid swap every morning. In the evenings, we reviewed maps and double-checked mileage. We agreed that making all these decisions ahead of time made for smooth sailing.
When traveling with this kind of crowd, we discovered the fine art of hotel room selection—ground-floor rooms close to the lobby, but not too close to one another. We all used baby monitors so we could keep tabs on our sleeping kids while we drank beer and laughed at the day’s events. Our evening rituals took place in a hotel lobby, a grassy field with passing deer, and even a hot tub.
Our husbands were former racers who knew each other’s riding styles well. And we four women had also been riding together for years, so we knew we were compatible riders. We developed our own riding rhythm during the week we spent on the Parkway. We were out to be active, socialize, and enjoy the Parkway, not hammer in a paceline for fifty miles. We made sure we could always talk to one another. We rode safely, of course, but we had our priorities: we had to be able to talk.
THE LITTLE PEOPLE
Before the ride, we were all concerned that the trip wouldn’t be fun for the kids (Gus, Leif, Lexi, Lucy, and Norah—ages 10 months to nearly three years old). In the end, the kids had a better time than we could have even planned or imagined. They didn’t need TV or toys. They had butterflies and sticks. Ponds and puddles. A grassy field or pavement. They ran and played hard.
The down side was they got so amped up each day that they ate and slept less than usual. My daughter, Lucy, wanted to go, go, go all the time. Getting her to sleep was a challenge on this trip. She could hear the other kids in their rooms and it kept her up long after her normal bedtime.
One night, as per our usual custom, the parents were sitting outside reliving the day’s events with the static buzz of baby monitors in the background. Our monitor was up loud enough for all of us to hear Lucy proclaim, “I’m having a good night’s sleep Mommy and Daddy!” And she wasn’t the only one. That was the same night we heard Leif Leroy state matter of factly, “I never go to sleep.” What were we ride-weary and saddle-sore parents to do? Have another beer and take turns going in to settle our kids.
We all did our fair share of work in the saddle too. The men climbed Mount Mitchell as part of a 30 mile climb, and the women climbed Mount Pisgah on the last day. The women rode past black bears on the first foggy morning, hardly beyond mile marker zero. We all saw wild turkeys, turtles, hawks, and deer.
The men rode the peaks above the Shenandoah Valley, with cloud cover muffling the roar of regular life below.
“Early one morning, we came to the top of a long rise and pulled off to peel off our extra layers,” recalls Dan Leroy. “From the overlook, we could actually look down on the bank of clouds hanging over the Shenandoah Valley. Dark, wet peaks poked out through the dense layer of clouds.”
Our personal family support teams delivered fresh water bottles and food during long rides; our kids shouted encouragement as we pedaled along. Each morning the husbands would drive in the minivan past the women while we rode. Sometimes they would be hanging out the window with the video camera, or handing out snacks or extra drinks. Every time a spouse drove by, the parent on the bike got a family update.
We also had our fair share of (mis)adventure. Ironically, my husband Kevin, who has worked in the bicycle industry for nearly 20 years, was the only one to have a mechanical mishap. A bolt loosened on Kevin’s bike causing a brake caliper to fly off, starting a chain reaction of bolts flying and bar tape unraveling while riding up hill. Later that same day, Cris dropped his prescription glasses while trying to pop out his colored lenses. The lenses and glasses went flying. Austin, unaware of the mechanical breakdowns unfolding below, was up the road shouting, “We need to keep the forward momentum!”
One poorly identified lunch stop sent Kevin riding six miles beyond the meeting point—eventually he sat on the side of the road waiting for a ride. But without cell service, I sat at the picnic area worrying and wondering where my husband was. There were also a few off-road moments among the women. Only one rider went down, but that was before we even hit mile marker 7. And at the blistering pace of about 10 mph, Thalia didn’t get hurt. There were no major injuries at all on the trip, at least nothing a little Ibuprofen (or “I-be-broken” as we started calling it) couldn’t fix.
1. Don’t mess with the meeting point. <br>
The one day we had trouble was when we changed the meeting point during the ride. Pick one place and stick to it. Park a bike or car on the side of the road if the overlook is not immediately evident. A blanket draped over a road sign worked wonders for us one day.
2. Take your sunglasses off in tunnels. <br>
The BRP has 27 tunnels (26 in N.C. and 1 in Va.). The first one the women encountered was long and dark. It was really dark because two of us (yes, I was one of them) forgot to take off our sunglasses. I was so preoccupied with getting my front light and blinky rear light on, that I forgot to take my glasses off. With all that messing around, I sort of stopped pedaling too. Thankfully, Thalia was behind me yelling, “Pedal! Pedal! Don’t stop pedaling!”
3. Coffee gels are the best. <br>
I won’t mention any name brand energy gels, but we found that the coffee-flavored ones saved the day. There are only so many vanilla and chocolate energy pudding packets you can get down a day, so there was something extra special about a late day latte boost to get you over the next climb.
4. Ride Monday-Friday.<br>
We rode Wednesday to Sunday so we wouldn’t have to take so much time off work. The beginning of the week was glorious. There were so few cars, at times we felt we had the Parkway to ourselves. Then we hit Blowing Rock Friday night, rode to Asheville on Saturday, and went on to Cherokee on Sunday. Never again, we all agreed. Monday to Friday it needs to be.
Our constant companion was the Blue Ridge Parkway itself. With nearly 471 miles of great pavement, it offers some of the best scenery and challenges found on a road ride anywhere.
“There’s no other road that can provide the same type of point to point, relatively secluded experience,” said Austin. “Plus, the views are breathtaking.”
The Parkway is often referred to as the country’s most popular national park. The beauty of bike touring is that you move at a pace where you can actually appreciate your surroundings. We were able to experience the length of the Parkway from an intimate perspective—seeing, smelling, and feeling the ride up close. “I am amazed at what an amenity the Parkway is,” Austin continued. “And it is right in our backyard. It is truly a remarkable use of our land.”
The Parkway took 52 years to construct. The initial groundbreaking was in 1935 at Cumberland Knob, NC and all but a 7.5 mile section were completed by 1967. That 7.5 stretch is what we now know as the Linn Cove Viaduct. According to the Blue Ridge Parkway Association, the Viaduct is “the most complicated concrete bridge ever built, snaking around boulder-strewn Linn Cove in a sweeping ‘S’ curve.” It was Abby’s most memorable vista, and riding over it felt like we were floating, about to ride off the mountain. And maybe we were. The surreal feeling came from riding a bridge at the elevation of 4,100 feet, built around one of the world’s oldest mountains.
One mile that stands out was from 319 to 320. Day four. Uphill. Hot, but shaded. We women were strung out—Marin and Abby up ahead, Thalia behind me. I ate a coffee-flavored gel in anticipation of the work to come. It was just one mile of long climb. Slow and steady. I watched the trees go by on my right and the mountains on my left. I’m not so sure why this mile was so memorable to me. But it was like a runner’s high – that out of body experience when you see yourself moving, pushing forward, and the pain and effort slips away. I just remember pedaling, climbing, breathing, and feeling completely absorbed in the moment.
The ride gave us a glimpse into what it would be like to saddle up every day for a living. We each had that moment of, “So this is what it must be like to ride the Tour de France…minus the fleet of coaches, personal masseuses, and chefs.”
Drive to Waynesboro, VA – 325 miles
Lodging at Comfort Inn
DAY 1: <em>MP 0 to MP 86 (86 miles)</em>
Women: MP 0 – 34.4 (35 miles), Wigman Falls
Men: MP 34.4 – 86 (51 miles), Peaks of Otter
Lodging at Peaks of Otter Lodge
DAY 2: <em>MP 86 to MP 174 (88 miles)</em>
Men: MP 86 – 144 (58 miles), Devil’s Backbone Overlook
Women: MP 144 – 174 (30 miles), Rocky Knob, VA
Lodging at Woodberry Inn
DAY 3: <em>MP 174 to MP 292 (118 miles)</em>
Women: MP 174 – 220 (46 miles), Cumberland Knob
Men: MP 220 – 292 (72 miles), Blowing Rock, NC
Lodging at Mountain Aire Inn
DAY 4: <em>MP 292 to MP 393 (101 miles)</em>
Women: MP 292 – 331 (39 miles), Museum of NC Minerals
Men: MP 331 – 393 (62 miles), Asheville, NC
Sleep in our own beds!
DAY 5: <em>MP 393 to MP 469 (81 miles)</em>
Women: MP 393 – 408 (15 miles + 8 miles from home)
Men: MP 408 – 469, Cherokee
At the beginning of the ride, Thalia was a little concerned about how it would all flow. By the last night she said, “No one even got on my nerves! I’d still sit down and have a beer with any one of these people.”
“It really made me feel like a team,” Abby added. “My husband and I talk about our relationship like we are a team, and this really did prove it. My husband was so good at making sure my bike was ready, I had enough food and water, and that I was appropriately dressed. He definitely took care of me on this trip, which was nice, since I’m used to taking care of our family on a daily basis as a stay-at-home mom.”
Dan Leroy said that “it was the perfect vacation for a recovering roadie, forced to let go of the pure cycling life in the name of parenting and adulthood. We got to relive some of that old glory, and then go back to our wives, families, and friends.”
“As a couple with a child, it would not have been possible to do this trip without a group,” added his wife, Marin Leroy. “It was also a really great way to share our love of cycling and athleticism with our kids. It’s nice for the kids to see us challenging ourselves, working together, and enjoying ourselves doing something other than just being with them.”
My daughter still talks about her trip on the “Blue Parkway.” Gus and Leif remember picnics and playing with their friends. We parents hope it sunk in on a deeper level too—that the fun and friends will also be remembered with being outside and active.