As Julie hit the first steep incline, she wondered what in the world she had gotten herself into. This was the first hill of many, as she was part of a dozen riders cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway from end to end: Charlottesville, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. Julie was a 53-year old mother of two, an avid cyclist and climbing enthusiast with 4,000 miles under her belt for the year. This was without question the hardest ride she would ever do in her life.
The Parkway has long been a top southern location for scenic driving, hiking and camping. In the last decade, it has become a prime location for cycling. Completing the entire 469-miles on a bicycle ranks as one of the toughest endurance tests in the Southeast, and cannot be done without a lot of training and support. The difficulty can be adjusted by the number of days spent. The fewer the days, the more difficult the ride. We decided to try it in six days, and added Mount Mitchell State Park to the route, making it an ambitious endeavor. We honestly figured that some riders would not make it.
Even after making her way up that brutal first climb, Julie had a struggle of a first day. Fortunately most of the Parkway climbs are not nearly as steep as the approaching roads, but riding only up and down can wear someone down. The descents go too fast to get a chance to recover, and there are few opportunities for easier riding on the flats. Julie had to deal with other issues on that first day. She had shifting problems, which caused her to not be able to use her middle gears for half of the ride. On the Parkway, just about every gear is needed at some point. The first day was unseasonably warm. She ran into hydration problems thanks to the unexpected heat and humidity at the lower elevations in Virginia. It was a recipe for a bad day of riding, and Julie barely made it through. At this point she questioned whether she was really up for the challenge of the next five days.
At night as we “camped” at a bed and breakfast, the first of many over the week, Julie tried to put the bad day behind her. Attempting something this difficult requires mental strength nearly as much as physical strength. Julie had to put the bad day behind her, regain some confidence, sleep well, and continue on the adventure tomorrow.
The beauty of the Blue Ridge has a way of getting one’s head back in the game. A rainstorm came through just before rolling out on the second day. The roads were completely deserted, thanks to the weather and the government shutdown. Gorgeous, damp fall leaves were scattered across the road. The road became a wonderland. Climbing did not feel so bad knowing that it would reveal a breathtaking view at the top of each hill.
The body has a way of adapting, as proven by Julie on this and subsequent days. She was able to settle in and get her climbing legs as she progressed further on the Parkway. She was careful not to overextend herself on the climbs, as she would need to save that energy for later. The toughest days were ahead of her. She also had her good friend Wes around for support. As they found themselves on a long and grueling climb, he would tell her to “settle in.” That gave her a sense of focus.
As the group made their way into North Carolina, the personality of the Parkway changed. No longer was it just rolling mountainous hills through agricultural territory. With the higher elevations of western Carolina, the climbs proved longer, steeper, and the riding became tougher. Over that period they traveled up and down, reaching heights of 4,000-5,000 feet. Everything was challenging, but Julie and the group were able to cruise along, every day getting closer to Cherokee.
It was on the final day when Julie started to feel herself really cracking. The week had finally taken a toll. All of the climbing and the calorie deficit left her weakened, with the biggest day ahead of her.
She made it through the 13-mile climb from Asheville to Pisgah. It was when she climbed higher that she had trouble. The section beyond Pisgah has rolling hills, mostly uphill, but the inclines are a little steeper, and the temperature was getting warmer. When she reached Richland Balsam, the highest point of the Parkway, she was toast. That was the halfway point of the ride, but the majority of the climbing was already done.
Most people would be jubilant when reaching the highest point of the Parkway. Julie was anguished, her face flushed, breathing labored, and her psyche shot. “Please let there be a long descent coming up,” she said as she reached the top. She was prepared to end her day and her voyage right then and there, with success a mere 30 miles away. Asked if she would regret stopping early, she shook her head no. “At this point it just isn’t fun anymore,” she said with disappointment in her eyes. This was coming from someone who lived for riding her bike, and did not accept failure lightly.
Since she had done the work, she deserved to experience the exhilarating 12-mile descent from Richland Balsam. She expected to call it a day when she got to the bottom. After descending to below 3,000 feet, her mindset changed. She got a second wind, recovered, and found that she felt better than she had all day. She kept going. She somehow grinded out the eight miles to Waterrock Knob, which left one climb remaining – three miles to Wolf Laurel Gap. Running on fumes, she slowly made her way to the top.
The final 10-mile descent made all the pain worthwhile. She bombed down to Cherokee in what seemed like an instant, and coasted over the Oconoluftee River bridge, which signified the end of the Parkway. All of the other riders and supporters awaited her there with congratulations and hugs. It was over. She had accomplished the task with tenacity, strength, and a little help from her friends.
Miles, Climbing & Calories:
Day 1: 88 miles, 10,045 feet, 4,019 calories
Day 2: 97.7 miles, 13,097 feet, 3,877 calories
Day 3: 57.5 miles, 4,469 feet, 2,021 calories
Day 4: 92.3 miles, 9,413 feet, 3,959 calories
Day 5: 83 miles, 9,249 feet, 3,396 calories
Day 6: 90.9 miles, 10.417, 3,884 calories
Day 1: Nellysford to Bedford
Day 2: Bedford to Rocky Knob
Day 3: Rocky Knob to Meadows of Dan
Day 4: Meadows of Dan to Linville Falls
Day 5: Linville Falls to Asheville
Day 6: Asheville to Cherokee
Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, 14.7 miles, 3,163 feet
Apple Orchard Mountain, Virginia 12.6 miles, 3,169 feet
Mount Pisgah, 12.2 miles, 3,415 feet
Waterrock Knob, 7.2 miles, 2,071 feet
Linn Cove Viaduct, North Carolina, 5.5 miles, 814 feet
Bent Mountain, Virginia, 4.8 miles, 1,402 feet
Black Balsam, 3.5 miles, 1,102 feet
Wolf Laurel Gap, 2.9 miles, 911 feet
2 black bears