Blue Ridge Breakaway – 2nd Time is Not (Quite) the Charm

BRB-velo-profileThe reader may recall that last year the author had a less than perfect experience at the Blue Ridge Breakaway, a mountainous century ride held annually in the area of Waynesville, NC around the second weekend of August. This ride features over 12,000 feet or climbing and traverses a 27 mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, featuring an unlighted tunnel at mile 78.

After last year’s failure, being removed from the course at mile 85 due to falling short of time limits, your author had several goals to accomplish this year.
Of course, the main goal was to finish the ride. The entire length is 105 miles. I broke it in to some sub-goals:

  1. Be properly rested, fed and hydrated before the ride. Due to some miscommunications last year, I failed to connect with a group for meals and ended up fending for myself with fast food.
  2. Climb the difficult Pisgah National Forest section, starting at mile 50.5, 10.5 miles of continuous climbing, no breaks, without stopping or walking.
  3. Get to the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway (mile 71) and take a picture.
  4. Navigate the tunnel without incident with a brighter headlight.
  5. Make it to the end of the Parkway before the 5pm time limit.
  6. and of course, avoid any incidents or injuries.

About the Ride

The Haywood Chamber of Commerce puts on an excellent event each year. Although the turnouts are relatively small compared to some of the other “mountain climb centuries” the attention and care from the volunteers is first rate. They are always glad to see us and treat us so well. It truly is a favorite amongst those who have attended it.

Goal #1 – Be rested, fed, hydrated and prepared: Completed
This year I planned to arrive 2 days before the ride, with my family as support team. We chose to stay at the Lake Junaluska Resort, which is where the ride starts and finishes. Our apartment was within 200 yards of the starting area. We could (and did) sit in our porch rocking chairs and watch people arrive and unload their bikes. We enjoyed a sports bar on Thursday night, ate well and saw the sights on Friday, and ended the evening with a pasta carb fest at Bocelli’s, a great Italian restaurant in Waynesville.

Goal #2 – Climb Highway 215 without stopping: Completed
I had a plan and stuck to it. Last year I felt I went out from the gate too fast, attempting to stay with riders I knew, some of whom are considerably lighter, younger and probably in better shape. This year I watched my heart rate and kept it around 130bpm, which is in Zone 3 for me but maintainable. I found some people going my speed and stayed with them, on the flats anyway. Unfortunately there aren’t many flat areas on this course so I found myself watching people go by on the uphills but catching back up and even passing them on the resulting descent.

Throughout the first 50 miles of course my average speed was lower than last year, and as a result I didn’t arrive at the rest stop before Pisgah Forest until 11:40, just 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff.

Jonathan Howell and I stopping at the Lake before Pisgah National Forest

Jonathan Howell and I stopping at Lake Logan before Pisgah National Forest climb

I had found a ride buddy, Jonathan Howell from Columbia, SC, who was a slightly better climber but I seemed to catch back up to him just fine on the descents. We agreed to meet up at the rest stops along the way if we couldn’t stay together. I told him to follow the Pirate’s Code though, and don’t wait for me if I “fell behind.” We had time limits to consider after all.

So at 11:55, rested, fed and watered, we set out for a grueling 10.5 mile climb with no respite. Jonathan soon proved to be faster on the climb and began to pull away. I remained calm. I attempted to keep my heart rate between 128 and 135 bpm. I managed to do that except for the occasional interludes where I stood up to rest my seat. Although I would go slightly faster it would send my HR up to the 140s (zone 4).

It was a long climb at 5-6 mph. The entire 10.5 miles took me 1 hr and 40 minutes but I never walked, never stopped, even when people I know went past me.

The last mile was tough, as it climbed up to the Parkway. It got steeper. I saw 7-9% on my Garmin the whole mile. I may have let my HR creep up as I knew I was getting near the rest stop. I was spent, shaking and fatigued as I drove in to the rest stop but I’m really happy I completed this goal. It was the one I worried the most about.

Goal #3 – reach the highest point and take a picture: Completed, but the day before

This is at the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but my arms weren't long enough to include the sign

This is at the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but my arms weren’t long enough to include the sign. Guess I need a ‘selfie stick’.

The Pisgah Forest – Route 215 climb doesn’t stop with the first Parkway stop though, there is another 10 miles of mostly uphill, with some nice descents thrown in for fun. Still, it gains over 1500 feet in elevation in those 10 miles.

Jonathan (who had waited 5 minutes for me at the first Parkway stop) and I started slogging our way up to mile 70. It was harder now, as the gradients were consistently in the 7% range. The occasional downhill allowed us to rest the legs and probably allowed us to make it to Parkway stop #2 without stopping. However, the stop is still a mile short of the highest point, and as you will see below, our ride ended at Parkway stop #2.

Kind of disappointing to miss literally by one mile, but the reason will be come clear later on in the article.

Fortunately, on my training expedition and ride the day before, my family support team and I had visited the sign at the top and taken a few pictures. The girls enjoyed the view in spite of the inclement weather.

Goal #4 – Navigate the tunnel: Completed, also the day before
Since our ride stopped at mile 70 we didn’t make it to the tunnel. However, the day before I had driven out to the Parkway with my team to do some practice, and it included two trips through the tunnel both down and back, just to get familiar. The brighter 200 lumen light was much better than the 75 lumen light I had last year. I was able to see the road and the markings. Unfortunately my practice ride was ended by a lightning storm. Interesting that this happened (see below).

Goal #5 – Make it to the end of the Parkway: Failed
For the second year in a row I failed to see the end of the Parkway. See below for reasons.

Overall Goal – Finish the Ride: Failed

Waiting for the rain and lightning to stop, which ended up not being in time to finish the race.

Waiting for the rain and lightning to stop, which ended up not being in time to finish the race.

By now you have surmised that the ride was not completed (by me and my group any way). Have to blame mother nature for this. To shorten the story, I arrived at the 2nd Parkway rest stop at mile 70 just as a thunderstorm was moving in. Lightning on the Blue Ridge is not to be taken lightly. We waited 45 minutes and the storm showed no signs of passing quickly.
It was a difficult decision to make but in the end it was the best one. The storm hung around until well after 5pm, which was the deadline to make it to the end of the Parkway.

I was glad I got a ride in, and extend my thanks to the two volunteers Janet and Julie who drove me to the finish line.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been training for this ride, well really since failing at it last year. It had been weighing heavily on my mind for the last 12 months. I was as ready as I could be and looking forward to doing it. However, the weather had other plans. Now I’m planning for another 12 months I guess …

  1. “The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” This quote by John Steinbeck / Robert Burns (depending on who you think did it first) applies completely here. All my preparation went literally “down the drain” from the unforeseen thunderstorm.
  2. Bringing the “support group” along, expensive as it may be, was a good move. It’s much less stressful when I have my family with me, and they took care of me in a way that only they could.
  3. “It’s not a race.” True. It’s just between me and myself. I had no reason to try and keep up with anyone, as staying in a group has a lot less positive effect on climbs and descents, as compared to flat riding. So riding at my own pace was my best decision.
  4. The long climb was doable, even for me. I feel that my weight is a huge disadvantage in a climb, and it probably is, but I think about that too much. My leg strength had increased more than enough to do it, even in spite of being 235 lbs.

So in summary, I was better prepared for the ride this year, but all the best preparations can’t overcome adverse weather. I’m looking forward to the third time next year, which may be “the charm” after all.