May 30, 2018/ Jim Parker
The Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) twists and rolls through some of the most beautiful land on this green earth. Construction on the 469-mile road began in 1935, employing thousands of people during the Great Depression to cut roads and tunnels through the ancient Appalachian mountains on the western edge of Virginia and North Carolina. Today, the Parkway is operated by the National Park Service and attracts more visitors per year than any other unit of the National Park System (Park, Monument, Battlefield, etc.).
photo by Maria Parker
Having just finished cycling the most popular Parkway in the US, here is my story. I will organize this piece in a Q & A format, and hopefully in the end you will have a good sense of the whole event.
Why ride the Blue Ridge Parkway?
The idea to have a group ride the entire BRP together started with Maria looking for a unique and physically-challenging fundraiser for brain cancer research. She’s been leading an annual hiking expedition across the Grand Canyon, and she wanted something equally epic and tough to do on the east coast. A lot of people took one look at the elevation profile and opted out, or they couldn’t get a whole week off work. A total of only six riders and one crew took up the challenge. Everyone set up a simple Facebook fundraising page, and off we went.
L to R: Tom, Paul, Maria, Jim, Lucia, Alvin, and Jill
Who was your Guide?
Our group was led by Alvin Maxwell, who has made this journey ten times. There probably is no better BRP cycling guide in the world than Alvin, and he tells great stories that kept us entertained at every meal and scenic rest stop. Alvin is an incredibly strong cyclist and a Cruzbike rider. In his first race on a V20 last year, he set the recumbent course record in the 26 mile event at the hilly Texas Time Trials. He asked Maria if he should ride his Cruzbike or his traditional road bike, and she told him to ride his traditional bike because she’d like to grow the event to include the at-large cycling community and wanted a mix of bike types on the ride. That’s why you’ll see in photos Alvin and his girlfriend riding traditional bikes and the rest of us on Cruzbikes.
The sun shineth on Jill and Alvin
Why did I choose to ride a V20?I debated which Cruzbike model to ride, but settled on my V20, in large part because it has electronic shifting and I figured (correctly) that I would be doing a lot of shifting. It’s the bike I raced in RAAM last year, and I’m very comfortable bombing down hills on it. I think the S40 would have been a great choice for this ride, too.
What was the weather like?The week leading up to Day One was one of the rainiest weeks this part of the country has ever recorded. Yet we started riding south in almost perfectly cool, partly cloudy conditions. I can only recall one torrential downpour while we were on the parkway, the drops stinging my cheeks as I hit top speed on the downhills. We rode for seven days and I estimate that I rode in the rain an average of about an hour a day on four of those days. The rain was refreshing. On a warm day, I would rather climb in a light rain than full sun. I wore a lightweight fluorescent yellow jacket when it rained, mostly to keep the chill away and improve visibility to cars. And if you were wondering about wheel-slip while climbing hills in the rain on a FWD bike, it did not occur.
What was the traffic like?
Mostly pretty quiet. Near the cities (Roanoke, Asheville, etc.) there would be a lot more cars, but they passed carefully. Many, many motorcycles, often in groups of two or more, passed us. The motorcyclists seemed to be very respectful. They recognize that we are on two-wheels, also, and subject to the elements, as they are. I got only one middle-finger salute from a young man in a pickup truck. That’s a pretty low finger-per-mile ratio.
What was the climbing like?
The words “relentless” and “never-ending” come to mind. It seems there is almost nothing flat on the BRP. I climbed well on the V20, and paced my effort with my power meter. Some of the climbs were several miles long. One climb was 13 miles long. In total, we climbed over 49,000 ft. The grades were mostly in the 5 to 8% range, but occasionally up to 10%. I climbed with my chain on a 36T chainring and used mostly the 32t cassette cog. I saved the 36t cog for the really long or steep climbs. Climbing is mostly a mental challenge. I really enjoyed the long climbs when it was a peaceful, cool, section of road without a lot of passing traffic. I would vary my hand position on the bars and alternate sitting up and leaning back to rotate muscle groups and stay fresh. I would focus on good technique while enjoying the sights and sounds of waterfalls and birds.
This is the elevation profile from RidewithGPS.com. Not much flat on the BRP!
What were the downhills like?
Going fast is scary but fun. My top speed was a bit over 49 mph. I would only let the bike go full-speed if the pavement was smooth, the corners weren’t tight, and there were no gusty winds. This didn’t happen very often. I always shift into my biggest gear at the top of the hill while my speed is still under 20 mph so that I don’t have to shift and pedal and move the chain down the cassette when I’m going 35 mph. Near the bottom of the hill, when my speed fell to below 35 mph, I would begin pedaling again and try to get a good start up the next hill. There were very few rollers on the BRP. The climbs are long, and the downhills are on-average equally long. But we spent about 5x more time on the climbs than the downhills. I used a disk brake in the front and rim brakes in the rear. Because my wheels are carbon, I almost exclusively used my front disk for braking on the BRP.
What kind of support did you have?
Paul took good care of us at the scenic rest stops.
We had great support from Paul Gagnon, who leap-frogged us with our Ford E350 van. He set up many delicious snack breaks at scenic overlooks. We all really looked forward to seeing Paul. He kept our luggage and equipment organized. Riders who got too tired could load their bike on the van and ride with Paul until they felt like riding again.
Where did you stay at night?Maria arranged for a really cool place to stay each night, some old classic hotels, some more modern. We recounted events of the day at dinner and then hit the sack exhausted but looking forward to the next day of cycling. The night before we started, we stayed at a Howard Johnson hotel in Staunton, VA.
- Night 1 was spent at Peaks of Otter Lodge (mile 86).
- Night 2 was spent at Woodbury Inn in Floyd, VA (mile 174).
- Night 3 was spent at Freeborne’s Motel in Laurel Springs, NC (mile 248).
- Night 4 was spent at Skyline Village Inn, Spruce Pine, NC (mile 330).
- Night 5 was spent at Best Western, Asheville, NC (mile 380).
- Night 6 was spent at Mt. Pisgah Inn (mile 409).
- Day 7 we finished in Cherokee, NC (mile 469).
What cool things did you see on the trip?
Everything was lush and green, as you would expect in the spring after so much rain. I whizzed by a bear family hanging out in a tree without seeing them, but everyone else stopped and stared.
photo by Maria Parker
Maria and I enjoyed a slice of pie in Fancy Gap, VA.
We spent a night in Laurel Springs, but not here in the jail.
Did you ride the whole Parkway?Yes, but not everyone in the group did. You could ride as much or as little as you wanted to. There was a short section of the Parkway that was closed for construction around mile 300. We rode our bikes on a detour around that. There was also a section near Roanoke closed due to multiple trees brought down by the heavy rains. But the Rangers let us through around a fallen tree and for a few wonderful hours, we cycled the Parkway completely free of motor vehicles.
Was the trip a success?
Definitely, yes! Everyone finished safely. We didn’t even have one flat tire. And at the time of this writing, we have raised over $11,000 for brain cancer research. I think everyone had a great adventure and feels good about the trip.
Will you do it again next year?
I sure hope so. I would suggest to the organizers (hello, Maria) that we don’t spend a night in Asheville, but rather ride through to Mt. Pisgah and reduce the days spent cycling from 7 to 6. That’ll be a 79 mile day with about 10,000 ft of climbing, but with an early start, I think we can do it.
Lucia and Maria stare in wide wonderment at my amazing strength after completing the entire BRP.