Every August since 2010, the Blue Ridge Breakaway has pulled in tens of thousands of dollars for Haywood County businesses, but for the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce — which organizes the event — the cost-benefit analysis isn’t so glossy. Ridership has been declining, costs have been climbing, and event planning has consistently eaten up large swathes of staff time — leading the chamber’s board to cancel the event for 2017 and consider axing it permanently pending further review.
Since the first wheels starting turning in 2010’s inaugural Blue Ridge Breakaway bike ride, cycling has been picking up speed in Haywood County. And as more cyclists have flocked to the annual cruise of Haywood’s scenic byways, the county’s reputation as a cycling destination for the remaining 364 days of the year has grown as well. There might not be a lot of hard data on that yet, but the anecdotes flow freely.
For veterinarian Brian Birthright, what would become a lifelong passion for biking began in the most fitting of ways — with a dog.
Then living in New England, Birthright was the owner of an overactive puppy who just wouldn’t tire. That’s what led him to take up mountain biking.
More than 400 riders will push off from Lake Junaluska Aug. 16 for the fifth year of the Blue Ridge Breakaway ride, their routes winding through the curvy, rural roads of Haywood County, with the two longer routes even venturing up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This year’s Aug. 17 Blue Ridge Breakaway is hoping to attract nearly 600 cyclists to Haywood County, and leading those riders out of the gate will be Asheville resident and Olympic medalist Lauren Tamayo.
The 29-year-old Tamayo won a silver medal on her bike last summer in London.
By Paul Clark • Contributing writer
Hundreds of bicyclists will soon be zipping along the scenic byways of Haywood County during the Blue Ridge Breakaway, challenging not only themselves but also the perception that cyclists and cars do not mix.
None of the four rides in the Breakaway is a race, but organizers hope that all of them will show Haywood County that cars and bikes don’t have to compete, said route director Cecil Yount. He was one of several people who contributed and presented to the Haywood County commissioners a comprehensive bicycle plan that links Canton, Clyde, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
More than 400 riders participated in the second Blue Ridge Breakaway, held this Saturday (Aug. 20) in Haywood County. The Breakaway, sponsored by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, has four different rides for cyclists of varying fitness levels, including a 100-miler that takes participants on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If you’re going to put on and sponsor what has quickly evolved into one of the region’s most popular road-bike events, it sure helps to have a qualified nutritionist on staff.
When it came to stocking food and drink at rest stops along the Blue Ridge Breakaway’s grueling 65-mile haul — with over 9,000 feet of elevation gain — the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce turned to its own Lois Beery, the chamber’s administrative assistant who teaches nutrition as a personal wellness coach on the side.
Beery is now in charge of the beverages and food bike racers will use to refuel when rolling up to the eight rest stops incorporated into the route.
Bike riders on the race committee imparted inside information on what they need to have good race outings, Beery said, which has helped her in setting up the rest-stop stations.
“You want carbs that are salty, because they’ll need the sodium,” she said. “Then, drinks such as Gatorade to provide magnesium and potassium.”
Protein, too, is important, but racers don’t have time to sit down and feast on steak dinners. They want items they can grab and eat and go, Beery said. That means offering them an array of snacks such as trail mix, peanuts and the ever-popular peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
As for after the race? Pasta — massive quantities — with an array of toppings will be catered by Nico’s, along with fresh salad.
Rides at the second-annual Blue Ridge Breakaway will begin and end at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center in Haywood County. There are four routes, geared for beginner through advanced riders. The centerpiece race is the 105-mile century ride that ascends through Haywood County to the Blue Ridge Parkway before descending back to Lake Junaluska.
Bill Jacobs of Cashiers is a returning racer. He got into the sport after participating in the grueling 50-mile Tour de Cashiers 15 years ago, in his 50s.
“I said, ‘never again,’” Jacobs said ruefully. “Didn’t work out that way.”
Jacobs has come a long way since that first, painful experience. For one thing, he knows now to focus carefully on the fuel he feeds his body — not just at rest stops during the race, Jacobs said, but all year long.
“I follow a healthy overall eating approach,” he said. “I’m careful about meaty fats, and eat lots of vegetables and fruits, and some carbs — (also) nonfat dairy and wholegrain breads. I do eat meat, but I tend toward selecting fish.”
Jacobs, unlike some riders, isn’t particularly overzealous about selecting a particular race-day breakfast — he wants some protein in it, so he’ll likely eat eggs.
“I really don’t do anything extreme,” the Cashiers resident said.
“Concerning diet, cyclists burn a lot of calories and some of us have to be careful not to lose too much weight,” Jacobs said. “So I eat a lot.”
Last year, Jacobs rode coast-to-coast in 35 days of cycling.
“On the cross-country ride I actually gained a couple of pounds, by eating pretty much all the time, both on and off the bike,” he said.
A moderate, thoughtful approach to fueling and training — in addition to eating well and in a balanced fashion, Jacobs most weeks gets in a 60- to 70-mile bike ride, plus mixes in some shorter outings and workouts at the gym.
You can’t control every variable in bike racing, however, and one thing about racing up to the Blue Ridge Parkway is that you never know quite what the weather is going to bring. Last year, Jacobs bailed out at Balsam Gap and took a back way back to town. It started raining, and several racers became hypothermic, forcing rangers to shut the parkway to them for safety reasons.
“That’s just the risk you take,” Jacobs said.
CeCe Hipps, executive director of the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, said the rest stops are supplied with ponchos, trash bags and newspapers (good for stuffing inside those thin racing outfits and cutting the wind). The ponchos and trash bags will be there, she said, if like last year rain pours on riders in the Blue Ridge Breakaway.
“These stops are an oasis in the desert,” Hipps said, adding that six to eight volunteers will staff each rest stop.
“It is very detailed to put on,” she said. “A lot of logistics are involved with this.”
Despite the bad weather last year, racers’ after-race reviews were overwhelmingly positive, Hipps said.
That’s important, not only because you want racers to enjoy the event, but because Blue Ridge Breakaway is also serving to market the region.
“If they have a good experience, this will be a special place in their minds,” Hipps said in explanation.
Typically, August is a fairly slow month for tourism and visitation in Haywood County. That’s why the chamber targeted a road-bike event for this time of year, Hipps said.
“It’s a passion for these people,” she said of the racers. “And many are of a generation who have means, and disposable income.”
Calculating that the bikers drive approximately two hours to participate in Blue Ridge Breakaway, they’ll probably opt to spend the night, she said (it’s no fun trying to drive home after cycling more than 100 miles). Roughly speaking, the chamber expects each racer to drop about $150 a day in Haywood County.
As of Monday, 270 people had signed up for the ride, double the pace of entrees as of a week out last year. There were 300 total participants last year, with as many as 500 expected this year.
• The routes goes from Lake Junaluska through Jonathan Creek, on to Fines Creek, then back through Clyde. From there, metric-century and century riders go through Bethel, Sunburst Trout Farm and past Lake Logan. One hundred-mile riders climb all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway and then stay on it until Soco Gap, descending through Maggie Valley and back to Lake Junaluska. If you’re in an automobile in these areas on Saturday, Aug. 20, please keep an eye out for cyclists.
• The Blue Ridge Breakaway starts at 7:30 a.m. Please be careful of riders if you are in the Lake Junaluska-Jonathan Valley area at that time, as large groups of riders will be on the road together to start the ride.
• Riders may register on Saturday, Aug. 20, from 6-6:30 a.m. at Lake Junaluska.
Barring relentless rain and a couple of mishaps, the inaugural Blue Ridge Breakaway was a resounding success, according to ride organizers.
About 300 avid cyclists headed out early on Saturday, Aug. 21, for the newest long-distance bike ride in Western North Carolina. More than half of them came from more than two hours away to participate.
“It’s huge for a first-time event to have that many people, very unusual,” said Ken Howle, chair of the organizing committee. “We’re larger than some already established rides.”
With rave reviews and scores of promises from riders to return next year with friends, Howle anticipates the ride will grow to 600 or more cyclists despite its poor luck with weather this year.
Officials closed down the Blue Ridge Parkway portion of the event in the early afternoon due to the downpour and poor visibility. At least three cycling accidents were reported on Saturday, with one rider landing in a coma.
Blue Ridge Breakaway’s 25-, 40-, 60-, and 100-mile options drew riders from all across the Southeast, including North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. The farthest travelers hailed from England and Guam.
Organizers estimate that the one-day event has delivered an excess of $100,000 in economic impact to Haywood County’s doorstep. Howle says with so many riders vowing to bring back families or take a weeklong vacation in the area next year, there could be an additional $200,000 to $300,000 annual impact in years to come.
Shell Isenberg, innkeeper at Waynesville’s Oak Hill on Love Lane, can already attest to the event’s success. Isenberg’s bed and breakfast was packed with cyclists last weekend.
“It’s great. We’re sold out,” said Isenberg. “It’s an off time. Whatever event that will bring people to the area, I think is great.”
All of Isenberg’s guests booked at least two nights. Days before the event, he’d already made dinner reservations for nine people at a local restaurant.
“It was an overwhelming success,” said Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. “It brought several hundred people to Haywood County on an otherwise slow weekend.”
Selecting August for the ride was a strategic decision, according to Katy McLean, marketing and communications director at the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. Breakaway organizers pored over a calendar that listed all rides in the Southeast.
“What we noticed is that August kind of looked empty,” said McLean. With tourism low in the area and cooler temperatures, organizers thought it’d be the perfect time for Haywood to welcome an influx of cyclists.
Giving local cyclists a major say in formulating the rides was crucial, as was aggressive marketing. The official Blue Ridge Breakaway webpage was linked to 24 other cycling websites, McLean said.
Accidents were few but somewhat inevitable during Saturday’s inclement weather.
One cyclist suffered a cracked rib and scratches after taking a curve too fast and running into a briar patch. Another contracted minor injuries after being struck by a cattle trailer making a right turn at a stoplight in Clyde.
The most serious accident occurred on Stamey Cove Road. The cyclist suffered a broken nose, a collapsed eye socket, broken pelvic bone and trauma to his brain. He was taken to Mission Hospital in Asheville and is now coming out of a coma.
“It was very, very tricky conditions,” said Chris Hipgrave, who took up the 60-mile ride on Saturday and witnessed the Clyde accident. “You put a hundred people into a bathtub with water, someone’s going to fall.”
But the risks involved won’t keep Hipgrave from signing up next year. Hipgrave has took part in many rides around the area. He says the Breakaway rose far and above.
“It was awesome, by far the best one I’ve done,” Hipgrave said. “It was a really, really fun loop. The food was awesome, which always helps.”
Howle said many riders were thankful for the volunteers’ enthusiasm and appreciative of the professional way in which organizers handled the less than ideal weather conditions. Dozens of cars made rounds picking up drenched racers after the Parkway was shut down.
“It was the best example of Western North Carolina hospitality that I’ve ever seen,” said Howle.
Early surveys show cyclists were overwhelmingly pleased with all aspects of the Blue Ridge Breakaway. Next year’s ride has been penciled in for Aug. 20.
“Most of the feedback we’ve gotten is not to change anything,” said Howle. “The riders want to make sure we keep it as good as it was this year.”
The latest long-distance race to join the local cycling scene is the Blue Ridge Breakaway on Aug. 21, the first of its kind to be held in Haywood County. Organizers hope to attract top caliber riders from across the South to enjoy the topography of the highest county this side of Colorado.
“The cycling community in Western North Carolina is huge. It’s a hobby, a sport, and a lifestyle here in the mountains, and we wanted to bring the cycling community together to lead us through it,” said Katy McLean, of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber Director CeCe Hipps hatched the plot for a ride that would showcase the county’s terrain, but she relied on the cycling community to pull the event together.
While the ride will feature a 32-mile stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a breathtaking descent from Soco Gap into Maggie Valley, perhaps its greatest feature is its accessibility for riders of all skill levels with 25-, 40-, 60-, and 100-mile options.
“One of the things that’s unique about this ride is there are four different routes, and it really has something different for every type of rider,” said Ken Howle, chair of the organizing committee.
Larry East, an avid cyclist and a regular in weekly group rides around Waynesville every Wednesday, took on the challenge of designing the course. It runs through wide mountain valleys, up narrow coves, and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it reaches its highest elevation at 6,100 feet.
It was East’s job to make sure the rides were safe, full of right-hand turns, and scenic. East tipped the 40-mile loop as the prettiest ride.
The century loop features an astonishing 8,000 vertical feet of climbing over 105.72 miles that traces a ring around the county and finishes with the drop into Maggie Valley from Soco Gap.
“Make sure your brakes are working,” East said.
Howle has high hopes for the ride’s future, which he believes will solidify the county’s place as a cycling destination among the already burgeoning WNC scene.
“Our long-term vision is to grow it into a destination ride that will attract between 600 and 1,000 riders,” Howle said. “It’s a great time of year for folks from the low country to come riding in the mountains.”
This year, organizers expect between 200 and 400 cyclists. The event has permission from the National Park Service for up to 500 cyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The riders already registered for the event come from as far away as Michigan and Ohio, but many are from Atlanta, Spartanburg, and Charleston. Howle thinks destination cycling is becoming an important part of the tourist economy in the mountains.
“We’re going to be bringing a kind of tourist that Haywood County doesn’t normally attract,” Howle said. “And I think it will establish this area as a destination not just for paddling and rafting but for cycling.”
MedWest hospital system has underwritten the event, which has also had major support from bike outfitters like Liberty Bicycles in Asheville and the Nantahala Outdoor Center bike shop in the Gorge.
Kent Cranford, owner of Motion Makers in Sylva and Asheville, is excited about a new ride, especially since Jackson County’s Tour de Tuck won’t run this year.
“It is always good exposure for the region's great riding when a good cycling event traverses some of our landscape,” Cranford said. “The Breakaway has been very organized from the beginning, and I'm sure that they are going to pull off a great event, especially with so many options to ride. Obviously, the long options that get on the Blue Ride Parkway are going to be the most breathtaking.”
For Howle, the strong local support in the event’s first year has been a vote of confidence.
“The thing that’s really surprised me is the overwhelming support we’ve had from the community and the sponsors,” Howle said. “It just proves that people see this as the type of event we should be doing in Haywood County.”
Meanwhile, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce has accomplished the task of opening up new terrain in destination marketing while taking care of its hometown community.
“We just have such a great cycling community and there are so many riders around that we needed an event like this in Haywood County,” McLean said.
For more info, visit www.blueridgebreakaway.com.
Weekly road bike rides
• Bryson City: Wednesday around 6 p.m. Depart from the East Swain Elementary school in Whittier on U.S.19 of exit 69 from U.S. 23-74. All levels. 800.232.7238, ext. 158.
• Bryson City/Sylva: Women’s ride on Mondays at 5:45 p.m. Departing from Whittier Post Office. Three groups do 8-mile, 13-mile and 17-mile rides. No one will be dropped. spinderellas.ning.com.
• Sylva: Tuesday at 6 p.m. Depart from Motion Makers bike shop for a tough 25-mile ride up to the Balsam Post office via back roads and back into Sylva. 828.586.6925.
• Franklin: Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. departing from Smoky Mountain Bicycles at 179 Highlands Road. Geared for all levels. 828.369.2881.