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 on the road
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.”