Archived Outdoors

A hidden gem: Waynesville vet can’t get away from biking mountain roads

out frFor 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.

“It was either get another dog or come up with something different,” Birthright said. “Cycling was a way I could exercise him and exercise myself and be in the woods.”

Three years later, it was 1999 and Birthright was moving to Haywood County. He still mountain biked but soon got tired of driving through so many miles of beautiful scenery before finally being able to start pedaling. Eventually, he bought himself a road bike, and it soon became his go-to set of wheels. 

“Haywood County’s just a great place to road bike,” Birthright said. “It’s challenging climbs and it’s beautiful and just a lot of places to explore.” 

From his home in upper Crabtree, Birthright will many nights cycle down the driveway and spend an hour, two hours, however much time he can making a loop through the county’s windiest, hilliest, least traveled roads. Fines Creek, White Oak, even out to Canton and back if time allows. 

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“Over time, I just got in better shape and got to become a better climber, so now it’s just more of a challenge,” he said of Haywood County’s less-than-flat topography. “Climbing is something I kind of enjoy.”

If anyone were to doubt the truth of that statement, they’d have only to look at Birthright’s repertoire of organized rides to learn otherwise. A short version of the list includes the Tour de Cashiers, Tour de Tuck, Asheville Gran Fondo and Assault on Mount Mitchell. 

Given all that experience, it’s perhaps no wonder that Birthright was one of the first people the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce approached when it first hatched the idea of starting a ride on its home turf. 

He helped them come up with lengths and routes for the ride, dubbed the Blue Ridge Breakaway, and also joined the brainstorming as to what would make this ride different from all the other ones out there. 

Of course, the attribute that most sets the ride apart is something that no organizer has any control over. 

“It’s kind of like a hidden gem,” Birthright said of the county’s scenery. “When I bring my friends from other areas to ride here, they’re just amazed at what we have at our doorstep.”

To make the point, he told the story of a jersey salesman who came out from Colorado to market his company’s jerseys to the Breakaway. Home of breathtaking vistas and dramatic mountain scenery, Colorado is often held up as the epitome of natural beauty. 

But, after going on a ride with Birthright, the Coloradan said, “he had one of the best rides of his life here,” Birthright recalls. “It just hit home once again how lucky we are to live here, especially as someone who enjoys cycling.”

The second characteristic that sets the Breakaway apart, though, is the Southern hospitality offered its riders. Friendly support at the supply stations is key, Birthright said, and until this year he’d been one of those giving it. 

“I was really bummed out when I first realized I was going to be working it rather than riding, but truth is it was a really great experience,” he said. “I really enjoyed supporting the other people, because I had been there.” 

He knew what it felt like to be struggling up a hard hill, holding barely enough reserve energy to push the pedals one more time toward the downhill. He knew what it felt like to be riding with a group for the first time, unsure of how to navigate the pack or avoid tiring too early by keeping their faster pace. 

“Some people are here and they’re true athletes and they’re here just to do another ride and enjoy themselves and challenge themselves, and there are other people who have more personal beginning goals,” he said. 

Being a ride organizer, Birthright’s never actually ridden the Breakaway before, though he’s covered the route plenty of times during his solo rides. 

But this year, that will change, as he’ll finally get to go as a participant. 

He’s looking forward to it, so much so than when asked his favorite ride of those he’s already done, his response was simply that the Blue Ridge Breakaway would probably rank pretty high. 

“It’s just so diverse,” he said of the area. “There’s very little traffic. You’re not going through a big city, and you’re just out seeing small country homes, nice beautiful homes, big pastures and far-off views.”

As to which of the Breakaway’s four ride lengths he’ll be doing, Birthright figures he has a month to decide. Usually he’d opt for the hundred-miler, but he hasn’t had time to get in the preparation he’d like to tackle that. So probably the 75-mile ride, though he said if his 9-year-old son pressed him to join in on the 25-mile route, he wouldn’t be upset. It’s all fun, it’s all cycling and it all gets him out in Haywood County, riding with others who are taking in its sights and sounds from a bicycle seat for the first time. 

“You’re going slower,” he said, “so you can just see this cow or smell this silage, just kind of look at how people are working in their yard. See the dog that likes to run along the fence along with you.”

Of course, the downhill is fun too, and on the steep grades of the Breakaway’s routes, they go by a lot faster. But for Birthright, it’s all good. 

“I don’t climb so I can go down,” he said. “At the top of the climb I am excited that I’m going down, but that’s not why I come out to ride. My purpose in riding is to go outside, challenge myself in the climb and enjoy the descent.”



Get in shape

Entering a ride like the Blue Ridge Breakaway isn’t something to do on a whim. If you’re thinking about getting back in the bicycle seat, follow these tips from cyclist Brian Birthright, one of the Breakaway’s organizers. 

• Ramp it up slowly. The muscles you use to ride a bike are different from those that power other activities such as running, so take your time preparing. Ride regularly, steadily increasing the mileage until you’ve done at least 80 percent of the distance you plan to cover in the ride. 

• Cycle on comparable terrain. Practice on roads similar to those you’ll be riding. If you’re doing a ride through the mountains, don’t practice in the flatlands. 

• Get your bike in shape. Tough hills can come as a shock to bikes as well as the people who ride them. Make sure you test your bike on the terrain you’ll be riding beforehand and get it tuned up at a bike shop. 



Not too late to sign up

There’s still plenty of time to sign up for the Blue Ridge Breakaway, with early bird discounts continuing through Aug. 2. 

Now entering its sixth year, the Breakaway brings hundreds of riders and their bikes to Haywood County to take in sights ranging from downtown Maggie Valley to the Blue Ridge Parkway’s many Haywood overlooks. 

The four ride distances offer worthy goals for everyone from casual riders to pro cyclists. Choose from 26-mile, 51-mile, 76-mile and 106-mile routes, with the two longest rides including 30 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. All rides leave from the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. 

Registration is $41 for the shortest ride and $56 for the other three through Aug. 2, with registration available online at slightly higher rates up until the day before the event and in person the morning of. or 828.456.3021.


Don’t miss out

Is the Blue Ridge Breakaway not going to work out for you this year? Consider checking out the Mountains to Coast bike tour, a weeklong cross-state ride that’s kicking off from Waynesville this year. The ride begins Sept. 26 and will end Oct. 3 at Oak Island.

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