Blue Ridge Breakaway breaks path for bike culture
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.
“The number of rider groups has increased,” he said. “It’s fairly rare when you’re on the road and you don’t see either a commuter or a recreation cyclist in Haywood County. (The Breakaway) will not only get even more riders on the road, but more of our citizens will get use to seeing riders.”
Yount said the Breakaway, four years old now, may attract as many as 600 riders — a third more than last year. They’ll register for one of four rides. The Rabbit is 24 miles that rolls through Jonathan Creek and Crabtree, with climbs over Coleman and Hyder mountains. The Panther is 40 miles of up and down, gaining 2,600 feet in the course of four hill climbs. The Trout is a 66-mile ride through Jonathan Creek, Crabtree, Canton and Clyde, then up to Lake Logan and back.
The Hawk is a difficult 105-mile ride that gains nearly 10,000 feet and climbs to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a 32-mile ride there. The inclines are steep, and the descents are fast. This is an advanced ride not recommended for beginners or first-time century riders, organizers said.
In his influential blog steepclimbs.com, writer/rider Aaron West named the Blue Ridge Breakaway his 2011 Ride of the Year. He participated in the 105-mile Hawk.
“While this was a challenge with a couple long climbs, it was not nearly as difficult as Mount Mitchell, Bridge to Bridge, or any of the other big mountain rides,” West wrote. “That’s not to say it was easy. Not by any stretch. But, it was exciting and the long descents down the Blue Ridge Parkway and then Maggie Valley were exhilarating and the best single experiences I’ve had on a bike this year. Not to mention this was probably the most organized ride I participated (in) all year.”
Talking recently from Colorado, where he was riding high mountain roads, West had nothing but praise for the Blue Ridge Breakaway.
“It’s well put together,” he said. “The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce does a good job of marking the course. Mostly what’s amazing about the ride is you get to ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway for so long.
“The Parkway is a gorgeous stretch of road, one of the best places to ride a bike. It’s a challenging ride, especially because of two long climbs. You have to have quite a bit of fitness. But, it feels exhilarating. I feel amazing afterward. You get a runner’s high.
“Last year, we rode with some people who didn’t train all that well. They loved it, but their bodies were very beat up. One girl spent about 20 minutes on the ground after she was finished because she was so tired.”
Riding in groups and in events like the Breakaway is usually social – you’re talking to other riders as you go. But things tend to get quiet when you’re in a long climb. West said things gets serene and that you tune out. But unless you’re some Zen master, you don’t really tune out, he admitted. You think about your life, he said.
“You think about everything,” he said.
“You really are grinding it out,” he said of the miles going uphill. “You have to find a cadence to move your way up the mountain. You get exhausted. You are definitely looking for the summit. No matter how much you enjoy it, you’re ready to descend again.”
Every cycler is an amateur meteorologist, West said. Breakaway riders will come ready for heat, rain and cold (the temperature at the start last year was in the 60s, and on the Parkway it was in the 40s, West said). Windbreakers and arm and leg warmers will help keep them snug on the zippy descents, which can reach speeds of 45 mph.
The Breakaway fits nicely into BicycleHaywoodNC’s plans to get more people cycling in the county, Yount said. A chapter of the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club in Asheville, BicycleHaywoodNC (bicyclehaywoodnc.org) commissioned the county bike plan and raised $52,000 in grant and private money to pay for it.
The plan is meant to accomplish many things, Yount said. In its small way, it helps wean the country from dependence on foreign oil. In a large way, it helps combat adult and childhood obesity by identifying routes people can ride to shopping centers and grocery stores.
By helping create those routes, it is making bicyclists more visible than ever, making them more acceptable and less unusual to the motoring public, Yount said. And it leads to further economic development in Haywood County. A state Department of Transportation study of bicycling in the northern Outer Banks indicates that that state’s $6.7 million investment in bike lanes and off-road bike paths returns about $60 million in revenue annually to area businesses. Many visitors come just because of the bicycle facilities, the study concluded.
The Haywood County plan calls for road construction to include bike lanes like the one that, in Jackson County, links Sylva and Western Carolina University. It also calls upon the towns and its businesses to install bike racks to that people know their bicycles are secure. “There’s a dearth of bike racks in Haywood County,” Yount said, despite the increase in the number of riders.
The Blue Ridge Breakaway is a natural extension of the popularity cycling is having in Western North Carolina, he said. People travel a long way to ride through the mountains. And many of them are coming specifically to Haywood County.
“The scenery that you ride through in Haywood is incredible,” Yount said.
Touting the economic benefits of cycling
Laura Crawford and Russ Rocca didn’t plan to become full-time advocates for the benefits of bicycling. It just happened.
“At firs, bicycle travel was just about having an adventure,” said Crawford. “Then, from putting it on the Internet, it kind of grew to be more than we were expecting. The more we traveled and saw the impact bicycling can have on small communities, it just became something we want to keep doing.”
Crawford and Rocca, who are based in Oregon for now, will bring their bicycling message to Haywood County on Aug. 17 when they speak to the Waynesville Rotary Club at a luncheon and then at the Lake Junaluska Visitor Center that night as part of the kickoff for the Blue Ridge Breakaway (see story).
Their website, pathlesspedaled.com, details their biking life, which started three years ago after Crawford lost her job, and they decided to sell everything and hit the road. That trip turned into a 10,000-mile tour around the U.S., including going through Waynesville and Western North Carolina. Since then, Crawford, 32, and Rocca, 33, have taken a multi-month tour of New Zealand and other extended trips. Crawford says their kind of touring isn’t about pounding out 100-mile days but rather using bikes as a way to experience the landscape and to meet people.
“On a bike, you’re not shielded, and so you have this amazing opportunity to explore,” Crawford said. “Something about being on a bike makes it easy to interact with people.”
Right now, the couple is working for the state of Oregon as it creates a series of scenic bikeways for cycling trips that can be completed in three or four days.
“Oregon has this big initiative to promote biking as an economic development tool,” said Rocca. “We want to take those lessons from Oregon to other states. We are looking at biking from an advocacy lens, and that’s one reason we’re coming to Haywood County.”
Blue Ridge Breakaway (www.blueridgebreakaway.com)
• Aug. 17 — Pre-registered rider packet pickup and rider registration from 5-8 p.m. at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Visitor Center.
Russ Roca and Laura Crawford, who created the website pathlesspedaled.com, will speak about their bike travels and the economic impact of supporting biking. 7 p.m. $10 per person.
• Saturday, Aug. 18, the Blue Ridge Breakaway — All four routes will begin at 7:30 a.m. Pre-registered rider packet pickup and rider registration from 6-6:30 a.m.