The mountains of Western North Carolina are rapidly becoming the top destination for serious cyclists east of the Mississippi.
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.