Saturday, May 12, 2012

BRP - Final Day - MP 431.4 to terminus at 469.1

Final group start

Today, we completed our ride of the BRP. It was an easy day of 38 miles with 7,500 feet of descent and “only” 3,500 feet of ascent. The descents of 12 and 10 miles each seemed to go on forever. The weather was overcast, meaning we were in the clouds at elevation. It was cold coming down the mountains though we warmed up on the climbs.

We were in the clouds before descending
Finally we reached mile 469, took some pictures, changed clothes at the nearby Visitors Center, and said our final good byes. Then, Karen and I had a 125 mile, three hour drive home.

The finish

Final Mile marker
Thanks to my wife Karen for joining and supporting me during the trip and for driving our car while I was cycling. Thanks to Jeff Douglas and Mark Koltz for putting up with me for 8 days. I hope I’ll be a good roommate in September when we ride down the Pacific Coast.  Also, thank you to Aila Douglas for supporting the three of us this week and for keeping Karen company while we were riding. Karen enjoyed the time spent with you, Aila.

Thank you, Jeff

Thank you, Mark

A few random thoughts about cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway follow. Just in case you are reading this and are considering your own ride. These notes are not in any particular order:

1.     The BRP is 470 miles long and you will climb 49,000 feet, excluding the side trip up Mount Mitchell. We cycled 452 miles and climbed about 47,500 feet (one section of parkway was closed for construction).  The ride wasn’t easy, but climbing in the North Georgia Mountains a couple of times a week for the last four months at 100 feet of climb per mile really helped prepare me. My endurance was fine, having done a lot of long, slow, and steady training climbs. Again, thanks to everyone who rides with me at Burnt Mountain and The Gaps.

2.     The parkway grades weren’t difficult.  The length and frequency of the climbs is what made the ride hard.  Most climbs were 6% to 8% grade. Rarely did my Garmin hit 9% and I can’t recall a single climb that hit 10%. But the climbs were long and unending. Climbing to Apple Orchard Mountain was 13.7 miles and 3,300 feet. The climb to Waterrock Knob was 8.1 miles and 2,450 feet. Both ends of the parkway were more difficult than the middle section.

3.     There are virtually no flat sections on the parkway. You won’t be doing any drafting and likely will be regrouping with your friends at parking outlooks or at the top of the climbs.

4.     Stay at the two hotels on the parkway if you can. They are Peaks of Otter at mile 86 and the Pisgah Inn at mile 409. The rooms are nice, the views from each room spectacular, prices reasonable, and the hotel restaurants pretty good. There are no phones, television, or internet connections at the former and the internet connection at the latter is somewhat spotty.

5.      If you do your research, there are other hotels not directly on the parkway but within a quarter mile on private property. We passed several that looked nice and we stayed at the Woodberry Inn at mile 174 which was very pleasant. The Boone/Blowing Rock area was a good place to get off the parkway and take a break.

6.      Cell phone coverage is spotty on the parkway. Especially if you have AT&T.

7.     You really need to have front and back lights on your bicycle. Back lights so cars and motorcycles can see you in bad weather and in tunnels. And a strong front light for the tunnels, especially the ones over 500 feet long. My front light was too dim and at mile 399 I encountered the 1,434 foot Pine Mountain Tunnel. That’s over a quarter of a mile long. And I didn’t know the tunnel curved. After a couple of hundred feet, I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black in the middle of the tunnel. Try riding your bike at 20mph in the complete dark and tell me how it went for you. I was lucky I didn’t hit a tunnel wall or an oncoming car. By the time I saw daylight and got reoriented, I was in the oncoming lane about 8 feet from the left side wall. In another tunnel, I had six cars and two motorcycles pass me and I was a little wobbly when they went by.

8.     Keep two hands on the handlebars at all time. The parkway roads are not as good as the ones in North Georgia or on the Natchez Trace Parkway. There are potholes, cracks, and bumps all over the place. The thing I hated most were the small circular depressions that were maybe six to twelve inches in diameter and an inch deep and that you couldn’t see until you hit them with your front wheel. No problem if your hands were on the handlebars, but a moment’s inattention could have spelled trouble. I kept thinking of Jens Voigt in the 2009 Tour de France. Today while riding the first downhill at about 30mph, a deer ran across the road about 10 feet in front of me, but that’s another story…

9.     Regarding Mount Mitchell. You must climb it at mile 355 because the views from the observation tower at the top are spectacular. The Mount Mitchell road is 4.8 miles long from the junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit. The first mile starts at 5% and quickly jumps to 8%. Miles two and three are a steady 8%.  Mile four drops to between 0% and 5% before the final mile at 8% to 9%.

10. Be flexible. Allow at least one contingency day for rain if you can.  The mountain and valley views are spectacular the entire 470 miles, but if it is raining you will not see anything and be miserable. Expect rain; you will be over 4000 feet a good deal in North Carolina. If you can be flexible on the daily mileage, ride more miles on good days and back off if the weather is bad. That worked out well for us. Though we rode in the rain, our rest day was when the weather was at its worst. I thought the views were the best at the higher elevations in North Carolina, and we were lucky to have our best weather on those days.

11. There was more traffic than I thought. Especially in the Roanoke and Asheville areas. And there were a lot of motorcycles, similar to riding at the North Georgia gaps on weekends. Most drivers were courteous but someone threw a full can of soda at Jeff in the Asheville area, and a couple of oblivious elderly drivers came a little too close for comfort. (I know they were oblivious and elderly because they were stopped at the next parking outlook.)

12. Our ride was in early May. At the very start and end of the ride at 2000 foot elevation, summer gear was fine. During the ride I had to wear arm and leg warmers, a vest, and either a windbreaker or raincoat every day. Bring rain gear and be prepared for any type of weather. A cheap hotel shower cap over your helmet might look funny but it will keep your head warm and dry. Take a lot of Ziploc bags for your phone, maps, and cue sheets. Bring lots of bars and gels; you will eat all of them. If you don’t have SAG support, there are some stretches of parkway without water. So do your research and/or refer to the book and links mentioned below.

13. The book Bicycling the Blue Ridge by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner (©2004) has elevation charts, the distance and length of all significant climbs, and mile by mile guides of most everything you need to know about the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. The links below will also help plan your tour:

a.      Blue Ridge Parkway Association:
b.     National Park Service Site:  (Check for any section closures.)
c.       A mile by mile parkway guide:

Next up is Alabama’s Magnificent Bicycling Adventure (AMBA) in a week’s time.


  1. Joe. I was breathless just reading about the climbing. well done to all of you. I think I will be restricting myself to motorized transport.

  2. Enjoyed your blog. It looks like you had a very challenging trip. See you in Sept.