Time lapse image of the curves on the road up Grandfather Mountain.   1999 Hugh Morton. Results of Eric's Blue Ridge Parkway
Junket and Fact-Finding Tour

Over Labor Day weekend I took a trip to Cherokee, NC, the southern terminus of the BRP (where we will start our trip) and biked the first 18 miles to the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center, then back. It involved about 4700' of combined climb. The young woman at the visitor center desk said, "I have a lot of respect for you people that do this. You are either completely committed or totally wacked." Then, as if to test her theory, she handed me a brochure with altitude change stats for all the climbs on the Parkway.

I made a joke about Eric Robert Rudolph, that mad bastard who killed people with a bomb at a Birmingham abortion clinic in 1998 and who is still at large, presumably in these Smokey Mountains. "No, actually that is not funny," she said. "We had a sighting around here within the last week or two. But what is funny are all the UFO people and survivalists that stop up here. They ask questions about the secret underground caves that the government is going to move into if they ever have to evacuate Washington, DC. They say the Blue Ridge Parkway was built so that it could be commandeered to transport everything here."

I took a moment to visualize our nations government saving itself from ultimate destruction by taking the scenic route along a foggy, switch-backed mountain byway at 45 MPH. "Well, I'll be back here with two friends the first week in October. They may have a lot of questions for you about those caves," I said.

And so, after crawling back to my sleeping bag at the end of the day, I tendered a report to my compatriots.

E-mail to Mike & Hans (9/6/99):

Now I know what Leo Ryan felt like.

Well, no, not that bad. But here was the weekend...

I drove out to NC Saturday night and camped just outside Maggie Valley. Sunday morning I got up around 7:00AM (this is all in CDT), ate a Cliff Bar and eventually headed off to Cherokee. You can catch the BRP off route 19 just the other side of Maggie Valley at mile 455. I took it to Cherokee, as Route 19 is very twisty, steep and can be backed up with traffic. It also takes you to the opposite side of Cherokee from the BRP.

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CHEROKEE

At the terminus of the BRP go right 0.7m and you reach the Oconoluftee Visitor Center which is an excellent staging point. If you go left maybe a mile or so you get to the Baymont Inn, perfectly situated because it is just outside of Cherokee.

In the early morning Cherokee was not too bad to get around, but it doesn't stay that way for long. I went through a drive thru at McD's at about 9:30 CDT that took me at least 30 minutes. When I got back from the bike ride at 2:30 CDT, incoming traffic was backed up all the way to the visitor center. Cherokee is at least as bad as Gatlinburg during busy season. The continental breakfast at the hotel is pathetic. They bring juice, a muffin and coffee to your door, something like that. About enough to get us through the first 5 miles. There are various pancake places in town and a Big Boy with a "breakfast bar" which all open at 7:00AM (EDT), so if we get there early we might be OK.

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THE CLIMBS

Not a disappointment. Take the steepest grade we have found on the Natchez Trace Parkway and imagine doing it for 7 miles (2240' climb) with no plateau. That is where we start. Then a small .5 mile downhill before it goes up again for another 3 miles in the same fashion (1000' climb). Then a 3 mile downhill before another 5 mile (1480') climb straight up.

The grade could be worse, probably no steeper than 7% max, but it wears you down real fast if you don't start in a lo-lo-lo gear. I did the first 3 miles in a 42x28 with my heart rate monitor pegged all the way. My John Thomas was numb after 2.0 miles. After that I put it in 42x32 and left it there for all of the rest of the climbs. I could do 65-75 RPM which was "comfortable", though my legs feel torn up today. 42x28 was do-able, but not for more than a 30 mile ride on that first day without offering a sacrifice to the god of cartilage. It's a very slow long grind.

You pretty much feel vulnerable and wobbly on the climbs because the pace is so slow. I did around 8.5 MPH over 18 miles to get to the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center which is at the top of the first big assent.

Later on I drove the rest of the BRP to Asheville. The second assent is also pretty much straight up for 12 miles with maybe one break in there. After that there are no more super long assents. You meander around up there at 4500-6000' until you come back down to Asheville at about 2000'. But there is a hell of a lot of climbing up there as you go up and down, with a couple of noticeably steep grades.

On the positive side, it is all definitely do-able. I enjoyed the ride. But it'll take patience, low gearing and a St. Bernard with a little barrel of vodka around its neck.

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WEATHER

First thing in the morning the temp down in Maggie was in the 50's It was quite damp. I had a decent chill there early on and that was before I started riding. By the time I got on the bike (10:30 EDT), the sun was up and things had warmed considerably. I wore a basic biking shirt and shorts, and stuffed a windbreaker in my seat bag.

It was cooler at at the higher altitude, but not too bad. Later on the sky clouded over. I cooled off quickly whenever I stopped to rest. The big thing was wind. It gusts a lot up there, which gives a bit of a chill when you are sweaty. Not so bad lower down, but higher up it can hit you hard. As I drove the section that meanders along at 4500-6000', I noticed that trees were bent over the whole way. You get it whenever the road is exposed, or goes through a gap. Other stretches are well protected and not too bad.

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TRAFFIC

Generally not to bad. There are no shoulders on the open road, but there is enough space for a car and a bike to pass. The two scary moments I had were when a) 4 racing motor cycles tore by me leaned into a curve in my lane, and b) when a BMW sports car coming towards me was itching to pass another car also coming towards me. The BMW cut through between us as soon as the available space was just enough to allow it to get around.

Definitely need a rear view mirror. Traffic is easier to deal with going up hill. You are going so slowly that it doesn't take much for them to pass you. On descents, however, it gets hairy. The speed limit is 45 MPH. If you are going down hill at 25-40 MPH, they can stack up behind you and you don't feel like there is any room for error. In those situations I waited until there was a clear stretch, then tried to slow a little and get to the right so they could pass.

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TUNNELS

The tunnels are all uphill, until near the end when we descend into Asheville. Thus they are "long" because you are going slowly. Near Asheville they are long because they are actually long. Generally cars seemed to be careful going into tunnels. The tunnels are quite dark. I had a good head light, but it takes time for your eyes to adjust. At first I stopped before each tunnel to turn on my tail light, but eventually I just left it on for the duration of the ride. Two things to watch for in tunnels:

1) There is a "shoulder" of sorts. The lines and reflectors in the pavement give you a little space between the lane and the wall. BUT - these tunnels have debris in them, including gravel in this outside space. I felt like I wanted to get over when a car went through from behind me, but a couple times I got into gravel. Since you are going uphill slowly in a tunnel, you can't just stop and the debris can be enough to make you fall over. Better to use a lot of reflective tape and make cars wait for you.

2) Though pavement on the BRP is pretty good, there is some bad pavement in the tunnels. I did not notice this on the ascents, but when descending through the same tunnels, I hit some bad washboard stuff that I couldn't see which scared the bejezus outta me.

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ROAD SURFACE

Like I said above. Generally the road is very good. But there are some spots that can take you by suprise when descending or rounding corners. When I came back down that initial 7 mile climb, there were these almost expansion joint type bumps that are real shockers because you don't see them until you get right on them. I also noticed a place on farther on towards Asheville where you can come screaming around a corner and hit these big, ugly pothole fill patches.

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DESCENTS

Fun, but unpredictable. Like I said the road is good except where it's not. The tunnels are a crap shoot. The calm open stretches can be pretty easy going, but a couple times I had sudden crosswind gusts just pop me over 2' in the lane to one side or the other. When it hits you from the side like that it is just like a fan blowing a sheet of paper. I had to use my wind breaker on the initial descent of my return trip to keep from getting too cold.


Summary -

Very achieveable. But without a doubt Day 1 is going to be strenuous. Fortunately there are many overlooks which make good places to stop. After looking at all the climbing, I think that pushing to 100 miles the first day would be a mistake. Eighty miles is more sane. In fact there is a good stopping point at about 76 miles that puts us on an exit to Asheville right after a descent. There is another exit at about 80 miles, but we have more climbing to do on the way there and I don't know if we're gonna feel like it. Right now I feel sore after just 36 miles and almost messed up a hamstring to boot. Also, we should plan on closer to 10 hours for that first day. With breaks it could maybe stretch out that far.


Final Thought -

Don't sleep on the ground in a tent after biking in the mountains.