Headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway

My bicycle trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway began in Fort Defiance, VA the second week of May 2016.  My wife, Marilyn, and I stopped to visit friends for a couple days and Marilyn was going to stay with them while I was riding.  On a clear day from our friend’s patio you can look east

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The Blue Ridge Mountains are blanketed in fog

and see Rockfish Gap on Afton Mountain which is the confluence of the southern end of the Skyline Drive and the northern entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway.   The morning my trip was to begin I awoke to a cloudy sky and a crisp chill in the air.  From the patio I looked east and the mountains were shrouded in fog.  A weather system had FullSizeRendercreated a blanket of fog from the ridges of the Blue Ridge mountains eastward.  Undaunted, I had to go to Rockfish Gap hoping the fog would lift by the time we reached the parkway entrance.  As we ascended the mountain from Waynesboro, VA we entered a fog bank that was thick as pea soup.  It was obvious that beginning the ride in these conditions would be foolish and unsafe.  So we turned back to Waynesboro and went shopping (not my idea).

The next day was more of the same.  The weather system that created the foggy conditions had persisted for another day.   It was like I was in a shortened version of the movie “Groundhog Day”.  We had clear, sunny skies until you were near Rockfish Gap then thick fog just like the day before.  The only people we saw moving near the entrance to the parkway were hikers passing through on the Appalachian Trail. FullSizeRender(2)

To make the best of this situation I did get in several miles of riding each day along some back roads in Fort Defiance.  The roads offered small hills which I took advantage of to get some last minute leg work in before climbing the big “hills”.

The third day was the charm.  Clear, sunny skies over the Blue Ridge mountains.  So away I went.  Most experienced bicycle tourists will recommend that on the first day you should ride about half the distance you expect to average each day.  The route I mapped  averaged approximately 38 miles per day.  However, the first Blue Ridge Parkway ridesouthbound campground on the parkway, Otter Creek campground, was at Milepost 60.8.  I was in for a long day.  Around Milepost 38 I could see dark clouds forming to the west.  Within the next two miles I stopped to put on my rain suit just as the rain began to fall.  For the next 15 miles I rode in a steady rain as the temperature began to fall.  One thing I learned is you sweat going uphill and get chilled going downhill even when wearing a windbreaker.

The elevation at Rockfish Gap is 1,909 feet and the first ten miles are primarily uphill to Ravens Roost at 3,200 feet.  From there to Otter Creek campground the elevation varies from the highest point north of the James River at 3,334 feet and descends to the James River at 650 feet, the lowest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  So from Milepost 0 to the James River at Milepost 63 the total feet climbed was 4,802 feet.  I did cross the James River on the first day to reach a restaurant for dinner and acquire cell service to let my wife know I made it this far.

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My bike and trailer

To say I slept well that night is an understatement of epic proportions.  Even as the nighttime temperature dipped to 40 degrees I crawled into my one-person tent laid on top of my sleeping bag and my legs felt like they were floating.  I barely moved as I reflected on what I had accomplished.  Even during training over level terrain back home I had never ridden what actually totaled 69 miles in one day and 6.75 hours in the saddle.  Let alone 69 miles through mountains.  It was both exhausting and exhilarating.  This may not seem like a big deal to experienced touring cyclists but it was to this lowcountry senior.

If you thought biking 69 miles in the mountains in one day was a good day wait till I tell you what I faced on day two.

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Do I Really Want to Bike in the Mountains?

1280px-Blue_Ridge_Parkway-27527-2In June of 2015, one month after I purchased my Diamondback Edgewood hybrid bike, I challenged myself to undertake my first bicycle touring expedition.  I can’t explain why I felt compelled to do this.  In a way it’s living off the grid only with a few more creature comforts.  There is something about living outdoors and traveling from one location to another that is appealing to me.   Maybe because as a family we went camping most summers and I need to do more of that activity while I still can.   So I planned a self-supported bike trip of the entire 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Waynesboro, Va. to Cherokee, NC.  Had I had this epiphany earlier I would have bought a bike that was built for touring, but I had the hybrid so I would make the best of my purchase.

Now other than a desire to be outdoors and biking in whatever the weather throws at me,  what would motivate a 62 year old man to undertake such a challenge when he had never considered doing anything like this in his life, and then spend most of the next year training, planning, and researching for this trip?  I have a cousin who is my age and  retired late in 2014.  The first thing on his bucket list was to hike the approximately 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mount Katahdin ME.  He began his trek in March 2015 and finished in early July 2015.  His journey inspired and motivated me to challenge myself to go beyond my perceived physical abilities.  While I had no desire to walk 2,200 miles I do like to bike.  When we travel back to West Virginia we take I-77 north and just a few miles north of the Virginia-North  Carolina border there is an overpass that carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the interstate highway.  That gaveway to the idea to bike the parkway.  However, before I provide more details on the preparations for this trip I should probably provide a disclaimer that I did not complete the entire 469 miles – yet.  I’ll explain later.

The first thing I did was look for books written by people who have biked the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Why reinvent the wheel.  I chose a book written by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner entitled Bicycling the Blue Ridge Parkway: A guide to the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This was an excellent resource that helped me locate restaurants, grocery and convenient stores, hotels, campgrounds, waystations, etc. since most of these conveniences are not located on the Parkway.  This book also gave a valuable description of the range of elevation changes that I would be facing. Using this information I created a spreadsheet that helped me identify the mile posts where these facilities were located which helped me decide how far I would ride each day and where I would be spending nights.  Using this information I mapped out what would be a 14 day trip to complete this ride that included two days of rest.

Right or wrong my training regime was simple.  Ride, ride, ride.  I didn’t know any other way to get in the kind of condition I would need in to bike the Blue Ridge Parkway.  You have to understand, I live in the lowcountry of South Carolina.  The terrain is a bit different than the Blue Ridge mountains.

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Blue Ridge terrain

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway you are either going up hill or down hill.

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Lowcountry terrain

In the lowcountry we do not have anything approaching a hill let alone a mountain.  We don’t have elevation changes, we have what I refer to as grade changes.  Like from flat to maybe a 3% grade that only goes for a short distance.  The only natural obstacle that provides any resistance is a strong head wind.  So ride I did.  During inclement weather I would go to our fitness center and ride a spin cycle and gradually increase the tension on the wheel to simulate hill climbing.  From the time I decided to make this trip in June of 2015 until I began in May of 2016 I rode nearly 2,000 miles.  The only thing in our county that resembled a hill is the Cross Island Expressway bridge on Hilton Head Island.  This bridge has what I would guess to be a 6%  to 7% grade for about 3/10’s of a mile.  On two occasions I rode back and forth over that bridge about 10 times each to get a little bit of hill work.  Other than that it was ride Sally ride.

In my next blog I will talk about the equipment I chose to take and what I learned about packing for such a trip.