What better way to spend the Fourth of July than suffering with friends, eating red, white and blue popcorn and gourmet hot dogs?
The alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. Getting up early is hard for me after an 11p.m newscast, but the ride at Wintergreen started at 9 a.m. and Roanoke is two hours away. Plus it was raining. So I peeled open my eyes and cussed a couple of times. It would turn out to be one of the day’s easier challenges.
On the other hand, we had been looking forward to the ride for weeks, so Mary and I put on our optimist hats, loaded the cooler, put our bikes on the back of the car and headed for Wintergreen Resort where we would meet other members of our group who were either also driving in, or staying at the mountainside home of our host Steve Ruhf.
Anxiety continued to build during the two-hour drive, knowing about the climb from the base of Wintergreen to the Blue Ridge Parkway that had forced some pretty good riders to dismount and walk the year before.
We parked in the lifting fog at the base of the mountain in the parking lot of the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company, where if we survived, lunch and a cold one awaited.
The ride goes uphill almost immediately. Guys with on-bike Garmins were shouting out the grade, which was a modest 2-3 percent for at least a mile. From there the road became steeper and steeper.
The experienced riders in the group know to break the climb into two parts. Before the Wintergreen sign. (The entrance to the resort proper) And after the Wintergreen sign. The last half-mile to the sign is almost impossible. The ride after it is worse.
In anticipation of the upper portion of the climb, we had parked several vehicles at the Wintergreen guardhouse, to shuttle those riders who didn’t want to face the remaining wall. The ride vs. shuttle decision would be made once we all joined up at the sign.
I was struggling badly as the infamous sign neared, not only because I still need to lose ten pounds, but because the gearing on my trusty Schwinn, (Fastback LTD) was not set up for the steep stuff. My easiest combination is a 39 x 28. While the guys with compacts were seated and spinning, I was standing and struggling for every pedal stroke. All I could think was that there was no way the REST of the climb could be harder.
One-by-one we pulled in and re-grouped. The hill had already claimed three riders who dismounted and walked. These are riders who have already completed a century ride this year. I’m telling you it is steep.
About half of the riders opted to shuttle from this point to the top, while the rest of us tempted fate by riding on.
“You can’t see the top,” I kept hearing. “When you see the sharp curve, the road tips up even worse, but the top is right around the corner. You’ll be mad at yourself if you give up right there,” said Pepe Hughes of Lynchburg who conquered the ride last year.
Oh, I was mad at myself all right. But the infamous curve was still way up the road. The hill sorted us out pretty quickly, with the strongest riders off the front by a hundred yards. I stayed seated for maybe two minutes, before I was forced to stand and struggle as I had on the lower part of the mountain.
You can only do that for so long, but when I sat down, I simply couldn’t push the pedals over. It’s like the last rep when you are lifting weights. When it’s over, it’s over.
Determined not to walk, I did the next best thing. I started doing what I call the “paper boy” cutting back and forth across the road, essentially creating my own switchbacks – making the route longer but taking the steepness out of the equation. Call it cheating if you want, but at least I wasn’t walking. In fact, I passed a couple of riders and had the energy to power up the last section at the aforementioned curve, which tips up to 18 percent.
When I reached the top, I was soaked with sweat, muscles from shoulders to toes shaking and a huge smile on my face. Now all we had to do was ride another 30-plus “rolling” miles.
Thus far the ride was 9.1 miles young. We were at the intersection of Beech Grove Rd. and the Blue Ridge Parkway. From there, we would ride 11 miles north on the BRP, ending at mile marker zero, or the very beginning of the Parkway at Afton. It is also the junction of Interstate 64 and Route 250, so it’s a busy place. This portion of the ride was described as rolling, but I would call it a series of long climbs and long descents.
The views more than made up for the effort. This section of Parkway is iconic, and it was filled with cyclists. It wasn’t necessary to stop at the overlooks to take in the vistas, because the Parkway, as it does for much of it’s length, is truly on the spine of the ridgeline with valleys on either side. Luckily the road loses elevation as it goes north, so everyone recovered well from the earlier climb. If you have not ridden this section of the Parkway you need to put it on your must-do list.
Red White and Blue Popcorn and Hot Dogs.
One would expect that an intersection that joins several major highways would be populated with thriving businesses. Instead there is a shuttered Howard Johnson’s restaurant, a closed hotel and a long-abandoned auto repair shop. Fortunately there is also King’s, a seasonal popcorn stand, no bigger than a food truck. In addition to popcorn, they also offered other menu items as well as (thankfully) Gatorade.
“A hot dog would be a terrible idea,” said both Steve Ruhf and fellow rider Barbara Butcher. Who then proceeded to order dogs with the works. Meanwhile, Daniel Anderson, who had been off the front all day, munched on caramel flavored kettle corn. In fact, pretty much everyone in the group ordered something that would be described by most cyclists as “bad food.” I ate a hot dog, and Mary shared my French fries. Man, is bad food good.
The stand offered huge bags of red, white and blue popcorn to celebrate the 4th of July, but I’m not sure anyone bit on that – though we all remarked about how cool it was.
The long downhills we enjoyed on the way north meant lots of climbing on the return trip. But those who had done the ride before reminded us to break the final leg into two sections. Essentially it’s an 11-mile climb with a couple of breaks, and then the effort is over because it’s literally down hill all the way back to the car.
My speedometer indicated I had reached 42 miles an hour coasting down a few of these hills going north, so I was prepared for some pretty serious climbing on the way back. Plus there was that hot dog.
But once again, the Parkway’s views trumped the 5-6 percent grades. I’m guessing at the steepness here. It may have been 7-8 in places, but it was still seated climbing that allowed us to take in the beauty on both sides of the road. Daniel Anderson stayed off the front for the entire leg – but I managed to stay in contact with him and together we waited near the top where we all re-grouped.
Raven’s Roost is an overlook that marks the top of the return climb, and you will have wasted your day if you rode all those miles and didn’t stop to take in the views. We snapped a lot of pictures. We also laughed and joked, knowing all that remained was nine miles of downhill that ended at beer-thirty.
Those familiar with the descent from the Parkway back to the car were full of cautionary advice, “not to let it all hang out near the top.” We were now headed down that 18-percent stretch followed by long pitches of 15-percent road. It didn’t take much convincing.
Off we went, leaving good spacing between us. I followed Pepe and pumped the brakes repeatedly, conscious that it would be easy to overheat them. Honestly, the road is so steep, that you could hit virtually any speed you dared. The turns are not terrible, but if a deer stepped out of the woods, or you blew a tire – well, I wouldn’t want to think about it.
I was second in line and hit 53.1 mph for my max speed. Others reported speedometer readings of 56. Whatever the number, this was serious fun. I never felt out of control and later spent a lot of time thinking that I could have gone faster. There’s always next time.
Nothing goes with cycling like micro breweries.
There is a lot to be said for starting and ending your ride at a local brewery. The food and drink are as good as the vibe is special. Our cars were the only ones in the parking lot when we departed, and now, some 4 hours plus later, there was scarcely a parking place to be found. Devil’s Backbone is undergoing a significant expansion, and based upon the wait for lunch (granted it was a holiday weekend) they will need it. After a quick change out of cycling gear, we ordered a beer and waited about half an hour for a table. Lunch spanned from sandwiches to fish & chips to cheeseburgers, complimented by lots of smack talk.
Later, many of us returned to Steve’s place on the mountain for dinner, followed by an excellent slope side fireworks display, courtesy of Wintergreen.
According to my Garmin running watch, we rode a total of 40 miles, including 4,784 feet of climbing. My device doesn’t show grade percentages, but other guys said 18-percent was the max. The initial climb sits on 14-15 percent for quite a while, and that is more than I had ever attempted. It hurt, but I’m glad I did it.
If you want to do the Parkway-only section of this ride, it’s easily accomplished by parking in the lot at the intersection of Beech Grove Rd. and the Blue Ridge Parkway. I haven’t ridden the Parkway south from that spot, but I would imagine it is just as spectacular and would make for some memorable add-on miles. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.
By the way, on the way home we drove the course back to the popcorn stand to grab several bags and some pork rinds to take home. After a ride like that, it’s easy to rationalize about how okay it is to eat more bad food.