The Blue Ridge Parkway may have been designed as a scenic byway for motorists, but it has become a challenging and thrilling way to exercise with a road bike. Tens of thousands (if not more) cyclists will use the gorgeous vistas of the Parkway as their exercise gym, touring as little as a few miles to as much as all 469 miles from Cherokee, NC to Rockfish Gap, VA.
Cycling The Blue Ridge Parkway
Who Can Ride?
Riding on the Parkway is not for everyone. Given that it is a high-elevation, mountainous byway, the road is generally going either up or down. There are not many flat sections. While the descents are thrilling, you have to climb up first, and that’s not exactly easy. Needless to say, the Blue Ridge Parkway should not be your first bike ride. It requires a base fitness level that can be achieved by riding on rolling hills for a lengthy duration.
One rule of thumb is to consider the Parkway twice as difficult as rolling hills and three times as difficult as flats. If you can only ride 100 miles on flat ground, you can probably handle 30 or more on the Parkway. If you can ride 100 miles with a lot of hills, you can probably handle 50 on the Parkway. It is recommend that you plan your ride, know the length of any potential climbs, and err on the side of caution.
Making the Grade
Unlike many other mountainous highways, the Parkway has a manageable grade. Parkways roads are generally not as steep as similar roads in the mountains. With a few exceptions, the grade generally ranges at a maximum of 6-8%. The engineers were wise to limit the grade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the climbs are easy. There are several areas where that moderate grade will go on for miles and miles and miles. Many climbs are over 8 miles in duration. If you happen to be anywhere near Mount Pisgah near Asheville or Apple Orchard in Virginia, you could be on a climb that goes on for 13 miles.
The long climbs are there, but they are few and far between. The majority of the long climbs are between Asheville and Cherokee, NC, or just north of Roanoke, VA. What you can usually expect is a lot of up and down, with short 1-2 mile hills that gain a few hundred feet in elevation. This is a pleasant type of riding, as the heavy efforts are interrupted by pleasant, scenic descents.
Even though the Parkway is rarely steep, the roads that lead to the Parkway can be among the steepest and most difficult climbs in the area. Depending on where you choose to ride from, you could encounter lengthy roads with double-digit grades. Be careful if you leave the Parkway to know the terrain and what you can handle.
Watch Out for Traffic
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular site for motorists. Thanks to increased bike traffic and carefully placed signs, drivers are now more aware of cyclists than ever before, but that doesn’t mean they are always watching for you.
If at all possible, try to do your riding in the early morning hours and during weekdays. By far, the busiest periods for vehicle traffic are sunny, weekend afternoons. Be mindful of higher traffic areas such as the 20-miles north and south of Asheville, NC and Roanoke, VA. Also be aware of popular tourist destinations such as Peaks of Otter, VA, Mount Mitchell, NC, and Linville Cove, Grandfather Mountain, NC.
The most important thing you can do to remain safe on the Parkway is to be visible. This can be either by wearing bright clothing, by carrying reflective lights, or preferably both. Drivers can be distracted by the natural scenery, and need as much visual warning of your presence as possible.
The best way to be visible to traffic is by traveling in numbers. A group is larger and easier to see than an individual rider. If you’re planning to ride on the parkway, do what you can to find other like-minded cyclist to join along.
The Blue Ridge Parkway has a number of lengthy, dark tunnels. The majority of these are in North Carolina, with only one in Virginia at mile marker 53. It is imperative that you carry a rear blinker at all times on the Parkway. If you expect to be riding into tunnels, be sure to have a high wattage headlight on your bike. I have ridden the longest tunnel with a weak light, and found it to be insufficient and quite scary.
Even on a nice day, visibility on the Parkway can be unpredictable. With elevations that reach as high as 6,000 feet, you can climb into and out of clouds. Do not be surprised to be enveloped in a dense, misty murk, only to escape it into bright sunshine. This is yet another reason for keeping both front and rear lights on the bike while riding. Lights with blink or strobe features are most effective, as they have a better chance of being seen in the fog.
Riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway is very much like a roller coaster. You have to climb up to the top slowly, but once you arrive, the thrill ride begins. Parkway descents are an exhilarating adrenaline rush, and they are one of the terrific attractions for cyclists. Who wouldn’t want to bomb down a hill at speeds above 40 miles per hour?
Novices can rest easy knowing that Parkway descents are not very technical. They have twists and turns, but for the most part these are gradual and do not often require a lot of braking. When there are tighter twists, there are usually warning signs. I’ve found that as long as the bike maintains the recommended speed on the signs, that it can easily handle them.
Because of the moderate grades, most climbs do not give riders the opportunity to pick up enough speed to become dangerous. Even the long descents can be broken up into chunks. For example, the descent from Richland Balsam, the high point of the Parkway, to Balsam Gap is over 10 miles, but it is interrupted by some level sections and even a couple slight bumps where riders will need their climbing gears.
As always, be careful when descending. You can usually take the full lane without a problem, and usually will descend as fast as cars, but there are some hot rods that ride the Parkway and you need to keep your wits. Try to remain to the right if possible. As tough as it is to stop descending, do not hesitate to pull off at one of the many overlooks if a line of cars is behind you. That’ll be more comfortable than letting them pass you at high speeds while descending a mountain.
Most importantly, have fun and clean up after yourself. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a natural treasure and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Please do not litter. Be respectful of the park service and the natural environment.
Read more about mountain cycling on Aaron’s blog steepclimbs.com