By Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent
About a year ago, Patrick O’Neal bought an old, chrome-rimmed Schwinn bicycle. He was just looking for an alternative way to get to class from his off-campus dorm. Now he spends most weekends enduring long periods of what he and other cyclists acknowledge as a kind of physical and mental punishment.
It is a grinding workout routine. The Western Carolina University senior spends his weekends pedaling several dozen mountain miles and speaks with enthusiasm about “putting your body through hell.”
“It’s pretty much my whole life right now,” O’Neal said.
What looked like a risk to some was a dream for Diane Cutler and Andy Zivinsky.
My people are rooted in the South. On both mom’s and dad’s sides of the family, very few have moved far from North and South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. It’s not one town or a single homeplace we embrace, but nearby relatives and their pull, a blood kinship that runs deeper than my understanding of it.
Because of that — or, perhaps, in spite of it — I grew up with a bit of wanderlust. During high school and college, there were summer adventures with friends to the Carolina coast, out west and down to the Gulf of Mexico, trips where I took whatever work I could and used the money to move around a bit more.
This year’s Aug. 17 Blue Ridge Breakaway is hoping to attract nearly 600 cyclists to Haywood County, and leading those riders out of the gate will be Asheville resident and Olympic medalist Lauren Tamayo.
The 29-year-old Tamayo won a silver medal on her bike last summer in London.
You’ve got your chain well-oiled, air in your tires and water in your bottles. You are all set for a bicycle ride in Haywood County but haven’t the slightest idea where to go.
To help lost tourists with bicycles mounted on their vehicles and locals who may not know the rural areas of the county, bicycle advocates and tourism promoters have teamed up to print a guide to six of Haywood’s best rides. For each route, the guide includes a map with an elevation profile, turn-by-turn directions, and a brief description on what riders should expect and the scenery they’ll encounter.
By Paul Clark • Contributing writer
Hundreds of bicyclists will soon be zipping along the scenic byways of Haywood County during the Blue Ridge Breakaway, challenging not only themselves but also the perception that cyclists and cars do not mix.
None of the four rides in the Breakaway is a race, but organizers hope that all of them will show Haywood County that cars and bikes don’t have to compete, said route director Cecil Yount. He was one of several people who contributed and presented to the Haywood County commissioners a comprehensive bicycle plan that links Canton, Clyde, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
By Jack Moore • Contributor
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost,” and he may as well have been writing about bicycle tourists. This time of year in the Smokies it’s not uncommon to see a cyclist, bike loaded with gear, struggling up and over one of our many mountain passes.
You might imagine they are on some grand adventure circumnavigating the globe or at least crossing the country in some epic voyage. You may be right, or it could be that this is one of your cycling neighbors out for a short overnight bicycle camping trip.
Anyone can run or bike. And if any two people could testify to that, it’s Gerri Grady and Hugh Lambert.
Both Grady and Lambert have used exercise to overcome health problems. Now, both are leaders in two separate exercise- and social-centric clubs in Cherokee, aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles among members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Back in the 1990s, Grady, a founding member of the Cherokee Runners, could hardly walk, let alone run.
“I started walking because I was a heavy smoker,” said Grady, secretary of the running club. “God. I could barely walk.”
Following the death of her mother from asthma-related complications in the mid-1990s, Grady was determined to get fit and began strolling a 3-mile circuit a couple of times a week with her sister.
“I got scared because of that,” she said of her mother’s death.
Walking eventually gave way to running, and in 2001, Grady ran her first 5K and quit smoking. Now, she is a dedicated runner.
Like Grady, Lambert battled his own health problems — including sleep apnea and diabetes — before he took up cycling and started Cherokee Riders Cycling Club. Formerly 300 pounds, a now 205-pound Lambert has made strides to improve his overall health.
“There is no magic pill,” he said. “Take responsibility for your own health and actions.”
Lambert tried road cycling in college but did not keep it up. In the mid-90s, he tried again with mountain biking, but his carpel tunnel caused his hands to numb.
However, last year when Lambert heard about a Trail of Tears bike ride, things changed.
“I just had to do it,” he said.
Remember the Removal is an annual three-week bicycle ride commemorating the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its homelands during the 1830s - a brutal march where thousands of Cherokee perished from starvation and exposure. Riders retrace the route of the Trail of Tears through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and finally to Oklahoma. The ride is exclusive, only seven or eight ECBI members can participate each year. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma also sends 10 cyclists to complete the ride.
Desiring to be one of those, Lambert bought a bike and began self-training last spring. He figured that if he could ride 6.5 miles from Cherokee to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which climbs more than 3,000 feet in elevation, then he would be able to make the 950-mile trek to Oklahoma.
“It took me 3.5 hours to not make it half way,” said Lambert, who was impeded by some late winter snow.
But, two weeks later, he completed a similar length ride in Sylva and improved from there.
For years, Grady ran only with fellow enthusiasts from her family, but she continued to see other familiar faces along her running routes.
“I always saw the same people out on the trail,” Grady said.
When winter came, Grady moved inside to a local fitness center, and those familiar faces followed.
“And again, we are seeing all these people who have the same enjoyment,” she said.
However, it was not until spring 2009 when Grady and some of her family members went on vacation to Myrtle Beach that the idea of a running club initially arose. To gauge people’s interest, Grady sent out a Facebook message to her friends, many of whom also ran, advertising a meet-up and the possible formation of a running club.
“Oddly enough, here they came,” Grady said. “It’s just awesome.”
Cherokee Runners has grown from 15 to 40 members since its first meeting. And, as an official club, members have crossed the finish line in three marathons and countless half-marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks.
Members of the club meet regularly throughout the week with a longer run scheduled for Sundays. After a jaunt, the runners eat oranges and socialize while cooling down, Grady said.
“It’s not about competition so much as it is about health and fitness, and social (experiences),” she said, adding that anyone can join.
Taking a cue from the Cherokee Runners, Lambert decided to gather other cycling lovers and form the mountain and road biking club — Cherokee Riders.
“Mostly, we liked to ride, and we wanted to get other people involved,” he said.
Although it is not yet an official club, Cherokee Riders already has 10 members. It hopes to gain official club status, which includes crafting bylaws and membership applications, by the end of the month.
A main focus of the club is to raise money for Remember the Removal participants and help train them. The ride costs about $5,000 per person, as each is custom fitted with a bike.
This year, 22 people applied to be one of the seven who gets to represent the Eastern Band on the three-week ride.
During the ride, members of the national nonprofit Trail of Tears Association meet with the riders to give talks and programs during their overnight stops. Participants are “exposed to culturally significant places” along the way, he said. “Everybody who’s gone on the ride said it changed their life.”
As part of its mission statement, the Cherokee Runners participate in health fairs, training programs and hosts lectures. Speakers give a rundown of what to wear when exercising during the bone-chilling winter months and the sizzling summer months, how to deal with injuries, and training techniques. All of these outside activities are aimed at promoting exercise and fitness to residents of Cherokee.
“We try to be in the community, visible,” Grady said.
The club also sponsors runs and plans to hold a summer running camp for community members.
In the future, Grady and Lambert said they hope both clubs can work together toward their common goal — to get people to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“They (the running club) are kind of a role model for community involvement,” Lambert said.
Once it’s more established, Cherokee Riders plans to offer bike safety courses, kids camps, training and, if the funds become available, a bike rental program.
Haywood County is one step closer to getting a defined bike route traversing the county and improved cycling amenities.
The county commissioners approved a comprehensive countywide bicycle plan at its meeting Monday (Nov. 7). The plan aims to get more people on their bikes, whether for commuting or recreation, by making it safer and more convenient.
The proposal includes a central route that connects Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Clyde and Canton.
Members of Bicycle Haywood N.C., the group spearheading the plan, have been making the rounds to town and county leaders looking for an endorsement of the plan. They have gone before every board so far except Canton.
The group was “met with outstanding responses,” said Cecil Yount, a member of Bicycle Haywood N.C.
A future path would also incorporate U.S. 276, U.S. 19, U.S. 23/74, Interstate 40 and N.C. 209, among others.
Overall, the total cost of the recommendations is between $64 million and $114 million — much of the estimated cost involves road projects that are already in the works.
Better accommodations for cyclists could be added to the road projects for “very little additional costs,” such as bike lanes and signage, said County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger.
No county funding will pay for the project, but the county may apply for grants, Swanger said.
The proposal is comprised of five E’s: education, encouragement, enforcement, engineering and evaluation.
Engineering would involve connecting a designated cross-county bike route to greenways, adding signage, repainting road marks and ensuring that intersections do not pose a safety threat to cyclists. A number of the recommendations include adding four- to six-foot wide shoulders along the side of the road.
“The good thing is that it gives you space to ride,” said Don Kostelec, a consultant hired to oversee the plan.
Education and encouragement include offering classes about bicycle safety and rules of the road, promoting healthy living and helping kids find safe bike routes to school. Enforcement simply means working with the police department, cyclists and drives to make the commute safer.
From 1997 to 2008, Haywood County reported 21 bicycle crashes; of those, 8 involved a person who was 17 years old or younger.
Once the plan begins, the committee will evaluate how many people use the bike route, participate in the classes and other cycling activities.
“I think it’s a quality of life issue,” said Swanger. “I think to have a safe place to ride is important.”
The path will also attract visitors to the region, stimulating the local economy.
According to a survey of a little more than 20 participants, the Blue Ridge Breakaway, an annual bike ride based in Haywood, the majority of respondents spent the night in Haywood County and stayed an average of 4.3 days, spending anywhere from $30 to $400 a day on accommodations.
There is no definitive timeline to complete the project, but Bicycle Haywood N.C. hopes to begin offering classes soon and would like to see towns add bicycle racks.
“This whole thing will take a while to do,” Swanger said.
The planning process began in April, and several public input meetings were held to get feedback about a possible route.
The idea got its start when members of the newly formed Bicycle Haywood N.C. decided last year that Haywood was lacking in formal communication among cyclists, county residents and local and governmental organizations, including the Department of Transportation and the Haywood County Recreation and Parks department.
The group of cycling enthusiasts received a $50,000 grant to develop the comprehensive plan — $40,000 of which came from the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization. The organization is responsible for transportation planning in Buncombe, Haywood and Henderson counties. The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Mast General Store, the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club and members of Bicycle Haywood N.C. donated the remaining $10,000.
Survey says: we like bikes
This year, Bicycle Haywood N.C. surveyed county residents about what bicycle-related improvements they would like to see, and 151 people responded.
• Mark road shoulders as bike lanes: 75.7 percent
• Build off-road multi-use trails/greenways: 74.3 percent
• See more “share the road” signs: 56.6 percent
• Offer bike accommodations on bridges: 53.3 percent
• Have more bike racks: 36.8 percent
• Have wider sidewalks on bridges: 36.2 percent
• Post way-finding signs: 36.2 percent
• Incorporate an environmentally friendly design: 35.5 percent
To see the comprehensive bike plan, including specific recommendations for making your community more bike-friendly, go to bicyclehaywoodnc.org/BikePlan.html.
For a good part of the past decade I have spent a lot of time riding and racing my bike. That is, up until the last few years, when starting both a career and a family finally brought an abrupt halt to my bike racing schedule. Long, daily training rides and weekends on the road traveling to races simply no longer fit into my lifestyle.
As this past summer waned, I began to get that competitive itch again. I had been hearing a lot of buzz about cyclocross, a no-holds-barred, off-road race that several of my friends talked about constantly. I noticed a flyer for a local fall race series near Asheville. What the heck, I thought, the races are relatively short, so how hard could it be? Like it or not, I was hooked already, before I had even lined up at the start.
A few years back I had bought a cyclocross-style bike off of E-bay for the gravel roads near my parent’s home. At the time it had seemed like a good bike for rambling around on Sunday afternoons. Little did I realize that I would soon be hammering that bike across a muddy field, wheel to wheel, handlebar to handlebar with other riders.
Fast forward to late September. I was lined up with several dozen other intrepid souls in a grassy field north of Asheville. The first timers exchanged nervous glances, each wondering what the next half hour would hold. I reminded myself that I was under no pressure to be competitive, after all, this is only for fun, right?
Bang! The start gun interrupted my moment of inner reflection. Like a shot we are off, 40 racers scrambling for position up a grassy incline, wheels rubbing and shoulders bumping as we jostled for position before the first of many tight turns.
The course repeatedly wound back upon itself in a myriad of snake-like, 180-degree turns. I slammed on my brakes as we hurtled into the first turn, almost coming to a complete stop to negotiate through the U-shaped path. Once through the turn, I immediately stood on my pedals and gave it everything I could muster to keep up with the surging field of racers.
Almost as soon as I got up to full speed, we hit another tight turn. The dirt path we were racing on was slick thanks to the ever present drizzle hanging in the misty fall mountain air. Boom! A skinny dude on a sleek looking race bike hit the muddy deck just in front of me, taking down two others with him. Immediately they sprang off the ground and begin running with their bikes as I churned past them up the first of several short, but steep climbs around the course. “Welcome to cyclocross,” I thought in my head …
As you read this, you’re probably wondering, “What the heck is this brutal event called cyclocross?” You aren’t alone. Until recently, many Americans had never heard of it. It originated in Europe, where road biking is a popular sport — think Tour de France. Most road races are held in the late spring or summer to avoid cold weather. Cyclocross began as an outlet for bicycle racers to train and have fun on their bikes during the off season.
Races are held primarily off road on specially designed courses with tight, twisty turns and a variety of obstacles such as mud, sand, stairs, and wooden barriers that require the rider to dismount from the bike and run for short distances. It is these obstacles that truly make cyclocross different.
Oh, and did I mention the weather? Because of the seasonal aspect of cross racing, the weather can be nasty! Rain, snow, mud—anything goes. The nastier the weather, the more cross aficionados love it. Cross races seldom get cancelled due to the weather.
One thing that makes cross racing so unique is the sheer intensity. Cyclocross races are short, generally only running from 30 minutes to an hour in duration. There are no breaks in a cross race so racers give it full gas for the entire race.
Either you are sprinting out of a corner, jumping over obstacles, or carrying your bike up a flight of stairs at a full run. In the simple words of one of my racing cohorts a few weeks ago, “that was freakin’ hard!”
Some ‘cross racers use mountain bikes to race, but the primary steed of choice for serious cyclocrossers is a skinny-tired bicycle with drop handlebars, very similar to a road bike. Although similar to a road bicycle, it has unique features such as knobby tires, mountain bike style brakes, and extra room for muddy tires to clear the bike frame.
One last element of ‘cross racing can’t be overlooked — the party. It’s impossible to show up at a cyclocross race, either as a spectator or a racer, and not have fun. At the larger races, spectators line the race course, clanging cowbells and yelling encouragement at the participants. Usually the event has a beer sponsor, which always adds to the revelry. For many of the enthusiast level racers, the post-race libations are as much a part of the event as the race itself!
My own personal half hour of pain wasn’t getting any easier. I felt like my heart was going to explode as my lungs strained for gasps of dirt-filled air. I continued to mash the pedals around each turn and up every climb.
“One lap to go,” yelled the race announcer! I put my head down and pushed on. Around the turns and through the mud, then one more time over the barriers. “Stick a fork in me, I’m done,” I thought to myself as I rounded the last turn. Despite the pain, I somehow found just enough in reserve to sprint for the finish line, surprising myself as much as the three racers I passed at the end.
After the race it was it was all handshakes and laughter as the muddy racers gathered together. Each of us had our own personal stories about “turn three” or “that little, steep climb at the back.” Someone shoved an ice cold can of beer in my hand and asked if I would be back next week. Would I? Absolutely.
— By Jamie Arnold • Guest writer