Olympian to lead riders in fourth Blue Ridge Breakaway
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.
She pointed out, though, that her medal-winning event was a three-kilometer team sprint that clocked in at just over three minutes on the track. That kind of ride didn’t necessarily prepare her for a grueling, 105-mile jaunt in the Smokies. So as of last week, she was still pondering which of the four Breakaway rides she would tackle.
“My event was only three kilometers,” Tamayo said. “One hundred (miles) is a lot longer than that.”
What the Asheville-based cyclist is looking forward to in this year’s Breakaway is exploring a different part of WNC, a bit to the west of her typical training circuits. She also realizes that events like the Blue Ridge Breakaway are helping to make a name for the Southern Appalachians as a premier place to cycle by putting its best rides on display.
And she hopes her appearance will help promote the sport among women in the area, a demographic she says is taking a growing interest in the sport as of late. For this year’s Breakaway, about a third of the registrants are female riders.
“The past two years, I love actually seeing a lot of females out riding,” she said. “It’s really awesome to see because cycling has always been deemed a male sport.”
Tamayo is definitely part of a sport that is exploding in popularity in the region. Since its inception in 2010, the Blue Ridge Breakaway has nearly doubled in size. The first ride attracted nearly 300 riders, while this year organizers expect to sign up somewhere close to 600.
“In four years, it has grown to be a signature event,” said Race Director Cecil Yount. “We’re all extraordinarily pleased with that.”
The breakaway offers stunning views of the Smoky Mountain scenery, with routes of varying distances running from Lake Junaluska to the Blue Ridge Parkway to Fines Creek and everywhere in between. Each of the four rides has its own name — the Rabbit (25 miles), the Panther (40 miles), the Trout (62 miles) and the Hawk (105 miles).
But it’s the Hawk, the century ride that follows a 32-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway that is really helping the breakaway make a name for itself.
“That’s a massive draw,” said Yount. “And it’s paired with phenomenal country to ride in.”
And many of those riders are traveling long distances, as word spreads through the biking community, for a chance to ride the historic road usually dominated by motor vehicles. In his influential blog steepclimbs.com, writer/rider Aaron West named the Blue Ridge Breakaway his 2011 Ride of the Year. He participated in the 105-mile Hawk, which he is planning to ride again this year. He wrote last week on his blog that the Hawk could once again be his ride of the year. Here’s why:
“Two years later, and I’m coming back. Blue Ridge Breakaway out of Lake Junaluska is still among my favorite organized mountain rides. It was my Ride of the Year in 2011, and could end up repeating this year … Why do I enjoy this ride so much? First off, it is a tremendous challenge, but not one that’s going to wreck your body like Assault on Mount Mitchell or last weekend’s Boone Gran Fondo. It is not one to take lightly, as it is 105 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing, but aside from some challenging rolling hills around the beginning, there are not many back-breaking steep hills. I can handle 6-8% grades, even if the climbs are long … Of all ‘cookie’ rides in which I’ve participated, this one has the most mileage on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Riding on the parkway is a treat, pure and simple, and I’m looking forward to getting back up there.”
The breakaway has attracted riders from 15 different states and a handful of countries — among them Germany, Guam, Canada and Kenya. Out of the 500 or so riders that signed up last year, only one out of 10 was from Haywood County. About two-thirds of the participants traveled an hour and a half or more, usually along with family and friends, just to be a part.
And that influx of cyclists to the area doesn’t only make for a good ride. The Blue Ridge Breakaway is becoming a verifiable pick-me-up for the August tourism sector in the midst of the peak season doldrums — after the July rush and before the leaf-looker blitz.
Sponsored by the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, the organization pegs the rides economic impact at more than $150,000.
So, if local drivers get frustrated having to go extra slow and share the road with packs of cyclists on the day of the race, Yount jokingly offers a simple visualization technique.
“I suggest people see dollar bills on their heads if they get angry,” he said.
There’s no telling how many riders will turn out for this year’s ride. Although early registration is a bit ahead of last year’s pace, its not as far along organizers would like it to be. Many fault this year’s relentless rain for that, which definitely doesn’t push people to get on their bikes, and organizers expect a registration rush if the forecast looks promising.
Apart from an Olympic athlete, the ride is also getting a boost from a slew of dedicated volunteers. From the folks manning the rest stops to the motorcycle sag wagons to the Ham radio operators, takes about 250 volunteers to put on a race like the Blue Ridge Breakaway.
For Ham radio operator Al Sanders, the breakaway is not just about the bike. Though it was invented nearly 100 years before radio, the two work in perfect unison on Breakaway day.
“When the chips are really down, we’re one of the only things that likely still works,” Sanders said. “We’re available when all else fails.”
Though not very apocalyptic sounding, a bicycle ride through Haywood County is about all it takes to make all else fail. With a rugged terrain and nearly 20 peaks over 6,000 feet in elevation, the ham radio is the form of communication race organizers rely on to cover the entire county because it is more reliable than cell phones, smart tablets and text messages.
The radios are used for communication and linked with GPS units attached to the motorcycles of volunteers. Those units in turn feed back to a command station where organizers can watch the movements of and talk with volunteers on the road. If an accident should occur, help is on the way as quickly as possible. Not bad for old technology.
“A lot of folks think Ham radio is an old and going away thing,” Sander said.
But Yount insisted you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong, ham radio expert or motorcycle man to be part of the race. Bystanders and fans are just as important. He urged anybody with some free time to get to the top of one of the climbs — Rabbit Skin, Hyder Mountain or the Parkway at N.C. 215 — to give the riders an emotional boost.
“Cheer them on,” Yount said. “Ring some cowbells and shout out some encouragement.”
Want to ride?
The Aug. 17 Blue Ridge Breakaway is still signing up riders and volunteers.
Cyclists can register in person from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Aug.16, and 6 to 6:30 a.m. on the day of the ride at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center Visitor Center. Online registration closes at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15.
There are four ride options, in varying difficulty and length, from the 24-mile Rabbit to the 105-mile Hawk. Registration is $54, except for the Rabbit, which is $45. All routes will begin at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 17.