Three friends bike 140 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, fueled by sheer will and beer
By Graham Averill
We’re sitting on top of the world when we realize we’ve run out of food. Okay, maybe not the top of the world. We’re at 6,053 feet, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. There’s a big sign that says so. And we pedaled our bikes here, so considering the effort, it feels like the top of the world. Green peaks roll away at our feet as we empty the contents of our packs looking for food. Between the three of us, we have a tiny packet of jellybeans and a quart of very warm IPA. We have roughly 35 miles left to ride today, most of which is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile-long ridgeline national park that is gorgeous, but desolate. No gas stations, no cafés, no Kentucky Fried Chickens.
“I’m starting to get shaky,” Jeff says.
Jeremiah hasn’t spoken in an hour. I sense a mutiny.
We do the only thing you can do in this situation. We divvy up the jellybeans and crack open the IPA, hoping their calories will sustain us for the next three hours of biking.
I didn’t mention anything about hunger pangs when I pitched this trip to Jeff and Jeremiah. It was supposed to be a homegrown version of a grand European brewery bike tour (read: cheaper). Instead of pedaling through the rolling hills of Belgium, stopping to sip handcrafted farmhouse ales and eat cheese, we’d cruise through the Southern Appalachians connecting small-town breweries. Three out-of-shape friends, six breweries, 140 miles of mountain roads… nirvana.
The tour kicked off at the year-old Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City, a small town on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The brewery and tasting room are inside an old Tennessee Valley Authority warehouse, retaining its functional charm with concrete floors and brushed tin paneling on the walls. Whitewater boats hang on the walls.
We drank the Bryson City Browns fast, giddy with anticipation for our big adventure. The motto for the weekend: All good bike rides begin with a beer. All great bike rides begin with three.
We pedaled a full mile outside of Bryson City before stopping for our first snack break, buying a Snickers from a gas station that also sells live bait, then headed east on a narrow two-lane road that follows the shallow Tuckaseegee River, passing by pocket farms with rows of corn and crowing roosters. The Southern Appalachians rose from the narrow river valley. In an hour, we had pedaled the 20 miles to Sylva, a university town of 2,000 with two breweries.
Heinzelmännchen Brewery is a boutique operation inside a small, sparse room off Main Street. There were gnomes everywhere (the place’s slogan: “Your gnome town brewery”) and a sweet grandma pulled the taps. You can’t find Henizelmännchen outside of Sylva. Ditto for most of the breweries on our list; the hyperlocal nature of the beer is one of the reasons we chose this route. It’s like hunting rare game.
Owner Dieter Kuhn is a bulky German who brews easy-drinking altbier meant to complement a meal. We showed up in time for one of Dieter’s monthly beer and food pairings, and sipped Black Forest Stout from tiny 2-ounce cups while devouring roast beef sliders.
It was noon the next day before we climbed the steep gravel road to the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative. We had to blame the late start on our leisurely breakfast and subsequent hour-long latte sipping session.
“Do you think this is how Lance starts his big rides?” Jeremiah joked in the air-conditioned coffee house. Nobody was laughing as we ground up the gravel in 85-degree heat while skinny dogs heckled us from their pins. We had hours of climbing ahead of us. But first, there was beer.
Tuck Brewing is a nanobrewery inside Sean O’Connell’s detached garage. Sean, a microbiology professor at Western Carolina University, is going for a true cooperative model, where members contribute time, money and ingredients. The garage/brewery is messy-chic. There’s a kayak that’s been converted into a double tap, a tub of blackberries fermenting on the floor, and punk/Celtic fusion playing on the iPod.
“I don’t even want to distribute,” Sean says as he pours us each a tall Bonas Defeat IPA. “I like the fact that you have to tackle that monster hill to get this beer. You want it, come and get it.”
If people get a taste of the Bonas Defeat, they’ll climb the hill. It’s a bit floral, not too bitter and completely delicious. So we drank four each, then stuffed a large bottle of it in my backpack for the road, setting off on our massive climb to 6,053 feet.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is quiet, with sporadic views of the lush valleys to the west, but the climbing never stops. Jeff cranked his iPod through portable speakers. Phil Collins helped ease the pain.
The breeze kicked in at 5,200 feet. The trees transitioned from hardwoods to beautiful Fraser firs while massive boulders and cliffs accentuated the landscape. It was as if we’d pedaled to Colorado. We high-fived each other for climbing to one of the highest points in the Eastern U.S., then rationed out the jellybeans and steeled ourselves for the 35-mile ride to Brevard.
The scenery was beautiful, but we were too hungry to care. The carrot at the end of the stick was the Hub, a bike shop/bar, which we reached just before closing time.
Mountain bike videos flickered on the flat screen. The Allman Brothers crooned on the stereo. There were three different local beers on tap. It felt like home.
That night, we squeezed our bikes into a tiny room at the Hampton Inn and slept the sleep of the old and tired. The next morning, we devoured waffles while watching eager summer campers and sad parents linger in the breakfast nook. Jeremiah confessed that he pulled a knife on some kid when he was nine. “That’s how I got kicked out of camp.”
The winding country road from the Hub to our next brewery passed through a farming valley stacked with black cows and dilapidated barns. We transitioned from farmland to the small-town vibe of Hendersonville before landing at the brand-new Southern Appalachian Brewery, a hip establishment with wide-open garage doors and custom iron tables.
I set a round on our table, but morale is “Lord of the Flies” low. Jeff suggested catching a ride and scrapping the final leg of the trip back to Asheville.
Appalachian’s Black Bear Stout is on the money: smoky with a hint of chocolate. It’s just what we needed to rally.
We pedaled to Asheville on a busy four-lane highway, getting buzzed by truckers. It’s a forgettable 25-mile ride through one giant strip mall, but we were pretty stoked about being able to pull into a Burger King at will.
The big finish was at Wedge Brewing, a bohemian joint in Asheville’s trendy River Arts District famous for brewing high-gravity beer. Choose haphazardly, and you’ll find yourself drinking what is basically a very tasty malt liquor.
I ordered a pitcher of witbier and settled into a table on the patio, which is surrounded by schizophrenic ironwork. A taco truck sits in front of the brewery and hipsters with their dogs were everywhere. A whimsical trio played in the corner. They even had a kazoo. We were tired and I’d been wearing the same bike clothes for three days straight, but there’s something about a fresh pitcher of beer and a grown man playing a kazoo that makes you smile. •