Blood, Sweat and Gears returns
by Kellen Moore
But there is something special about Blood, Sweat and Gears that even organizers can't quite figure out.
The combination of alluring factors will again draw 1,250 cyclists and dozens of supporters to the High Country this weekend for the 14th annual ride.
"They keep coming back," said Scott Nelson, president of BSG Events. "It's our volunteers, it's our sponsors, it's the mountains, the law enforcement agencies, it's our volunteer fire departments " all of this combined creates this Blood, Sweat and Gears magic."
That magic leads to more than just a rider's high for the participants " it also raises thousands of dollars annually for the Watauga County Red Cross chapter and injected about $892,000 into the local economy last year, according to ASU research.
The grueling 100-mile ride begins again this year at 7:30 a.m. Saturday in Valle Crucis, winding through the county and featuring a jaw-dropping climb up Snake Mountain before slipping into Tennessee and heading back.
A 52-mile route also provides a challenge for a second group of 500 riders.
The annual event is so popular that the 750 slots in the century ride sold out in about seven hours, and the half-century sold out in about 10 hours.
Seventy percent of the riders have competed in Blood, Sweat and Gears before, Nelson said.
While organizers are careful to call it a ride " not a race " riders at every level are competing in some way, Nelson said, whether it's for bragging rights, a new personal record or just challenging themselves for their best performances.
Nelson said he sometimes sees cyclists crossing the finish line after a great ride with tears in their eyes because of what they overcame.
"For some guys, yeah, they're going to pack up the bike, go home and do this next weekend somewhere else," Nelson said. "For a lot of people, it's more emotional."
It's likely to be an emotional day for Bonnie Hiatt, the widow of longtime cyclist Mark Hiatt, who rode the half-century last year despite battling melanoma and kidney problems. He died late last year, but his spirit lives on through the ride. Bonnie Hiatt will serve as honorary starter at Saturday's ride, starting a new tradition.
But even those who don't have a personal connection to Blood, Sweat and Gears have been affected by the ride.
This year's event will draw visitors from 29 states, including many from North Carolina and Florida, Nelson said. The Southern states are well-represented, but a few others will come from California, Arizona and even parts of Canada, he said.
John Greeson, now a graduate of Appalachian State University, studied the economic impact of Blood, Sweat and Gears in conjunction with Professor John Whitehead last year.
The survey of BSG participants asked each how much they spent in the High Country during the event as well as during training trips beforehand. About 30 percent of respondents said they had traveled to the Boone area earlier to test-ride the hills, Whitehead said.
Greeson extrapolated the results and came up with a total of about $892,000 brought into the High Country by out-of-town participants, Whitehead said.
Shaw Brown, owner of Boone Bike & Touring, has seen the ride from both sides: participant and business owner.
His store stays open two hours late the night before the ride to sell last-minute needs. The week before the ride, the staff stays busy, often installing easier-to-pedal gears on bicycles. Many staff members also ride in or assist with the event.
"It's probably our busiest couple of weeks of the year," Brown said.
Blood, Sweat and Gears also provides about $70,000 each year to the Watauga County Red Cross chapter. That money goes into the Jeremy Dale Fisher and the Russell funds, which provide assistance to families displaced by fires, floods or similar disasters.
Executive director Rebecca Matherly said those funds provide food, clothing and shelter for local families after disasters and go toward disaster response training for local groups.
Nelson said BSG also provides several thousand dollars to volunteer fire departments and the Watauga County Sheriff's Office in thanks for their volunteer efforts ensuring safety along the route.
While adding hundreds of cyclists on the roads Saturday morning may be a headache for some drivers, Nelson said he hopes High Country residents will see the value.
"It's an inconvenience that's maybe worth having," Nelson said.