Blood, Sweat and Gears rides again
The 15th annual ride began early Saturday in Valle Crucis with moments to remember those who have been injured or killed in the sport they love and moments to celebrate what life holds for those who bike on.
"We number many, but we ride as one," ride director Scott Nelson said.
The opening ceremonies set the tone for a successful ride that saw 1,194 cyclists hit the road and raised an estimated $100,000 for noteworthy causes while providing an economic jolt to the High Country.
Before the 100-mile and 50-mile rides began Saturday, the cyclists and volunteers paused to remember those who have been injured in recent months and those who are now "on the ultimate ride," as Nelson put it.
Those include Antonio Ribeiro of Jacksonville, Fla., a cyclist, father and former Green Beret who was killed May 4 in a cycling accident in Tennessee.
It also includes Jon Clark, another BSG alum who was scheduled to participate this year before getting hit by a tractor-trailer while participating in an event in May, Nelson said. Clark survived but suffered severe injuries, including the loss of one leg, he said.
The opening ceremony also included a marriage proposal from cyclist Ray Reid of Vilas, a 12-time Blood, Sweat & Gears rider.
Reid dropped to one knee in his cycling suit after professing his love for his girlfriend, Melodie.
"Like everybody here, I like to ride bikes," Reid began. " ... But I also love this woman."
The couple had time for one passionate kiss before Reid hopped on his bike to begin the grueling ride.
The 100-mile course followed a tried-and-true route through Shull's Mill and Blowing Rock, along the Blue Ridge Parkway and into Todd before climbing the 18 to 20 percent grade of Snake Mountain and returning to Valle Crucis.
Carrboro resident David Hardy said the difficult course was what brought him back for a fifth year with a group of seven other riders.
"There's always the challenge of doing Snake Mountain, which is always a good judge of whether you're in shape," Hardy said.
Always a scenic ride, the route looked just as picturesque this year under cloudless blue skies and mild temperatures.
"We don't really race it, we ride it, because there is so much to see," said Corry Salisbury of Charlotte, who rode the 50-miler while her husband, Chris Salisbury, rode the full century.
Few know the beauty of the course as well as Jim Harmon, a founder of the race who spent two years coming up with the course in the late 1990s.
This year's honorary starter, Harmon has participated every year except 2004, when he was sidelined by a cycling accident.
"It's just so far beyond expectations," Harmon said, reminiscing about the first ride in 1999. "We had about 130 riders that first year, and we thought, it's a success!"
Today, that success has expanded to bring more fundraising power to the High Country. Saturday's ride will benefit several sources, including about $50,000 to the Red Cross's Jeremy Dale Fisher and the Russell Keene III memorial funds, which provide assistance to families displaced by fires, floods or similar disasters.
The ride also will provide about $15,000 to volunteer fire departments, the sheriff's office and the Watauga Rescue Squad, which assist along the route each year, Nelson said.
Riders and sponsors also have raised money for Nicole Gross of Charlotte and her sister, Erika Brannock, who were injured in the Boston Marathon bombing in April. Gross is a former participant in Blood, Sweat & Gears, Nelson said.
This year BSG also funded a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to Disney World for Bridger Robinson of Morganton, a boy with autism who suffers from a chronic kidney disease.
"When we started this, BSG, and started cranking it up and growing it, we had our heads buried into executing a good ride," Nelson said. " ... We never gave much thought to the idea that we would be in a position to be able to help others like what we did through Make-A-Wish. We never thought of that."
Even those who don't benefit directly from Blood, Sweat and Gears' donations feel its impact, according to organizers.
Hundreds of cyclists from across the nation converge on the area for the weekend, pumping about $1 million into the local economy, according to a study conducted by Appalachian State University, Nelson said. The university is continuing to track the impact of the event.
Nelson said the board of directors continues to search for ways to improve the experience for riders and prolong their stays in the area. The event now includes several training rides in the spring and for the first time this year "Blood, Sweat and Cheers," a post-ride party at the Jones House in Boone.
Several cyclists said it's the experience of the entire weekend that keeps them coming back year after year.
Rick Brandow, a five-time participant from West Chester, Penn., returned for 2013 with his son, Bill, a three-time participant, and his daughter, Becky, who was riding for the first time.
"It's all new every year, even though it's the same roads," Brandow said.