The Binge reminds me why I started riding and racing in the first place.
Coming Up with the Idea
In 2013, I went back and forth frequently between Girona, Spain and Asheville, NC. It was the end of the racing season and Jamie and I were back in Asheville and looking for a way to give back to the local community while strengthening our connection to the USA. After splitting time between the two countries, we were looking for something that would create a long-term and lasting tie with our home country.
We had great experiences riding at several gran fondos including the Gran Fondo Hincapie, Dempsey Challenge and Crush Challenge, and saw how popular gran fondos were becoming in the States. These events combined the joy of riding with the sense of community. I had just spent the whole season focused on myself—what I ate, how my legs felt, what I needed to do for training, and etc. I had reached the point where it was really appealing to think about something else for a while and give back to a good cause. So we thought we should create our own version complete with personal touches and ways to showcase our fantastic corner of the world—North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains.
To be honest, I must give Jamie credit for actually creating the Bookwalter Binge. She took those initial thoughts and turned them into reality. The offseason in cycling is extremely short. I was cautious of overcommitting my time and energy, and I was skeptical that we could pull it off with our already limited time. Jamie convinced me that we could do it and we started from scratch to make it happen.
The Name – The Bookwalter Binge
We thought about the name for a long time, and I think I came up with the idea of using the word “Binge”. I often feel like life as a pro cyclist consists of nothing in moderation, one extreme to the next, so the idea of binging out on some riding with big climbs, beautiful roads, fall colors, great friends, food, beers, and stories felt like a nice way to describe it. Not to mention the alliteration with the B made it feel like the perfect choice.
Turning the Bookwalter Binge into Reality
The process of actually creating the Binge was long and arduous! This gave me a completely new appreciation for any “start up” endeavor. It still amazes me the amount of thought, time, love and effort that went into getting it off the ground that first year.
Jamie and I had no experience with any type of startup or event planning/management, so we were literally shooting from the hip and flying by the seats of our pants. It was a tough balance starting out because we knew we wanted to raise money for a worthy cause but needed to cover the initial expenses with moderate entry fees. Also, we learned how incredibly challenging it could be to find sponsors for a new event.
Daily, there were countless details and curveballs. It had us feeling like we had bitten off way more than we could chew, but at that point were committed so we persisted. We definitely didn’t have a smooth run at it with the freak 30-year snowstorm moving in the night before the first edition. There was zero sleep from either of us heading into the first Binge.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
#1: First and foremost--A gran fondo is not best suited for snowy conditions. Yet we also learned that people love a good party regardless of the weather. It’s this community spirit that inspires us to continue the Binge.
#2: It was best to let the professionals handle certain aspects of event planning. We were fortunate enough to find awesome partners and event directors in Jennifer and David Billstrom of Velo Girl Rides, a local guiding and event production crew in the Asheville area. Relying on their insight and expertise has allowed Jamie and I to focus on the aspects of the ride where we are most passionate. Like so many people we’ve met through the Binge, the Billstrom’s have become good friends and have helped connect us with lots of other amazing people.
#3: Organizing a gran fondo is much, much harder than we expected. Fortunately, we met some amazing people along the way---many that we now count as dear friends in Asheville. We never could have pulled it off without them. I now have a new appreciation for any event or race and realize all the thought, work, and time that goes into it. I no longer take for granted the simplest things such as parking, toilets, volunteers, etc.
What Makes The Appalachian Mountains Special
When I came down to college at Lees-McRae, I was in total awe of the mountains, dense forests, rushing rivers and streams, quaint historic farms, and high mountain balds and cliffs. I developed an enthusiasm and passion for riding that I had never felt before. This inspiration from the local landscape propelled me to become the cyclist I am today. Naturally, I’m passionate to share these feelings and showcase these protected areas that I so cherish. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservatory, which serves as both a Binge partner and beneficiary, excels highlighting everything that makes this area so stunning throughout the Binge.
We have been working with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservatory (SAHC/Southern App) since the Binge’s second year. We wanted a cause that everyone could get behind and felt the ideal charity was one that helped protect and preserve the beautiful mountains, forests, rivers, and streams that make the riding in this area so inspiring. They are excited to ride with us and be part of the Binge, and it’s inspiring to have SAHC showoff our corner of the world and teach people through the Binge about land conservation. When you ride the Bookwalter Binge, you can literally see and feel the amazing natural wonders that SAHC has helped protect.
Juggling the Binge with Pro Racing
It’s important to me that I helped create the Binge while still racing. My season is packed with racing, training, traveling and trying to be my best. Racing has always been about so much more to me than just a race or being fit and strong. It’s about the people you meet and the experiences we share. The Binge now serves as an extension and expansion of this feeling and a broader sense of who I am as a professional cyclist. The Binge connects Jamie and me with a passionate group of people and provides our nomadic lifestyle with a deeper sense of community.
How the Bookwalter Binge is Different from other Gran Fondos
While there are definitely some overlaps between the Binge and other fondos, Jamie and I like to think the Bookwalter Binge has its own characteristics that reflect on our personalities and what it is that we love about riding bikes.
The Binge is laidback, fun, accessible, and not too big. The smaller size allows us to personally connect with more people and for all of our participants to overlap with the special guests and pros. We have pro riders riding all three ride distances, so even if you aren’t a peaking semi-pro, you can still share some camaraderie with cycling’s best and learn a few tricks of the trade. The Binge is NOT a race, though we do encourage some healthy competition through multiple timed segments, followed by more relaxed rolling and regrouping in between sections.
At the Binge, we actually use our rest stops for resting, refilling, socializing and regrouping. Our routes are designed so that there is some good overlap between the three ride distances, so if your friend rides a different distance, you most likely will see him/her out there.
Favorite Binge Memories
It’s too hard to pick just one! One of my favorites is definitely how we salvaged the first year from a snow day cancellation to a one-of-a kind party. By having all of our friends and volunteers support us and make the most of that situation, it went a long way to cement the spirit of fun and community that we wanted for the Binge. That attitude lives on today. Many people even joke that they want the original version of the Binge back, so they get to enjoy all the fun parts of the day---beers, stories and hanging out-- without having to haul their butts over all those Appalachian mountains.
My second favorite memory actually happens each year at the Binge--the early morning moment right before the start. You can feel the excitement, togetherness, and realization of all the hard work. It is incredible to stand there shoulder-to-shoulder with Jamie. It really resonates how proud we are of the Binge and gets us excited to get out and ride our favorite roads, with our favorite people, and meet new ones along the way.