Bookwalter Binge back for the first time

Fred McCormick

Unseasonably snowy fall weather played a factor in what would have been the inaugural Bookwalter Binge Gran Fondo last year. In fact, a system moving through the Swannanoa Valley kept the wheels of hundreds of bicycles from touching the pavement at all.

Instead over 200 people spent the day at Pisgah Brewing Co. and raised money for Trips for Kids WNC, a nonprofit organization that exposes at-risk children to the sport of cycling.

This year professional cyclist Brent Bookwalter and his wife Jamie are again welcoming some big names in the sport to the Swannanoa Valley to raise money for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

Brent, who began racing for the BMC Racing Team in 2008, said that the idea for a gran fondo in the area came from a desire to connect with WNC.

“Jamie and I have lived this life the last few years that has been a serious adventure,” he said. “We get to travel all over the world and live in different places. My life is largely centered around racing and being the best that I can be in the short period of time I have as a professional cyclist. Since we moved to Asheville we started to talk about finding ways to give back more.”

Jamie said that the couple’s fondness of Pisgah Brewing Co. made it a natural choice to host the event, that she anticipates will draw nearly 300 riders and volunteers this year.

“I was blown away by the friendliness and hospitality of the crew at Pisgah Brewing,” she said. “They have a great set-up for events and I love their space and the people that work there. We based the entire route around Pisgah Brewing because they’re such great hosts.”

The gran fondo is not a race, but each of the three routes in the Binge - 30-mile, 62-mile and 83-mile - will include timed segments.

According to Brent, the event is less about competition and more about the opportunity to ride along some well-known professional cyclists.

“It celebrates the sport and the joy of riding,” he said. “What sets out event apart is the homey, down-to-earth feel of the setting. When you come to the Binge, you’re going to get to ride with these pros and share a story with them and have a beer afterward.”

It was that intimate setting that made last year’s Binge so popular with those that attended despite the fact that snow kept the ride itself from taking place.

“I got such great feedback from everybody that came, and we had people that showed up from all over the country,” Jamie said. “A lot of these riders usually collect appearance fees, but they flew themselves into Asheville and then came into Black Mountain just because they wanted to have fun.”

Brent said that even with the snow, everyone enjoyed themselves last year.

“It was still really cool. It kind of turned into like a snow day vibe,” he said. “Everyone that was there had planned to spend two, four, six hours on their bike, but when that wasn’t possible I think everyone was happy to have the free time to hang out and get to know each other.”

This year the Bookwalters reached out to Jennifer Billstrom, the woman behind the annual Cycle to Farm event in July, to have her organize the Binge.

“From a planning perspective it is all of the same ingredients as Cycle to Farm, minus the farm,” Billstrom said.

Numbers for this year’s Binge have already eclipsed the 2014 total, according to Billstrom, who adds that registration will remain open through the morning before the 8:30 a.m. scheduled start.

Since this year’s Binge falls on Halloween, Jamie said that volunteers for the event will get into the spirit.

“I know we have volunteers at a particular rest stop that have banana suits for everyone, including their dog,” Jamie said. “I suspect we’ll see a few people dress up at the event itself after the ride.”

The Bookwalters are enthusiastic about supporting this year’s beneficiary of the Binge, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

“I consider myself to be an environmentalist and I’m pretty passionate about preserving the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it breaks my heart to see the slow habitat loss in the southeast,” Jamie said. “This is a charity that is one of the oldest land trusts in the country and I felt that supporting them would be a great way to support slowing the loss of habitat.”