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Riding the Tour de Smokies

© Sara Rau Photography

Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm hosts a cycling course run by a Tour de France veteran where guests can take the ride of their lives.

It’s easy to come back to Blackberry Farm, the 4,200-acre property nestled amid the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. It’s not just the sylvan setting—wisps of fog rolling across pastoral hills, elegant cottages with fireplaces and a bluegrass soundtrack—or the world-class meals. It’s also the way you feel instantly welcome, a part of the place. On my last visit, nearly a decade before, my wife and I rode horses with the farm’s Jim Sanford, a rangy, gregarious former elephant trainer; this time Sanford was now charged with raising a pack of Lagotto Romagnolo retrievers, water dogs bred to hunt truffles. We started chatting as if no time had passed—which, in those hills, it often seems as if it hasn’t.

I had come back to do something not typically associated with Blackberry Farm: to learn how to ride a bike. I don’t mean the very act of riding a bike—after all, we never forget that—but how to seriously ride a road bike. I, along with several dozen other riders (including a few married couples, with one husband and wife riding tandem), was on the Tour de Smokies. The three-day semiannual course pairs exhilarating, if at times grueling—despite stunning vistas, Blackberry cautions prospective participants, this is no sightseeing tour—group rides during the day with the farm’s refined take on “foothills cuisine” at night. Not to mention, there’s a wine tasting overseen by Frasca Food and Wine’s Bobby Stuckey, formerly of The French Laundry, who, on the day before our trip, had run the Chicago marathon in three hours and was putting on a brave face at the thought of the following morning’s 80-mile ride.

And I’d do this in the company of George Hincapie, the New York City–born, South Carolina–based professional bike racer. Hincapie, who exudes a kind of Jean-Paul Belmondo–style quiet cool, retired last year from professional cycling after setting a record for the most Tour de France starts in history. Also leading the charge would be active pro (and fan favorite) Christian Vande Velde.

It was fantasy sport and culinary camp all in one.

The event allows one to feel like a pro during the day (with a fleet of mechanics, minders and masseurs), then to refuel in grand fashion at night—not with spartan pasta but with beans, cornbread and buttermilk, and guinea and dumplings. “It’s chicken and dumplings gussied up,” announced Sam Beall, Blackberry’s soft-spoken and genteel proprietor, in his Tennessee lilt, as smooth as the butter from the farm’s creamery.

Riding with Beall the next morning, I learned that he, like me, had recently returned to a road bike in earnest for the first time in decades, in part motivated by the need for a more knee-friendly sport. Beall—whose newfound passion for cycling basically created the Tour de Smokies, held each September and March—sounded a similar note from the saddle. “I wanted to do something less punishing on my body than running,” he said. “Plus, cycling gave me an opportunity to see the wonderful landscape I had grown up with in a whole new light.”

Like many of the riders with us, I was drawn by the idea, at early middle age (whatever that is), of revisiting something from my youth—and possibly getting better at it. “In cycling, there’s a direct relationship between what you get out of it and what you put into it,” Robbie Ventura, a former racer who now runs Vision Quest Coaching, told me at dinner one night. Where I long ago passed my peak in soccer, in terms of skills acquisition and “fast-twitch muscles,” Ventura observed that “everybody here has room to grow aerobically. You don’t have to win a race or a time trial—you know you’re getting faster. That’s why everyone is here, for the experience of getting better again in life.”

The next morning, as our buzzing, brightly festooned peloton whipped past slightly thunderstruck old farmers in mountain hollows, Ventura threaded through the group, shouting instructions and offering feedback, having said at dinner: “One thing everybody needs to learn, and no one really teaches, is cycling etiquette—how to ride in a group and how to play nicely with traffic. You see very strong guys who don’t know how to ride in a group.” When a lead rider yelled “Car up” or shook his down-turned hand (to indicate loose gravel), Ventura would shout an approving “Good communication!”

He immediately spotted weaknesses as I rode my Trek Madone 5.2. First, he said, I was “mashing pedals,” straining too hard in a big gear. One of the biggest changes in cycling in recent decades is the emergence of ultra-high-rpm pedaling, or “cadence.” The faster you spin your pedals, the thinking goes, the less strain you will put on your muscles. “Don’t use all your fastballs right away,” Ventura said, reaching for a baseball metaphor. “Throw some off-speed stuff.”

I was also bogging down in the corners; rather than shifting and pedaling efficiently (you can’t do the latter without former) and keeping up with the group, I was having to reaccelerate out of the turns to catch up. “Burning matches” is one expression of art for these bursts of anaerobic activity—and each rider has only so many to light.

For a brief while, I found myself directly in the slipstream of Hincapie (what riders call “grabbing the wheel”) on a winding East Tennessee road, fixating on his liquid pedal stroke and the topography of his legs: winding knots of vein on a hard muscular surface, bulging like the Andes in the old raised-relief globe of my childhood, a story etched in skin of a lifetime of punishing mountain climbs and explosive sprints. As I let another rider, a doctor from Birmingham, Alabama, take my spot, he said, “I can’t believe I’m grabbing George Hincapie’s wheel—even if for just 30 minutes!”

It was at The Wall, on the second day of riding, that I realized what pros are made of and just how much room for, ahem, personal growth I still had.

At several miles, and with a grade that averages nearly 10 percent and peaks near 20 percent, The Wall made it clear that New York City cycling had left me totally unprepared for real hills. The night before, Stuckey had been talking about a wine’s “vertical acid”; here was pure vertical ascent. How bad was it? So bad that people stopped talking. So bad that passing cars began to sound labored. So bad that when I stopped to let my lungs recover, I actually had to momentarily roll downhill, then turn around, to simply have the momentum to start back up. A bike racer and mechanic named John, from Knoxville, Tennessee (it was all I could do not to call him “Johnny Knoxville”), had advised me to begin in a higher gear than I might think comfortable—so that as I climbed steeper, I had a few extra low gears to turn to, like a desperate gambler getting a new tranche of credit in a late-night casino. But the house always wins. The Wall is where I last saw Hincapie’s legs and instead found myself staring at my sweat hitting Tennessee asphalt. It wasn’t pretty, but I finally heaved myself over the hill (on the bike, not the creeping sag wagon). At the bottom of the descent, we had an option to return to Blackberry using a shorter route. There was no shame in this, and I was hardly alone.

After an intense few days of riding and heated discussions about gearing ratios and lactic thresholds, Vande Velde, during an informal chat the last night in the farm’s genteel wood-paneled clubhouse, put a refreshing gloss on the event. “What I got out of this is that it was a blast,” he said. “George and I may have enjoyed it more than you guys. But it is just fun riding your bike and being a knucklehead, sprinting for town signs and things like that.” All the technical training gets, he hinted, tired after a while: “What’s best is pedaling as fast as you can, going up and down climbs with a bunch of friends and having a coffee or beer afterward.” And that is precisely what we did.

The next Tour de Smokies takes place September 22 to 25. Packages, including tuition and accommodations, start at $3,185; 1471 W. Millers Cove Rd., Walland; 800-557-8864; blackberryfarm.com.