A few years ago during the Blue Ridge Brutal Bike Ride, Duane and Wanda Gervasi were beginning to relax after the bulk of riders in the Brutal had passed the Northwest Trading Post rest stop.
Then a motorcyclist reported a woman and her bike were down in the grass beside the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Gervasi’s, who were Ashe County Amateur Radio Club volunteers, radioed a SAG Wagon and the Ashe County Rescue Squad of the woman’s distress. The woman had had an appendectomy the week before, but, typical of the participants in the Brutal, she was determined to take part in the ride. The woman was quickly picked up and taken to the hospital.
This event demonstrates the critical role played by the ham radio operators in the Brutal.
Again this year on Aug. 10, Blue Ridge Brutal riders can feel safer due to the work of the Club. The ham radio operators provide a continuous communications network from the Ashe Civic Center to the rest stops and the SAG wagons which operate during the ride. In fact, the Club makes all Ashe County citizens safer due to the communication capability which Club members provide.
(Bike lovers do not agree on what “SAG” stands for, but some think it is “support and gear.” The SAG wagons roam the route of the Brutal to pick up riders, if needed, or provide gear for repairs.)
The Club owns an FM “repeater” on Phoenix Mountain which provides the Club’s communications ability in Ashe County. A repeater takes a weak radio signal and retransmits it on a stronger signal. Other corporations and entities which use radio communications have repeaters up there, such as Blue Ridge Electric and the state. Members of the Club finance and maintain the repeater to keep it in good working order.
Not only do members of the Club provide their own equipment, but they must keep up the skills to operate the radios. To practice their communications skills, Club members annually participate in a field day. This year it was on June 22, at Westwood School. This event provides training for a simulated disaster. For 24 hours, members will transmit “CQ” signals which mean Come Quickly and get in touch with other ham radio operators or respond to other CQ’s.
In the mid-1990s Adam Lawler was in a bike ride in Virginia where ham radio operators provided communications for the ride. He approached Maude Calhoun, then the Executive Director of the Ashe Civic Center and the person who began the Brutal, and asked her if she would like to have the services of the Ashe Radio Club. Maude was delighted with the Club’s offer. “The ham operators’ help has been tremendously important for the Brutal over the years,” she recently said.
Fifteen to 16 Club volunteers are required to provide communications for the Brutal. The Club considers this role a community service. Not only do members spend from six to ten hours a day at the Brutal, but they provide their own equipment, which they have paid for personally. They consider the Brutal good practice for events like the 1993 blizzard when no phone calls could be made outside the County. During that time, Club members conveyed news about residents and travelers stranded here to their families outside Ashe County.
During the Brutal, Ashe Civic Center is the base. When the operator there sends a message to the Laurel Springs Fire Department rest stop, the message is “Laurel Springs, this is base.” The operator at Laurel Springs says “This is Laurel Springs. Go ahead.”
Club members have lots of memories of the Brutal and the riders. Benson Wills serves as the President of the Ashe Radio Club. He notes that Blue Ridge Brutal riders have often thanked him for the services of the Club when he talks to them at the rest stops.
2006 was the last year that Dr. Elam Kurtz, the beloved physician, rode in the Brutal. Marty Norris remembers picking him up in the SAG Wagon at Benge Gap, a distance of 17 miles from the start. Dr. Kurtz was 82 years old at the time. Marty always enjoyed seeing Dr. Kurtz at the Brutal and talking to him.
Andy Sexton remembers the Brutal rider who was headed down Nettle Knob Road on a section which has a big curve just before a bridge. There may have been loose gravel on the road. The rider lost control, hit the guard rail, and broke his leg. Later, someone placed a sign near the curve which read, “This curve eats riders.”
Karen Lawler was driving a SAG Wagon on N.C. 194 near the Laurel Knob Development when one of the tires of the vehicle blew out. The van was headed for the rocks which are beside Laurel Knob. Luckily the vehicle didn’t hit the rocks, and, after regaining control and stopping, she was able to radio for help so she could continue keeping track of the riders.
Brutal riders agree that the worst climb is Buffalo Road. Bob Clark has often worked the rest stop at the top of Buffalo Road. He says the fast riders don’t even stop to rest or get some refreshments, and some riders make it to the rest stop by walking and pushing their bikes.
The Radio Club has learned during the years of helping at the Brutal that there is an area between Todd and Baldwin where the radio signals cannot reach the repeater on Phoenix Mountain. Charles Lewis, who lives on Mulatto Mountain, plays a crucial role at the Brutal during the late morning and afternoon when the riders have reached this stretch. Lewis picks up the radio signals at his residence from that area, and he transmits them verbally to the repeater so that everyone can hear them. He is very experienced in radio communications, having served as the head of Voice of America for the whole continent of Africa.
Radio Club members often hear people ask, ”What good are ham radios when we all have cell phones now?” First, there are places in Ashe County where cell phones don’t work. Second, when a message is sent out on ham radio at the Brutal, all the ham operators and SAG wagons hear it. A cell phone, on the other hand, can make only one call at a time. For example, the operator at the base can send this message, “We are trying to locate Rider Number 237,” and everyone can be on the lookout for that rider. With a cell phone there would have to be 15 separate calls.
John Leonard gives another example of how ham radio is superior to cell phones. He explains how during a winter storm last winter in the county and how a ham radio likely saved his wife from serious injury. He was in his truck heading toward Helton and talking to fellow club member, Duane Gervasi, by ham radio when the temperature dropped suddenly and the wet, heavy snow developed into ice on the roads. John’s truck suddenly swerved and turned 180 degrees. He asked Duane to contact his wife, Dr. Jayne Leonard, at work to tell her not to try to drive home. At that time, there were similar cell phone messages about the change in the weather all over the county, and the cell phone lines were jammed. Cell phone calls were not getting through. Duane called Dr. Leonard’s office by land line and warned her about the roads.
The Blue Ridge Brutal is a fundraiser for the Ashe Civic Center. John MacConnell, the president of the Ashe Civic Center Board said, “Lots of people are critical to the success of the Brutal, especially the Radio Club for its role in the safety of the ride and its quick response in case there should be an accident.”
To learn more about the Blue Ridge Brutal bike ride, go to blueridgebrutal.org. For more information about the Ashe County Amateur Radio Club, visit w4ysb.org