Day 2 of this trip was the first day of actual bicycling. Day 1 had been mostly about positioning the cars, getting there, and as I mentioned, some unwise celebrating! Thus, we woke up on a pristine autumn day, groggy, late, and not exactly in shape to ride uphill all day. Maybe in my next life I will learn that sort of discipline!
We drove from Winchester to Front Royal, VA, the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. It was a Sunday in the middle of October and the road leading to the entrance looked like the clogged commute in Northern Virginia that I drive every day to work. Three lanes of cars moving one car length at a time as the front row a mile ahead paid their entrance fee.
My thinking was that all this traffic would mean the cars went slower. On a two-lane road with no shoulder this seemed like a good thing. Lesson Learned #1: This didn’t matter because they were still going faster than I was and I might as well have been riding on an urban highway.
We found a restaurant (Joe’s Steakhouse) with a large parking lot near the entrance and they kindly allowed us to park our car and leave it overnight. We pumped our tires, donned our backpacks, locked the car and headed out. For the first minute it was rather exciting because we were riding past hundreds of cars. Sure it was uphill, but the slope was mild and it seemed so much better than being in that traffic!
We got to the ranger station and paid our $8 entry fee and the ranger said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He instructed us to pull off whenever we heard cars backing up behind us because the traffic would be so heavy that they would not be able to go around us. He then told us we were crazy to do this on a weekend. We thanked him for the diagnosis and proceeded on our way. He didn’t even know that we were hung over!
The first mile was uphill and had me breathing hard but I still had plenty of gears left to shift down to, so I was not worried. I pulled over to let cars go by and Brett was not behind me. I waited for an amount of time that in the back of my mind was mildly alarming. He showed up completely out of breath and flushed. We waited a moment and let him catch his breath. Somehow, “1 down and 51 to go” didn’t seem like the thing to say.
We started again and at the second mile I stopped again, still feeling strong, but no Brett. I waited. I waited some more. Finally I thought to check my phone and there was a text. I think this says it all.
Brett had dropped out of a 105 mile bike ride at mile 2. I rode back to him, a refreshing downhill, but troubling because it meant not only was he out, but I would have to ride this segment again! He apologized but said he was out of shape and hadn’t taken the ride seriously from a training perspective, not to mention the late night before!
Brett was to ride back (bringing his total mileage to 4, 2 uphill and 2 downhill) and retrieve the car. He would do some sightseeing and drive along meeting me in spots. I proceeded on my own.
There is some debate about which direction, North to South or South to North is the best way to do this ride. Without question the most difficult climb is the opening 8 miles in the southbound option. I pedaled my bike up hill for what seemed like an hour…and it was exactly that, an hour of uphill climbing.
Here is a profile of the first 35 miles of ride from the website BikeWashington.org.
As you can see, the first 6 miles are all uphill, then you get a downhill that lasted approximately 1 1/2 minutes and it was uphill again.
I have three chain rings on the front gears of my bike. The third one is condescendingly known among bikers as the “granny gear” and when riding around the trails of northern Virginia I will often not use it all day. On this ride I quickly settled into the lowest “granny” setting on the bike and would pedal there literally for hours. On level ground I can cruise on my bike at over 20 mph for extended periods of time. This would be hours of 6 mph.
My bike is as nice as a road bike can be. The Scattante CFR Elite has an all-carbon fiber frame, Ultegra gears, and weighs a mere 16 pounds. On this day, it was not the bike that gave out, it was the engine.
I thought the downhill would be enjoyable enough to outweigh the uphill. I had heard friends speak in rapture of descents in excess of 50 mph. At about mile 16, exhausted already, I got my first such descent and nearly shit my pants! I pulled out into the middle of the road so cars could not go by me and quickly reached 35 mph. The air rushing by my ears was so loud and my eyes were watering. The road is not straight so I leaned into the turns. I realized that every muscle in my body was tight and at high alert and then I began to think about the fact that the only protective gear I had on was a $35 helmet. I started thinking about how a squirrel or even a pebble could result in my death; then, I began thinking about how the story of my death would be that a squirrel ran out in front of my bike.
I got to 40.5 mph and started braking. I wasn’t worried about holding up the cars because at 40 I was exceeding the speed limit but I could hear them behind me and snatched an occassional glance at the small mirror on the end of my handlebars.
It wouldn’t last long anyway and there I was climbing a mountain again as cars whizzed by me on this shoulderless road with a ditch along the edge.
Now the shadows were getting longer and I began calculating my progress, average hourly rate and how far I had to go. I knew that the elevation of miles 35 – 50 were not much better than the first 35 miles and when I pulled into Elk Wallow Wayside I saw Brett sunning himself, leaning against the car and I handed him my bike and said, “Take this and get it away from me.”
An interesting side note, Elkwallow was the spot of another occasion when I had misjudged my ability. In June of this year I was hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail and arrived at Elk Wallow going northbound. In June it was a sparkling oasis where we rested on picnic tables and refilled our water, and even reveled in the luxury of real bathrooms!
This time it was like a refugee camp. There were hundreds of people in line for gas, bathrooms, food, and parking. There was nowhere to even sit down and they were pulling in and out from Skyline Drive like a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike.
I decided that simply going on just because I had set this goal would be foolish and knew that if I should still be out there when it got dark I would very likely be risking my life. I decided to quit for the day.
We drove the second 25 miles to Big Meadows Lodge where I got a shower and changed out of my bike gear. I was really fatigued and angry with myself for overestimating my biking ability. I had no idea what the next day would hold and felt like I had genuinely failed.
We got dinner and though we indulged a bit it was nothing like the night before and I was in a deep sleep by 10:00.
I won’t leave you in suspense; the next day I got on the bike and things went much better! There are some great pictures and I will post Day 3 next.
The interesting thing to me is how we judge ourselves. Brett who dropped out at mile 2 was happy and relaxed and mentally preparing to train to return and do this the right way. I who had ridden 25 grueling miles felt like a failure. Perspective.