Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 3 of 3

If you have been following my Skyline Drive trip by bike you know there was an element of overestimating my ability, and not taking seriously the extent of this challenge.  After quitting at the 25 mile mark the previous day I woke up wondering if I would be able to do better on the second half of Skyline Drive.  The goal was 55 miles.

Thanks for the lucky shirt Mark!

I was pleasantly surprised to wake up and realize my body had done some remarkable recovery in one night’s sleep.  I put on a cycling jersey given to me by my friend Mark who is a much more experienced biker than myself.  When he rides Skyline Drive he just keeps going at the end until he hits the North Carolina state line!  I knew this jersey would bring good luck!

Brett considered biking some of it but this would have meant going half of some distance because we now had a car at the midpoint.  He decided he would just hang out, enjoy the scenery and meet up with me.  I would later find that he had actually written on the map where he predicted I would give up!  He was wrong, very wrong.

Given the progress of the previous day we estimated spots where I would be at the 1 hour mark, 2 hour mark and so on.  Brett would meet me at each designated spot.

It was another perfect day weather wise and since it was a Monday, there was almost no traffic on Skyline Drive.  I departed from mile marker 51 headed south with the goal of Rockfish Gap, mile marker 105.  It helped that I began my ride at nearly 3500 feet so I would not have to begin with a 6 mile ascent.

At marker 66, I realized I had gone 15 miles in the first hour, way ahead of schedule.  This was what I expected the ride to be like, long gradual uphills matched with long gradual downhills.  I felt stronger (no doubt due to a little more discipline at the bar than the first night!) and was enjoying the ride a lot more than I had been the day before.

The first time I met up with Brett I said, “I think I might be able to do the whole thing!”  He gave me a dubious look that suggested otherwise.

The views were so perfectly grand that I had to stop and photograph them.  The colors of the leaves were at their peak and the visibility was close to 50 miles.

Before I knew it I was at the 75 mile marker, nearly half the day’s goal.

The nice thing about Skyline Drive is that it constantly traverses the ridge-top of the Shenandoahs so you get magnificent views to both the east and the west.  You see neighboring mountains up close, distant ranges 35 miles away, and geographic features like rockslides, hollows, gaps, and overlooks.

I had the elevation profile in my head this time so as I would come into a  long ascent I knew how long it would be.  Everything about this day was better than the previous day.  I would see Brett every 15 miles or so.

Top of the Virginia looking east just north of Loft Mountain

Looking southwest toward Waynesboro, with steep rockslides in middle ground.

At one point I saw a row of power lines that went over the top of the mountains and looked like it might deliver power to the entire midwest.  I could hear the hum of the lines as I passed under them and felt like I might see myself in cartoon x-ray as I did so.

Somewhere around mile marker 95 I was getting tired.  I knew at this point I would make it, but I was sore from the previous day and had ridden a number of long climbs.  I had 10 miles to go and stopped at a gorgeous overlook to rest.  I lay down on a low flat stone wall as Brett came up and snapped a picture.  I was too tired to even remove my helmet and was loving the hard flat surface against my spine which was beginning to rebel against the low handlebars of my bike.

Brett asked me if I would snap a picture of him jumping off the wall.

Thus, here at mile marker 95 you see the difference between 45 miles of bike riding vs. 45 miles of driving and sight-seeing!

I recovered and watched the final miles go by, knowing the last 5 would be a long rewarding descent back to the sub-1000 foot surface of Virginia.  I had done the second half, which took some of the sting out of the previous day’s failure.

Mile marker 105 is not quite the marathon finish line I envisioned.  There are three markers, the mile marker itself, a ranger station for people entering the park from the south end, and a sign letting you know you are exiting SNP.

Each was a welcome sight however and each a sign of accomplishment.  We returned to the parking lot where two days earlier we had left a car and pretty much jumped in and drove 3 hours home.  When we stopped for gas halfway I got out of the car and my now stiffened muscles seized up on me.  This was going to require some stretching!

The ride home was as beautiful as the ride in the mountains.   Colorful farms on the rolling Virginia countryside were surrounded by autumn splendor and even common things like cows and silos looked like scenes out of a photography book.

At one point I saw a hot air balloon which looked so natural and perfect as if it was

permanent features of the skyline.

The “finish line” was a bit anticlimactic but a welcome sight nonetheless.

I had set out to do a 2-day bike trip but got so much more.  I recommend this trip to anyone who is up to the challenge but would discourage anyone from letting an arbitrary mileage goal get in the way of enjoying the complete trip.  I learned this lesson on my Appalachian Trail hike and was once again reminded that years from now I will remember the gorgeous scenery long after I have forgotten how many miles I rode.


Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 2 of 3

Fresh and ready to ride!

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.

Not only was there no shoulder but much of the road had a ditch along the side!

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.

The grueling climb did have its rewards.

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!

This would be the highest point of the day. Though an achievment in its own right, I still had nearly 30 miles to go!

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

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.

Looking west from the Shenandoah Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley in front of the Massanutten Range and the Alleghenies in the background.

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.

Elk Wallow Wayside in peak foliage season…not so quaint!

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.

A welcome sight after taking 4 hours to do 25 miles!

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.


Skyline Drive by Bike – Day 1 of 3

Our bike trip began with a lot of logistics.  We drove two cars out to the mountains, leaving one a the southern end of Skyline drive, and driving the second car and bikes to the northern end.  The plan was to ride 50 miles–the halfway mark–to Big Meadows Lodge on day 1, and then 55 miles on day 2 to Rockfish Gap where the first car would be waiting.  We would then drive back up to the northern end, retrieve car number two and drive home.

It didn’t quite work out that way!

On Saturday we began at a bike shop picking up a few last minute supplies.

The fun began when Brett tried on a serious racing helmet!

From the bike shop we drove southwest from Arlington across the Shenandoah Valley.  It was peak fall foliage and gorgeous weather and the drive was exceedingly pleasant! We decided we would make a stop at a winery and the best choice on our route was the Prince Michel Vineyards & Winery.  It was clearly a good day for a romantic date at a Virginia winery so Brett and I felt a bit out of place!

I can tell you, however, on an empty stomach that wine makes one silly pretty fast!  When we finished our tasting we decided to take a self-guided tour to sober up a bit before getting back on the road. The winery had a lot of beautiful memorabilia, and the tour of the tanks and barrels was interesting.  When we left they were setting up outdoors for what was going to be a really perfect wedding!

Next it was time for lunch and we selected a quintessential Virginia BBQ joint that could easily have been featured on the Food Network.  It was called the Pig N’ Steak in Madison, VA.

It was about 5 miles down the road from Prince Michel and when we walked in it felt like we’d entered the past!  There was an Uncle Remus Flour poster on the wall and country music playing.  Everything on the menu looked epic so we asked our waitress if we only had one shot, what should we have?  She directed us to the Pulled Pork Sandwich with some of the best baked beans I have ever had.  The bbq was spectacular and had the distinct flavor of something that had been slow-cooking all day long.

Now well fed and watered, we headed to Rockfish Gap, the southern end of Skyline Drive.  This tiny hamlet is located between Charlottesville and Waynesboro and is the point at which Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At this point what had been a beautiful drive became almost overwhelming in its beauty!

To the right in this picture is the southern-most tip of Shenandoah National Park. To the left in the background is the town of Waynesboro, VA, and in the foreground is the junction of I-64, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive.

We arrived at Rockfish Gap just a little before sunset.  The Afton Inn has a large parking lot and allows people to leave their car overnight.  From this elevated piece of ground the view was inspiring!

These two guys would not be smiling quite so much the next morning!

Saturday night.  In hindsight this may not have been the blessing it seemed!

We found a couple fun spots in Winchester including the Picadilly Public House and Brewbakers.  This is where my teenage daughter and her friends would simply say, “YOLO!!!” (you only live once) but not only am I not convinced that this is true, it does a person no good when they have an olympic level bike ride ahead of them.

One would think that in my 50+ years I would have learned this lesson before and while I have indeed taken this class many times, I clearly have not learned the lesson!

We got back to our hotel in Winchester at around midnight and settled in for the big bike ride the next day.

In my next post I will detail the ride, the views, and the challenges.  There was a lot of each!


Skyline Drive by Bike – Complete!

I am always amazed by the body’s ability to recover. Today I woke up a little sore but ready and did the second half of Shenandoah National Park – Skyline Drive.

I went from Big Meadows Lodge, mile 50 to Rockfish Gap, mile 105.

In the next few days I will post an account of the trip and some fantastic pictures.

Tonight it’s Advil and a good night’s sleep!


Skyline Drive by Bike – End of Day 1

Today’s ride began with a 6 mile climb! The entire ride was grueling and the ascents were endless.

Traffic was rush-hour heavy and my partner Brett struggled early on with the remnants of bronchitis.

But there was something really rewarding about doing this by bike!

The weather was gorgeous and the foliage was at its peak.

Lying here on my bed at Big Meadows Lodge I can’t imagine getting on that bike again tomorrow but I have a nice dinner and a full night’s sleep ahead…we’ll see!


Hogback Overlook – 3385 Feet

Skyline Drive – Sheanandoah National Park by Bike

This map is from the National Park Service website

Today is about logistics.  The actual bike riding does not begin until tomorrow but it will take a full day to get everything in place.  One lesson I have already learned is that if you’re going to one of Virginia’s most beautiful spots in the fall, reserve early!  We are riding on a Sunday/Monday because there were no rooms available in the park on Saturday night in this peak foliage season.

Skyline Drive is a 105 mile ridgeline road built during the Great Depression.  It runs the length of the Shenandoah National Park and is a gorgeous curvy, mountainous road with spectacular views and a small amount of quaint lodging.

My riding partner is my co-worker and close friend Brett Roth (@roth_brett).  We joke frequently because not only is Brett half my age but he’s about half my weight and when his energy runs out he does not have the reserves that I do.  This weekend age will triumph over youth!

Today begins with driving both our cars to the southern-most point of the ride, Rockfish Gap which is just outside of Waynesboro, VA.  This should be about a 3 1/2 hour drive across the Shenandoah Valley.  That’s if we go directly; but, on what promises to be a perfect fall day, we will no doubt stop on the way to visit apple orchards, pumpkin farms, and wineries…ok, mostly wineries.

We will leave a car at Rockfish Gap and take the other car up I-81 to the northern end of the ride.  The northern end is Front Royal, VA.

Here again, advanced planning is important because though Front Royal does not have a lot to offer (in my opinion) it is at the entrance to SNP and every hotel in that town is booked on an October Saturday night!

Elkwallow is little more than a convenience store/gift shop/snack bar but at the 25 mile mark, this oasis will be the halfway mark of day 1 and a welcome lunch spot!

Thus we will stay in the comparatively cosmopolitan Winchester, VA, birthplace of Patsy Cline.  Winchester does offer more choices for hotels and restaurants but it means in the morning we will have to begin with a 20 mile drive.

The plan is that we will leave a car near the entrance to the park and ride our bikes 52 miles to Big Meadows Lodge.  We will spend the night there and enjoy a carbohydrate-heavy meal and on Monday resume the ride covering the second 53 miles.  At that point we will retrieve the first car, drive back up I-81 to retrieve the second car and head home.

A lot more driving than bicycling, and no doubt jumping in the car for 4 hours after the ride will enable our muscles to stiffen up to concrete, but that’s how it goes on a low-budget bike trip!

Stony Man Mountain will be among the highest altitudes of our ride, which will at times take us to over 3500 feet.

The route will be mountainous…there will be no level stretches, only ascents and descents.  I can only imagine how wonderful that lodge will look when we arrive, and I really look forward to what appears to be a 5 mile descent at the very end!

Earlier this year I did a short backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail and one of the surprise highlights was an oasis called Elkwallow.  This rest-stop on Skyline Drive is at about the 25 mile marker and will be the site of our lunch break tomorrow!

So stay tuned for some great pictures, and the inevitable hijinks that result from traveling with Tony & Brett!


Return to Shenandoah National Park…This Time by Bike

The view at the beginning of summer from Shenandoah National Park

The last time I blogged about Shenandoah National Park I was hiking it by foot along the Appalachian Trail.  This time it will be by bike.  While a bike would not work on the Appalachian Trail, it will indeed work on Skyline Drive.  This 105 mile ridge-top road is the spine of SNP and promises a rewarding challenge for two days.

The Scattante Elite – My ride for 105 miles of Shenandoah National Park

I’m going with my friend Brett and we will drive two cars, leaving one at the southern end, Rockfish Gap, and then driving to the northern end, Front Royal, VA.  There is a lodge at the midpoint and we will take two days.

Stay tuned for pictures and what I’m sure will be a good story!


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