Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bruce Taylor's Shenandoah 1200km Ride Report from June 5-8, 2008

The Shenandoah 1200km
The Shenandoah 1200km was held on June 5th-8th, and the Southern California Randonneuring community was well represented on the Shenandoah 1200km by Tim Sullivan, David Nakai and I, Bruce Taylor, all finished this ride, which has been reported the most difficult of all 1200km, Grand Randonnee. A 1200km Grand Randonnee is a 745 mile route which must be completed in 90 hours. On the Shenandoah we climbed a total of around 50,000 feet, to make things even more challenging; the Mid-Atlantic States were having a heat wave during this time. On my gauge, the temps peaked at 108 degrees; add to that high humidity with no wind, and it was a real cooker. I will never complain again about heat in Southern Calif., where we generally always have a cooling breeze and the humidity is always low. The heat and difficulty of the ride caused a large number of riders to DNF. We had 61 registered riders with 57 starters and 30 finishers; if you include the DNS with DNF together, then the DNF rate is over 50%.

In spite of all of this, the terrain that we covered was some of the prettiest country I have ever seen. I would venture to say that the beauty of the course, coupled with the historic sights, made this one of the most awesome ride I have ever done. The ride was also extremely well staffed. At the controls you had volunteers literally falling over each other to ensure that you got everything you needed. The route was well planned, with the majority of the climbing, also the most difficult, being on Day 1 and 2, which took you on scenic byways over the Catoctin Mts. and the foothills of the Allegany Mts. and finally taking you to the Blue Ridge parkway. Days 3 and 4 of the ride were mellower, traveling down the Shenandoah Valley and giving you time to recover from the hard climbs of the first two days. I finished the ride feeling great about the whole experience.

This was the inaugural event of the Shenandoah 1200km which, unless you were familiar with the area, meant that you were blindly going into the event, truly not knowing what to expect. I went into the event confident in my climbing ability and wondered, “How hard could it be to ride some roller up a valley?” This led me to make a big mistake in gear selection. Since the bike I was going to ride had a triple, I didn’t bother changing the cassette which had a 23 as it biggest gear. I would have loved having at least a 27. I knew I was in for a difficult ride when David showed up at the start with an extremely light bike with a very small seat bag. David generally does these events in a full touring bike with 4 panniers filled with everything imaginable. When I found that I could lift his bike with two fingers I knew I that I had greatly underestimated the terrain over which we would be riding.

3 weeks prior to the ride, I was involved in an accident with a truck which struck me in the back with his mirror. The impact was hard enough to break off the mirror and sent me flying into the side of the road. So I spent the 3 weeks prior to the event trying to keep my fitness up and recover from the accident which left me with severe endurance issues, since my body was trying to repair itself. By the time of the event the pain was almost completely gone, but I was not confident that my endurance would hold up. These facts made me enter the event with a very conservative approach, especially since I was entering the event with a slightly heavy bike which was under-geared for the upcoming hills. I knew that David, who has finished 6 1200km events and Tim, who has finished 10 1200km events, were doing the ride, and if I needed advice I could count on these fine Randonneurs to help me get through it.

Day 1
Leesburg to Gettysburg
We started the ride at 4:00AM. The day before, Leesburg had experienced a thunderstorm which had left a lot of debris and downed utility lines on the road. I rode with the leading pack of around 20 riders which rode at a fast but not hard pace, and we made good progress through Northern Virginia. Soon we were crossing the Potomac River and were in Maryland. Once we hit the Catoctin Mts., I dropped back from the group and maintained a steady climb up Spruce Run. Once over the Catoctin Mts., I joined up with two other riders and made good time to the Gettysburg control. Most of the lead group was here. I was glad to see that Tim was still here which gave me sense of security.

Gettysburg to Sharpsburg
I immediately started out and rode through the Gettysburg Park. I have never seen so many monuments. They were quite impressive; if I had not been doing an event I would have spent the entire day studying the battlefield itself. I was soon riding onto Antietam, which took us over many rollers, some of which were very steep but none of them very long. It was during this stretch that a small group caught me which included Tim. I stayed with this group for the remainder of the day. We passed several road crews who were cleaning up the debris from the previous storm. The wind must have been very severe through here, since large limbs and entire trees had blown over. At one point I saw an oak tree which had been blown over onto a farm house. Just before the next control we rode through the Antietam National Battlefield. It again was very moving and had many large monuments to the bloodiest one day of the civil war. Just as I was leaving this control David rode up. He told me about one rider who had broken a spoke at mile 20 and DNF the ride. David also, told me that he felt worn out by all the hills we have been going over. Just confirming to me that he was concerned about this ride and I needed to continue to be conservative and conserve my leg strength for the upcoming hills on the second day.

Sharpsburg to Winchester
Once back over the Potomac River and in Virginia Tim, Steve Atkins and I made good time to Winchester. Enroute we caught back up to Jim Koening, who stayed with us until Harrisonburg. Soon we caught another group of riders and our group was around 6 riders. During this afternoon the heat came on and you could feel your entire body covered with layers of sweat. The group split as Tim, Jim and I made one extra stop to cool down and buy sunscreen which I had in my drop bags but had none with me. We saw several riders at the Winchester control and everyone was buying cool drinks and ice trying to recover from the heat.

Winchester to Harrisonburg
This leg of the journey took us up on a ridge along Back Rd., which had numerous rollers some of which were steep but short. We had an excellent view of the Shenandoah Valley from up on this ridge most of the afternoon. After we crossed Union Bridge we came to a small hamlet where we stopped for refreshments. Soon we were riding down the ridge into the valley where we got our first glimpse, as we rode across it, of the Shenandoah River. We made excellent time as Tim and I raced to Harrisonburg. At Harrisonburg I remarked to Tim how difficult this first Day had been. It reminded me a lot of the Bass Lake double that we do back in California, being very scenic but hilly. Tim made the most prophetic statements of the ride when he said that this was just a teaser for tomorrow. Tim’s drop bag was at Deerfield, so he pushed on. My bag was here at Harrisonburg, so I spent a few hours off the bike taking a shower and having a fine dinner. The organizers had rented dorm room at the Mennonite University which made the experience quite nice. We had two riders to a room with full bathrooms with showers across the hall. I couldn’t fall asleep so at 11:00am after a few hours off the bike, I was back on my bike riding onto Deerfield.

Harrisonburg to Deerfield
I really enjoyed this evening ride. It was cool and I felt great after my shower, dinner and rest. I had no leg soreness from all the days climbing, probably because I never attacked any climbs; I took them all easy. Soon I found myself in Deerfield. The control was at a volunteer fire station. Tim was still there and was not scheduled to be waking up for another hour. So I lay down again and attempted to get some sleep. Once again, I couldn’t. As soon as Tim was up, we had a great breakfast. Again the volunteers out did them selves. The cook was willing to cook up anything you wanted. So after a hearty breakfast around 5:00AM, Tim and I were on the road.

Day 2
Deerfield to Clifton Forge
As we left Clifton Forge we caught up to Judith Longley and Martin Laudie. We would stay with these riders all the way to Hillsville. We had a great ride down to Clinton Forge which was through the beautifully forested Doughat State Park. This was one of the most spectacular sections of the ride. It was mostly downhill and most of the time you were under the forest canopy. There were some serious climbs ahead of us, so at Clifton Forge we stopped to have another breakfast. We were riding in the front group, being around 5th on the road.

Clifton Forge to Christiansburg
After we left Clinton Forge, we found ourselves on some serious climbs. This was going to be the toughest leg with over 7500 feet of climbing in 79 miles. Rich Patch, Upper Rich Patch, and Jameson Mountain Road were extreme trials relieved only by overhead shade. On Jameson Mountain Rd, I had to stand and transverse back and forth up this long steep climb. It was as steep as anything you would find on the Terrible Two. I thought that if I was ever to have a heart attack on a ride, now would be the time. Finally I made it to the top where I found Tim and Martin waiting for me. After a little rest, we were flying down the mountain and into a valley on the way to Christiansburg. The heat was now unbearably hot. We stopped at a store for some refreshments and I found myself walking around the store in a daze trying to find water. We had to consume our snacks out doors in the heat. This was the worse that I felt during the entire ride. I mentioned to Tim how I felt and asked him what I should do and his reply was to ride and he was absolutely right. Once I drank several quarts of water, I felt much better being back on the bike riding. I rode into Christiansburg a cooked and tired rider. I was surprised that no one had passed us during the afternoon since we were riding slowly in the heat of the day, but I guess everyone was having difficulty on this leg of the ride. After a short rest Tim, Judith and Martin took off to do the next hard leg of the ride up to Hillsville and Fancy Gap on the Blue Ridge. I elected to stay longer to help recover from the day’s ordeal. Tim didn’t say anything but he looked disappointed as he took off. I think he was thinking that I might DNF. This surely would be the place to DNF, and later several riders did that and this place became the Village of the Damned, as one rider would call it. After resting for 30 min. in the well air conditioned room, I got up, ate dinner, and was soon joined by riders coming in. They were all positive and eager to push on. Matt assured us that although there was a lot of climbing up to Hillsville, none of it was difficult. With body cooled down, refreshed, and with a renewed positive motivation, I was back on my bike riding up to Hillsville, which was extremely scenic and, as Matt had promised, not difficult. The climbing was, however, endless, and I kept telling myself that I just needed to keep going and not stop and I would make it. I finally made it to Hillsville where Tim, Judith and Martin were just leaving to go to Fancy Gap 13 miles up on the Blue Ridge. I arrived only 30 minutes later than they had, and they were genuinely happy to see me. I think that they were relieved that I hadn’t quit. It was around midnight that I took off to climb up to the Blue Ridge. I had rested for one hour and then took all the weight off my bike caring only one water bottle I felt great as I flew up the climb with almost no weight on my bike. The views from the Blue Ridge were breathtaking. You could see the lights of North Carolina on one side and the hamlets of the Shenandoah on the other. The stop over at Fancy Gap was neat. Fancy Gap is a camping area on the Blue Ridge. A lot of riders were staying here in cabins. Again I found myself alone with the Volunteers who could not do enough for me. I had a great, made-to-order Hamburger with all the fixings and baked beans. I was having the time of my life eating and chatting with the Volunteers. Soon I was going down the Hill back to Hillsville, and I passed several riders going up to Fancy gap on the way. One of them must have been David but I did not recognize him. I got back to Hillsville around 2:30AM. I asked to be waked up with Tim at 4:00AM and tried to get some sleep. Again, I was unable to fall asleep with the riders coming and going, but I did have a nice shower.

Day 3
Hillsville to Christiansburg
We had a great ride down to Christiansburg. There was some climbing but most of it was downhill and the scenery was as spectacular as ever. I enjoyed looking at the hillside farms, and the views of the Shenandoah were great. The ride now along Indian Valley Rd. was at times fast and furious as you raced downhill along a rushing river. Soon we were back in Christiansburg. Tim had breakfast as I again, lay down, and tried to fall asleep. After a short rest of less than an hour, we were back on our bikes riding onto Buchanan.

Christiansburg to Buchanan
Again we found ourselves in the country riding over rolling hills, but today none of them were very long or steep. We stopped at a local store which had indoor seating at the halfway point to Buchanan. We had a refreshing lunch and met up with a local riding club. I really admire these local riders who ride these hills daily. Tim told them about our event and they were equally amazed at our endeavor. We finally got out of the hills at a small town called Fincastle which had a 20% grade into town. I miss-shifted and walked up this little hill as Tim muscled his bike over it. Fincastle was a fine example of a small Southern town with a large monument to the confederate army in the center of it. We arrived in Buchanan around 2:00PM, stopped at the control for lunch.

Buchanan to Harrisonburg
When we started riding at 3:00PM, we still had several miles of rollers on the Business Route 11. The temperature was over 100 degrees on the road. This road reminded me of Damnation alley on Breathless Agony. I was really feeling sluggish climbing at 5.5 mph on these rollers. If I wasn't having a meltdown I could have easily done these at 12 mph. Tim suggested that we get a Motel room for a few hours and start again at 6:30PM. For the first time since the ride started I fell asleep and sleep solid for 2 hours. Those two hours in air conditioning made all the difference in the world. I was now able to climb at a respectable rate and the temperature had dropped to the mid 80’s. Harrisonburg control was 90 miles from Buchannan, so we planned to stop for food at 30 miles and 60 miles. Shortly after leaving the Motel, we were out of the Rollers. The road now became practically flat and we made excellent time. Since it was now night time and there was not much to look at, and since Tim rides a very consistent speed day and night, I passed the time by falling back behind Tim and then picking up my pace to catch him. We stopped at Arby’s in Stanton which was only 30 miles from Harrisonburg and had a great French dip sandwich and ice cream soda. This last stretch of road was uneventful except for several miles were we saw a very fascinating display of fireflies dancing over the ponds and streams which we passed by. Also in the distance, you could see a lightning display over the Leesburg area, but we were too far away to hear the thunder. As we approached Harrisonburg I could see Tim ahead of me going over a particularly long roller, but I no longer had the energy to chase him down. At the Harrisonburg control I had a great dinner and a nice shower, and at 2:30AM I went to bed for another great sleep till 4:00AM.

Day 4
Harrisonburg to Middletown
At 5:00AM, Tim and AI took off for the last 110 miles. I felt great after a relatively easy day yesterday and a great 1 1/2 hours of sleep, and was truly enjoying the sights. It was 60 miles to Middletown, which was at the end of a gentle climb along a ridge which again had spectacular views of the countryside. I saw several flights of geese fly by as well as a balloonist flying above tree top just north of us. During this section I had a flat which only took a few minutes to fix. As we took off I found that my rear wheel would not turn at all. Tim was out of earshot, so I couldn’t inform him of my difficulties. A couple of Randonneurs came up the road and assisted me in adjusting the wheel, and after another 15 minutes I was on the road again. Tim had ridden back to see what the problem was; a gesture I didn’t expect, but appreciated. Later, I found out that my rear wheel had a crack across the entire rim. I was lucky to have finished the ride on this wheel. Soon after this, we were joined on the ride by Tim Carroll, who rode the rest of ride with us. At Middletown we stopped and had an early lunch and a great conversation about past Randonneuring events before we continued on our last 50-mile leg.

Middletown to Leesville
As we started our last leg I told both Tims that if I dropped off to not worry about me since I was going to take my time on the last leg, and would be making several stops to enjoy the scenery. So I rode the last 50 miles alone just taking in all the sights and sounds of this great countryside. I wanted to savor every moment and not occupy myself with trying to match the pace of other riders. There were also two more climbs to get over before we were on the downhill run into Leesburg. The next 30 miles to Snickersville Gap was awesome. The day was warming up, but I was in the shade of the forest canopy for most of it. I stopped when I reached a low-water, one-lane concrete bridge. The sight was remarkable. You ride across the Shenandoah just above water line for a great view of this mighty enchanting river. There were several locals swimming in the river and I wanted so much to jump in and join them. After this I rode alongside the river for several miles in shaded forest. At one point I came upon this turtle trying to cross the road. I stopped and picked him up and place him back on the grass by the side of the road. I didn’t want him to become road kill. I guess I should have walked him across the road because later David told me he came across the same turtle determined as ever to get across the road. I was almost out of the pass when I was thinking that these last two climbs were highly overrated in difficulty. In fact, so far these last climbs had been some of the most enjoyable cycling I have ever done. That was until the route turned onto Route 7: a 3-mile climb up to Snickersville Gap (Manassas Gap) in full sun. This was at the extreme heat of day and I was slowly being roasted as I climbed up this road. After 2 miles I found some shade with a slight breeze which I found to be refreshing. I found that after I resumed my riding the top was only ½ mile more. Soon I was flying down the last major Hill of the ride and turned onto Snickersville Gap Rd. and into the town of Snickersville where I stopped for some water and an ice cream float. I was enjoying this refreshment when a volunteer drove up and offered me more food and an ice sock. I put on the ice sock and found that the perceived temperature dropped by 10 degrees. I wish I would have remembered this technique on the first day. The rest of the afternoon was uneventful as I rode back to Leesburg to increasing traffic and noise but the scenery was still better than anything I would find in Southern California.

I finished the ride 83 hours after I started. I finished feeling great, and enjoyed the whole experience immensely. I felt better and more rested than I did after PBP. I attribute this to how well the route was planned, with the last two days being so much mellower than the first two days, and to the excellent pace that Tim set: a steady, moderate speed, with well planned rest stops. Even though I didn’t get a lot of sleep, the periodic planned stops made up for it and added to the whole experience. I felt fortunate to have been able to ride with such an experienced Randonneur as Tim. Truly a master of this art.

Closing thoughts
The Shenandoah is truly a remarkable event. The roads except for the wind debris were all excellent. The scenery was scenic and at times breathtaking. The support was fantastic. There were at times large distances between controls, but there were well spaced services to meet our needs. I would recommend this ride to anyone who is conditioned for it: just remember to bring your climbing gears, and, if needed, your ice socks. And don’t forget your camera, for you will be riding in paradise. John Denver, in one of his songs, calls the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley a touch of Heaven. I must say that I was surely touched by the beauty and enchantment of this area. I just never thought Heaven would be so hot.

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