Redefining the challenge
Saturday morning broke cold and overcast with threats of rain and dropping temperatures. My first attempt to clear my throat was a complete failure. With more force I cleared the congestion to reveal a raw throat. Great, I thought with an excessive amount of sarcasm. Urgent bodily needs forced me to dress and get down the hall to the shared bathroom. Reacquainting myself with the slightly damp lycra didn't bring the desire to get up the road I was hoping for. Quite the contrary, if I'm not mistaken my next thought was "please let there be a friend of Nelson's heading to Blacksburg." I'll save the suspense and just tell you now
there weren't. Nelson and I discussed potential routes back to Blacksburg on the bike. At first I wasn't enthusiastic, but I warmed to it as we discussed roads and the climbing that would have to be done. Several homemade mochas (coffee and a packet of Nestle's hot chocolate mix) and scones later, I had dutifully recorded all 39 turns on a small blue scrap of paper. Unlike yesterday, I would not be following a track on my GPS. My success would depend upon the accuracy of directions scribbled on a little scrap of blue paper stuffed into my Gas Tank.
After unpacking every piece of cold-weather gear I had brought with me, I made a brief stop at The Dirtbean to grab some food and water to get me into Covington, 40-some miles away. The first leg, West Virginia 39, is a beautiful, smooth, wide road through a fortuitous gap in one of the many Appalachian ridges I would see today. Like the Greenbriar and Big Stony Creek I rode against the flow of water gradually climbing out of the valley. The slight right on Douthat Creek (in Google) or Douthards Creek (in real life) had me questioning the route, but I decided that the names were within the margin of error as the directions from Google and the distance from Marlinton were both correct. Worth noting here is that I did not confirm my supposition by talking to any locals. Whatever the name I enjoyed the rolling farm road until it turned into a climbing forest road (read gravel). At around 2800 feet the climb topped out and the descent was a challenge but thrilling. The road continued to deteriorate until it was crossed by a metal gate with an unequivocal "Private Property" sign. It was quite the opposite of Google's assurance that Douthat Creek becomes Public Road 96. Twelve miles down this dead end had me searching for a way out of the negativity
threatening to envelope me. Not now, I pleaded with petulant child inside. You can have your say when this is done, but for now I need you to stay quiet. There is work to do, and now it is more than I was planning. Amazingly, it worked. The truth was that I did feel reasonably good now that the muscles were warm, and that gave me confidence.
Once I returned to West Virginia 39 (fully two hours after I began the valley road to nowhere) I simply rode to West Virginia 92 and south to pick County Road 14. Really Google?! This twenty miles of perfect pavement lost out to the unimproved dirt track figment of your imagination known as "Public Road 96?" All right, stay positive.
Since I was now off-route I had plenty of time to calculate how many miles I would travel before seeing my next turn, County Road 14. Today, my GPS had become an expensive speedo and odometer to track the mileages from the all-important blue scrap of paper. Each turn was a time to recalibrate and predict the odometer's expected mileage at the next turn. Being off-route without a map forced me to consider extremes and I was happy to see I still remembered high school geometry. For example, let's assume Douthat Creek and Public Road 96 cut a perfect diagonal across West Virginia 39 and 92 as the worst case, and the identical distance as the best case. If the original route was about 17 miles, my alternate route could be anywhere from that same 17 miles up to 25.5 miles given that the worst case would add miles at the rate of 2 for every 1.414 miles of the original route, or about 50% more. Thankfully the alternate was very close to the original route. At 17.5 miles I spied a left turn towards Sherwood Lake matching my directions...and here were two cyclists chatting just off the road. My luck was turning. They were pretty sure that the road I assumed to be County Road 14 was not. No, this road goes eleven miles to Sherwood Lake, they said. Are you sure, I implored. This says I just need to follow it for 3.5 miles until I reach Rucker Gap Road. RUCKER GAP, they exclaimed. Yes, that's the road. Yippee. Then Janice said something interesting. We were never much for road signs around here, she said. Then 9/11 happened and the road signs started appearing. Fascinating. It's like a riddle. Try to figure out the linkage that ties the proliferation of road signs on the Virginia/West Virginia border to a terrorist attack in New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, PA. I'm sure it has something to do with emergency services, but I'd love to trace the path of that legislation from its inception.
Off again and climbing towards Rucker Gap which eventually topped me out just above 2600 feet. A very sketchy descent dropped me on Ogle Creek Road and down I went. Mile after mile I flew along at around 22 mph. The altimeter dropped below 2000 feet then it dropped below 1500 feet. Uh oh! This is going to mean I have to climb back up to Blacksburg. (How prescient those words would be.) After many miles of steady descent, a gas station near I-64 was the perfect refueling stop. Chocolate milk, Hot Chunky soup (Oh yeah!), beef jerky, and lemon pie. Topped off the water bottles and descended some more into Covington, elevation 1300 feet. A stray Verizon signal allowed me to check in with my better half as she trekked through the shoe stores and outlet malls of western PA and northeast Ohio. A small part of me was hoping she'd say that she was in Covington to pick me up after she saw me backtrack earlier in the day. Not gonna happen. She was having trouble tracking me on her phone. I was on my own until Blacksburg. I could have stopped in Covington, I suppose. They did have a hotel. But I had already decided I was getting back to the car tonight. Tonight...a night that was less than three hours away now. And still 65 miles to go before I sleep. Gotta get moving.
Up became the most consistent direction leaving Covington. Pizza Hut on the outskirts of town smelled wonderful though I wasn't foolish enough to eat there. Soon enough I was beyond its draw and back into the countryside on a road beside flowing water; again. The only noteworthy event was a frightened deer attempting to scale a twenty-foot-high stone wall, and crashing spectacularly back to earth before bolting back into the woods on the other side of the road.
When I reached the point which VA616 should have been, a sign indicated VA615. The road's alternate name, Blue Springs Road, was nowhere to be found. I decided to trust the mileage and the accuracy of my directions and began to climb alongside the ubiquitous oncoming creek. Once again I was bailed out by the stray athlete. A runner was able to confirm that I was indeed on Blue Springs Road. Hooray, onward and upward. 1600 feet and climbing. My next turn was a right on VA617, Jamison Mountain Road. A mile before I was to reach it, VA616 diverged from the road I was on, and I had a decision to make. Continue on for another mile and come back if there was no sign of VA617, or go right on VA616 and look for VA617 a mile up that road. I gambled on the road I was on as the grade was milder. This time it was a farmer that confirmed I was on the right road. Yes, this is Jamison Mountain Road. (Note: the name of the road will often indicate the geographic formation that features most prominently. Guess what I'm about to do.) Ugh. A thousand feet of climbing delivered me to a 2800-foot perch overlooking two barking dogs. Out in the road and unfriendly to boot, I had only the gift of gravity with which to evade them. They were not coming to me so I took the opportunity to eat and drink, and allow my legs a few minutes of recuperation. The dogs, perhaps losing interest, retreated to their yard, but still eyed me with suspicion. I was probably not the first cyclist they had seen. Out came the rain jacket as I needed something to break the wind. The sun was descending fast and the temperature with it.
Like a stone I descended, picking up speed ridiculously fast. The dogs, pursuit animals at heart, had no chance. If one of them had sacrificied itself by darting in front of me, I would not be typing this. But true to their nature, they expected to chase me down. I expect they were satisfied to have run me off. For me, I turned on the NiteRider and dropped 1200 feet over the next eight miles. Left turn. Bathroom break. Right turn. New Castle. Just two big chunks left; 9.8 miles on VA311S and 17.6 miles on VA624. Traffic was a bit heavier on VA311S than I expected but after looking at a map I see that it leads to Roanoke. OK, not so surprising. There were some moderate climbs but still well within my ability as I was now setting a new personal best (two-day total) with each turn of the pedals. Then came the turn onto VA624, a ridge road that might be a wonderful drive some sunny weekend. And while it was a weekend the sun had long gone down and I wasn't driving. The darkness added an interesting, soul-crushing aspect to this final leg of the return trip. My light provided about 400 lumens evenly split between the spot and flood LEDs. This was enough light to see 200-300 feet up the road with reflective surfaces viewable at much greater distances. The centerline reflected back as it rose up and up but with no corresponding distance perception so it was impossible to anticipate the climb. All I knew was that I was going to go up, and I had to conserve (read go slow) as much as possible since I did not know how long or how steep the climb would be. This went on, mile after mile, as I climbed through 2500 feet. I knew the elevation of Blacksburg was around 2000 feet so eventually I had to go down. So the miles slowly dwindled and I waited for the long downhill but all I got was the short teaser that delivered me to the bottom of yet another climb. Soon I began verbally challenging the climbs. I'm sure I sounded like a complete fool; beyond tired, beyond caring. I don't care what you put in front of me I'm going over it. Don't you get it. You can't beat me. To my credit, the road did not beat me though in fairness: it's a road. I'm sure if it cared it could have squashed me like a bug. The climbing finally did end, but not until I was within Blacksburg city limits.
In retrospect, I'm glad events unfolded how they did. I don't think I was capable of the full 400 miles. I am smarter, and I will be ready to challenge it again in the spring. I hope this was enjoyable read.