ruminations on a series of unrelated events
May 12, 2021
From May 23rd to May 31st, I am going to be riding from Damascus, VA to Washington D.C.
A Little Backstory First…
If you’ve ever happened to click the About Author link, you would have noticed that I am pictured standing in the middle of a picturesque road with my trusty Surly Long Haul Disc Trucker as I gaze into the lush forest canopy. That picture was taken in Oregon in 2014 on a bike tour across the country with my daughter Amalia. Prior to that, we had been on a few other tours together, all of which you can read about on our granny gear blog. By the summer of 2017, it had been a few summers without a bike tour. We decided then that instead of another tour we should try our legs at a little bikepacking adventure. So I saved up for a new bike suitable for that type of off-road fun and we set our sights on a 2-week singletrack trip in the wilderness of western Oregon. We found an amazing route on bikepacking.com and we got super excited.
If you don’t know anything about bikepacking, basically it is outrigging your mountain bike with small packs for riding off-road and presumably camping. The small packs keep your bike streamlined and the triangle bag, where you keep your heavier stuff, keeps the weight centered. Panniers, used for bike touring, are considered too wide for backpacking and all the weight in the back would make quick maneuverability difficult.
For me, the dream bikepacking adventure would be a few weeks in deep wilderness all on singletrack trails. This VA route is mainly on gravel roads with a tiny singletrack portion. I would probably have to head west to find something more remote. I’ll get to that Oregon dream eventually.
While I finished outfitting my new bike in Indianapolis, Amalia packed up her bike and headed west to her aunt’s house in Tacoma to visit for a bit before the ride. A few days before my departure, I went with a friend down to Brown County State Park where he and I had biked the mountain bike trails on a few prior occasions. I love those trails. They are so much fun. With this new bike and its 3″ tires, it was a whole different ride. It was shocking how the ride just seemed like butter. All the roots and rocks were suddenly nothing I had to even really pay attention to. The bike just glided over them. We biked for a couple of euphoric hours. Then instead of taking the paved road all the way back to the car, I suggested we get a little more fun on the trials and take the singletrack back. Well, not even one minute on the last trail, and I took a very poorly banked turn that directed me straight toward a pile of boulders. I had no choice but to slam on the breaks to stop short of ploughing right into them. Unfortunately, that meant I went right over the handlebars and slammed chest first into a boulder. I heard the cracks. I knew what happened. I had broken ribs before and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I also landed pretty badly on my chin and had a few good gashes. Fortunately, the bike didn’t even get a scratch.
After sitting there stunned for a bit and checking that I had not broken any teeth or bitten off part of my tongue, I didn’t have much choice but to get back on the bike and continue to ride to the car. So that is what we did. Suddenly, even the butter smooth ride was a bit rough. Once back to the car, all I wanted was a cold beer. So we made our way to the nearby small town of Nashville and I got an IPA to calm my nerves. I instantly felt much better, which is a testament to the power of a cold IPA after biking and even after breaking a couple of ribs. All this is to say that we had to cancel that maiden bikepacking trip because I had actually displaced two ribs, (thankfully not puncturing a lung). So the bikepacking trip became a car camping trip instead, in Olympic National Park. It was still a truly amazing experience, except for the part where I had to sleep on the ground with broken ribs. Oh and I brought the wrong tent so we had to share a tent meant for one.
Now here it is four summers later and finally a bikepacking trip is going to soon become a belated reality. Unfortunately (for me, not her), my daughter is now in graduate school in Norway, so sadly this ride will be solo. The plan is to drive down to Damascus, Virginia on May 22 and ride from there to Washington D.C. on what is called the TransVA route. It is largely gravel roads over very mountainous terrain for almost 600 miles. ( read about the route in Adventure Cycling, my favorite magazine, during the extended and miserable quarantine. I knew I had to do the ride as soon as I could. It is relatively close, it isn’t too technical and it is a good number of days. My soon-to-be-step-daughter, Sophia, will go down with me and drive my car back the next day. I am allowing about 8 days to ride, which should be enough if there are no major storms. I’ll ride in rain, but not when it is lightning.
My fiancée, Catherine, will meet me at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the afternoon of May 31, if all goes to plan and I don’t go headfirst over the handlebars in some remote part of Virginia. We will then have our pre-wedding honeymoon in D.C. that week, before heading home on June 6th. So yes, I am biking to my honeymoon. We get married on June 26th in Indy.
Pre-Departure, May 13th 2021
It is still over a week before I leave, but I have been busy buying more gear (handlebar bag, smaller sleeping bag, smaller sleeping pad, etc.) putting all the packs on the bike, and buying food. I have also been looking over the route on the Ride with GPS app. I subscribed to it because the route is unmarked and the info the app offers is fantastic. I look forward to using it if I can keep my phone sufficiently charged.
Today, I started to test pack everything to figure out what will fit, what won’t and what I am going to do about it. Part of that involves watching YouTube tutorials for packing advice. But those only go so far because people have different kinds of bags and people bring or don’t bring different things. This one guy I watched today doesn’t even bring a stove. To me that is just crazy. He just eats cold refried beans on tortillas at every meal. I bet he is a lot of fun to be around. I need some hot food and my coffee in the morning. Cold brew just ain’t gonna cut it. These youtubers bring all kinds of camera gear and even drones. I can barely fit what is essential.
It feels like I have way less room with this system than I do when I ride with panniers. But there are two problems you have with panniers: you always open the wrong one when looking for something, and that thing you are hunting for is always at the bottom. With the multiple small packs on the bike, I think it kind of sorts your gear for you into more, but smaller, compartments and that should make it a lot easier to keep track of what is where.
The Bike – The Surly Krampus
So what is this Krampus and how am I packing it? Back when Amalia and I went on our very first bike tour from Erie, PA to Lake Champlain and back in 2012, I just got some panniers for an around town type mountain bike I’ve had since the 1990s. It certainly was not made for touring, it wasn’t really even made for mountain biking, but it did the trick. When we toured around Michigan the next summer, I was still riding that bike. It was when we planned the cross country tour that I decided maybe it was time to splurge on a real touring bike. After looking into it for a bit, Surly’s Long Haul Trucker emerged as the touring bike to have and it had a price point that was within my reach. Not long before, Surly had introduced the disc break version of the bike and that is the one I went for because of the peace of mind it would give me when going down the steep descents of the Rockies. (As it turned out I was very happy about that) Having been delighted with the Surly purchase, of course I looked at Surly for a bikepacking model. They had a few, but there was a highly anticipated update of their Krampus model that was expected to ship any week and that was the one I was determined to hold out for. As it turned out, Surly did release it and I was able to get just moments before that planned Oregon ride.
The Krampus is a hard tail with a steel frame (in red, if you know who Krampus is, that makes sense. It also came in green and now a black and a white version. So I guess a lot of colors can make sense.) It has 3” fat tires and it only has gears in the back, so no front derailleur to deal with at all. That means all the gear ratio is from a GIANT cassette in the back. I really enjoy the simplicity of only having one shifter to think about and I have yet to encounter a situation where I felt like I needed more gears.
Packing the Bags May 15, 2021
I have a triangle bag where I keep heavier stuff (cans of tuna, tools and bike repair stuff, and my toiletries.)
Basically, I have to try to fit everything in the photo below in to the triangle bag that already has 5 cans of tuna. That is one of the remaining challenges prior to departure.
I have a pack that attaches to the seat and that has to be kept very light because it is so high up. I have my inflatable pillow, my tiny camping towel, my ultra light sleeping bag and my rain jacket in there.
In the 15-liter Ortlieb handlebar bag that I just bought, I have my 1/4 dome tent and a Surf to Summit sleeping pad rolled up together, my stove, and my one change of clothes. It is now much fuller than in the picture.
And in the little Salsa bags on the front fork (they look like cute mini panniers), I have my french press coffee maker and my food: more tuna (I hope I don’t get mercury poisoning from all this tuna), pasta, couscous, trail mix, TJ’s peanut butter filled pretzels! coffee, sunflower seeds and polenta. Obviously, I will eat more than that. I will get food in the towns along that way.
May 21, 2021
Normally by mid May, I would have a few good trips under my belt. I typically ride from home in the early morning and head due north to the town of Westfield. It is 16 miles away. A 32-mile round trip takes about 2 hours on a pretty flat rails-to-trails path. Sadly, I don’t have any of those rides under my belt because this has been a pretty cold spring and I am not getting up to ride in 40˚ weather.
So instead, I got an exercise bike and have been using Apple fitness to do their 45-minute cycling classes. They are pretty intense, but at only 45 minutes they aren’t really about endurance. So I am going into this with questionable endurance. That is a big concern as I have to do 70 miles a day minimum on extremely hilly terrain. On our normal road tours, we would average 80 miles a day. Of course there are hills on those rides too, but we are riding on relatively smooth roads with pretty smooth tires. Riding gravel roads with fat knobby tires is going to make a big difference. All this is to say, I am very concerned about meeting my daily mileage requirement to get to DC on time and not leave Catherine waiting for me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This added pressure is because, to be honest, somewhere between booking flights and making hotel arrangements I somehow accidentally shaved a day off of my originally intended 9-day trip. So what was going to be pretty manageable has now become a bit of a challenge.
We made it down to Damascus today. It is a 500 mile 7 hour trip and it felt far, very far. I have only ever seen Kentucky from the view from interstate 65. So it was nice to see all the green. (Indy is just now finishing up with its greening after a late cold snap) It obviously becomes quite mountainous and there are several state roads we had to take. So lots of turns down country roads. As far as it seemed, it was weird to remind myself that it still isn’t as far as I am about to bike. Anyway, we got settled into the Dancing Bear Inn and immediately set out for dinner. We found it at 7 Trails. Where I have to say I had a pretty good hamburger.
Damascus is Trail City USA because apparently 7 different trails pass through here including the Appalachian trail. I head out of town on the Virginia Creeper trail. I will be on it ALL day. Maybe even close to two days. It looks to be a rails to trails trail but I have not researched it at all to know. There are a a lot of cottages, inns, outfitters, hikers and bikes in the town. Tourism is definitely the primary industry.
May 23rd (Pictures to follow later)
I left Damascus shortly after 7. What a truly beautifully trail. It is an old train line and it runs along Laurel creek. Creek seems like a misnomer. In my book that was a little river and a very beautiful one. The trail crossed back and forth 31 times over old train trestles and newer wood bridges.
I was misreading the route last night. That trail only goes to White Top Station. And that is 17 miles from Damascus. Honestly, that is disappointing except for the fact that I noticed shortly after departing that the elevation only goes up. And all the people who rent bikes, or bring their own, were always coming toward me. So I see how this works. They get a ride back up to White Top Station on the shuttles in Damascus.
Right as the trail started downhill and became a single track, that was when it actually ended and I had to turn off onto a road to head due north. And that is when the real climbing started. It was pretty brutal. Yes, I am old and yes quarantine has taken its toll, but still I thought I would be able to handle it better. I have climbed a lot of mountains, just not recently enough apparently. At one point, it was so intense I would count 75 rail guard poles which are 6 feet apart before I would stop to catch my breath and let the lactic acid settle. Getting going again had the challenge of being able to get my second foot onto the pedal in time. I didn’t say into, just onto. I am riding platform pedals and just to get my foot onto the pedal in time was tough. Eventually I got to the 10% downhill grade sign and was elated. But only after a few hundred feet, I had to turn off onto a gravel road and face even more climbing. That’s when the real climbing started. Climbing on gravel is rough. I took breaks. I took a nap. I ate tuna. And I had to resort to hike-a-biking at times. But that is practically every bit as hard as riding. At this point my legs were noodles and I was really doubting both my ability and sanity. Why do I come up with these ideas? Why can’t I just be content hanging around my house?
At about about this time, a car came towards me and stopped. They gave me some water. When I asked how much farther I had to endure they said it has to be at least 2 or 3 more miles. My heart sank. What? So here it is a beautiful day, a beautiful forest and a torturous uphill. Every curve reveals yet another climb. Now I generally love climbs but after 5 and a half hours of nothing but climbing I was over it. And so were my legs. But I pressed on of course. There isn’t another option. Finally, I crested the mountain at 3:15, 8 hours after starting, and suddenly it was miles of descent. Never mind the fact that it was rough with giant rocks sticking out of the ground that could launch me if I accidentally hit them. At least it was glorious downhill. And at the very bottom of that hill was a campground. Not as far as I was hoping to get. But that was all I had in me for day 1. I’ll have to worry about the consequences later. I could not set up my tent and take a nap fast enough. Now, after a shower and tortellini I am starting to feel human again.
When they said this ride has a lot of hills they aren’t kidding. Many more lay ahead.
I was up at 6:30 breaking down camp and loading up the bike. I finally shoved off around 7:15. And yes there was more climbing up from the campground. Glad I had stopped when I did. I got to the main road at the top of the hill and having memorized the route I took a right and was finally treated to a few miles of joyous descent on a smooth road. I got to the town at the bottom of the mountain and it was called Troutdale. Troutdale? I didn’t recall the route going through Troutdale. A quick look at the route revealed I should have made a left at the top. So much for memorizing the route. Oh boy. There was no way I was turning around and going back up that. So I continued into Troutdale to see what was there and what I could figure out. I saw some backroads on my phone that could get me back to my route. I started off on that when I immediately saw the post office. It was only 8:10 at this point, so no hope they would be open. But I went up anyway and I heard some people around back. I went back to ask them about the hilliness of my new route. After explaining the situation, the driver of the van offered to take me back up the hill as she was heading that way anyway. Just to be clear there was no mail in the van as that would have been illegal. She was leaving that minute and I suddenly had the answer to my problem.
Back on the road, it was more and more climbing on gravel forest roads. Everything is so densely wooded and hilly. It is extremely beautiful. Again the climbing was unrelenting. But I had three incredible descents during the ride that just could not have been better. They went on for miles. And luckily this time not in the wrong direction. These forest roads were incredibly hardpacked and smooth and wound their way through the most beautiful terrain. Dramatic riding indeed.
Eventually, I found myself going through a stunningly beautiful valley of rolling farmland (horse country with pastures of tall grass for hay) on a paved road. I suddenly come to a sign that said Trailside Grill. But the driveway was steep, the building was nowhere in sight and who knew if it was even open. A FedEx truck was approaching and I flagged him down. He said he didn’t know if it was open, but it was 3/4 of a mile uphill. He said he had a delivery up there and I could throw my bike in the back and climb in. After we reached our destination and the side door slid open there was an old man there saying they we closed. But he asked me what I wanted and I said a hamburger. He said he would open up for me. He made me two delicious hamburgers and gave me as much tea as I could drink and as much homemade banana ice cream as I could eat. Thanks James! And the awesome Fedex guy gave me at least 6 protein bars from his cooler. How cool is that?
As we were talking over hamburgers, James the proprietor, mentioned rattlesnakes and the fact the state or the feds, I didn’t catch which, raises them and releases a bunch every year a short way from his house. Apparently turkeys eat them. And turkeys are immune to their poison. I had never heard either of those facts. (This reminds me of the contrail conspiracy.) I told him earlier in the day when I was on a fast descent, I missed a rattlesnake by less that two inches. I saw it shortly before I was right above it and could recognize it as a rattlesnake basking in a little bit of sun. It didn’t move at all.
So I still had several miles to go to get wherever I was going. I wasn’t exactly sure where I would be sleeping. But wherever it would be, it was still a long way way and it was 4:30. I had to make up for my dismal 40 miles I had made the day before.
Now I was on paved roads in back country where the confederate flag is still proudly flown everywhere you look. I had no idea. Having spent years in Alabama, I had never seen as many confederate flags as I have in Kentucky and Virginia. I can say if I were black I would not be doing this. No way. (it is intimidating enough as someone who could probably be pegged as a liberal from 2 miles away.) This is obviously intended to clearly state their racial attitudes whether they would say it or not. I don’t mean to paint the Kentucky and Virginia with a broad brush, but it sure is overtly on display. You can even get your confederate flag at the Dollar General store. They are right there by the front door.
Finally, the hills came to an abrupt stop when I reached something called the New River Trail. It is a rails to trails that runs along the river. Where I picked up the trail was the site of a dam and power plant dating back to 1909 and still in operation. The train no doubt was for building the dam. Now it is a 57 mile state park trail that is about 99% covered in trees. More natural beauty. I could count on both hands the number of people I saw.
I finally made it to a campground called Millrace at 8:40, 13 hours after I started and, minus the hamburgers, 12 hours of riding. For a grand total of about 73 miles for the day. Not as many as I had hoped, but that was the only option for stopping. It was a state campground, so that means there were no showers. Ugh. And I haven’t seen an outlet since I left Damascus. My phone has only survived because I brought an external battery and that has been running very low. Anyway, I pitched camp quickly because rain was on the way. I skipped eating because I had had those two hamburgers and no sooner did I get in the tent than the rain started coming down.
It was a rough night. But I was up shortly after 6 and on my way by 7. I noticed, as I was packing up, that my left hand was very weak, practically useless. It made packing pretty challenging. It was also a little alarming. It was fine the night before.
I headed out with the hopes of getting to some sort of town for a breakfast. A few miles into my ride, I met a guy coming toward me. He told me that the small town of Draper has a great restaurant called Draper Mercantile and that it was around 15 miles away. I made it most of the way before really feeling lightheaded. My dreams of an omelette, bacon, potatoes, toast and a hot cup of coffee kept propelling me forward.
Suddenly there it was, this enormous 19th century beacon on a hill in all its glory. It felt like the first time I had seen civilization since I had left. Yes a business. And actual amenity. I realize now how much I enjoy the frequent amenities on bike tours and that has been sorely lacking. Soon I was eating my dream meal, but I was just not feeling well. Now I could barely cut my omelette with my right hand. Why was going on? I have spent a lot of time cycling, but this has never happened before. Sure your hands can go numb from gripping the handlebars for extended hours. But so weak like this, that is a new one. Anyway, I enjoyed my breakfast, but I knew there was no way I was feeling well enough to get up the daunting mountains that awaited that afternoon. I had to figure something out.
I decided to go into the nearby town of Pulaski (there is always a town called Pulaski on every bike tour Amalia and I have ever done.) and I would get a motel room, sleep, see if my hands regained their strength, and come up with some plan for how I was still going to get to DC on time. This has been weighing on my mind quite a bit.
So I went to the Budget Inn in Pulaski and got a room in a very dubious motel, took a shower, and took a two hour nap. (As I was turning off the trail to go into town, someone mentioned a storm was on the way. I slept warm and dry through the downpour.)
At this point/ my left hand can barely squeeze my tube of toothpaste. I am sure it will eventually comeback, but nevertheless it is still disturbing. My right hand is a bit better, but not normal by any means.
The mission at hand was to figure out a new game plan so I can get to DC on time. (My ride with GPS app is crashing all the time and without it I am pretty screwed.) I used google maps to search for more direct routes to DC via bike. The route I am on, the TransVA, is definitely not a direct line. It takes you way out of the way to go on less traveled, more mountainous gravel roads. The google search showed some good news. There is a route from here that is 338 miles that can be ridden in 28 hours. (I do have my doubts about that time, but is is still better than the 400+ miles I would have left on my current route.) It actually shows two routes and that is the one that does have a little bit of mountain roads and doesn’t go on busier highways.
So that is the revised plan I put into action tomorrow, so I don’t leave Catherine waiting for me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
I actually really like biking with good old papers maps. No tech to go wrong. Pull it out of your pocket, read it, and put it back. It’s timeless and it works. This morning, I left around 6:30 and I pulled up the bike route on google. As I mentioned, it showed two. I was selecting the longer one because it would be nicer. Google Maps kept hiccuping, trying to reroute me, telling me on my AirPods to go one way out of the parking lot while it was showing me the other way. I finally got the right route loaded and took off. The first 15 miles were through beautiful rolling countryside, just the kind I like to bike through: Forests, small towns, farms, the occasional view, and light and considerate traffic. I enjoyed this for quite a while. I passed through the old small town of New Bern which had its fair share of antebellum houses and log cabins. I was riding on national bike route 76. It then went through forests along the river. It turns out the river is called New River. Hence the New River Trail from the day before. Soon, I was on Lee Highway crossing over the New River and going into the cute town of Radford. Radford even has its own university. It has a cute downtown but it lacks a breakfast place.
Eventually, I made it 25 miles to Christianburg on the Lee Highway where I stopped at the Country Kitchen for breakfast. After their version of my dream breakfast, I talked to my daughter on the phone for a while. I mentioned that the remaining mileage to DC had dropped a lot, to 272 for some reason. That’s when she pointed out to her oblivious father that I had obviously biked the other route, the shorter but busier one. Great.
Ok, well too late now, so onward and upward. I got back on the highway and it got much more intense. It is a divided highway with two lanes in each direction, and there is a tiny shoulder sometimes. I am sure Lee Highway (11) predates the interstate 81 that it parallels. It is like the local highway to 81’s express. And at chunks along the way, the speed limit is 60 (with people going much faster of course) with no shoulder. Let’s just say it is not my favorite biking situation. I have done it before plenty of times. I just try not to think about getting plowed by the distracted texting driver. Plus there was rarely any shade. So hot, sunny, noisy and slightly death defying.
On my way, I stopped at a library that was right on the way to ask about an alternative route through the mountains I was considering. I didn’t end up taking it, but I learned about a greenway that starts in Salem, a town adjacent to Roanoke, where I was currently heading. And this greenbelt along the River would take me all the way into Roanoke. So a break from the congested and dangerous 11. I thought. I ended up taking it, but it didn’t go very far into Roanoke and it actually brought me a little farther south than I hoped. My ultimate goal for the day was a town called Troutville. (They apparently love trout here.) Anyway, as I rode, I was considering how and where I could segue back over to the TransVA route, away from all the traffic, and Troutville looked to be a potential jumping off point.
The greenbelt could sure use some signage. If you have never ridden it before, you could be forgiven for thinking it ends occasionally. I got to one end by a bridge and it suddenly seemed to just end. I asked a couple of boys, on bikes no less, about the greenbelt going any farther toward Roanoke. “Nope it ends right here.” And they meant it. They weren’t teasing an old man. They left and I looked at my phone and could see the greenbelt just crossed over the bridge and continued. What the heck? Did they truly not know that? It isn’t that wide of a river. I’m sure they call it a creek here.
Anyway, the greenbelt dumped me out in the sprawl of Roanoke at 2:15 in the very hot afternoon. To get across Roanoke to a motel near Troutville was still a 16 mile ride through city traffic. Ugh. I pressed on.
The traffic sucks, the heat is awful. Oh wait, what is that? A Mexican produce stand and tacoria? U-turn. Time for some fruit, a Mexican popsicle (lemon lime) some coconut water (2 tall cans, I admit) and two very delicious chicken tacos. What a life saver. I still had 6.5 miles to go, but at that point I was done. I looked for a closer motel. There were some places 2.5 miles. I went for that. Management at the first very nice Country Inn was so impressed with my biking they gave me a 20% discount and a great room. I ended up in some crazy suite that was hardly more than the dive I was in in Pulaski the night before.
I settled in and looked at all the maps to figure out a plan. I cannot do more days on route 11. They aren’t fun in the least and I just want to get back to the transVA route. But it didn’t take long to realize if I did, there is absolutely no way I will get to DC in time. What the hell? Is this route just getting longer and longer when I look away from the map? I am in a real quandary. I can’t have Catherine alone waiting on me during our honeymoon. I can’t continue riding on 11, it will wear me down to a nub. And I can’t go back to the TransVA route. Well shit. This is not a good bind to be in. And oh yeah, my hands aren’t working right. So I looked at bus routes and train routes. Then Catherine suggested renting an SUV. Ok, this sounds like a possible plan. I am thinking I can rent one here in Roanoke and drive past all this horribleness of highway 11 and drop it off at a town near the northern part of the TransVA route near Winchester. It would still be well over a hundred miles to ride to DC, but I would be able to not stress every minute about getting there on time. Problem potentially solved, if enterprise has an SUV available. I will call at 8 in the morning.
Sometimes things just don’t want to go your way. I spent 2 hours on the phone searching for rental cars. There was literally nothing available. Enterprise, which has like 6 locations here, did not have a single car. Every place just said it is the holiday. So here it is Thursday the 27th, and all the cars are gone for a holiday in 4 days.
This was becoming a dark comedy of ridiculousness. With the lack of dexterity in my hands, which is just getting worse rather than better, the crappy internet service, my broken phone, and my ancient iPad that can’t load a page correctly if it had to, things were, let’s say, more than a little taxing. Finally, I came up with a new plan while discussing options with Amalia (in Norway). She was able to help out on her computer. She booked a ticket on the Amtrak line that recently restarted service through Roanoke to DC. And she was able to check and make sure I can get my bike on that particular train. So I have a ticket to DC tomorrow morning. Now I will get there days early and I plan, hands permitting, to backtrack on the trail Friday and Saturday and be back to DC on Sunday. Boy, this trip turned out absolutely nothing like I expected.
I woke up at 4:30 this morning and rode the 7 miles to the downtown Amtrak station. I passed Enterprise rental car on the way and saw their lot 3/4 full, including a handful of SUVs. Those better be reserved, damn it. It was a beautiful morning. The train was waiting on the tracks. The conductor was nice enough to let me just put the bike in the large space in front of the accessible seat and sit there. How nice. I was not looking forward to taking off the front wheel with its through axel. So now I can stretch out and relax, listen to music (turns out noise canceling AirPods basically eliminate all train noise) and update this blog.
Still no significant improvement in my hands. I did not mention the detail that by the time I got to Roanoke on the 26th my pinkies on both hands had decided to develop some interesting behavior. They started to curl and stick out to the side and had no ability to move them back. Oh the fun. Yet for some crazy reason, I still want to ride. I need my head examined.
I had a lot of time on my hands, so of course, I did the usual and googled my strange hand malady. It is easy to find. It is called handlebar palsy or ulnar neuropathy. Basically, the ulnar nerve has become extremely inflamed or damaged from the pressure on the handlebars which was exasperated by all the shocks of the rough terrain. (The news I wasn’t happy to read was the potential 8 weeks to recover. Let’s hope not!) Of course, on many occasions, I have experienced some numbness in my pinky and ring finger after biking, but nothing that has ever lasted long after getting off the bike. So I never had cause to research it. Bike touring has never required me to hold the bars so intensely for so long over such rough terrain. And touring bikes of course have drop handlebars that allow you to switch up the position of your hands. I have never before experienced weakness of any kind. It got to the point where my left thumb could just barely push my phone home button. (So you can imagine how hard this makes simple things like packing my bike, pulling a strap, zipping a zipper.) The weird thing was there was no real sign of this coming aside from a little discomfort while riding, there is no pain, no significant numbness. I just suddenly woke up with it.
My idea was that this bikepacking adventure was a short domestic test for a more ambitious ride overseas someday. While of course, it fell far short of what I was hoping for, it has definitely been a learning experience I can use moving forward. Here are some things in random order that come to mind:
1. Pay really close attention to the topo info beforehand, especially regarding what types of roads you’re on. Together, this impacts mileage and expectations even more dramatically than I thought.
2. Train on actual mountains with a loaded bike before departing. Ideally, on the same types of roads. I planned to get my riding legs during the first three days, which I did, but things would have been easier those three days if I had put in the prior work. (I just need to get some mountains in Indy.)
3. Plan to cover significantly less mileage a day than when touring. I went in thinking I would do 65 miles a day because we normally did 80 touring. I did 40 that first day and had to really push it to do 75ish the next day.
4. Plan rest days into the schedule, even if you think it is a short trip. 563 miles seems relatively short compared to our touring distances, so a rest day didn’t seem needed. Wrong. A good plan on hard terrain, at least when first starting out, is rest after three days of riding.
5. Have flexibility in plans. Avoid hard outs on the tail end of the trip. This just adds pressure and compromises fun.
6. Take what you read with a big grain of salt. I read this was a 9 day trip. At 563 miles (not including two current detours) that is 62.5 miles a day. And I thought sure that is doable. Well, maybe for a fit person in their 20s or 30s who already has their riding legs. At 56 years old, I apparently need to start adding a senior quotient, of like 25%, to those calculations.
7. Plan your itinerary carefully. As careful as I thought I was being when booking flights and our AirBnB, I still somehow cut my planned riding days a day short.
8. When you are going uphill on gravel, the bike seems to weigh 4 times as much. This is really hard on tired arms when hike-a-biking, so upper body strength is important too.
9. Pack even lighter. Give up the 1/4 dome tent for a bivvy and the sleeping pad for an ultra light one. That will help with that hike-a-biking.
10. Look into different handlebar designs that minimize the ulnar nerve pressure point and be sure to get a lot of added cushioning
11. Use extra padded gloves
12. This bike could actually use higher gears, so I will consider another chain ring on the front
13. Pack chamois butter, balm just does not cut it. (That’s a whole other story, the details of which I decided to spare you.)
14. Avoid an untested saddle. I will switch this untested saddle for my broken-in, proven Brooks saddle for the next ride. This current saddle is fine for day trips of a few hours, but it didn’t work out so well after multiple days.
15. Pack more anti-inflammatories and take them morning, noon, and night.
16. Things can potentially get much more expensive than planned. Be sure to have contingency money. I never expected so much in hotel expenses.
17. Print a paper version of your route. Ride with GPS worked great for a while and then would just freeze when I would try to resume my ride. So it became almost useless.
18. Don’t trust the google biking route time estimates. I think they use those same fit people in their 20s and 30s to calculate those times.
I obsessively watched the weather channel yesterday, and it looks like very severe weather will be hitting DC this afternoon. Of course it is— a fitting end. With any luck my train gets in shortly before then. In anticipation of this, I just got a hotel in DC. The ride, if that was what it was, is basically over. I biked a whopping 208 mountainous miles. Now, before Catherine arrives, I have to get my bike packed and shipped to Indy. I have a bike box waiting for me at the DuPont Circle Fedex. I might just ride straight there, pack it and wave good-bye.
The train arrived in Union Station and as I walked into the incredible building which I had not been in in decades, I was reminded of when I was ten and was allowed, believe it or not, to ride the train alone from Philadelphia to DC to stay with my Great Aunt for a weekend. She lived on East Capitol Street for decades and worked as a executive secretary for various congressmen over the years. I cannot imagine putting a kid of ten on a train by themselves like that. They say it was different times then. I don’t know about that, but it was certainly different parenting.
I biked around the city for a couple of hours. As much time as I have spent in DC during various times of my life, I had never biked around it before. The mall suddenly seemed much smaller. It was so much fun to see all these beautiful buildings I had not seen in years from the vantage point of a bike.
It started to rain eventually, so around 1:00 I went to the Fedex to get my bike box and start packing. What a challenging adventure that was. The whole affair took 5 hours. Yes, 5 hours! Having to do this with two compromised hands was enormously difficult.
The bike box itself is awesome. It is an intense 3-ply thick cardboard box sold by shipbikes.com out of Chicago. I had to watch their video on how to assemble it. But everything fit very nicely and it includes ties to secure everything in place. I have full confidence it will be fine. The bike and what I shipped with it weighed-in at the maximum 75 lbs. I took my front roll, with tent, sleeping pad, all my food and whatnot, with me (It’ll be my carry on bag on the plane.) That must have weighed 20lbs easy.
The packing was complicated by the fact that did not have a pedal wrench. Oops. I had to get the pedals off. There was no way around it. I walked to a nearby cvs where they had a small tool section, no wrench though. So I bought a pair of pliers. Couldn’t get those to work. I called Catherine to help locate a pedal wrench somewhere nearby while I continued to pack. She found one and bought the last one they had at a bike store in Georgetown. Two Lyft rides later, I was back and had the pedals off with a twist so easy it felt ridiculous. Then the box was taped shut, labeled and scanned. It cost $138 with $3000 insurance to ship to a Fedex near my house where it will be held. Shipbikes.com made the whole thing so easy. I just filed out the shipping label from the computer at FedEx and then emailed the shipping label to FedEx. Done.
Finally, to the hotel and some relaxation while the pouring rain intensified.
So that is the conclusion to this weird bikepacking trip that got off track both figuratively and literally. I should change the blog title to Old Man succumbs to TransVA Route. I am determined to come back someday and do this ride beginning to end as intended. It will happen.
Hand Update: June 10
As of last Monday, there was very little improvement in my hands. I had a doctor’s appointment on Monday, was prescribed prednisone and have seen a slight improvement after 3 doses. This looks like it will be a long slog to get my hands back. In the meantime, I ordered new Ergon GP5 ergonomic grips for the bike.