Sunday 29 April 2007

Saturday Ride on Skyline Drive: The Best Road

The Official Word:

Bicycling is permitted along Skyline Drive and on paved areas in the park, but nowhere else. (The park is preserving the natural world, so no off-road riding of any kind is permitted on trails, fire roads, or grassy open areas.) Because Skyline Drive is a two-lane road with steep hills and many blind curves, park officials do not encourage bicycling, especially for children.

From the National Park Service's Shenandoah National Park website

Well, it seems that the National Park Service is not all that impressed with cyclists using their nice park but on any nice weekend lots of cyclists with a need for climbing make the trip to Front Royal, Virginia to enjoy the beauty of the Blue Ridge and some wonderful road indeed.

Skyline Drive was begun in 1931 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. Constructed during the depths of the Great Depression, the road was a make-work project and is considered a National Historic Landmark. It is a two lane road, immaculately paved, and grades seldom exceed 6% (although there are some that do reach 8%). The speed is limited to 35 mph (56 km/h) but there are some sections that are only 25 mph for safety reasons. There are scenic overlooks as the road snakes over both the left and right sides of the Blue Ridge, and rather than guardrails there are gorgeous low stone walls. The road features a whole lot of climbing and is excellent for training. The May 2007 issue of Bicycling featured an article that called the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a southern continuation of Skyline Drive but not a national park, "the Best Road in America."

Ready to roll! From left: Larry, Melinda and Tim

After arriving Front Royal, I made my way to our jumping-off point, the Stonewall Jackson High School, where I met my friends Tim, Larry and Melinda. The weather forecast was pretty good, with a sun/cloud mix and temperatures around 70F. Although we rode off at 9:30 am in sunshine there was not to be a great deal of it for the rest of the day, which was grey and cloudy and a bit chilly. We joked about Larry and his several layers, including a wool jersey, whereas as the Canadian I was going with shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. It really did not look like a day for armwarmers, but I may also have been willing Spring to start for real.

First climb of the day

After paying our park entry fee, we rolled up the first serious climb of the day. The road up to Dickey Ridge is a steady 5-6% grade but goes on for six miles. Tim and I went ahead a bit and I found that in spite of not getting much of a warm-up I was feeling pretty good. We were passed by two SUVs with bikes on racks on the roofs, shocked that anyone would choose to have their bike driven up rather than enjoy the great climb. We reached the Visitors' Center and waited for Larry and Melinda and saw the SUVs being unloaded and a lot of cyclists getting ready to roll.

The Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5 and me (wearing the official Specialized Riders' Club jersey--whee!)

I am very familiar with this road and ride it several time in Spring for training. We now had a series of small descents before going on to some more longish climbs. Tim and I were rolling on our cool machines (he has a new Cervelo R3), although I was getting a bit of squeaking from various places on my bike. I had picked it up last night from the shop and it seemed that they had stopped the bottom bracket from making an annoying rubbing noise, but now the seatpost was complaining! Well, it is all part of the first few months of new bike ownership and everything will eventually be dialled in.

Tim and his Cervelo R3

We rode steadily, passing the mile markers on the way to the highest point of today's ride, the top of Hogback Mountain (elevation 3385 ft/1031 m). This section of Skyline Drive, the 32 miles (51.5 km) from Front Royal to Thornton Gap, was opened to the public on October 1, 1936. It cost US$ 1.2 million, or US$ 42,000 per mile, and was constructed by three different contractors. The climb up to Hogback, at Milestone 21, is not easy but today Tim and I rode it surprisingly fast, probably taking around 1:50 from the park entrance. We passed three riders with full touring gear grinding up the hill and had enough breath to wish them a good morning. Tim and I decided to go to on to Thornton Gap, the road giving us a nice long descent, and then come back and meet the others before returning back to Front Royal. After we passed the store at Elkwallow we realized that Thornton Gap was further than we had thought, so at Milestone 27 we turned around and headed back.

Melinda and Larry were at the store at Elkwallow as we pulled in, along with several of the lazy riders who had begun at the Visitors' Center. They were actually not all that lazy; Larry said that they were training for a ride that would take them right across the State of Washington. Larry and Tim took a break for a grilled cheese sandwich, of all things, and then we began the very long and hard climb back up to Hogback from Elkwallow. When I rode this on March 31st I found it exhausting but today I felt very strong and could keep up with Tim. After catching up to a very strong and steady 70 year old woman riding a LeMond on Hogback, I went into descending mode and rocketed a good part of the way northbound. At this point, I was getting an annoying rattling from the front end of the bike and pulled off the road to check my front quick release but it turned out to be the stem cover. I tightened it as much as I could with my fingers since neither Tim nor I had an allen key. As we were stopped, two riders went by and I said to Tim we had to catch them, but he suggested that I might want to do that alone.

I jumped into the big gear (as big as a compact crank will allow, anyway), and headed after them. I caught the first rider easily, passing him on a downhill at 60 km/h or so and then made an effort to chase the second rider, who was quite a bit further up the road. I reeled him in as well and after I passed him he joined up with me. Only then did he realize that I was not the other rider, with whom he had been riding. "No matter," I said, "but you can follow my wheel if you want." He seemed grateful for this but also hoped he could keep up.

At this point I was in full training mode, anxious to raise my heart rate beyond the paltry 150 it had been at for most of the day. I rode most of the way to Dickey Ridge, and only when we came to the last hill did I sit up. The other rider came around and we chatted for a while. His name was Randy and he was riding a very nice Trek Madone with a triple. He was training for Paris-Brest-Paris, the 1200 km ride held every four years in France, and had already done his 200 and 300 km brevet rides.

I was soon joined by Tim across from the Visitors' Center and we enjoyed the screaming 65 km/h descent back into Front Royal. Interestingly, although Tim has lived in the Washington, DC area for four years, this was his first ride on Skyline Drive. This final section of the road is always the highlight of my ride as I have worked hard to improve my descending skills. I find that I have to consciously tell myself to relax so that the front end of the bike does not get jittery and it seemed to have worked very well today. We left the park and rode the short distance back to the high school where we packed up our bikes, unpacked our picnic supplies and waited for the other two, who arrived just a few minutes later.

A well-deserved snack break

After most of our rides we break out some beer and snacks and today we had definitely earned them.

The statistics for the day are--
Distance ridden: 55.7 miles (89.8 km)
Altitude gained: 5905 feet (1800 m)
Average speed: 15.22 mph (24.5 km/h)
Max speed: 45.11 mph (72.6 km/h)
Beer: Hofbrau Maibock, Wild Goose Oatmeal Stout, Franziskaner

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