Monday 30 April 2007

The Virginia Civil War Century: Alone with History for 100 Miles

In Fredericksburg at the Military Cemetery

Mr. G.C. Moore of the Potomac Pedalers has prepared a cue sheet which presents a 100 mile tour covering some of the famous Civil War battlefields of Northern Virginia. Since I have already ridden Maryland's annual Civil War Century, put on by the Baltimore Bicycle Club, I thought I would take advantage of the superb Spring weather and do the Virginia version as a Do-It-Yourselfer, that is, with no support. Unfortunately, I could not find anybody else to come with me today, so it really was a true DIY in every way! But the starting point, the Stafford High School, was only about 45 minutes by car from downtown Washington, DC, so I could sleep in a bit after yesterday's Skyline Climbfest and still have a good ride.

I rolled out from the High School at 9:45 am, calculating that I would probably be back around 4:30 pm. The route has some surprisingly busy stretches on it and there are signs of suburban sprawl all over, particularly in the stretches around Stafford and Fredericksburg, both reasonable commutes to DC. The very well-prepared cue sheet was easy to cut up into four small pieces, although they tended to slip out from the alligator clip I use to hold cues against the brake cable so I had to stop a few times to reposition them to prevent them from falling out. So I otherwise had no clue where I was and how to get back to the car I was very careful with them.

After the initial busyness of Shelton Shop Road and Mountain View Road, things got much quieter as I rode into the countryside (including a stretch of the interestingly-named Eskimo Hill Road!), stopping briefly on Potomac Run Road to look at the typical swamps found in the Tidewater region of Virginia. There was very little traffic now and I spent a few moments looking at the birds flying around the marshes. But once I left this bucolic stretch, I came to new suburban development just past the commuter train station named, like much else in the region, after General Robert E. Lee.

With 18 miles (29 km) under my wheels, I arrived in Fredericksburg and visited the cemetery located on Marye's Heights. In December 1862 a series of battles took place around the city, most of them ending with disaster for Union forces. With more than 100,000 men available, the Northerners should have been able to take the town but the Confederates had fortified the heights and controlled all access. Unwilling to use their imaginations, Union generals, headed by Gen. Burnside, who would go own to demonstrate startling heights of ineptitude at Antietam and go down in history for his sidewhiskers (reversed to become "sideburns") simply threw more troops at the entrenched Southern forces. The artillerymen on Marye's Heights had a clear field of fire over a half-mile of open field below and not a single Union soldier made it to the stone wall at the base of the hill. The Sunken Road has been reconstructed, along with the wall, and is near the Battlefield Visitors' Center.

Four miles down the road one comes to the main part of the battlefield park, which is very extensive. I rode down the beautiful Lee's Road, passing through dense cool forest, before climbing a bit and heading towards the battlefield at Chancellorsville, which also looks like a big forest rather than a park. Nearby is where the battles at Spotsylvania Courthouse and in the Wilderness took place but they were not on this itinerary.

When I turned onto Road 610/Old Plank Road, I was confronted with an angry headwind, probably gusting at around 20 mph (32 km/h). Unfortunately, the 610 section went on for some 17 miles! At one point I stopped at a country store to load up on Gatorade and rest a bit as I was getting tired. The climbing from the day before and the relentless headwind were beginning to take their toll. This area in Culpeper County seems to have a lot of turf farms. They look very nice, but do nothing to block the wind. Oddly enough, it actually rained on my a little bit although I was riding in bright sunshine. There was one little black cloud and the strong wind was blowing a few sprinkles my way.

By the time I reached Kellys Ford, scene of a major cavalry engagement in March 1863, I was pretty toasted. I rode by the Inn at Kellys Ford, a fancy equestrian place, and stopped for a moment to consult the cue sheet and have a drink near the public boat landing on the Rappahanock River. I saw another cyclist go by--only one of three I was to see all day-- and thought I would follow him and sit on his wheel and recover. While he looked pretty fit he was going so slowly that I just passed him, put my head low and continued grinding into the wind. But things looked up as I passed through the little town of Remington and turned on Road 651/Sumerduck Road. Now I finally had a tailwind, and I made the most of it, cruising at a steady 42-45 km/h (26-28 mph). I passed a very unfriendly-looking US Army training base, the Warrenton Facility and was curious what kind of training they might be doing is apparently something to do with communications and the CIA. According to the Internet, that is.

Suddenly I was at mile 82 (Km 132) of the ride and now I was facing the headwind again. There were a series of little hills through some subdivisions and the miles were just creeping by now. I was concerned that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere--not something you want to do so late in a century ride--but the right road turned up as indicated but it seemed so much further than the 3.2 miles (5.1 km) on the cue sheet. Stefaniga Road, which also had a few little climbs that hurt, was great--3.4 miles of fresh new asphalt!

I was happy to see the McDonalds on Garrisonville Road as I knew that my ride was almost over. It had been an excellent day, with great weather and comfortable riding, and I pulled into the High School at exactly 4:30 pm, as planned. This surprised me as I thought the headwind would have taken a lot of time to overcome. It is far, far harder to ride a solo century than with a group where you can rest in a paceline so I thought my 6 hours of riding was pretty respectable, particularly since I had accumulated nearly 12,000 vertical feet (3650 m) over the entire weekend of riding.

I think that as more and more subdivisions are completed and the sprawl moves even further out it will become difficult or dangerous to do this ride in a decade or so. However, between Chancellorsville and Kellys Ford there is still lovely green forested countryside and that will probably be there for the foreseeable future.

The statistics:
Distance ridden: 165 km (102 miles)
Altitude gained: 1737 m (5700 feet)
Average speed: 27.21 km/h (17 mph)
Maximum speed: 67.71 km/h (42 mph)
Riding time: 6 hours, 3 minutes
Beer consumed: switched to Indian chai iced tea given that it was very hot outside and I was alone

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