The Inn at Virginia Tech
Lots of great cycling this weekend in the beautiful Old Dominion. The Commonwealth of Virginia offers some of the finest riding possibilities I have seen, with lush green landscapes, rolling hills, friendly folks and historic little towns. This weekend marked my fourth participation in the Cycling Doubleheader since 2003 and, as I head back to Canada at the end of August, my last for some time.
Friday, May 25, 2007
I left Washington, DC just after noon and had a surprisingly traffic-free trip westwards along I-66 and then south on I-81 to reach Blacksburg, Virginia, in about five hours of leisurely driving. I brought some sandwiches and ice tea in my Famous Yellow Coolbox but when I stopped briefly at two highway rest areas I discovered that: a) they were overcrowded with Memorial Day Weekend fellow travellers and b) unlike the areas in Maryland, the stops in Virginia are directly next to the highway and pretty unpleasant for sitting at. So I just kept heading south, and then drove onwards past Roanoke, reaching my hotel, the Inn at Virginia Tech.
My enormous room
When I last came to the cycling event in 2005 this place had not even been built. It was very nice, made of the same kind of stone as the rest of the quite attractive Virginia Tech campus buildings. It seemed to be a popular place for big events: along with being the headquarters for the Cycling Doubleheader, it looked like a wedding or something was also going on. I moved all my tons of gear--if my bike weighs 16 pounds, why do I need all this other stuff?--and unpacked. Tonight I would have the room to myself, and it was huge, with space for ten bicycles. It was also a room for handicapped guests, so instead of a normal tub it had a huge shower with a seat where you could roll a wheelchair into. But a shower is a shower and I soon was cleaned up after the drive. I walked through the lobby and up a set of stairs and picked up my registration packets for the two rides. As usual, the organization was first-rate and it only took a moment to get everything I needed.
Sadly, there were reminders around the campus of the terrible events on April 16th, when an insane student killed 32 students and faculty and injured 25 more in the worst mass shooting incident in American history. I noticed that our bib numbers had a ribbon motif in memory of the dead and there were signs everywhere in Blacksburg proper.
On to other things: the annoying creak in my bicycle's bottom bracket had continued and I had bought new Speedplay cleats in the hope that worn cleats were in fact the cause of the problem. I decided to go for a brief test ride before the first big ride on Saturday and then noticed I had cleverly installed the cleats backwards. Speedplay cleats are pretty well idiot-proof when it comes to installation, but perhaps not quite. I had brought my tools and the cleats were corrected quickly.
More views of the Inn
I rolled the Tarmac out of the hotel and did two quick circuits of the parking lot, then headed into the central part of Blacksburg proper to look around. Up and down a few hills, no problem. And I felt very strong, having had a rest day the day before. Satisfied, I returned to the room and arranged everything I need for the next day. Then I drove back to the restaurant area and enjoyed a vegetarian meal, a tofu stir-fry with kung pao sauce and a cold Paulaner Hefeweizen and four glasses of water, at Gillies, a much more vegetarian-friendly place than one would expect to find in rural southwestern Virginia.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Although I was most appreciative that the Inn was offering breakfast at 5:45 am to cyclists heading out for the Wilderness Road Ride, it was just oatmeal, some untoasted bagels, cake, fruit and bottled juice. At least you could serve yourself on nicer plates (ie. not styrofoam) than you get at the Day's Inn, but then again it did cost me $7.25 for my oatmeal and a cup of tea. But I knew that I had to get in some breakfast before the riding started.
I took the bike and my gear bag out to the car and headed towards Radford, past the ordnance depot and to Radford University. For the longer rides, the organizers recommended starting before 7:45 am and in fact I rolled out at 7:10, just a short while after things got started.
The bike was behaving well, the weather was excellent and I felt rested so I quickly felt that I was not mistaken in having chosen, for the first time, the long route of 78 miles (125 km). The countryside is rolling, not as steep as what was coming on Sunday, but with plenty of climbing. I found a small group to ride with fairly early and decided to go at a relaxed pace and save up my strength. My group consisted of: Susan, a radiologist; Janet, who had been to Tuscany for a tour; and Joe, who was new to road biking, although an experienced mountain biker. All were locals from Radford. We cruised up and down the very scenic roads at a reasonable pace, stopping for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bananas at the rest stops, and before I knew it, we were up to the crossroads where you turned right to do the 57 mile route or went straight on for the longer ride. Janet turned right but Susan and I continued and Joe manfully went with us. Of course, we immediately began to climb up a series of hills, which would have been pretty discouraging to a lot of riders. I heard from one of the fellows running the next food stop that a lot of riders start up the hill, and then decide that maybe they want to do the 57 miler and head back down right away. But Joe kept plugging away.
I still felt quite strong, but the heat was beginning to take its toll. But it was clear that the biggest climbs were behind us and we cruised along some lovely roads, running alongside the New River, and then crossed the big bridge back into Radford. Of course, the route then took us up a brutal little hill before letting us head back down along the bike path alongside the river. Susan and I rolled in around 2:30 pm and Joe came in half an hour later, looking exhausted but happy.
Distance: 128.14 km 79.622 miles
Average speed: 24.2 km/h 15.03 mph
Maximum speed: 65.2 km/h 40.40 mph
Altitude gain: 1342 m 4402 feet
Maximum grade: 16%
I drove back to Blacksburg feeling quite pleased, but annoyed as the bike had started to creak again on the big climbs. I drove to the East Coasters bike shop and there were four mechanics at work and everyone tried to figure out the problem from various angles. The fact that the bottom bracket was now in very tightly suggested that was not the problem, and some other solutions were mooted. As I rolled out, one mechanic suggested lubing the spokes on the rear wheel which, when torqued heavily in a climb, could be the source of the creaking. I had some Pro Link lubricant in my bag and when I got back to the hotel I carefully applied it and let it sit.
Carl T. of the Potomac Pedallers joined me that evening as we had agreed to split the room cost. He is a very experienced cyclist and works for the Securities Exchange Commission as a lawyer. We walked over to an excellent Italian restaurant near the Inn, Zeppoli's, and joined a number of other PPTC riders for dinner. It was great fun, and the food was very good. I had fresh pasta with vegetables and a side order of green asparagus, followed by homemade pistachio gelato for dessert. Time to celebrate one successful ride and look forward to another! And before going to sleep, Carl and I knocked off a bottle of pretty good red wine from California.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Up at 5:15 am after a sleepless night. The wedding celebrants had insisted on shouting to each other all night as they wandered down the hall to their rooms and I felt that I had not gotten any sleep at all. Carl and I packed up our gear after a minimal breakfast: one of the other PPTCers had given me some instant oatmeal and I mixed that up with some boiling water, ate two bananas and was ready to go.
I reached Newport pretty quickly but was amazed at all the cars, far more than I had seen in previous years. I handed in my little knapsack with my running shoes and some other gear to be collected at the top of the hill that marked the end of the climb and prepared to leave. At 7:00 am the siren went off and the Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century riders left the Newport recreation center en mass. The Century riders would leave ten minutes later.
As is the case every year, the group immediately goes into peloton mode and works together for the first 28 miles or so to New Castle, just after a great, screaming descent. I stopped here to refill my bottle and then saw that there were not a lot of riders around (our group of 120 or so made up perhaps one-quarter of MoM participants) but up ahead I saw a rider I easily caught up to. His name was Damon and he was a young triathlete, riding a very nice Seven Axiom. I prefer to ride with someone on these long rides and stuck with him, although he looked to be very strong. We caught a third rider, Brian, and proceeded to the base of Potts Mountain. In past years I have always found this to be quite difficult due to its length but this time I matched Damon all the way to the top, riding comfortably and chatting. The hill is about 7 miles long and has a fairly constant 7-8 per cent grade. Once over the top there was another screaming descent all the way into Painted Bank, where happy volunteers filled our bottles and gave us food. I was feeling pretty good and encouraged by my climbing, which I think was the result of all my training miles this year and my 10 kg weight loss.
On the three of us went, setting an excellent pace over the lightly rolling roads until we came to the next big hill. This road runs at a very steep angle alongside a small river but the 2.5 mile climb lessens in steepness as you get near the top. It is then followed by a long descent on a chipseal road. Brian left first, but we caught him pretty quickly and then Damon moved ahead. I had him in sight most of the time but it took a while to close the gap on the descent.
The next stretch of road is very pretty, running through a valley but I could feel that bridging up to Damon had cost me a lot of energy. We had collected three other riders but I could sense that I was tiring and when we came to the food stop at the base of the third climb I let them go on while I restocked. I passed the photographers who are positioned where riders still look good and grimly smiled with the prospect of the coming hill. This climb rises up from the fields and has some nasty hairpins in it. It is marked off and while 2.5 miles does not sound far it felt like forever. The last part was even marked in 1/10ths of a mile! But I crawled up and over, cheered on my two volunteers shouting at the top. A quick drink and then downhill again, heading for Newport and the final, brutal climb.
As I cruised down the road I enjoyed the gentle downhill and tried to recover as best as I could. There were no other cyclists to be seen but I kept a steady, low-exertion pace, riding inside myself so that I would feel better. I saw a brown Ford pickup truck in the opposite lane go by and was startled when something hit the grass near me. The driver had thrown a pop bottle at me as he went by, the first incident like this I have had in five years of cycling in the region.
Anyway, this annoyed me enough so that any thoughts of quitting in Newport were pushed out of my head. I passed the parking lot and the food stop there and was gaining momentum when I caught up to Damon, whom I had not expected to see before reaching the top. I think he was feeling the distance as well. My bike was creaking again and at this point I just wanted to finish the ride, so I went into time trial mode and towed Damon along the scenic road along the river for ten miles at nearly 40 km/h until we turned up towards the highway on the section of road I particularly hate. It is very steep and long and goes over railway tracks and I always get a cramp in my leg here, but this year I was lucky. We did stop briefly at the next food stop so I could massage my leg a bit and then we headed up Mountain Lake Road.
This is the last hill and it is brutally hard. It is 3.5 miles long, averages 11.5 per cent and has a little section in it that is 17 per cent. Damon went ahead and I followed as best as I could, but I was really suffering in the heat so at one point I pulled off for about ten minutes to stand in the shade and recover. But then I was back on the road, riding slowly past riders pushing their bikes. At the mid-hill food stop, I was given a cup of water as I went by and then a girl sprayed us with welcome cool water. This really helped to revive me and I perked up as I could hear the noise around the finish line ahead. I felt much better as I had the end in sight and cruised over the line. Helping hands immediately took my bicycle for transport down the hill, another person gave me my finisher's t-shirt and a third my knapsack so I could change my shoes.
Tim and Larry, who had ridden the Century, were there waiting for the bus and there were a number of Potomac Pedallers around and even a Coppi who had ridden the Century route at some amazing speed. I grabbed some water and found a place on the bus back to Newport.
After changing and collecting the bike, I drove off to the Hotel Roanoke for a night of pure comfort, collapsing into bed at 8:55 pm and sleeping like someone dead.
Distance: 209.06 km 129.9 miles
Average speed: 23.5 km/h 14.6 mph
Maximum speed: 71.4 km/h 44.36 mph
Altitude gain: 3408 m 11,181 feet (NB: the official website claims 13,000 feet)
Maximum grade: 17%
Monday, May 28, 2007
After an excellent sleep, I awoke in the sunshine and looked outside. My room had windows on two sides as it was at the end of the corridor and as I looked out at the mountains I realized that I could under no account pass up the opportunity to ride to the top of Mill Mountain, my traditional recovery ride. Getting dressed, I took the bike out of the car and headed through the peaceful streets, past the hospital and left at the bridge. I began to ascend quickly and my legs, which had felt sluggish, suddenly came to life and I spun up comfortably to the giant star that caps Mill Mountain, overlooking Roanoke and the Shenandoah Valley. A few minutes admiring the view, and I headed back down to the city on a piece of smoothly-paved high-speed road. I had climbed around 3 miles, with some 866 vertical feet, and felt great.
Returning to the hotel, I packed up and drove around the corner, enjoying a breakfast of a poppy bagel with egg and cheese, a lemon scone and a big cup of iced chai latte before buying some fruit at the greengrocer's in the market square and beginning the drive home. It was an easy trip, and again there was no traffic. I think most people go to the beach instead of challenging themselves to the Mountains of Misery and, well, who can blame them? But I found it fun and rewarding as always. The event is timed and although you lose a lot of time at the food stops, when I consider it took me fifteen minutes longer in 2003 to ride the century version I have certainly improved my cycling in the intervening years.