Sunday 5 August 2007

Yo, Mama!

Mama be mean...

I have just returned from the wilds of southwestern Virginia and yesterday's running of the Mountain Mama Cycling Challenge. This ride begins in Monterey, Virginia and, if you do the Century version, takes you on big loop in two states, three counties and over nine mountains. I have ridden some of the challenge rides in the region (Mountains of Misery four times, Blue Ridge Extreme once) but had never had the chance to do this one. My friends at PPTC told me it was a great ride but that I would have to book a room as soon as I could. They were not kidding: calling in May I got the last room in town

I left Washington, DC on Friday afternoon--still not early enough to avoid a traffic jam in Fairfax--and drove to Staunton, Virginia where I had a late lunch at Cranberries Grocery and Eatery, a health food place with a little cafe in the back. There is a nice selection of tasty items and the groceries are even interesting to look at. Staunton, not being terribly far from Charlottesville, is enjoying the reflected popularity of that place. It now has a little shop selling Porsche cars and the former Western Asylum for the Criminally Insane is being turned into fancy condos. I have been to Staunton to enjoy the Shakespeare theatre there and stayed at the recently restored Stonewall Jackson Hotel. A charming place in the Shenandoah Valley that I hope success will not spoil. An Americano with caramel and a biscotti at the Daily Grind and I was off to Monterey.

Monterey is 45 miles from Staunton on Hwy. 250. It takes well over an hour to do this drive as the road constantly twists and turns and climbs over three different ridges. I was feeling a little queasy by the time I finally arrived in the town, which is the county seat for Highland County. It is the region's metropolis, which is not saying too much as the population is around 200. Hence the problem in finding a place to stay. There are several little bed and breakfasts in town and in front of each one there were cars with bike racks. I was staying at a 1950s motel, that was both tobacco- and alcohol free. Actually, I was staying in a separate room in the owners' house since everything was booked up. There was no airconditioning, which concerned me a bit since it had been around 90 F in Staunton but up here in the mountains the temperature was not really an issue. I was given a little fan so everything was fine.

I looked at the town, which did not take very long, then drove over to the local high school where I registered for the ride. I then walked over to one of the few restaurants in town, where I enjoyed one of the greasiest grilled cheese sandwiches in history with a not-very-impressive salad and some ice tea. Unfortunately, I was not feeling very well due to the heat or the long drive or something and I went back to the motel and went to bed early. I felt as if I had heat exhaustion and slept very badly, constantly waking up. I drank two bottles of water I had brought with me and in the morning felt somewhat better. For breakfast, I could not face going back to the restaurant so I had bananas and plums that I had brought along.

Ready to roll

Rolling up to the high school, I met up with Damon, a triathlete from DC that I had ridden the Mountains of Misery with in May and a group of Potomac Pedalers. Everyone rolled out at 8 am for the ride, which headed back towards Staunton along Highway 250. There was no traffic and the air was cool and comfortable. I rode with Damon and George, a fellow PPTCer who had ridden with me at the Cheat Mountain Challenge in September 2005. The road began with some climbs and I found that when I pushed too hard that my head hurt so I had to relent a bit. Otherwise I felt good and the Tarmac, fresh from a rear derailleur/cable tune-up, ran like a clock.

The Pendleton mill

There are not a lot of turns to make in Mountain Mama and everything is exceptionally well-marked. After a slow start getting over the first two climbs, I caught up with a little group and we did a nice paceline. Soon we were in West Virginia and I stopped to photograph an old mill in Pendleton County (where everything seems to be marked with an historical plaque), with some cyclists passing by. At this point, there was a sound like a gunshot and a rider with a nice titanium Merlin pulled off the road with a flat tire. I went to give him a hand; the tube had blown the tire right off the rim. He had just changed it and did not have another spare. I discovered that instead of the usual two tubes in my seatbag I had one so I could not give him one (Murphy's Law) and since he was not sure of the cause he thought he would get help from one of the sag wagons.

One long, hard century ride

I continued along the road and soon caught up with Damon and George at the next food stop, which was near Mile 50. We kept on together and I was delighted to see that we passed the 100 km mark in less than four hours, which was not bad at all considering all the climbing we had been doing. But then at Mile 75 things became harder and we started the first of a series of steep, long and exposed climbs, followed by exhilarating descents. It was slow, grinding work but I enjoyed it. Well, except for Snowy Mountain, Climb No. 6, which was unusually hard and long. There was a food stop at the very top and I certainly welcomed it. My feet were getting really hot, so I was able to refill my water bottles and then rest in a chair for a bit with my shoes off. Then we headed off onto another descent where I quickly reached 75 km/h...

"John Henry" symbols used to mark the route; the century ride was the white one, and the other colours were for different distances

The last few climbs were hard but I felt that I came through quite well and we rolled back into Monterey around eight hours after we had left, with an actual ride time of 6:54 for 162 km. That evening a group of PPTC riders got together at the biggest B&B and we had a potluck dinner--according to my bike computer I had consumed 7900 calories for the day!-- and enjoyed reliving the ride.

Green and hilly: the Mountain Mama landscape

Rather than drive back along the windy road, I had elected to stay and extra night in Monterey and returned relaxed to Washington, after stopping for breakfast in Staunton and at a Farmer's Market in the Plains for fresh produce from West Virginia.

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