Monday 18 August 2008

An Appalachian Interlude: the Cheat Mountain Challenge

Cycling did not end this summer for me with the Tour d'Enfer. Although I will continue to be posting on it, I did take this weekend to go to West Virginia for the Cheat Mountain Challenge ride.

In early September 2005 I rode the inaugural Cheat Mountain Challenge, a 100+ mile ride through the beautiful scenery of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The ride began and ended at the Snowshoe Mountain ski resort. It was a great ride, but the weather was not all that good, with very heavy fog to start the ride and more fog at altitude. In addition, I was not all that thrilled about my hotel which had a very 1970s feel to it at inflated ski-resort prices. In 2006 I signed up again but did not go as the weather looked bad and in fact was pretty terrible, so those who did participate had their epic ride made even more so by cold rain.

The date of the ride has been moved up to August and although there is always a risk with weather I thought I would try again. This time I would have to drive down from Ottawa, meaning I would have a 13 hour drive instead of the 4.5 hour one from Washington, DC. And since I don’t like riding alone, I thought I would enlist agreeable, like-minded individuals. I have been reading Donald’s Daily Draft, a blog written by a newsman from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina for some time and thought he would be a good recruit. He jumped on immediately, and with some encouragement from his friend Kim, Ralph “the Badger” came on board as well, feeling fit as a fiddle after crushing the Alps in the Tour d’Enfer. Kim was coming too, with her beautiful new Specialized Ruby, although as a new hard-core cyclist she would be doing a more modest ride. Young Jeff, always game for a wrenchingly-hard ride, made up the remainder of the party.

Rather than stay in the crummy hotel again, I booked a cottage at the Cass Scenic Railway State Park, located about 16 kms (10 miles) from Snowshoe Mountain. The state park was created in 1961 and must be the only old lumber town entirely in a park. Young Jeff and I had ridden through Cass a few years ago and I was curious what the company houses would be like. The pictures looked good and the price was reasonable so I made arrangements.

Armed with the largest bag of oatmeal to cross the border, along with bananas and a range of other foodstuffs (not forgetting the important malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery beverages), I set off after work on Thursday, driving across the border at the Thousand Islands and making it as far down I-81 as Dickson City, on the edge of Scranton, Pennsylvania. I checked into a budget hotel at around 11:30 pm, and had a short night’s sleep as I wanted to be up and out early the next morning.

On Friday, I was on the road by 6:30 am and heading southwards. There was a lot of repaving on the Interstate, with lane closures, but I made quite good time. I gave my mother a call on my cellphone to announce that I had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and was now back in my dear Southland. I turned off just north of Staunton, Virginia and took the quiet roads westward to Monterrey, from where I had ridden the Mountain Mama Century in 2007, and then across the state line, via Frost and on to Cass. There was on-and-off again rain while I drove but it was not unpleasant and by the time I go to Cass around 2:30 pm the sun was shining again.

Home Sweet No. 137

One of the famous Cass steam locomotives was at the depot, ready to pull out with a crowd of sightseers. I easily found the park office and picked up the key to company house No. 137, on Front Street, a gravel road overlooking the Greenbrier River. I parked the car and unloaded my gear. The house, painted white like all the rest in the town, was a two-storey cottage, with the kitchen, dining and living room on the ground floor. Upstairs were three bedrooms and one bathroom with a shower. It was simply furnished but quite clean and attractive. The kitchen has the necessary complement of cutlery, crockery, glasses and pots and I regretted not bringing more food since we could easily have had our own pasta party. The house had a full-frontage covered porch with a bench and a swing. On either side of us were houses with four bedrooms, characterized by their different roof line.

Cass: where Lefty Meeks has cut hair for six decades

I went outside to call everyone to let them know which house we were in and discovered that Cass has no cellphone coverage. So much for the modern world! So I just unpacked my bags, put things in the fridge and then went for a walk. I walked past the Community Center, which was a converted church, then the Masonic Hall, which was founded in 1903, looking in at Lefty’s Barber Shop along the way but Lefty was out for a doctor’s appointment and the place was closed. It was too bad as the Governor gave him a citation as a Distinguished Citizen a few months ago. Lefty, who is 89 years old, has been cutting hair in the same location since 1948. I visited the Company Store, which had been the nerve center of the town, and took some more photos of the train as it departed before I walked through the little museum and then looked briefly at the diorama, an HO scale model of the town in the late 1930s, when it was at its height.

On the way back to the cottage I came across a tour group. More accurately it was a state park guide and two visitors so after I asked if I could come along I enjoyed the formal tour of Historic Cass, including a visit to the jail. The town had been begun in 1901 to take advantage of the stands of primeval forest on Cheat Mountain and the surrounding hills, first for pulpwood and later for timber. Once the railroad arrived the place flourished, employing up to 3,000 people. It had a dozen logging camps on the surrounding hills, served by trains hauled by the steam-powered geared locomotives known after their inventor, Ephraim Shay. Shays were all built in Lima, Ohio and, although slow, were able to climb grades as steep as 11 percent, far beyond the capacity of a normal locomotive. The Cass Scenic Railroad has the largest collection of Shays in existence and I saw two of them. There are a number of steam train excursions offered daily, including one to Spruce, an old logging camp that is being restored as well.

Cass' Main Street (note the boardwalks)

We were staying in a workman’s cottage, typical of the housing of the town, and classified by the lumber company as a Class 3 house. Where the managers lived, on so-called “Big Bug Hill,” the houses were fancier. We saw the elegant home of the doctor and his clinic, both of which are slated for renovation to add to the roster of 20 houses available for visitors. We also went into the big mansion on the top of the hill, the former summer home of the Luke family, which was in the paper business and helped found the community and the company that is today packaging giant Mead Westvaco. The Luke house was large, but has not been occupied for decades. Plans to restore this and the other houses are active but money is always an issue. The West Virginia governor had visited Cass a few days earlier and expressed enthusiasm for the park’s future plans.

After the tour, I was back at the cottage when a white car pulled in and Donald, known inevitably as “Duck,” came out. We had never met in person before or even spoken on the telephone but here we were sharing a cycling holiday together. After he put his bag in his room I suggested that after the long drive he needed a malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery drink and we toasted each other for a good ride ahead. A bit later Ralph and Kim arrived and we all decided to head up to Snowshoe to register for the ride and have some dinner.

We reached Snowshoe quickly but there was a bit of confusion as to where the registration was; there was a “beer, blues and barbecue” event going on that was the focus of the place. We learned that we would have to drive down off the mountain to the Welcome Center at the foot of the hill, which we did and were registered in only a few minutes. Back up the hill (the final painful climb of tomorrow’s ride) and we had dinner at the excellent, but not inexpensive, Cheat Mountain Pizza Company.

As we drove back to Cass around 9:30 pm, taking care to avoid the vast number of deer popping out of the woods everywhere, we saw a car with a roof rack and a bike on it go through the town at high speed and up towards Snowshoe. We realized it was Young Jeff and we were worried that he had been at the cottage and waited for us and was annoyed we were not there. We had left a note on the park office bulletin board for him since our phones would not work. After a while I went to look for him and eventually caught up with him in Cass. It turned out that he wasn’t sure where we were staying and had gone to Snowshoe to do an Internet search. In any event, we were very happy that he did not have to sleep in his car. A few more recovery beverages and it was time to sleep.

On Saturday we ate bagels and bananas and made a dent in my huge bag of oatmeal (not much of a dent, actually) and the one of raisins to fortify ourselves for the day ahead. We drove to the Welcome Center, leaving Cass at 7:20 am and got there in plenty of time. Kim was willing to be a volunteer and she was soon at the registration desk, where she appeared to be the only volunteer. She ended up spending the whole day doing things for the ride. A different introduction to our kind of cycling, I guess, but her assistance was very welcome.

Lost Boys ready to roll: from l: Duck, Young Jeff, Badger, Cannibal

We met up with Mariette and Rick, two cyclists we knew from the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club, and ended up riding with them. The 8:00 am start melted a bit and was closer to 8:20, but everyone was in high spirits. There had been 117 riders when I did the trip in 2005, and 129 made it last year. I was impressed with the number of Specialized Tarmacs. I seldom see other ones but it looked like one-quarter of the riders had them here, including Duck.

A legendary road...

It was foggy as we set out, as is typical of the mornings here, but the forecast was excellent. We had a pair of escort trucks that took us the first 8 miles or so before we took a right turn onto Back Mountain Road. Young Jeff and I had ridden on this road for its full length, starting in Durbin, and it has to be one of the finest cycling roads in the United States. Narrow, with lots of twists and turns, excellent paving and great scenery, it has no traffic to speak of. The only problem was that right at the turn I had to stop and clear off my glasses as the fog had made it impossible for me to see anything.

The Duck takes everyone's photo! (pictures by Donald)

After catching up with our little group we had a fine time speeding down Back Mountain Road, although Rick really needs to adjust his singing brakepads. Eventually we had another right turn that took us onto what passes for a main road in West Virginia: it looks like a main road as it is marked with a centerline and in perfect condition but there are almost never any cars. Young Jeff and I organized a paceline here and pulled the group along to a food stop, where we took off our armwarmers and unzipped our windvests in preparation for the climb up into Watoga State Park. Mariette was having some shifting issues, so she and Rick stayed back so it was just the four of us climbing along the excellent road in the sunshine. The temperature was ideal, the road superb and Duck entertained us royally with a song about moonshine, perfectly suited to the surroundings. He even managed to take some photos of us with his cellphone camera and did a pretty good job of that as well.

Me in action (photo by Donald)

Once we entered the park the road became quite narrow and steepened up in parts, with little hairpins. We passed some cyclists who had whipped by us earlier in a paceline and were looking a bit the worse for wear but I really felt good on the climb and we had fun. We rode right past the food stop on the top and after the steepish bit that begins the descent we entered one of my favourite sections of the whole Cheat Mountain Challenge: tearing down the road alongside the river, curve after elegant curve ahead and no need to touch the brakes. It seems that it goes on forever but unfortunately it does not. The Badger thought that he would bring Kim back to ride this and you have to believe us when we say it would be worth it.

We knew the big challenges were still ahead and eased our pace a bit as we approached the long, hard climb around Mile 55. This was to take us up to the Highland Scenic Highway/Rt. 150 and we all did the climb very comfortably. We stopped at the food stop and reloaded and it was here that I realized that I was beginning to get tired. We continued to climb and were soon on the Scenic Highway. It was quite a bit colder here, and windy as well and I started to slide off the back of the group. As we approached the next rest stop I was seized by cramps in my quads. This happened just as one of the assistance cars came by so I was able to reload with Gatorade but I felt my legs turning to lead. I had to ride at my own pace now, although Jeff came back and said that he too was feeling the distance and the climbing. As we pulled into the rest area to recover, we caught up to Duck and the Badger who were already busy eating. A few moments later, Mariette, who had managed to overcome a big time gap due to the mechanical issue, rolled up at the stop, followed by Rick and both of them looked far better than I felt.

We had a rip-roaring descent about halfway along the Highway, but I could not match my previous best speed here of 90 km/h, topping out at only 77.5 km/h. In 2005 I probably weighed about 20 pounds more, although I think I was probably tired then too. The next climb was painfully long but eventually we reached the stop sign at the end of the Scenic Highway and turned left. I had hoped to recover on the rollers that were coming as we rode along the Slatyfork River but I could not maintain the pace and was hit by cramps again. This time it was my calf muscles and soon it would be the adductors. I was really struggling, and was getting annoyed by the heat and the fact that I had put my gelflask into my pocket open and upside down with the result being stickiness everywhere. Jeff and I made it to the Welcome Center where we checked in, and then we each rode the daunting 10 mile climb up to Snowshoe Mountain. I was worried that I would not be able to do it at all but after a while I felt better and was cheered up by the fact that I was actually passing other cyclists!

At the end! (photo by Kim)

The 10 miles came to an end mercifully quickly–much faster than I managed it in 2005–and I felt good enough to come roaring uphill to the finish line. The others were all there to cheer me on and that helped too. Disappointingly no medals were being given out this year, so Jeff, Duck and I turned around and rode back downhill to our cars at the Welcome Center. This was a lot easier than the trip up and I actually enjoyed myself, hitting 70 km/h in parts and relishing the cold breeze and the agony on the faces of the cyclists who were still making their way up. We drove to Cass for a well-earned malt-based, high-carbohydrate recovery drink and a shower, and chatted about what a great ride it had
The group photo at the end--we all look pretty good! (photo by Kim)

Around 7:15 pm we got back in the car to go to the Elk River Touring Center to meet Mariette and Rick for dinner, driving past a very large bear that seemed to be interested in the contents of a pickup truck, as well as seeing the usual vast number of deer. Although I was not very hungry when I had come back to Cass, by the time we got to Slatyfork I was ravenous, and thirsty as well. I checked later and according to my software, the Cheat Mountain Challenge had used up 7900 Kcalories for me.

Getting ready to eat everything in the place (photo by Jackson the Waiter)

Elk River was a hoppin’ place. Jeff and I had stayed there before and it was full of mountainbikers. The restaurant was doing excellent business and I enjoyed my spicy Thai noodles. But my legs were pretty sore, so I figured that going for an early ride was probably not going to happen on Sunday.

Getting back to our cottage, we saw a wedding reception in progress at the Community Center two doors down. It was a formal event: the bride was in a traditional white gown and a number of the wedding guests were drinking beer in the back of a pickup truck and they were wearing their best black t-shirts. And that was about it for entertainment in Cass that evening, although we did watch Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal at the Olympics, as well as watching the astonishing 100 m dash of Usain Bolt, who not only broke his own world record but grandstanded to celebrate his win before he even finished!

Sunday everyone slept in a bit and then we had more oatmeal before packing up as the rule was we had to checkout before 10 am if we did not want to pay for another night. Duck was the first to go, heading directly for home. Kim and the Badger were off to Watoga Park to ride the great road there and I showed Jeff the town of Cass after we turned in the key. We took in the lecture at the diorama, which was actually very informative (we really enjoyed the part about the lumberjacks (also called “woodhicks”) and their excursions to East Cass, outside the company limits, where they could “seek their entertainment” nudge nudge wink wink). We watched the train come in, and then we loaded up our cars and took the winding road back to Staunton.

Our favourite Mexican restaurant, the Baja Bean Co., was clearly the place to be as this lunchtime it was packed. We had our traditional burritos and then repaired to the Daily Grind for some coffee. Jeff rolled out first, while I took a few minutes to seriously clean my windshield and change the six CDs in the player. At 3:15 pm I got on I-81 and began the long trip north.

The weather was very good and I did not meet any slowdowns. I had the car on cruise control and happily listed to an eclectic selection of Bruce Springsteen, Beethoven overtures and Aaron Copland and Schubert. Before I knew it I had come to Syracuse at 10:30 pm, so I decided to press on rather than stay overnight at a depressing budget hotel, reaching Ottawa at 1:45 am this morning. I had taken today off anyway and did not feel compelled to go to work. My laundry is all done and I have some Fat Tire Ale in the fridge (thanks Ralph!) for this evening.

This profile gives one pause...

The Cheat River Challenge details: we rode 178.26 kms (110.76 miles) with 3430 meters (11,253 feet) of climbing, far more than on any of the days of the Tour d’Enfer (which I will get back to writing about tomorrow!). It was a challenge indeed but cycling the quiet, beautiful roads has to be the best pastime of all. I am grateful for the opportunity to do it and that it was made even better by the friends, old and new, with whom I had the chance to travel.


Will said...

Congrats on what sounds like a great trip!

I am glad the customs officers ignored the muesli!

Sprocketboy said...

Will, it was just raw oatmeal so they probably did not recognize it as muesli-in-the-making. Who knows what would have happened then?

Lily on the Road said...

Wow, what a terrific weekend!!

Glad you had great weather, a wonderful place to lay your head and good friends....

Nice ride! Thanks for the post.

Donald said...

I have to first say great write up Wiki! The detailed history gives everyone a great perspective of this little town. The only thing that was lacking was the haircut from Lefty! Next time I think you should stop in for a cut and a picture. Once again, it was a great time and a great ride.