Monthly Archives: May 2015

Storming of Thunder Ridge 2015

Today’s ride: Storming of Thunder Ridge (SOTR) is a ride onto the Blue Ridge Parkway from Lynchburg VA.  This is a very challenging ride, the highlight of which is a 13 mile climb and a long descent, including a winding technical descent that is a challenge to any rider. Of all the rides I’ve done, I count this one among the most difficult. A 13 mile climb is a challenge for the body and mind alike. This is a ride for climbers. If you want to ride  SOTR, spend a couple of months training in the hills. Be prepared for a challenge. You will suffer. This can be a good thing.  However, a rider is rewarded by awe inspiring scenery on this ride. This is a ride to be proud of finishing! One thing this ride gives you is good mementos: this year we received a pint glass in addition to the usual shirt and optional jersey, which were excellent designs. There were snacks,  a vitamin sample, a tote bag, and even a sample of chain lubricant. Nobody goes home from SOTR empty handed!

The Experience: My ride up Thunder Ridge started with an innocent email from my friend Ron, who said “What do you think of this one?” with a link to SOTR.  Being a good friend and generally more enthusiastic than analytic, I agreed to sign up.  I was told that the climb averaged 6% and was a challenge. Okay.  I can ride a 6% climb. Later I was to discover that the word “average” would prove to be a baited hook to reel me in.
Before the ride we managed to get a day trip to the Skyline Drive in Front Royal, VA to do some practice climbs.  Skyline measures climbs in miles as well, and they tend to be steeper than 6% with distances up to 4 or 5 miles. My partners in crime for this adventure were Ron Tripp and Deb Reynolds.  Ron is a good friend and my partner in crime for many of my riding adventures. Deb is a cheerful woman who finds difficult rides and makes light of them. She has a gift for understatement.  I discovered that SOTR was her idea. I rode well on Skyline, and felt prepared for SOTR the following weekend.
The next week I started a new contract at work.  I picked up a kind of flu bug, possibly on the subway, and was sick as a dog all week.  By SOTR I was over the worst of it, but still recovering. This was not encouraging, but I’m a stubborn man. I headed off to Lynchburg.
The evening before the ride was also an adventure, navigating between two hotels and searching the backroads of rural Virginia in vain for a phantom Italian Restaurant for Deb.  We eventually found one for her, but the search was a comedy routine with 3 people acting as the “straight man” for a comedic GPS unit.
The morning of the ride we arrived in time, found parking, and got going a little before the group start in order to find some open road. The first 20 miles to the rest stop included some short punchy climbs to warm us up. I was feeling more drained than usual, but I was determined to see it through. Thunder Ridge was ahead of us, and the climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway was heavy on my mind.
The climb started at mile 25.  Remember when I mentioned “average grade”? the lower slopes were very easy – perhaps only 3 or 4 percent – which is not hard to climb. We were spinning at the bottom thinking that a 6 % grade wasn’t going to be too bad. The problem is that when you factor a mile of 3-4% grade into your calculation of “average”, it leaves room for quite a bit of 7 and 8% grades nearer the top, and I’d heard others talk of places where the grade went up to 11% near the top, and I believe them.
a 13 mile climb is a challenge to the mind as much as the body. When you’re riding uphill for two hours, you know that your legs will ache, but your mind has to keep your legs working, and the concentration required narrows your world to the pain and a small bubble of awareness of your surroundings. I’ve heard it called “the pain cave” and it is a very dark place.  By the top, I was deep in the pain cave, and I didn’t have much light to see by!
Despite this, there was a lot to see. The higher you get, the better the scenery around you. The Blue Ridge is a beautiful place, and the scenery was incredible, when I could look past the pain enough to appreciate it! There were other compensations. I was buzzed by butterflies all through the climb. They stuck in my memory of that climb – little sparks of grace and beauty flying past me while I toiled in the pain cave. Some had black wings, others had black forewings and blue back wings, and others were all yellow, but each one was a welcome distraction.
There is a rest stop halfway up the climb. Ron was climbing much better than I was, and he went ahead. It was clear by this time that being sick the week before was having it’s effect on me. Still, he was there at the stop to encourage me, and I took on needed calories and water. The rest of the climb was steeper and tougher. I wasn’t climbing fast by my estimation, but I was passing a lot of riders at this stretch of the climb. There were a lot of riders who stopped during the climb at the roadside – I wasn’t sure if I pitied them their pain or envied their rest, but I kept going. I just wanted to climb steadily.  I’m a large man as bike riders are usually measured, and pushing a big body uphill takes a lot of effort. I didn’t want to stop, because I’m stubborn. In the last 3 miles of the climb, the organizers planted two signs. The first read “You’re a climber now!” and I thought that nobody looking at me would ever guess I was a climber. The second read “Shut up, legs!” a catchphrase from bike racer Jens Voight; I thought of him and refocused.
There is a rest stop at the top of the climb – riders reach it hearing the volunteers cheering. You know that you’re done with the climb at that point, but not with the ride.  What follows is a long descent – I was thinking that I was traveling at 5 times the speed at which I climbed – and after that, there was a technical descent on a winding road to the valley below,  but the climbing wasn’t done. There remained some short, punchy climbs to conquer.  My energy and my legs were used up on Thunder Ridge however, and I started to fall back on the climbs. At 64 miles there is a stop, and you can either take the century course or the 77 mile ride back to the start. I was determined to do the century, but my partners urged me to shortcut it back. In the end, the decision was made by a bad cut in my front tire. I went back to the start with another PPTC friend, Matt Birnbaum.  The climbing wasn’t done – Matt had a GPS, and informed me that one climb we did was 15% – which is quite steep, and it was long enough to hurt again, but I rode in strong to the finish despite the pain and my worrisome tire. Later I would find out that I had a wheel issue too. I’m having them rebuilt.  I had made the right choice. I reached the finish feeling satisfied. I’d overcome a lot, and I’d made it up Thunder Ridge without stopping anywhere but the rest stops. Now I’m determined to ride it again next year, if only out of a stubborn masochistic need to prove that if I’m in my normal condition instead of recovering from illness, I can spend a little less time in the pain cave, and enjoy the ride even more!

Selections from my mental iPod during the ride: “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head, “West End Girls” by The Pet Shop Boys, and “If Venice is Sinking” by Spirit of the West.

Stats: 77.62 Miles ridden.  Now that I’m out of the pain cave, it feels like a triumph! I’ll come back next year and bring more friends with me!


At the Top of Thunder Ridge – ready to descend for a change!


Deb Reynolds at the top – this was a happy place! (photo courtesy of Deb Reynolds)

Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge View – photo courtesy of Deb Reynolds.

6 Pillars Century 2015

Today’s ride: The 6 Pillars Century in Cambridge MD. This is usually the first event on my cycling calendar. Held on the first Saturday in May, 6 Pillars runs from Cambridge on the Choptank River south through the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge to Hoopers Island, then doubles back up the river and circles east, passing through the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge again. The ride itself is tabletop flat, which can take it’s toll on all of a rider’s contact points with the bicycle. This ride is very scenic, taking riders through tidal flats, small towns and open farmland. A rider can expect to see all kinds of birds and other wildlife including Ospreys, Herons, and Red-winged Blackbirds. This year a Bald Eagle made an appearance. This ride is a feast for the eyes. It shows Maryland’s historic eastern shore at it’s best.

The Experience: This year’s edition of 6 Pillars started with a question for my riding friends and I – How much to wear? We tend to start a ride early, and as we gathered at our usual meeting place, the temperature was hovering in the mid 40 degree range.  However, with sunshine in the forecast, and a high temperature forecast for 70 degrees, it was going to get warm by the end of the ride. Anything you start with that you don’t want later becomes dead weight to carry. Everyone had their own answer of course, but I chose to wear a base layer beneath my cycling jersey and arm warmers which I could remove later and put into my pockets. This sacrificed warmth at the start for comfort later; however as I started to warm up on the ride and the sun rose higher, I wasn’t cold for very long.

This year the winds were light at the start. We rode south quickly. My group included Ron Tripp, Deb Reynolds, Eric Sanne, Tony Lehr, Carmen Legato, Carol Linden and John Koehnlein. Some were planning to ride shorter distances due to differences in training or other commitments, but the entire group would be able to stay together until a decision point at approximately 62 miles, so we formed up and rode out, knowing that we would be together for the majority of the ride. I rode near the front of our pack for much of the ride, since I was feeling good. We weren’t moving quite as fast as I’ve ridden in previous years; for many of us, this was our first event and our training wasn’t the best. My own training lacked longer distance rides, though I’d ridden often enough in the spring to have plenty of miles under my wheels. I prepared myself to fight through the full century distance, and the easier pace suited me. The first 40 miles were joyful, with the morning chill leaving me before 10 miles had passed. We arrived at the rest stop at the South end of Hooper’s Island to a surprise: the ride pushed on over another bridge to South Hooper’s Island and turned there. Normally we ride over the bridge anyway, out of a desire to say we rode to South Hoopers, and to enjoy the experience even more, but this time the organizers encouraged riders to cross the bridge to a turnaround point, to ensure that they could get a full 100 miles on their odometers and perhaps to feel the sensation of climbing, which this ride doesn’t readily provide. The turnaround point was painted on the road, but a roadside sign might have served them better.  We passed the turn and rode on for a while, partly to see what was there and partly because we thought the turn point would be better marked.  Quite a few riders went past it. In any case, we weren’t upset; the day was warming up, and we were moving well. Sand fouled my cleats at the rest stop. I had problems clipping into my pedals, and we stopped so I could clean them. I really don’t like to stop a group to do such things, it’s embarrassing, but we all understand the need, so it was okay.   As we returned to the wildlife refuge, we were overtaken by a large group of motorcycles and police vehicles, no doubt part of an organized ride of their own, which prevented us from passing any slower riders while we they passed. By this time the wind was building, so when we were free to speed up a crosswind was working on us until we turned east and it became a tailwind. Other than the issue of a confusing set of arrows on the road which puzzled us briefly, we soldiered on to the next stop, where we had a decision to make.
Carol had a commitment, so she had to take the shorter distance, and Deb was also sure she wanted to take the shorter route. The rest of us were either decided on the full century or leaning that way. The body can do amazing things if the mind will allow it, and the remainder of us all made that decision (easy for some, harder for others) to get the full 100 miles in.
I’ve often said that you can split a century into two equal halves – the first 80 miles, and the last 20. This may not be accurate for everyone, but somewhere between the stops at 62 and 80 miles we all found our focus turning inward somewhat. There is a wall to push past, a place where you need to free yourself mentally and physically to carry on to the end. We all kept up a steady pedaling cadence, pushed on by each other, or perhaps pulled by the prospect of a rest well earned at the end of the ride, and a post ride beer to share with friends. We rolled back to Cambridge in good form,  and celebrated together after that first event of the season. It was a glorious day, made much better by the friends who shared it!

Selections from my mental iPod during the ride: “Industrial Disease” by Dire Straits, “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer, and “The Ghost in You” by the Psychedelic Furs.

Stats: 103.61 Miles ridden. A beautiful day, and a ride best described as steady and consistent. A perfect start to the 2015 cycling season.

Rest Stop 1

The first rest stop – still dressed to stay warm!


Second Rest stop – looking out over the marshes.


Resting at Hooper’s Island – sadly, standing in sand that fouled my cleats!


Tired riders, swapping stories and enjoying the sun post-ride.