Tag Archives: Cycling

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.

Seagull Century

Today’s ride: The Seagull Century is one of the largest cycling events in the country, drawing over 8000 riders to Salisbury on Maryland’s eastern shore.  It’s been held for over 25 years, and it’s connection to Salisbury University makes it well staffed and supported. In many ways, 8000 riders create a critical mass of cycling culture. The event actually begins on a Friday, with shirt pickup, optional group rides around the area, and exhibits by vendors in the gym.  It’s a time to build excitement, catch up with friends, and shop for items you may want for the next morning. The growth of ridership has created the need for three options; two century courses and a metric century.

The Assateague Century Course runs south and then east to the coast, with a rest stop at Assateague Island at mile 60. It is the classic Seagull route. it was the first route and still the most popular, with the highlight being the chance to wade in the ocean and see the wild ponies that roam on Assateague Island.

The Snow Hill Century was created several years ago. It has some common elements to the metric century, and runs south through the town of Snow Hill, riding past small rivers and inlets that are a feature of Maryland’s eastern shore. The Snow Hill course has the advantage of being much less crowded while being just as well supported.

While I have never ridden the metric century (62 miles), some of that course is common to the  Snow Hill Century route.

The main feature of the Seagull courses is that they are flat as a tabletop. For some riders, who dislike climbing, this is a draw. I don’t see it as an advantage. Hills change your position on the bike, and therefore courses that have rolling terrain or climbs aren’t as hard on the places you contact the bike – hands, feet and seat. Hills also give you the opportunity to coast a little more and work slightly different muscle groups, while flat courses require you to apply power more consistently using the same primary muscle groups. The other main consideration for the Seagull is wind. I’ve ridden alone at the Seagull, and it’s much easier to have a friend to ride behind occasionally so you can rest out of the wind, but more about that later. it’s important to remember that a head wind is like a hill without a summit.  It is important to prepare for windy conditions at the Seagull Century.  The Seagull is usually the first weekend in October, and while the mornings are usually cool, the day warms up quickly and many riders over dress at the start. It is a better idea to dress for mile 5, by which time you’re warmed up.  Anything you would prefer not to have to carry for 95 miles should stay in your car.  You won’t stay cool long.

The Seagull Century was my first century ride.  My experience isn’t uncommon – a lot of riders choose the Seagull as their first century, and in many ways it is an excellent choice. This is a very well supported ride.

The Seagull is also a place where inexperienced riders congregate, and in many cases it is one of the few times all year that a rider will have a chance to ride in a group, much less a line.  The sheer number of riders can be an issue, in the beginning where you can get in each other’s way, and on the open road where It can spawn a kind of “Tour De France” syndrome – where a rider will jump in with a fast pack and burn out, split a line, or form an ad hoc group made up of people who want to ride in a group to draft a little and save energy, but have no idea of how to behave in a group, or what to expect of the other riders around them. That can be very dangerous.  I ride with a group of friends who are experienced group riders. We ride together all year, so often that we know what to expect of each other. We’ve learned what to do and what NOT to do, at the front (pulling) at the back, and within our line. We signal each other, call out hazards, pass information down the line as we slow or stop, and call out traffic. We stay together and ride consistently and predictably.  This requires experience and practice. It only LOOKS easy. There is a lot of information available about drafting and pace lining, so I won’t write a lot more about it now, but suffice it to say that some of the best and worst examples of how to behave in a line of riders will be on display at the Seagull, and it’s a good idea to know how to ride in lines and approach them with respect, and better still, to ride only with people you know and trust.

The Seagull finishes on the Salisbury University campus, and riders go through a tunnel under Route 13, past the beer garden tents, and under the finishing banner. Riders finish to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd and live music. The beer garden itself, with a band and a general air of celebration, is a feature of the ride that adds much to the experience. There are options other than beer to drink of course; but the atmosphere at the finish of the Seagull Century is an experience to look forward to in itself.

The Experience:  2014 was a very organized Seagull for my teammates and I. We had reservations for dinners on Friday and Saturday, and a meeting place where we could all get together and ride out on the Seagull course together.  We all chose to ride the Snow Hill century, since the course was better shaded, less crowded, and the lines for water and gatorade were not so very long.  However, every Seagull is crowded at the start and finish, and choosing a good meeting place is important. It seems as though most riders meet up in front of the gym – we chose not to do that, since it was the cycling equivalent of a sticky trap – there are so many people waiting there that it is difficult to move past the gym at all.  We all met up at the far side of the tunnel across the street, which worked much better. This was my 9th consecutive Seagull Century. I’d ridden it every year since my first Century in 2006.

We rolled out onto the course well before 7:30, and starting early means you spend more time riding while the temperature is most comfortable. It was a cool and sunny day with a little wind, but not a hard wind. Perfect conditions. Carol Linden started out briskly, looking for a comfortable gap between knots of riders, and we stayed together behind her for the most part until those knots of riders thinned out a little. I was feeling very good, and so when the ride opened up, I went to the front and took a long pull, setting a steady pace for our line.  We had a big group to start, with myself, Carol, Ron Tripp, Eric Sanne, Rita Spence, Rita Bell, Russ Altemose, Carmen Legato and John Koehnlein. I called to other friends as we passed, and the miles started slipping under our wheels smoothly at what seemed a far faster pace than we were actually riding.  We passed fields and farms, and even a big Blue Heron at a pond at the roadside, and we were at the first rest stop at the 20 mile mark while still feeling comfortable and strong.  At the first stop we split up with John, who was looking to ride at a faster pace, and Russ, who had agreed to ride with us to the first rest stop and then take up with some other riders for the remainder.  Russ is recovering from cancer, and riding 100 miles at the Seagull was a big step for him. Riding a slower pace was sensible for him, since he had less time to train.  Riding that 100 was a triumph for him though, and we were all glad to share in it.

After the first stop, the Snow Hill course sent us away from the other rides for the most part, and we continued at a good comfortable pace. We had picked up some riders at the end of our line, but they turned out to be very considerate, and members of our home club, Potomac Pedalers, though we hadn’t met them. They let us in front of them as we came back off of the front of the line, and drafted politely behind our line. When we got to the next stop, they complimented us on our line. The water stop by the Pocomoke River wasn’t crowded, and we made it a short stop and headed out toward Snow Hill with good cheer all around. By the time we got to Snow Hill, the only real problem among us became obvious. Ron was getting a click in the bottom bracket of his bike – a potential problem with the bearings. The park at Snow Hill was a great place to rest, and we took full advantage, enjoying cranberry and blueberry pound cake and filling up our bottles. We headed out again as the day began to heat up. This was the longest leg of the ride, but even as the day warmed up, we remained comfortable.  By the time we had ridden 70 miles,  it was obvious that Ron’s bike was getting worse. He abandoned at mile 75, before the final rest stop at Nassawango Golf Course. In the meantime, it was obvious to me that I was still riding strong, and so were Eric and Carol.  The final rest stop was welcome for the pie and ice cream, though we were sad to see Ron waiting for a ride back to the University. The final leg joined the Metric course, and we overtook a lot of riders as Eric, Carol and I took turns pulling the line back to Salisbury.  I rode in strong, feeling the joy of completing one of my best Seagull Centuries ever.

The celebration in the Beer Garden afterward was exceptional. Eric and I spent some time cheering for riders coming out of the tunnel, hoping to see Russ finish, but he slipped in before we got to the rail. We cheered for everyone anyway. One of the things that make the Seagull unique is the cheering crowd at the finish, and being part of that made me feel good. With the exception of Ron’s mechanical problem, we all had a good ride, and my 10th century of 2014 was one of the most memorable.

Selections from my mental iPod during the ride: “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” by Warren Zevon,  “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure, and “Cynical Girl” by Marshall Crenshaw. 

Stats: 101.59 Miles ridden.  With a combination of ideal weather conditions and feeling strong all day, and with good friends to share the experience, this was a ride to remember.   


My teammates on this ride – Ron Tripp, Rita Bell, Carmen Legato, Eric Sanne, myself, Russ Altemose, Carol Linden and John Koehnlein.


Carmen, Eric, myself and Carol at the Snow Hill rest stop.



At the final rest stop.


John and Carol in the Beer Garden post-century.


Relaxing in the Beer Garden after a terrific ride.

6 Pillars Century 2014

Today’s ride: The 6 Pillars Century in Cambridge MD. This is one of my favorite rides, because of the landscape we ride through. This ride goes through the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, and there are views of the Chesapeake Bay, not to mention all kinds of waterfowl and other birds like Ospreys, Herons and Red Winged Blackbirds. The landscape is tidal marsh and some farmland. The ride is flat as a table top, with the only thing that approaches the definition of “hill” being bridges. With that said, wind can be a big factor on this ride. Flat rides don’t offer you much variation in terms of position on the bike, so fatigue of feet, seat and hands can be a problem, but this ride has such spectacular scenery that those things really don’t matter. This ride is a feast for the eyes. It is held on the first weekend in May, and for me it’s usually the first important local event of the year.

The Experience: It was a perfect cycling day, cool but not cold, the wind wasn’t too bad except for the area of Hooper’s Island (where you can expect it) and the end of the day when it picked up a little. We started out well, perhaps even a little faster than we might have liked, but we were remarkably consistent all day. We had some riders who were rock steady and strong all day – Tom Roman, Matt Birnbaum, and Ron Tripp leap to mind. Eric Sanne and Carmen Legato held on despite worries about their preparation, and John Koehnlein was ticking the pedals over in a slow rhythm that was hypnotic. Carol Linden as in and out with us between rest stops, and the team of Bill Harback and Denise Teeling were driving the early pace like heroes. Most of us were consistently riding about 18-20 mph all day in a long line. The riders around us were great. We were humming along passing riders, and we would warn them we were coming, and thank them as we passed. I found myself occasionally saying “Thank you, thank you very much” in my best Elvis voice as I rode past, just to make it a little more surreal. The last 20 miles were fast – at a time in the ride when we usually slow down, we actually got faster. Holding on to the pace was tough. Tom Roman had a huge hero pull for our line in that section of the ride, and after he set the tone for us, we held together in unison like a single living creature. The after ride celebration was full of laughs, with music courtesy of Matt Birnbaum, beer supplied by just about all of us, and smiles until our faces were in danger of breaking. We invited a couple of riders who parked nearby to join us, and they turned out to be from the Reston Bike Club. They were glad to share beer and stories with us. Happy is contagious.

Selections from my mental iPod during the ride: “Johnny B Goode” by Chuck Berry, “Eastern Bloc” by Thomas Dolby and “Poets” by the Tragically Hip.

Stats: 100.27 Miles ridden, plus a little extra riding to and from the cars. A strong ride from start to finish. The kind of feeling you want to bottle and save to use over and over!

6_Pillars_Start  At_Hooper's_Island  6_Pillars_Post_Ride