The alarm rang at five in the morning. I sipped my coffee. It sank in. I have to ride to West Virginia today. I said goodbye to my cat, locked up, and looked at my watch. 6:49am. Already 49 minutes behind schedule, with the turn of the key in the front door, Marty Sanders left Cincinnati on a bike trip to Northern Virginia to help his sister move. 4 days. 527 miles. This is his story.
Story By Marty Sanders (edited by Joe Bellante)
Through high school and early adulthood, I called Northern Virginia home for 12 years. My sister and I stayed behind as the rest of our family moved back to Cincinnati. At one point or another, my Father made me an offer to make the move and join him in the Queen City. He helped me out and BAM. Here I am in the land of 3-way cheese coneys.
As for my sister, my Father extended a similar offer, but pursuing a career working for the government, she wasn’t ready. I missed her and for many years tried to persuade her to return. 17 years later, I got the call.
With a job offer from a good firm in Cincinnati, she was ready and asked me if I’d be willing to drive a U-Haul for her. No problem. She set a date for the move, September 21st. I immediately thought, “I’m going to ride my bicycle to Virginia.”
As most of my friends know, I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury, not racing, training for fun, and trying to get back to riding long distances pain free. Despite the shoulder, when Prudence asked me to drive the truck, I was all in. I started training a bit more: climbing stairs, running, and feeling pretty good. The day after she called, I started making plans and put together a list.
3-Figure out route.
|A Welcome Stop|
I’d cross the Appalachian Mountains. To simulate the effort, I did hill repeats on Cincinnati’s Sycamore Street and one of my other local favorites, I refer to as “storm peats”. I figured I’d be good. I love to climb.
I’ve never toured or bike packed before so I attempted to pack for every unseen scenario: rain, low temperatures, camping, etc. This was an entirely new experience.
In the end my plan was simple. Follow Route 50 East from Cincinnati to Fairfax Virginia, hang a right on Ox Road and finish by raising a pint glass of beer in Occoquan. Specifically, I’d ride from Cincinnati to Parkersburg West Virginia (227+ miles) the first day and from Parkersburg to Augusta via the Northbend Rail Trail (200 miles) the second day. On the third and toughest day, I’d pedal from Augusta to Occoquan/Lakeridge (100miles). 3 days. 527 miles.
I figured 15 hours a day with a comfortable average of 13mph would be sufficient. In case of weather or mechanicals, I cooked up a contingency plan allowing 2 extra days if need be. As a fail safe, my brother and sister’s boyfriend were going to make the drive from Cincinnati a few days later, which would allow me to be picked up in case of disaster or worse, giving up.
I was nervous. As I honed my training, ate like a horse and mentally prepared, the days leading up to the departure flew by. Still, I felt like a child standing in line to ride a rollercoaster for the first time, only this child was the front page story of the Old Bridge Observer.
I gained six pounds preparing for the trip, although I really couldn’t see it. I assumed it was in my legs as I’ve been riding up Sycamore and Mt. Storm for a month with a 75lb bicycle. The last few days, I took it easy. On the eve of the trip, I had a big Indian dinner with a few friends and family. Maybe I had a beer too many, as I got to bed late.
The alarm rang at five in the morning. I sipped my coffee. It sank in. I have to ride to West Virginia today. I wrestled with anxiety and nervously quadruple checked everything. I said goodbye to my cat, locked up, and looked at my watch, 6:49am, already 49 minutes behind schedule.
As I meandered my way through Mariemont and out the suburbs of Cincinnati using my old commuting route, every turn of the pedals quelled my anxiety. I picked up the Little Miami Scenic Trail at Bass Island in Newtown. It was quiet, relaxing. I thought to myself, it’s another bike ride. No pressure. Keep pedaling. All will be good.
I left the trail at Milford for the road. The town was setting up for an event, everyone was full of smiles. I was greeted by some “good mornings”. To keep the good vibe going as I turned toward rural Ohio, I popped in one ear bud and hit shuffle. I pedaled, jammed and enjoyed my moving picture soundtrack all the way to Hillsboro.
Along the way, I stopped at rest areas scattered along Route 50 in Ohio. They aren’t much, a shelter and porta-poddy, but perfectly spaced every 30 miles. I found great appreciation for them.
A group of motorcycles rumbled past. When I hit the next small town, I’d catch them. We leap-frogged each other. They revved their engines. Brrrrappabababapp. Those bad boys were LOUD! Assuming it was a sign of respect, they gave me plenty of room as the passed.
Following the signs for Route 50, all went well until Chillicothe at the intersection of Route 50 and Highway 23. Beyond that, cars came less frequently. Hills started coming quicker. Worried, I turned on the Garmin.
I ditched technology for good old local knowledge. I spun down a long gravel driveway and asked a couple drinking Busch Light if this was Route 50. Nope. I had inadvertently misread the signs and traveled 10 miles out of my way on Highway 23. Thankfully, they offered a short cut back over to 50. As good as the beer looked, I held back the urge to ask for one, turned and waved a thank you.
As the sunlight started to fade, I picked up the pace. Approaching Athens, the traffic increased exponentially. For safety, I moved to the shoulder. Despite the trash, tires, debris and very deep rumble strips, it was the lesser of two dangers.
A blood red sunset greeted me in Athens for a dinner stop. Buffalo or BW3, I’m not sure what it was. I had a seat in the window and ate a burger with an eye on my bike. Energetic Ashley took my order. She inquired about my ride and told me a wonderful horror story of hitting a deer and tires on Route 50. Thanks for the positive vibe!
Now dark, I pushed through the last 40 miles to Parkersburg. Trucks flew by. I cringed as I heard tires gargle on the rumble strips behind me. Despite 3 tail lights and 2 visible reflectors, I nervously rode back to the edge of Athens and booked a room at the Super 8.
A first floor disabled equipped room allowed space to spread out with all my gear. I showered, downed a protein shake, pop- tarts, two ibuprofen, and I was out.
Waffles, I love waffles! I woke up on Sunday morning feeling remarkably good at breakfast. Still, checking out of the hotel, a drape of anxiety fell over me. It disappeared quickly as the first song hit my ear from my mp3 player. Very much like the road leading into Athens, the tightness in my shoulder opened up a bit too. At ease with a wide shoulder on the road, I made such good time into Parkersburg, WV I missed a planned stop in Belpre.
I crossed into West Virginia over a big bridge and was abruptly greeted with a huge climb. I huffed over looking forward toward the relative ease Northbend Rail Trail, a 70 mile smooth and flat railroad path featuring eleven tunnels and numerous bridges. I only had to find the trail head.
In the area where I thought it was, I asked a few locals at a gas station if they’d heard of it. No one knew. So I popped in the police station. A young lady working pointed out, like all things in West Virginia, it was right around the corner.
Huge homes, ponds, stables, and pretty gardens lined the road leading to the trailhead. Amazingly beautiful, but oddly out of place for the rural area I was in. Then, there it was, in the middle of all rich scenery, the Northbend Rail Trail.
My Salsa ate up the wide double track goodness. 12 miles clicked off in no time. Off the road and out of traffic, I was rolling pretty quickly. I guess I was a bit excited because I didn’t see the long black snake stretched across the trail till I was right on top of him. Sorry Mr. Snake. I thought about stopping, but not knowing if it was poisonous or not made the decision easy. Then came the tunnels.
|Dark Tunnel on the Northbend Trail|
Northbend’s bridges took me high above creeks and the path wound past remnants of towns, sometimes directly through backyards. At one point, I rode around a parked car on the trail. 40 miles in, it got a bit rougher.
Double track turned to single, then thick grass. Obviously, this deep in West Virginia, the trail sees few riders. 30 miles later, I suspected I had hit the terminus in Clarksburg. A guy walking near the trail asked where I was headed. “Clarksburg,” I replied. “You’ve got about 15-20 miles to go,” he answered. I swear the maps showed the rail trail ending here, but obviously it appeared to continue on. What a mess it turned out to be.
Soon enough, the path deteriorated into a four wheeler trail. While the first 70 miles were dusty and dry, this was pocked with mud holes. After 2 miles splashing through mud holes on a 75 pound bike, I bailed for the lesser of two evils, a steep road with 3 nasty switchbacks. Eventually, it intersected Route 50.
Smooth pavement was a relief. I rolled straight through Clarksburg past Grafton, then the town of Bridgeport. With an hour of daylight left, I coasted down a big hill through and out of town. Right back up I went. Thirsty, I reached the top of the climb and pulled over. I grabbed my bottles from my rear rack to switch them for the spent bottles on the bike frame. All empty. I forgot water.
Back to Bridgeport I pedaled, back up that hill, back to the start of town. Rather than filling up, with a warm cozy Travel Lodge in sight, I pulled the plug for the day, an easy decision after more than 130 miles. I settled in with an entire large pizza, some crazy good feta spinach bread, and drank 2 beers. The next day would be the toughest.
The 300 mile weekend aside, I felt pretty good for a Monday. I slathered thick cream cheese on my bagel. Bruegger’s doesn’t lay on the cream cheese like I did. I drank all the coffee in the pot packing up. It was going to be tough. A few minutes past 8 a.m., I was ready to roll!
Sunny with lingering clouds, it was great weather for climbing. I switched on the music. Up and down small hills, the soundtrack lasted three hours before the batteries went dry. Then the grade kicked up, 3 miles at nine percent.
Have you ever climbed for 3 miles? Most of my friends would answer “Yup, piece of cake.” On a 75 pound bike? For those that have toured on a bike, I give mad respect and props to you.
On a rig like this, you can’t simply power up climbs. With panniers, stuffed bags, a mini-bike shop of tools, four full bottles, it’s about spinning easy gears. Otherwise your knees and Achilles tendon suffer, 300 miles from home. The long steep climbs continued all day. The weight and the distance took their toll.
I remember at one point seeing the sign for the turn to Elkins. I thought I could call Uncle Andy and roll on down to visit. I resisted the urge. 75 miles in, I was getting tired. My knees and Achilles ached. I gave in.
I found a section of gravel trail which led back off the road. I rolled back, sat in the dirt and stretched. I stoked the engine with a big apple I had stashed in my bag from the hotel buffet. It was just what I needed and I got back to it.
Now at the base of a seemingly endless climb that offered little shoulder, I rode the white line, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 miles at nine percent. 45 minutes later I crested and was rewarded with the sight of the downhill warning sign for trucks. “Steep Grade Next 5 Miles.”
While my legs got a break, my hands and upper body went to work. Riding down a mountain with gear is tiring as well. Braking becomes hard work. Becoming all over body fatigued, the wind was leaving my sail.
Thankfully, I was welcomed with flatter roads in the valley. However, with ten miles to Romney, now on the other side of the mountain, the weather changed. It began to rain, not a down pour, but steady enough to get me good and soaked. Despite being a warm rain, when I hit Romney I pulled the plug.
After 10 hours, 107 miles, 9,355 feet of elevation gain with 75lbs of gear, I can’t muster the brain strength to break out my Martmatic skills and impress you with algebraic equations of caloric expenditures and watts generated. Basically, Marty=CRUSHED!
At the base of the mountain, I checked into a hotel, ordered another large pizza, and lethargy turned to deep sleep.
I awoke before sunrise to the sound of wet tires rolling on asphalt. I lay in bed simply listening to the light taps of rain on the window and the occasional wet whoosh of a truck. I turned on The Weather Channel to see what was up. Wow. Crap weather. That’s what was up. While only light rain fell outside my hotel window, the area was expecting off and on down pours all day. In the home stretch and determined to finish the ride today, I decided to suit up and try and beat the nasty stuff. It was 4 a.m.
Two days ago, with the bump in the tunnel I had lost my rain jacket and a shoe cover. I had to get creative and improvise. In my pack I had zip lock bags, 2 small garbage bags, and a limited length of duct tape. I sealed my helmet with the zip lock. Garbage bags became socks/shoe covers. With the remaining zip lock parts, I tried fashioning under-jersey shoulder covers, but it was useless. Head and feet covered, I pulled out of Romney on a mission.
In the dark, in the rain, the last day started with a three mile climb. The sun rose. Not that I actually saw it, but it was up none the less. I remember looking down to discover my pannier was open. I pulled over to zip it closed and realized my kick stand had been down since I left town. Silly me. I got a good laugh and continued.
The first 10 miles of the ride was all climbs, long, slow, granny gear, 75 pound bike, feet covered in garbage bags slow climbs. My plan of leaving early and beating the heavy stuff failed. Now it came down hard, real hard! There was nowhere to hide.
I figured the smart thing was to keep my head and core warm. I rode hunched over breathing through my nose to limit moisture intake. Knowing that digestion of food will elevate body temperature (thanks to Survivorman Les Shroud), I ate a granola bar. After an hour in the pounding rain, my shoulder started aching, a deep ache in the area I injured.
Not really having a place to stop and not wanting to get sick from standing around getting cold, I pressed on…for two more hours. It was like the storm was above me the entire ride teasing me with brief periods of light rain which goaded me to continue forward. Standing water collected on the road blurring my view.
I saw the “Welcome to Winchester, Virginia” sign and felt relieved I was rolling into a town that could offer shelter from this madness. I passed on the photo op.
Whoa! A few miles from town I hit a set of railroad tracks that almost took me out. I’ve ridden tracks 100’s of times and never had this happen. The weight in the front wheel was the difference. I wrestled to keep the bike up without wrecking! I was a lucky man.
Pounded by rain for three solid hours, the last few miles into Winchester dragged on. I was soaked, pruning, and my shoulder…ugh. When I saw the IHOP sign, it wasn’t a hard decision. All-You-Can-Eat pancakes and whip cream, “That should make me feel better!”
Outside under the awning, I shook off the rain and checked the radar on my phone. There would be no respite. “Grrrr. I’m 1.5 hours drive from my goal.” I sat down on the bench and thought about what I had just done.
This decision wasn’t easy for me to make. I always try to finish what I start. I’m very goal oriented. Not making this one bothered me. This entire ride was full of decisions. Now I made another. This is no race. I’ve ridden 500 miles. I’m in Virginia. I’m tired, aching, and frankly my ass hurts! I called my sister and asked, or more like told her to come get me. “I’m at the Winchester IHOP on Route 50. You can’t miss me.”
Who would have guessed there were 2 IHOPS in Winchester on Route 50! Sorry Sis.
In comfort, I warmed up and stuffed my face. They didn’t have the All-You-Can-Eat option, but I won’t hold it against them. I took a few Ibuprofens and drank coffee. My shoulder began to feel better. All in all, life was good today.
I’m very thankful for my life in general. Experience is what life’s about and I added a major one. Even without riding the last 60 miles, I retained my sense of accomplishment. I had a great trip, by no means easy. Looking back, the lack of shoulder and speeding traffic jostled my nerves. Slow down people! What are you in such a hurry for?
Ultimately, we live and then we die. It’s the cycle of life. Our job is to experience as much of life as we can before we reach the end. That is the goal I’ve set. I believe it’s in my genes. It’s what drives me to do what I do.