I have to admit being a little intimidated as I straddled my bike at the start of the 2012 Shenandoah 1200. Although I had finished three prior 1200 kilometer events, Shenandoah boasts approximately 50,000 feet of climbing over 4 days. Additionally, prior editions of the Shenandoah have been marked by extremely high temperatures.
In almost every way, Shenandoah is the opposite of PBP. For starters, only 13 riders were lined up to start the event. In Paris, the start was punctuated by speeches from dignitaries, cheering crowds and a strolling musical group. At Shenandoah, Matt Settle’s start line speech consisted of “you’re all experienced randonneurs, you know what to do. I guess you can go then.”
The group stayed together as we left Leesburg, Virginia in the pre-dawn darkness. The ride started with miles and miles of sharply undulating terrain through Virginia horse country. An early highlight of the ride was crossing the Potomac River just as the first light of dawn made it possible to see the surroundings. The early morning pace was quick and we ended up arriving at the first control at the Gettysburg Battlefield ahead of schedule. In fact, Matt Settle had not yet arrived to set up the control. After a couple of minutes, we decided to have one of the other riders, an RBA from Kentucky, sign the cards documenting our progress. As we were winding our way around and through the Gettysburg Battlefield and its solemn monuments, Matt found us and offered water and a selection of snacks. Throughout the morning I had been riding with Rob Welsh. We now added Mark and Bill Olsen to our group. The four of us would remain together for most of the rest of the day.
The section between the Battlefield at Gettysburg and the Battlefield at Antietam included crossing a covered bridge and several steep climbs. Overall, the route included more of the sharply rolling terrain that would punctuate the entire route. We arrived at the second control at the Battleview Market in Sharpsburg, Mayland in time for well-earned lunch. We saw most of the other riders at the control, as the group was still hanging pretty close together. The early morning’s fast pace had allowed us to cover the first hundred miles in around seven hours.
The next section included a brief foray into West Virginia and more rolling terrain. Our group of myself, Rob and the Olsen brothers stayed together and kept up a steady, fast pace. A favorite part of the afternoon was riding on a road which ran along a high ridge with a valley and mountain range on each side. We arrived at the overnight control at the Crimson Inn in Bridgewater, Virginia around 9:30 pm. Just in time for a lasagna supper and a few hours of sleep.
Over the course of day 1, we covered 234.5 miles. According to Rob’s GPS, we gained 15,800 feet in elevation.
Day 2 would be the hardest day of Shenandoah for me. We left Bridgewater, Virginia before 5:00. Rob and I rode out with Ian Shopland from the Seattle Randonneurs. The early morning darkness was cool as we encountered rolling terrain leaving town. Eventually, we began a long, gradual climb as dawn broke. During the long descent, it seemed like the temperatures plummeted until finally dropping into the lower 40’s. Neither Rob nor I had prepared for cold weather- Shenandoah is known for heat afterall. After trying to tough it out for several miles, we finally pulled to the side of the road and put our hands under our armpits to try to get some feeling back into our fingers. As the sun took effect, temperatures rose enough to make for some beautiful miles highlighted by a section winding along and above the Maury River.
Following up on a tip from Ontario Randonneur David Thompson, we took advantage of the hospitality of the Effinger Volunteer Fire Department neat Enfield for a bathroom and water break. The break energized us for the next segment including the Buffalo Road climb which was one of my favorite climbs of the ride. The climb on Buffalo Road was a winding, gradual climb that extended for nearly 10 miles. For parts of the climb, the road paralleled a small stream. At other times the road passed open expanses where we had nice views of distant mountains.
Although the climb was enjoyable, it was still a climb and by the time we arrived in Buchanan around mid-day, I was tired and hot. The control was a combination convenience store/Burger King. Even though fautgue and the heat made it difficult, I ate as much as I could. The 15 mile section after Buchanan featured terrain that was more moderate and lacking any serious climbs. That would change, however, when we reached the outskirts of Roanoke. Leaving Highway 11, we started a quick steep climb up aptly named Mt. Pass Road, before rolling into Roanoke. The final leg into Roanoke included a stretch through heavy car and truck traffic which appeared to be stuck in a perpetual traffic jam. Because we had heard cautionary tales of the climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we had decided to take a quick break in Roanoke to top off out water bottles and have a snack. Shortly after the stop, we came to Ivy Street, which Mark Olsen had been warning us about for several days. Mark was right. Ivy Street started the climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway with a two block stretch that neared 20%. After turning from Ivy Street, the climb mellowed and the rest of the 3 or 4 miles was a steady doable climb up Mill Mountain. The left turn onto the parkway came soon enough, but it wasn’t anywhere near the end of the climbing. For the first several miles on the parkway, we would climb for half a mile or so and then descend back to the starting elevation only to start another climb. I thought this was a drag until I got into the remaining section of the Parkway. The last 7 or 8 miles on the parkway were one long steady climb which brought us to an elevation around 2800 feet, approximately 1700 feet above Roanoke.
We finally left the quiet of the Parkway, and joined the Floyd Highway. The Floyd Highway was a two lane road that winds along the highlands with a fairly large amount of traffic. Unfortunately, the road doesn’t have a shoulder for riding. Both Rob and I felt uncomfortable about riding on this 20 mile stretch of highway because of the near constant traffic and the need for cars to back up behind us waiting for a chance to pass. Fortunately, nearly all of the drivers we encountered were patient and we didn’t have any really close calls. The control at the Pine Tavern Lodge near Floyd was a brief stop for snacks before we rolled into Floyd for a more substantial dinner. By the time we got to the Subway, I was seriously tired and overheated and unsure of what I could eat to get me through the evening hours. I eventually chose a personal pizza and some chips. Eating when overtired and overheated can often be a challenge, but I was able to get through most of my supper. We left at 7:30pm ready to face the remaining 45 miles to the overnight stop in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.
Within a couple of miles of leaving the control, we got onto the small country roads which dominate this section. It was also clear right away that we were not done climbing for the day. In fact, the remaining miles of the day featured a constant barrage of climbs and descents. No one climb was particularly memorable but they just kept coming. The scenery was good and there was very little traffic. We finally arrived at the summit of the descent into Mt. Airy and stopped to put on warm clothes for the long drop into town. The first three miles of the descent were a rush. We were flying along a smooth roads and really enjoying the swithbacks. After the three miles, the road turned up again for a half mile climb. I remember thinking that only in Shenandoah could you find a descent which required climbing. The lower portion of the descent was at a more moderate grade. The most noticeable feature were the large number of dogs which came out to chase out as we crossed into North Carolina. We eventually made it to Knights Inn Motel just before midnight. I loaded up macaroni and cheese and elevated my legs befor going to bed. While I was sitting with my legs up, I spent some time wondering how I was going to repeat the last 45 miles first thing in the morning.
When we were getting on our bikes to roll out around 5:00 am, the last rider on the road was just rolling into the hotel. He had apparently had a very rough night in the mountains and was hoping to get a couple hours of sleep before heading back out.
Our morning ride started with the long climb up Willis Gap road that we had descended in the dark the previous night. Fortunately, the first miles of the climb were relatively gradual and passed without any problems. The famous dogs of the mountain did not make an appearance. I suppose someday they will learn that its easier to catch cyclists riding 8 mph than 30mph, but at least it wasn’t on my trip to Shanandoah. The upper stretch of Willis Gap road was a beast of a climb. The road climbed at a steady grade of around 8% for three miles. At this point of the ride my legs did not have much strength but I was able to keep moving and eventually reached the top about 100 yards behind Rob.
The remaining miles to Floyd were tough but manageable. The section, which had seemed nearly impossible in the previous night’s darkness, was now doable, even though it was still tough going. One spot in particular along Gladesboro Road almost brought me to my knees. The road had one short climb of about a quarter mile that was almost as steep as anything I have ever ridden. In fact, the guy working at the country store down the road from there on the Danville Pike said that his hot rod car bogs down on that climb. The country store was notable for its huge collection of aluminum cake molds hanging all around the walls and for its unusual snack food options. We arrived back at the Floyd control around 11:30am. The 45 mile section had taken us 4.5 hours each way.
At the Floyd control, Ruby made Rob and I each a great ham and cheese sandwich to get us through the afternoon. After leaving Floyd, we had to contend with 20 more miles of the Floyd Highway. The traffic on this stretch didn’t seem as bad, either because it was lighter on Saturday or because fatigue was causing us to tune it out. After passing the turnoff to the Blue Ridge Parkway from the previous day, we came around a corner and saw the road drop away into Roanoke. The unexpected long descent into Roanoke raised my sprits. The three mile twisting descent into Roanoke was pure cycling bliss. The road was winding enough that we could go as fast as cars so we were able to take up the whole lane and just enjoy the ride. At the bottom, we pulled into a Kroger’s grocery store to get out of the heat and look for a snack. We ended up going into the Deli and coming out with a full chicken dinner, complete with mashed potatoes and dinner rolls.
Again we had to wind through Roanoke and back to Highway 11. The climb over the Mt. Pass Road seemed more manageable in this direction and we were able to get back to Buchanan for another Burger King break. Leaving Buchanan around supper time, we had around 70 more miles to ride for the day. The way I was feeling, I thought I would be lucky to average 10 mph on this section. Additionally, I had been worried about traffic on the long stretch along Highway 11 that was to follow the Buchanan control. In actuality, the road was very rideable. Although the road was a two lane road without a good shoulder, the traffic was not very heavy and the grades on this major highway provided a lot of relief for tired legs. Somewhere along this section we rolled through Lexington, Virginia. I think Lexington was one of the most beautiful towns we saw on the entire route. The town featured stately, historic homes a beautiful downtown, and the final homes of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. The evening did prove to be a slow slog until about 35 miles out when Rob got a burst of motivation and was able to get out pace revved up to around 20 mph for the last hour or so. I was surprised when climbing a steep hill in Staunton to look over and see the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. A lit up glass room contained his favorite car, a 1919 Pace Arrow limosine. We arrived back at the Crimson Inn in Bridgewater around midnight, knowing that we only had 130 miles to go to the finish.
We started the fourth day of Shenandoah around 5:00am. The final day would prove to be relatively uneventful. We rolled along at a nice conservative pace until stopping at a church near Edinburg for a water and bathroom break. The climb up Edinburg Gap, the final major climb of the ride, was a steady 3 or 4 mile climb over shady roads. We stopped for another break in the small town of Fort Valley. A pop machine provided drinks and a volunteer fire department provided the bathrooms. We then rode a very scenic section of road though the George Washington National Forest into the final control in Front Royal, Virginia.
The final segment of the ride was a return to Leesburg through rolling horse country. This area featured huge country estates and narrow winding roads. Unfortunately, these roads had fairly heavy traffic and impatient drivers. Rob nearly got hit when a passing car tried to duck in between Rob and I to avoid oncoming traffic and came within inches of hitting Rob’s rear wheel. We arrived back in Leesburg at 4:54 pm. Our total time for the Shenandoah 1200km was 84:54.
All in all, I had a great time at Shenandoah. I enjoyed many miles of scenic roads through beautiful, rugged country. I had lots of fun riding with Rob and got through the ride without any serious problems. The ride is definitely a low frills affair. Rob’s GPS recorded over 53,000 feet of climbing. That worked out to around 15,000 for each of the first three days and around 7,000 for the last day.