Shenandoah Riders Feel the Heat in Inaugural Event
—By Tim Sullivan—
If you enjoy descending on nice downhills then the inaugural Shenandoah 1200 is the randonee for you. Of course the downside to the descents is that there is an equal amount of climbing. The altimeter on my bike (which is normally on the high side) registered 50,030 feet of climbing at the finish showing that western Virginia is not flat and it is a challenging course.
However, as it seems with most 1200 KM randonées, the biggest challenge comes not from the course, but instead from the weather. The Shenandoah 1200 was no exception. A record-breaking heat wave hit the area with temperatures in the high 90s during the day. It impacted everyone and accounted for the DNF rate: 30 finishers out of the 56 who started. Twenty-three of the riders who DNFed did so by Christianburg (which by the way did not live up to its name since it was hotter than hell there). There were only 3 DNFs on the last 2 days with one due to a mechanical failure where the rear wheel would not turn. There were experienced randonneurs who were not able to cope with the heat.
The weather even affected the bike check in and registration on Wednesday evening after the area was under a tornado watch and a storm went through in the early afternoon knocking down trees. Matt Settle, the RBA who organized the ride, had to go around a detour and was delayed in arriving at Leesburg. In his absence the check-in was handled by Bones, Pat Horchoff who came up from New Orleans to assist on the ride, Greg Conderacci and Andrea Matney.
The ride started at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday, which enabled everyone to ride out of Leesburg without any traffic. In the village of Waterford, approximately 8 miles from the start, we had to go around some downed power lines but everyone seemed to manage that fine. Going through Virginia and entering Maryland the group I was in was moving at a nice pace over rolling terrain. The first steep climb of the day in Maryland was on Spruce Run Road as we went over Catoctin Mountain at around mile 42. That broke up the group but we were rewarded with a great downhill on a well paved highway (MD 77) through a park area with gentle S-curves. My favorite type of downhill!
After Thurston we continued north to the first controle at Gettysburg. Bill Beck and Missie and Carl Wakefield staffed the controle, better to guard the water jugs from Boston-Montreal-Boston. Shortly after the controle we turned into the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Park. It was my first time there and the route took us through the area of Round Top and Little Round Top. It was very interesting with all the monuments to the different regiments. The road was quiet and it was a great place to ride. Matt deserves a lot of credit for using that as part of the route. It was one of my favorite sections.
After Gettysburg I started riding with Jim Koening from Cincinnati. Jim and I then joined up with Bruce Taylor, another Southern Californian. We essentially stayed together until the Harrisonburg controle that evening. We headed back to Maryland and right before the next controle we went through the Antietam battlefield memorial. The rest stop was at the aptly named Battlefield Market. By then it was starting to warm up so the timing was perfect with many riders taking advantage of the fact that the store sold milkshakes. At each of the unmanned controles the stores or restaurants were great about stamping the controle cards. It seemed that they were used to it from prior brevets.
After that we entered West Virginia and rode on to the next controle at Winchester, Virginia. That was an unmanned controle at a Sheetz gas station. Someone in marketing needs to work on that name. The only thing remarkable for me at that section was a flat tire about one-half mile from the controle, caused by my rim strip exposing the rim by the valve hole. Jim had a band aid that we tried to use to cover the exposed rim. But when I tried to put more air in the tire at the gas station it blew again. Luckily the station had duct tape and three strips of it worked in combination with the band aid to protect the tube for the rest of the ride.
After we left Winchester the day was heating up and we started riding on Back Road, marked by a section of continuous rollers with steep climbs on each. The rollers were steeper that those at PBP. This was an area that took a toll on many riders as we passed people lying on the edge of the road trying to cool off. Once we got off Back Road there was a store where we were able to get water and food, and cool down. Matt had published a list of stores along the more rural sections of the route, which was good to know in advance. I was able to plan where I could get water and food along the route.
We arrived at the controle in Harrisonburg, a dormitory at Eastern Mennonite University, at around 10:00 p.m. or so. I had planned on just having dinner there and continuing onto Deerfield, where I had one of my drop bags, and sleeping there for a few hours. However it seemed that a majority of the riders planned on stopping at Harrisonburg. The dormitory worked great. There were plenty of beds for those who wanted to sleep. The controle staff consisted of Bones, Josie and Maggie Smith, Jim Logan and Matt McHale. There was a kitchen area upstairs where dinner was served, including lasagna. It brought back memories of Middlebury, VT and BMB.
After a fine dinner I continued on with 2 other riders who were both doing their first 1200—Judith Longley from Florida and Martin Laudie from Quebec. It was a nice evening to ride; all the evenings were. Throughout the ride it never got cold and I never had to use leg warmers or a jacket. One of the roads to Deerfield was called Jennings Gap Road. I am leery of roads that have the word Mountain or Gap in them since it generally means some stiff climbing ahead. But the climb to Deerfield was fairly gentle.
The controle there was a Virginia Fire station manned by Pat Horchoff, Michael and most importantly Ruby Lee Bryant. When entering it the room was smoky, which was alarming since it was a fire station. However there was also the smell of bacon in the air. At 1:00 a.m. it was a smell better than the best French perfume. It turns out that Ruby Lee is a great cook who specializes in catering to the culinary needs of randonneurs. After having a shower and changing into fresh clothes I had a BLT sandwich with a homemade pasta salad. Matt had 10 cots there to sleep on but only a few were occupied when I arrived. I did not miss the opportunity to take one over for the next 2 1/2 hours.
I awoke to a breakfast of biscuits and gravy and potatoes. I declined Ruby Lee's offer of eggs but since I was in the South I figure I needed to have the biscuits and gravy.
The route out of Deerfield was nice. Riding through the hills with Bruce Taylor in the early morning hours was peaceful. Traffic was minimal and the climbing in that section was not that steep. We also met up with Judith and Martin. We were rewarded with another great downhill through Douthat State Park that eventually led us to the town of Clifton Forge and the controle at the Bullpen Restaurant. It was just starting to get warm when we arrived there. For me it was one of those times where it was getting hot enough to affect your appetite.
The route out of Clifton Forge was the most difficult part of the ride. From seeing the route profile that Matt had published before the ride I knew that there was climbing ahead. I just thought it was one summit instead of the 3 that were ahead of us, with the last 2 being short but steeper than the previous one. So mentally the first two were false summits. The final climb on Jamison Mountain Road was very steep for (I recall) over a mile. After that climb Bruce Taylor and I stopped at an IGA supermarket on the route. It was around noon and once again the day was warming up. It was too hot to eat all the food that I bought but maybe I was just saving room for the hamburger I was going be eating at Fancy Gap.
The rest of the route to Christianburg was gentler as we were following a river valley until about 5 miles or so to the controle where some short steep sections once again brought out evil words. Matt Settle was manning the controle when we arrived and he informed us that the area had a record high temperature that day of 94 degrees.
The climbing from Christianburg to Hillsville was not as bad but it was still challenging. The main part of the climb was at a steady grade followed by a few short but steep sections. It helped that it was getting dark and the temperature was dropping. Once again I stopped at a store that was midway between controles. Normally I do not need to stop between controles. However the heat during this ride made it necessary, not only for buying fluids, but also to just cool down and rest.
I stopped at Hillsville long enough to get some food before doing the final climb to Fancy Gap. Jim Levitt was manning the controle with Claire Zecher whose enthusiasm was equal to her ability to make sure that we had plenty of food and liquids. Claire also made sure she took lots of photos to record the ride.
The next controle was only 13 miles away at Fancy Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The location was a group of cabins with the rider check in at a lower portion of the area. After checking in with Annette Kamm and Susan Auburn the riders were trucked up to the food area manned by several members of the North Carolina Bicycle Club: Branson Kimball, Jerry Phelps, Chris Kamm, Byron Morton, Paul Smith and Mike Dayton. Mike had the barbecue cooking hamburgers that at the moment were tastier than a Double-Double from In 'N Out. It was a nice evening on the Parkway so everyone was sitting outside. The NCBC volunteers friendly atmosphere together with the knowledge that we were now going to be heading north made it very relaxing. I personally enjoyed seeing Mike Dayton again and renewing our friendship.
The cabins at Fancy Gap also served as a sleep spot but I had chosen to have my drop bag delivered to Hillsville. So I had to leave the hospitality of Fancy Gap and descend back to Hillsville. I left Fancy Gap with another Ohio rider, Tim Carroll. It felt good not only to be turning north but also to be descending. I stopped at the controle at the Comfort Inn at Hillsville where Matt had 2 rooms, one for the controle itself and the other for showers and sleeping. When I arrived only one of the beds was being used in the adjacent room so I took a quick shower and got on top of the other bed for 2 1/2 hours. Tim Carroll continued on riding to Christianburg. Along the way he got tired and stopped for a few minutes along the side of the road. A driver must have seen him lying down and contacted the local rescue squad since the police and fire went out looking for a downed rider. They located Tim after he had resumed riding.
I woke up hungry despite the hamburger and beans from Fancy Gap and took my time getting ready for the days riding with two PB & J sandwiches made by Claire Zecher. The return to Christianburg was easier with more descending. The controle, now manned by Scott McCullough, was next to a Waffle House so I had breakfast there and met 3 riders who had DNFed, including Jim Koegel, who I had ridden with on Thursday, and Henk from Ontario, who I remember from other 1200 brevets. The heat had gotten to both of them.
After Christianburg the route got easier since the climbs were less steep. The course still was not flat but it became a route with more rollers rather than one with outright climbs. We followed some river valleys from Christianburg before entering onto US 11 just south of Buchanan, which was the next controle at a Exxon/Burger King. The local bank temperature reading was 100 degrees. At one point there were about 10 riders in the restaurant all trying to cool down. Bruce Taylor and I left together and after 10 miles or so, and before we reached Natural Bridges. I suggested that if we found a motel we should share a room, get out of the heat and sleep for 1 1/2 hours and get back on the road by 6:30 pm.. We then came upon the Relax Inn where we had to try to explain to the hotel manager why 2 middle-aged men wanted a room for just 2 hours. Sometimes randonneuring can cause others to look at you strangely.
After a short nap we were back on the road and were able to stop in Lexington for a quick snack before continuing on US 11. The only time I considered the traffic on that highway to be bad was right before the town of Fairfield. We were riding at around 9:00 p.m. and there were more drivers on the road with little shoulder. I must say that throughout the ride I was surprised by the courtesy of the Virginia drivers. Since the sight lines on the roads were not that great due to the terrain, the drivers would wait behind us before proceeding. However, I later learned that Kelly Smith had someone throw a bottle at him and Judith about 20 miles from the finish.
After stopping for a late dinner at an Arby's in Staunton. I arrived at the Harrisonburg controle at around 1:00 a.m. The temperature was still 75—nice riding weather. There was still some lasagna left and I was able to sleep for 2 hours. The controle was then being staffed by Bones, Jeff Magnuson, Bob Sheldon and Jim Lehman.
That left 115 miles on the last day. We left Harrisonburg on Highway 42 which once again meant gentle grades. Tim Carroll started riding with Bruce and me. He was good company with new topics to discuss. We arrived at the controle in Middletown, a Super 8 Motel manned by the Crista Borras and Chuck Wood. They had just arrived, so after checking in we went to a nearby gas station/deli for a final meal before the last leg.
The first half of the last leg went fine. The only climb in that part was through a wooded area so it was not too hot. We then went along the Shenandoah River where it is fairly wide and people were out enjoying the river. But we still had to climb over the Blue Ridge, which we did at Snicker's Gap. Normally it would not be a tough climb but at 1:00 p.m. it was difficult with the heat. My bike temperature (not sure how reliable that is) showed a temp of 118.9. After the climb, you turned off the highway, descending quickly into the village of Bluemont where the little general store had ice cream with a shaded porch in the front. A welcome stop, and I highly recommend the Banana Pudding ice cream. We stopped perhaps too long because when I got back to riding my legs started saying bad things. We stopped at a 7-11 store for a nature break and more water. Jack Holmgren from California was driving the course and saw our bikes and stopped to deliver socks filled with ice, a pure delight. Once placed on the neck it was enough to refresh myself and allow me to complete the ride enjoyably.
Tim Carroll and I finished at 3:00 p.m. in 83 hours.
The volunteers on the ride were all terrific. Despite each of them being tired from their own lack of sleep they sought to ensure that each riders needs were met. Matt Settle did a great job in organizing this inaugural event. John Lee Ellis should also be recognized for providing Matt with advice and his own wisdom and experience in organizing a 1200 KM brevet.
There was food and beverages at the finish with people staying to welcome the riders who were still finishing and discussing their adventures during the ride. The main topic of course was the stifling heat and how it made a challenging course even more so.