New Year’s Day

Had an fairly unremarkable ride out to a favorite destination today–Gathland State Park–and it felt good. That’s despite the cold weather and the slower than normal pace; and despite the salt and ground cinders in my brake shoes that made the descents more dramatic than they really needed to be. I was satisfied with a less-than-stellar ride because I had been off the bike for quite a while–2 weeks or so–for a number of reasons, mostly holiday- and weather-related. So it was good to simply get back on it, especially to start a tally of miles for 2013.

I haven’t decided on what my mileage goal will be this year. Last year’s 1500 turned out to be perfectly attainable, and when I consider that I didn’t ride for long periods (about 2 months, total) I feel it should be possible to better it. I’ve toyed with the idea of shooting for 2013 miles (get it?) but we’ll see. I’ll settle on something in the next week or two. In the meantime, anything I do now counts as extra credit for my final grade.

Gathland State Park, New Year's Day 2013

Gathland State Park, New Year’s Day 2013

The snow is still on the ground from a series of small events in the last few weeks and it reminds me that I can’t rely on last year’s balmy temps to come through again. Today’s ride was a good example of the contrast between this year and last: 38 degrees today, 58 degrees on the same day last year. My records show numerous days of 60 or better in January and February in 2012; on one day in early March it was an astonishing 78 degrees. That was a great introduction to winter riding (mostly because it wasn’t much like winter) but it’s too much to hope for again. And probably a portent of awful things environmentally, into the bargain. So I can’t allow my own desires to wear less clothing or to have unfrozen lips to supersede the welfare of the Earth. That’s just how I roll.

The illustrious GATH (George Alfred Townsend) in front of his house.

The illustrious George Alfred Townsend (“Gath”) in front of his house.

One definite highlight of today’s ride was finally getting to meet George Alfred Townsend himself. In all the times I have been to Gathland, I had never run into him–but he’s a busy man and has business in New York City and other such metropoli, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But not today! There he was, standing on the side porch of Gathland Hall, smoking a large cigar. I introduced myself and he was kind enough to indulge me in posing for a photograph. I found him to be an impressive man, though fairly short and somewhat stiff of manner. Only later did I realize that by posing with him, I had shared a privilege that the revered Mark Twain had enjoyed. I imagine a meeting of the three of us would have looked something like this, with Gath admiring Twain, and Twain being mesmerized by the size and shape of my Pudd’nhead:

George Alfred Townsend, Mark Twain, and Me (Note my new bike gloves! Christmas gift from the missus.)

“This collar is killing me!”    George Alfred Townsend and Mark Twain play footsie while I model my new bike gloves–a Christmas gift from the missus!

So yeah, not a bad day, and an excellent start to the year.

1500 Miles

Late in 2011 I set a goal of riding 1500 miles this year. That’s not much for some; I know of many more accomplished riders who tally thousands more, though I have no idea how. But for me 1500 miles represented about twice as many as I had ever done in previous years and was going to be a formidable challenge.

A few days ago, near the intersection of Catholic Church and Gapland Roads in western Frederick County, I passed that threshold and started on mile number 1501. As it turned out, 1501 felt pretty much like number 473, or 890. But still, it was new to me.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo at that historic moment (nor did I have an extra hand with which to do so) but here’s one from a few miles earlier in the ride: a black shed on an alley in Burkittsville, with my bike lurking in the background. I’ve always liked this shed, with its black alligatored shingles and solitary setting. It must get pretty hot in there during the summer; I can imagine it would have been a good place to “cook” bedding or furniture to remove bedbugs or lice.

Black-shed,-Burkittsville

The details of my year-long pursuit of this goal are all contained in the Garmin records that I’ve posted below. I found that having the Garmin unit (an Edge 500 for those keeping score) made a huge difference in getting to my goal. I generally like to keep records of my rides, and before the Garmin I had a number of different Word documents or Excel spreadsheets in an attempt to keep track of it all, year after year. Getting the Garmin, a gift from my wife last Christmas, made all of that more fun and worlds easier. Once I had it I really looked forward to adding on to the totals throughout the year.

Count: 81 Activities
Distance: 1,505.88 mi
Time: 120:05:04 h:m:s
Elevation Gain: 103,175 ft
Avg Speed: 12.5 mph
Avg HR: 144 bpm
Calories: 70,067 C
Avg Distance: 18.59 mi
Max Time: 5:13:52 h:m:s
Max Distance: 71.69 mi

One thing that is not reflected in the totals is that for about 2 months I was off the road for various reasons: traveling or work-related constraints, mostly. Had I been on the road for that additional time, I might have made this goal sometime in November, I imagine.

I’ll probably end up adding a few more miles before the end of the year, but probably won’t get beyond 1550 or so. The question then becomes what of next year? Should I go for a longer goal, or try to match this one? I haven’t yet decided, though it’s safe to say that the latter is a minimum and the former is certainly enticing.

After

Last Saturday I rode in the CASA River Century, starting out of Shepherdstown, WV. CASA (it stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate) is an organization of volunteers who investigate cases where children have been removed from homes due to abuse or neglect. They advocate for the child throughout the court process. They perform a much-needed service and are a great cause to contribute to. I was happy to be a part of the ride and will definitely be back again next year.

Maybe the best thing about the whole day was the very first thing that happened — I jumped out of bed on a Saturday at 5:55 am. This is the sort of thing that I can only manage for special occasions, like when the house is on fire or we’re going on a vacation. Or when I’ve paid good money to participate in an event. One of these days I will write a post about my procrastinational, dilatory and dawdling ways. It’s truly stunning the amount of time I can spend on trivial pursuits as the day goes ticking by me. But not on Saturday.

I was ridiculously pleased to be able to wear a number at this event. Next time out I may even know where to attach it.

It couldn’t have been a better day–the weather was perfect, I felt good, and there were no mechanical issues to deal with. The event was well-run and orderly and included what turned out to be a pretty great meal at the end. I even got there on time, more or less–the 50 milers were supposed to leave by 8 and I was able to get moving a few minutes before then.

Shepherdstown sits near the edge of two counties, Jefferson and Berkeley. I rode the 50 mile Jefferson route, so named because it mostly fell within that county; the other loop did the same in Berkeley. Together they added up to a full century ride for those so inclined. I don’t think I am quite ready for that yet, not this year at least.

Riding in events like this is a rarity for me; this marks only the second one I’ve done since I started putting more time in on the bike 6 years ago. I have found them to be both exciting and laid-back, though admittedly I have a tiny sampling to draw from. I’m so used to riding solo that the thought of doing a group thing is a little intimidating; but they never actually turn out to be. There’s plenty of room for an overweight oldster like me. The riders string out enough that I’m hardly ever riding in a group of any size. During the CASA ride I usually had another rider in sight, but not always. Most of the time I was riding alone, but if I took a break, another rider would be along in a minute or two.

The lunch spread that awaited us at the finish. Those are bratwurst from Shepherdstown’s own Bavarian Inn. The other end had salads and many other good things like that–I never got down that far.

The temperature was chilly at the start — about 54 degrees, and it felt great. I don’t own arm warmers but I saw plenty of them on other riders. I just don’t need them since I always heat up quickly (and overheat soon thereafter) and it seems a bother. By the end of the ride it was still only about 74, and the humidity was so low that everything sparkled.

One of the things I like about these events is that I can use other riders to challenge myself a little without them even knowing it, without it being a real “race”. I could pick out a rider up ahead and try to slowly reel them in and perhaps overtake them. It gives the ride a focus that solo riding lacks. I settled into a rhythm that saw the same cyclists — sometime solo, sometimes two- or three-somes — appear over and over again as the ride went on. It’s interesting to watch the groups consolidate into cohorts based on pace and ability. Because of this repeated leapfrogging I passed the same riders repeatedly as I regained ground lost when taking a break. Which brings up another nice thing about riding in a group event: when riding around other people I think my effort becomes greater. I notice this even in tiny increments when I’m out on one of my regular rides — when I know someone is watching, I tend to ride just a little harder. And when (as in this ride) I have targets to focus on I can produce a much more consistent level of effort.

A typical scene from the first half of the Jefferson County route. I played leapfrog with that pair of riders all day.

And speaking of cohorts–I was definitely amongst mine. There were a lot of riders my age (and older). I reasoned that some of this was because the younger riders had taken off earlier and weren’t around to be seen, but that doesn’t entirely explain things; even when the century riders were finishing they didn’t tip the scales all that much, age-wise. I was also pleased to see how many women were riding in this event. At times it seemed like a 50/50 split, male/female. For me that made the event more…civilized.

All of these factors — the weather, how I felt, the excitement of being in a large ride like this, and the added challenges posed by riding with others–somehow allowed my average speed to top out at near 15 mph (that’s 14.9, actually). This, for me, is pretty damned good. My average was over 15 for most of the ride and only dipped below that level in the last 10 miles where I ran into some hills. I spent the last few miles trying to nudge it back over 15 to no avail. I have to think that the course was conducive to the quick pace I had–I usually average a few miles lower than this, but that’s almost always in hillier country near home–but whatever the cause, I am pleased with the result. Follow this link for way more details than you could ever be interested in: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/179861671

“Pardon me boys…” (and girls). We had to wait a while for the coal train to pass at this, the last rest stop, but it was simply added value as far as I was concerned.

The rest stops, I should say, we well-provisioned and manned by volunteers who were cheerful and helpful. There were fruits, cookies, drinks, plenty of water and a large assortment of GU Energy gels available. There were mechanics ready to help with problems. Everything was there, should a rider need it.

West Virginia has always seemed an odd place to me. Coming from the neat farms and well-tended properties of Frederick County in Maryland, it seems so unsettled to me. It’s as though it were frozen mid-way on its journey to becoming something else, or more likely on its way from having been something else. I passed numerous businesses–turf farms, landscaping places, antique dealers, small stores of all kinds–that were out of business. The economic slump of the past few years has hit these places hard, but West Virginia was this way before the recession and has been for as long as I’ve known it. It was this way during boom times, too. You see a strange mix: on the route that I rode, you’d pass a well-tended horse farm, then an old falling-down shack (still occupied), then a private nearly-gated community, then another hovel with a dog chained to a stake out front. There were immaculate lawns in front of restored historic homes (DC money, that) and then there would be a front yard filled with all of the inhabitants’ worldly goods, most of them broken. At one such house the owners felt the need to post hand-painted signs around their property that read “SMILE for the CAMERA”. I assume some local dirtbags had been causing them grief. That or it was a manifestation of mental illness, some sort of paranoid fantasy. I did not pause to take a photo (or to have one taken).

It seems to break down in this way: there are the people with money who move here for the beauty and the history, and then there are the impoverished folks who have always lived here and couldn’t leave if they wanted to. There are plenty of others somewhere in between, but it’s the extremes situated cheek by jowl that catch the eye.

Something else that caught my eye were the many historical markers along the route, most of which concerned the Washington family. I passed several of their houses, a few of the many in the Charles Town area: Happy Retreat, Blakeley, Harewood, Claymont Court, and Cedar Lawn. It’s important to remember that West Virginia was just another part of Virginia until the Civil War, when it seceded from its mother state (the only one to do so during the war). It’s also important to recognize how much GW got around! The list of his accomplishments and travels–starting as a young man, surveying the wilderness–is almost unbelievable. Unlike me, he didn’t seem to have a single procrastinational, dilatory or dawdling bone in his body.

A glimpse of the impressive entrance to Cedar Lawn, one of the many large houses the Washington clan managed to erect all over this area. George didn’t, in fact, sleep here. Given his achievements, I’m pretty sure he never slept at all, anywhere.

Before

I am riding in an event tomorrow morning, the CASA River Century over in Shepherdstown, WV. I’ve been looking ahead to this since back in the winter and though I wish I had been able to properly train for it I’m sure I’ll be OK. The reason I can say this with such certainty is that this morning I saw the final version of the cue sheet for the route I’m taking and it’s a full five miles shorter than I was anticipating. The route from last year has been on MapMyRide since then and I was thinking it would be close to that one at 55 miles. So 50 miles seems like a cinch, somehow. Plus, a few steep climbs were eliminated in the gerrymandering of the new route. The new loop seems flat as a board, and when I saw it I thought “Piece of cake.” and started thinking that maybe I should stretch the ride with more mileage on my own. I even wondered whether a true century was in me. That sort of craziness will disappear in the morning, I am sure.

Tonight I was over at Shepherd University (where the ride starts and ends) to pick up my packet of info. I was able to talk to some of the people who are involved in the event and they told me that Shepherdstown officials had requested that the ride not go through town as it had in the past because there was a tour of houses and gardens happening at the same time and the officials thought the two would conflict in some way. Not sure how that would work, but nevertheless the organizers did a great job of re-making the route in the last few weeks, eliminating any mass bicycle presence in town. A shame, but there you are. And in the end, I get to ride 50 miles instead of 55, which may turn out to be a good thing.

When I mentioned the climbs that had been eliminated and the 5 miles that was missing, one of the wags at the registration table suggested I just tack those climbs on to the end of my ride and that would give me the extra 5 miles I lacked. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Weather is going to be perfect: maybe 60 at the start, warming to low 70’s at the end, with the skies clear and sunny. Low humidity. It has seemed like New England around here for the last few days, and I like it. I plan to stay within myself: if I control my initial excitement and make sure that I don’t go out too fast I think I’ll be fine. It’s more a matter of simply putting time in on the bike, pedaling, than one of conditioning. I did about 40 miles last weekend in similar conditions  (with considerably more climbs, in fact) and felt good. This is just another hour of riding beyond that.

Now that’s a BIG bike! I was left wondering what the person who rode it looked like. My wife thought maybe it was Rondo Hatton’s, but I’m not sure. Didn’t wait around to find out…

As soon as I recover from the ride I’ll type something up. This is only my second organized event and I’m still not quite sure what to make of them. It’ll be my first with a camera along, and first also riding on roads I am unfamiliar with. The combination of those two factors should make life interesting tomorrow. Night all!

Getting Better

With a couple more rides under my belt in the last two weeks, I feel as though I’m coming back to where I had left off when my allergy woes began. A 10 miler two weeks ago nearly did me in, but a 33 mile jaunt was just fine last week. It happened on one of the finest days weather-wise I can remember being a part of: clear and cool, with low humidity and temperatures only reaching into the mid-60’s. The sky was blue and the fields were green, and everything worked as it should. The photo below, from the return leg of that ride, stands as proof of what a perfect day it was.

A panoramic view of the western slope of South Mountain. Townsend Road leads up the mountain, meeting Gapland Road at Crampton’s Gap (center of photo).

The pollen counts remain high in my area (trees being the main offenders) but depite that I am not feeling it nearly as badly. Some of my improvements may have to do with new meds that I am taking–inhalers, nasal sprays, etc–but I think the greater credit should be given to Mother Nature. Whatever particular species of trees are my nemeses–the genus Quercus is number one on my list of suspects–they seem to have passed from the flowering/pollen-spewing stage to some other useful pursuit, like crushing rocks into soil or oxygenating  our world. For which I am grateful.

I am still ahead of pace to make my goal of 1500 miles for the year despite being mostly dormant for the last few weeks. An early start than usual this year has helped. Though I never cared for the mean-spirited Aesop fable about the Grasshopper and the Ant* I do feel that a little ant-work has paid off nicely when I needed it most.

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* Brutally short version for the uninitiated: Carefree Grasshopper sings while the miserable drudge Ant gathers food. When Winter comes, Ant makes sure that Grasshopper starves to death. The moral is frequently something like “Serves You Right, You Worthless Musician” or maybe “You Can’t Eat Art.”

It’s just like riding a bike

I’m still being plagued by the pollen in my area; it’s thick on everything and everyone, me especially. I wound up missing a full week of work, and though I am now back at it again I don’t feel close to being ‘right’. Still woozy, still wobbly, still short of breath. The most annoying/troubling symptom is my left ear: it feels as though it has been glued shut and I can’t get it to open up. As a result, my balance is a little off at times and my hearing is distorted on that side. The distortions vary, sounding like an out-of-tune harpsichord in the higher registers and a steel foundry in the low. My other ear (now known as “the good ear”) is still relatively normal. The two competing versions of the sounds around me–one version from the left, one from the right–meet in the middle of my head to do battle. The result is something like the sound effects found in Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles records. It’s fascinating in a way–and I’m a huge Beatles fan, so naturally I’m flattered to have been chosen for this psychoacoustic experiment–but I wish it would end so I could go back to hearing the world as it actually is. After all, those records were LSD-induced soundscapes meant to approximate fantasy worlds. That sort of aesthetic can be a little unnerving in the workaday world.

Until Sunday, I hadn’t been able to get on my bike for 21 days straight. I have an event that I want to ride in–the 55 mile course in the CASA River Century–and it’s coming up on May 19th. Soon! And over the past three weeks of confinement, I could feel the conditioning I had built this winter (such as it was) ebbing from my body. So late on Sunday we went out to Hancock to the Western Maryland Rail Trail for a ride. The WMRT is flat and smooth and a good place to get my bearings, to see how I felt on a bike. Turns out, I felt OK. The pace was slow and easy and I barely broke a sweat, but it felt good to know my legs were in decent shape. If pushed, like on a higher pace or in hilly country, I’m sure my lungs would have been screaming–they are a long way from healed–but this was a good start. We ended up doing an easy 20 miles and I feel better about my prospects for the CASA ride. Still, I only have four weeks to get ready for it. Hopefully in the next week or so I’ll be back at it regularly and can make up for lost time. And hopefully it will be just like riding a bike.

Typically tranquil section of the wonderful Western Maryland Rail Trail.

Sick

Well, I’m sick and my odometer has been stuck at 421 miles for more than a week during some of the finest weather in a long while: clear, cool and bright, with not too much wind. I even missed three days of work this week, something that happens so rarely that I will no doubt receive Sympathy cards from my regular customers.

It’s a seasonal allergy assault coupled with an asthmatic reaction, apparently.  Spring has arrived early and with beautiful vigor. My allergy medication generally does a fine job but gets overwhelmed once a year and this has proven to be a bang-up year for pollen. I saw my doctor yesterday and received a prescription for an antibiotic, some cough syrup to help me sleep, and a course of prednisone. The prednisone is a first for me; I feel like an adult now.

I have managed to do a few small cycling-related things during the course of my quarantine. First of all, I bought some spray degreaser and cleaned and lubed my chain and it’s ready to go whenever I am. I also bought a few pairs of chamois shorts to try on, but of course the real test of those will be found in riding with them. And I adjusted my Brooks saddle a little, doing my annual tightening thing.

The degreaser was an interesting experiment: I got a big spray can of Finish Line Speed Degreaser as a sort of gift to myself. I normally don’t buy products like that–packaged solely for cycling purposes, I mean–because the same product can almost always be found much cheaper at an auto parts store under a different name. I got it this time because I was curious about how well it worked, I wanted to be able to speak authoritatively about its value, and because I had a gift card that was burning a hole in my wallet. The degreaser worked like a charm, easily stripping all the accumulated gunk off my chain and cassette until they shined. But I was a little disconcerted to see how far a can would go: not very far, as it turns out. It’s a heavy can when you start and a short while later it’s two-thirds gone. I’m glad I got it, but I’ll be buying carb or brake cleaner from Pep Boys the next time around, for less than half the price.

In any event, lets hope that the meds do their magic and I’m out and about soon. I need to get back into riding shape and hopefully lose some weight as well. I have signed up for a ride in May–the CASA River Century–and though I’ll be doing the 55+ mile course and not the full century, I need to prepare a bit. The ride is 6 weeks out and it’s time to start focusing. And losing a few more pounds would make life a lot easier on the back roads of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.

The ride begins and ends in beautiful Shepherdstown, which remains a cool town even after its discovery and gradual gentrification of the last 20 years. The gentrification has been unusually respectful of the town’s look and feel–it still has a combination funky-college-town/small town/high-end-but-relaxed feel to it. Shepherd University is here, which gives it some of its vibe. If you’re ever in the area, check it out–there are a number of fine restaurants, a nice bakery, a diminutive town library with mystical symbols over the front door, and West Virginia’s oldest operating movie theater, the Opera House. They show art house films and have live music onstage as well; it’s a very cool place. Also, the influential Contemporary American Theater Festival is held in town every year, as is the American Conservation Film Festival. Lots of great stuff in a small package.

In 1787, Shepherdstown was also the site of the inventor James Rumsey’s historic steamboat experiments (Shepherdstown is on the Potomac River). 20 years before Robert Fulton’s Clermont chugged her first chug, Rumsey demonstrated a jet-propelled (you read that correctly) steam launch here. A large memorial to his work stands in a quiet park overlooking the river and he is remembered at various town events throughout the year.

But enough about Shepherdstown–suffice it to say, there are things out there to look forward to if I ever get off this couch.

Here’s a Flickr Group devoted to Shepherdstown for the curious.