Every year I ride hundreds of times. Dirt, gravel, pavement; thousands of miles on each. They all blend together, really. The only thing that remains is flashes of brief memories, vistas taken in, conversations had, and the worst pains felt. All else pretty much fades. Fitness is the only memento to those endless hours spent pedaling that I can’t even seem to remember.
Occasionally though, the pieces fall together to create a truly memorable day. One that I can hold onto for at least a few years. It typically fits the mold of hard ride that pushes me to my limits, in a beautiful place with great friends. Given it’s somewhat formulaic predictably, I try to organize a few opportunities like this every year to create a chance to remember, to soak in something incredible, and cling to the temporal joys of riding a bike that always seem to slip through your fingers.
On March 9, a group of us set out from Front Royal, Virginia, to test our legs on one of the best roads for riding on the east coast: Skyline Drive.
Perched along the ridgeline of the northern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive climbs, rolls and weaves through the peaks from north to south. Every turn offers a new vista of the Shenandoah Valley and every descent promises another giant climb.
86 miles was the plan for the day, a simple out and back of the route to gain a total of 9,000 feet into the sky. On a day when you’re gaining that kind of elevation in ultimately 43 miles (for an out and back route), not much structure is needed to get in a great workout. Race season is around the corner, and the fine tuning is in process, but those climbs, varying from 8 minutes to 30+, are simply tests in and of themselves. I decided I wanted to do one test during the ride, one specific effort, and all other miles would be fun and whatever I felt like doing.
We rode strong out of Front Royal, climbing the 25 minutes up to Dickey Ridge at a moderate pace, talking amongst ourselves and enjoying our fresh legs. It was the warmest day of 2016 thus far, and our bodies soaked up the 75 degree weather like we’d never seen the sun before. The first descent came and it was insanely fun. Skyline is perfect for riding on a weekday as the car traffic is very low, and the turns are wide and sweeping. There isn’t a descent all day that you have to brake for, or a turn that can’t be taken at full speed, even when approaching 50mph on some downhills. It’s full bore fun.
We rode for 33 miles outbound regrouping here and there. When we got to the base of the climb up to Skyland, I hit the gas. With 2 hours into my legs I was loaded up, and a bit fatigued. Turning things up, my goal was to get up to Skyland in under 40 minutes. The closest I had gotten before was about 44 minutes, so I knew this would be a good gauge to see how my legs would respond to threshold climbing after a few hours of riding. A perfect race simulation.
The section up to Skyland is broken into two parts. The first is the opening climb of 3.5 miles. There is a bit of a roll at the top, two descents and finally the road turns up again for another 2 miles. As I started the first pitch, my legs groaned and I felt the weight of the first few hours. That’s inevitable and the key is to keep the pressure on to shake the legs out of their ruts. Soon, the groaning faded and I started to get that feeling of being efficient, pushing, going fast up the mountain.
Twelve minutes or so in, it began to hurt. The first peak came into sight, and I pushed hard through it to maintain momentum on the downhill. Pedaling furiously I hit the next climb too soon with little energy left. This was it. The moment of the ride I would remember. How did I fare when it just hurt? The next two miles were suffering. Seemingly needless suffering.
There’s something interesting about intentionally putting yourself through hard training outside of a race. It’s mentally crushing in the moment honestly. But when you come to a time when you have a true motivator, like during a race, it almost makes it easier to suffer. When you’re pushing for the win, sprinting for the line, or trying to drop someone on the final climb, mentally you’re just a bit stronger and able to dig deeper.
I crested the top of the climb, pulled over, and took a nice break. It was one of those perfect moments: being outside, enjoying a gorgeous day with friends on the bike, pushing myself to the limit. All the pieces of a great and memorable ride had fallen into place. It was perfect.