Peaks of Otter via Apple Orchard Mountain

Day 2 on the Blue Ridge parkway began with a breakfast of oatmeal then breaking down my camp at Otter Creek campground.  I had a 3 mile ride to the James River Visitor Center where I stopped to charge my cell phone while taking in the exhibits.  The James River Visitor Center tells the story behind the construction of the James River Canal and the Kanawha Canal that was begun in 1758 and not completed until 1851.  During those years the project encountered many difficulties that interrupted construction including the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, financial failings, and frequent flooding.  When completed there were 90 locks between Buchanan, VA and Richmond, VA.  A walkway underneath the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge leads visitors across the James River to the restored Battery Creek lock.  Eventually, rail travel proved more efficient in moving goods and the towpath was converted a railroad bed.

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Blue Ridge Parkway crossing the James River

The James River crossing is the lowest elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 650 feet.  My journey this day was to reach the Peaks of Otter lodge 25 miles away.  Twenty-five miles might seem like a short day in the saddle but it included a climb from the James River to Apple Orchard Mountain at an elevation of 3,950 feet or a climb of 3,300 feet in 13 miles.  Let me tell you that was a beast of a climb.  I was introduced to this climb by a gradual grade for the first mile or two and I was able to manage speeds of 10 mph to 14 mph.  However, knowing the amount of climbing ahead of me I know the grade would steepen very soon and it did.  Most of the remaining climb averaged in the 6% to 8% range and my speed was a pedestrian 5 mph to 6 mph.  The longer I climbed the more my legs began to ache.  Finding a cadence and rhythm and keeping it was difficult to maintain.  Every now and then I would stand up to pedal to stretch my calves.  My first rest stop came about 5 miles into the climb.  I would stop for 5 minutes or so to grab a snack and hydrate.  As the climb wound up the mountain I would stop every mile or so. Even though the rest stops were short my legs felt refreshed as I got back on the road. However, that feeling only lasted for a quarter mile of climbing then my legs began to feel the burn again.  Overall, I think I stopped 7 times during the 13 mile climb.  The National Park Service has built guardrails out of large timbers along sections of the Parkway.  During two of my rest stops I laid down on a guardrail to rest and improve circulation to my legs.  I was so tired that I would lay very still and any time a vehicle passed by I made sure to more a hand, an arm or leg just a bit to let them know I was still alive.

The climb was taking a huge toll on my legs.  One mistake I made was not bringing enough water to stay hydrated. Two miles from the summit at Apple Orchard Mountain my calves began cramping and I was very low on water.  To prevent more severe cramping I dismounted the bike and walked the bike and trailer about three quarters of a mile before resuming the climb to the summit at Apple Orchard Mountain.IMG_0454

After reaching the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain you would think I would have taken some time to rest and enjoy the feat I just completed.   However, temperature at that elevation on this day was in the high 40’s and there was a brisk wind.  Add to that my clothes were wet from perspiration and I was cold and still had 12 miles to go to reach the Peaks of Otter lodge.  My wonderful wife made me a reservation at the lodge so I could get a good nights rest on a bed instead of  sleeping in a tent.  Over the remaining 12 miles the elevation dropped about 1,400 feet and was a mix of short climbs and longer downhills so I was able to coast a good bit and rest my legs.  I was glad to arrive after spending 5 hours in the saddle that day and having traveled 85 miles over the past two days.

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Peaks of Otter Lodge

Headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway

My bicycle trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway began in Fort Defiance, VA the second week of May 2016.  My wife, Marilyn, and I stopped to visit friends for a couple days and Marilyn was going to stay with them while I was riding.  On a clear day from our friend’s patio you can look east

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The Blue Ridge Mountains are blanketed in fog

and see Rockfish Gap on Afton Mountain which is the confluence of the southern end of the Skyline Drive and the northern entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway.   The morning my trip was to begin I awoke to a cloudy sky and a crisp chill in the air.  From the patio I looked east and the mountains were shrouded in fog.  A weather system had FullSizeRendercreated a blanket of fog from the ridges of the Blue Ridge mountains eastward.  Undaunted, I had to go to Rockfish Gap hoping the fog would lift by the time we reached the parkway entrance.  As we ascended the mountain from Waynesboro, VA we entered a fog bank that was thick as pea soup.  It was obvious that beginning the ride in these conditions would be foolish and unsafe.  So we turned back to Waynesboro and went shopping (not my idea).

The next day was more of the same.  The weather system that created the foggy conditions had persisted for another day.   It was like I was in a shortened version of the movie “Groundhog Day”.  We had clear, sunny skies until you were near Rockfish Gap then thick fog just like the day before.  The only people we saw moving near the entrance to the parkway were hikers passing through on the Appalachian Trail. FullSizeRender(2)

To make the best of this situation I did get in several miles of riding each day along some back roads in Fort Defiance.  The roads offered small hills which I took advantage of to get some last minute leg work in before climbing the big “hills”.

The third day was the charm.  Clear, sunny skies over the Blue Ridge mountains.  So away I went.  Most experienced bicycle tourists will recommend that on the first day you should ride about half the distance you expect to average each day.  The route I mapped  averaged approximately 38 miles per day.  However, the first Blue Ridge Parkway ridesouthbound campground on the parkway, Otter Creek campground, was at Milepost 60.8.  I was in for a long day.  Around Milepost 38 I could see dark clouds forming to the west.  Within the next two miles I stopped to put on my rain suit just as the rain began to fall.  For the next 15 miles I rode in a steady rain as the temperature began to fall.  One thing I learned is you sweat going uphill and get chilled going downhill even when wearing a windbreaker.

The elevation at Rockfish Gap is 1,909 feet and the first ten miles are primarily uphill to Ravens Roost at 3,200 feet.  From there to Otter Creek campground the elevation varies from the highest point north of the James River at 3,334 feet and descends to the James River at 650 feet, the lowest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  So from Milepost 0 to the James River at Milepost 63 the total feet climbed was 4,802 feet.  I did cross the James River on the first day to reach a restaurant for dinner and acquire cell service to let my wife know I made it this far.

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My bike and trailer

To say I slept well that night is an understatement of epic proportions.  Even as the nighttime temperature dipped to 40 degrees I crawled into my one-person tent laid on top of my sleeping bag and my legs felt like they were floating.  I barely moved as I reflected on what I had accomplished.  Even during training over level terrain back home I had never ridden what actually totaled 69 miles in one day and 6.75 hours in the saddle.  Let alone 69 miles through mountains.  It was both exhausting and exhilarating.  This may not seem like a big deal to experienced touring cyclists but it was to this lowcountry senior.

If you thought biking 69 miles in the mountains in one day was a good day wait till I tell you what I faced on day two.

Lessons Learned About Equipment and Packing for Bicycle Touring

There are many excellent books available for novice bicycle touring cyclists to get vital information that will aid in planning the trip and make the experience more enjoyable.  I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel so I used my resource from Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner in their book Bicycling the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive: A guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive.  This book provided a list of necessary items to include when packing for a self-supported bike tour.

The first decision I had to make was to decide between a single wheel trailer or panniers.  This was a big decision that I should have spent more time researching and ultimately lead to what I consider a big lesson learned.  I looked at panniers but for some reason felt drawn to a single wheel cargo trailer.  I bike trailerpurchased a single wheel cargo trailer from I10direct.com.   This is a good trailer for road touring and it tracks well.  It included an orange water resistant bag, has a load capacity of up to 75 pounds, and is very well built.  The downside is it’s weight.  The trailer weighs 21 pounds.  I could have spent another $200 or more for trailers that were 5 – 6 pounds lighter.  Panniers and the mounting frames on the other hand can weigh, depending on the manufacture, anywhere from 3 pounds to 8 pounds.  When climbing mountains weight is an issue that I did not give much consideration during the planning stage of this trip.  This was a major lesson learned.   A touring pro by the name of Darren Alff has a website called Bicycle Touring Pro.com.  He once did a survey of subscribers to find out how many bicycle tourists used panniers vs. trailers.  Ninety-five (95%) of over 2,500 respondents said they used panniers.  Now I know why.

Other equipment I carried included:

My gear weighed 21 pounds which I felt was a good number.  But add the weight of the trailer and I was pulling 42 pounds.  Had I used panniers I could have reduced the weight by about 15 pounds which would have helped on the long, winding climbs along the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia.

Now that I’ve researched, planned, and trained it was now time to ride.

Do I Really Want to Bike in the Mountains?

1280px-Blue_Ridge_Parkway-27527-2In June of 2015, one month after I purchased my Diamondback Edgewood hybrid bike, I challenged myself to undertake my first bicycle touring expedition.  I can’t explain why I felt compelled to do this.  In a way it’s living off the grid only with a few more creature comforts.  There is something about living outdoors and traveling from one location to another that is appealing to me.   Maybe because as a family we went camping most summers and I need to do more of that activity while I still can.   So I planned a self-supported bike trip of the entire 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Waynesboro, Va. to Cherokee, NC.  Had I had this epiphany earlier I would have bought a bike that was built for touring, but I had the hybrid so I would make the best of my purchase.

Now other than a desire to be outdoors and biking in whatever the weather throws at me,  what would motivate a 62 year old man to undertake such a challenge when he had never considered doing anything like this in his life, and then spend most of the next year training, planning, and researching for this trip?  I have a cousin who is my age and  retired late in 2014.  The first thing on his bucket list was to hike the approximately 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mount Katahdin ME.  He began his trek in March 2015 and finished in early July 2015.  His journey inspired and motivated me to challenge myself to go beyond my perceived physical abilities.  While I had no desire to walk 2,200 miles I do like to bike.  When we travel back to West Virginia we take I-77 north and just a few miles north of the Virginia-North  Carolina border there is an overpass that carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the interstate highway.  That gaveway to the idea to bike the parkway.  However, before I provide more details on the preparations for this trip I should probably provide a disclaimer that I did not complete the entire 469 miles – yet.  I’ll explain later.

The first thing I did was look for books written by people who have biked the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Why reinvent the wheel.  I chose a book written by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner entitled Bicycling the Blue Ridge Parkway: A guide to the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This was an excellent resource that helped me locate restaurants, grocery and convenient stores, hotels, campgrounds, waystations, etc. since most of these conveniences are not located on the Parkway.  This book also gave a valuable description of the range of elevation changes that I would be facing. Using this information I created a spreadsheet that helped me identify the mile posts where these facilities were located which helped me decide how far I would ride each day and where I would be spending nights.  Using this information I mapped out what would be a 14 day trip to complete this ride that included two days of rest.

Right or wrong my training regime was simple.  Ride, ride, ride.  I didn’t know any other way to get in the kind of condition I would need in to bike the Blue Ridge Parkway.  You have to understand, I live in the lowcountry of South Carolina.  The terrain is a bit different than the Blue Ridge mountains.

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Blue Ridge terrain

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway you are either going up hill or down hill.

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Lowcountry terrain

In the lowcountry we do not have anything approaching a hill let alone a mountain.  We don’t have elevation changes, we have what I refer to as grade changes.  Like from flat to maybe a 3% grade that only goes for a short distance.  The only natural obstacle that provides any resistance is a strong head wind.  So ride I did.  During inclement weather I would go to our fitness center and ride a spin cycle and gradually increase the tension on the wheel to simulate hill climbing.  From the time I decided to make this trip in June of 2015 until I began in May of 2016 I rode nearly 2,000 miles.  The only thing in our county that resembled a hill is the Cross Island Expressway bridge on Hilton Head Island.  This bridge has what I would guess to be a 6%  to 7% grade for about 3/10’s of a mile.  On two occasions I rode back and forth over that bridge about 10 times each to get a little bit of hill work.  Other than that it was ride Sally ride.

In my next blog I will talk about the equipment I chose to take and what I learned about packing for such a trip.

 

 

The Bicycle I Ride and Why I Chose It

IMG_0832After riding my Specialized Hard Rock mountain bike for nearly 20 years I felt it was time to get a new ride.  While I have to admit I did not do a great deal of research I knew I wanted a bike that was comfortable, stable, and durable even though I can be considered a casual rider.  I ended up purchasing a Diamondback Edgewood Hybrid bike that I felt met my needs.  One thing that makes it comfortable is the adjustable stem that allows me to put the cruiser or riser style handlebars in a position that keeps me in a more upright position.  The main reason I did not consider a road bike was the drop bars put me in more of a forward leaning position that put undo stress on my lower back which sometimes gives me problems.  The Diamondback Edgewood Hybrid bike comes with shimano derailleur and 21 speed drivetrain that worked smoothly from the first time I took to the road.  I do get the shifting and brake cables adjusted annually as part of my maintenance routine.  Note that this bike does not come with a kick stand.  So be prepared to purchase one.

The one mistake I made when purchasing this bike, and it had nothing to do with the bike itself, was to chose a large frame instead of a medium frame which would have been more suited to my height.  At the time I thought I was 5′ 9 1/2″ tall and the large frame  was built for someone 5′ 10″ and taller.  However, after a recent hospial visit I was measured at 5′ 8 1/2″ which made this decision worse.  So I felt I was between sizes and the macho man in me said go big or go home.  So I chose the large frame.  Turns out when chosing a bicycle size does matter.  With my feet flat on the ground there is no clearance between me and the crossbar so I have learned to slide my feet out of the toe clips very quickly.  However, since purchasing the bike in May 2015, I have ridden over 2,500 miles with no problems.  It is a solid bike and I would highly recommend it to the casual rider.  I was so confident in this bike that I road it on my first bicycle touring adventure which I will begin to chronicle in my next blog.

I’m No Lance Armstong

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New River Gorge Bridge

I never had a need for speed when cycling as if I were in the middle of a peleton on the final leg of the Tour de France while wearing the yellow jersey.  I ride for exercise, enjoyment of the surrounding scenery, and to have time to clear my head.  The only sounds I want to hear are the wind blowing past my ears and the sound of my tires meeting the pavement.

I became a serious rider when my job took me to the New River Gorge area near Lansing, West Virginia.  Riding in this mountainous area, at least in my mind, required that I have a mountain bike, although I did not do much off-road cyling.   I bought a 21-speed Specialized Hard Rock mountain bike and it served me well for many years and several thousand miles.

Later my work took me to Charleston, West Virginia, and along with a co-worker who was an avid rider, I began riding around Charleston after work and on weekends.  We would ride anywhere from 15 to 25 miles each time we went out.  By the way, Charleston is a great place to ride and is becoming more bike friendly.  After riding for several months my co-worker challenged me to ride my age, in miles, during the week of my birthday which was something he had been doing for years.  I had never done any long distance cycling but accepted the challenge and rode 55 miles in about 4 hours.  I kept this challenge the following year after moving to South Carolina and rode my age on that birthday.  While I still ride hundreds of miles a year I have not kept up that challenge.  But as I will describe in a later blog I came up with another way to challenge myself and move outside my cycling comfort zone.

Don’t Jump in Feet First

bikinglowcountryMy thoughts about “Keep Moving” primarily refers to physical activities that provide health benefits, refresh the mind, body, and soul, and add to the overall enjoyment of our retirement years.  If you have a desire to participate in athletic events such as senior softball, pickleball, tennis, bicycling, or even ballroom dancing, and you have avoided physical activity for years I highly recomment getting a physical to get a doctor’s blessing before beginning some type of physical activity.  Then begin a training or excercise program for a month or two to reintroduce your body to its younger self.  It is not uncommon to see someone come onto a field with no training, injure themselves and then spend weeks recovering.  That can be demoralizing.  Early training will not prevent injuries but will greatly improve your chances to keep playing at a higher level. Even college and professional athletes undergo training camps to get themselves in to playing shape.  We must remember that while our mind will tell us we can do things we did when we were 18, our bodies have the final say.