Finding your way by losing the trail

The Year of the Century: Ride 3

Place: Boyce, Virginia
Ride: Festivus Frolic
December 8, 2012

December is always a crazy time of year for me.  Not really because of the whole Christmas thing, because we don’t tend to get sucked into much of that madness. Christmas presents for those overseas need to be mailed early so we tend to get it done early.  So the whole Christmas shopping frenzy is a bit of a mystery.  Although this did give rise to one of our treasured holiday traditions which is to go out on or near Christmas Eve to a nearby mall, buy a holiday-themed Starbucks drink, find a comfy chair, and delight in the schaadenfreude of everyone else who left their shopping until the last minute.  Someone else’s toddler and/or spousal meltdowns never get old.  The two of us don’t tend to get presents for one another, mainly because we are so very good at getting presents for ourselves.  And we especially don’t get presents for one another when we’ve just bought a new car.  I know, very un-American, showing some restraint during the holiday season.

The holiday season tends to be a blur because I’m finishing up classes for one semester, reading final projects from my students, submitting final grades, and trying to get everything organized to teach the next semester starting in only a few short weeks.  Oh, and trying to make some headway with all the research and committee work I’ve put off because of teaching.  This is the rhythm of my the academic life; about as inconvenient (but a lot less productive) than the rhythm method of contraception.  One of the inevitable casualties is my birthday, which falls right in the middle of the chaos; rare is it that I get a chance to celebrate on my natal day.

So all of that explains why I was heading out into the wilds of northern Virginia with friends for a ride that was in part a birthday celebration, on a day that was nowhere near my birthday.  The dearth of outdoor riding activities during the month of December in any state of the union apart from California and Hawaii meant that very early in my campaign I decided that it would be best to keep this one local.  Riding weather is typically still pretty good in the DelMarVa area in December, so I was pretty confident we could get something in.  With my partner’s help we put together a route around one of our favorite areas in VA that would give us some familiar terrain, but also something a little new.

We met in the carpark of the Boyce Elementary school, and initially it was all a little strange.  I couldn’t figure out why at first but then I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time that I had done a casual,  small group ride (as opposed to a large ride with the team or a solo effort.  There was Mary,  of course (although of course there was no “of course” about it; I certainly didn’t force her to come) and then a few of the people with whom I’ve shared some biking fun over the years.

Festivus Frolic Start

The Frolickers: Jason, Julie, Tim, Mary, and Phil

Team Z uses this start location on occasion, but we almost always head South.  Mary had mapped out a ride that would take us North, just over the border into the panhandle of West Virginia, across roads that we hadn’t visited before.  The temperature was nippy, in the high 30s when we started, but we soon warmed up.  Like most of this area, the terrain was very gentle with less than 3,000 feet of elevation gain over the entire century route.  We were still treated to some lovely views and a couple of sprightly descents, however.

It was on one of these descents, in fact, that we were having so much fun that we missed a turn.  It wasn’t immediately obvious that we had done so, although we all had our suspicions.  But the route we ended up on was just gorgeous; a narrow road that paralleled the Shenandoah river at a point where the bottom was shallow enough to lend the water a distinctive hazel color, while broad enough to provide a restful vista of water that appeared barely to be moving.  We passed a row of houses on this out of the way road; holiday homes or permanent residents we couldn’t tell, but the view that those people had from their front porch made me want to go up and make them an offer on the spot.

Then the road ran out.  Or rather the civilized road ran out. The asphalt ended and we were riding on dirt.  Then on gravel.  At that point we finally decided to admit the reality of being lost and retrace our steps.  Because gravel roads are, quite thoughtlessly, generally not designed with road bikes in mind.

So we turned and ambled back along the riverbank until we found the turn that we missed.  Where we stopped.  And conferred.  And checked our cue sheets.  And got out multiple iPhones and checked the map.  Because the road we should have taken was gravel (see part above about road bikes and gravel).  But we all just put on our best “just pretend we’re biking through the Ardennes” faces and got on with it.

We did finally get back on pavement, but to get there we had to ride up a short but very steep gravel climb, so steep that even though I had all my weight over the back wheel it was still slipping.  Then we got lost again.  But you know, no one minded.  Because the more you bike, the more you understand that it isn’t about distance or even the route: it is about being on the bike.  More specifically, it is about taking yourself to new places on the bike.  Sometimes that can happen on an old familiar route that where you test yourself in new ways; sometimes it happens when you get lost and end up in a place you don’t expect.

One of the virtues of a multiple loop route was that anyone not crazy enough to be wanting to ride a century in December (which is to say, almost everyone), could pick any one of a number of distances.  So near the end of the first loop we lost Jason and Julie.  The remaining four of us grabbed some supplies at the Locke Store at Millwood and then headed out for more.

The remaining riders headed south, on one of my favorite routes that takes you down to an often flooded ford across the Shenandoah.  On this ride I was also experimenting with the new Contour camera I bought to document some of the bigger rides later in the year (playing around with mountings, testing field of view, etc.).  And in this clip, where we hit a fast downhill to the river, you can see a lot of what I love about riding in this area, even in winter: the thick carpets of fallen leaves, the stark silhouettes of the trees, the soft light, the narrow winding roads, the deceptively placid swathe of the Shenandoah.

A rolling ride up the other side of the river eventually led us back to our starting point where Tim and I restocked and then said goodbye to Mary (temporarily) and Phil.  We rode south again but then looped west instead of east.  Tim and I rode pretty well until about the 90 mile mark when we both began to feel tired and not a little sore.  By mutual agreement we both backed off the pace, soft-pedaled for a while and just chatted: about training for Placid (him, not me, thank God), the upcoming Death Valley ride and training for that, bikes and equipment, the usual passing-the-time chatter of riders everywhere.

Mary had waited for us, and once we were all changed and packed up we headed down the road to the real reason why Mary and I chose to ride out here: the Locke General Store.  The Locke Store (confusingly located in Millwood) was one of our earliest biking finds.  Years ago, when Mary and I were rank noobs and had no idea how to dress for various conditions, we found ourselves on a long (for us then) 50 mile ride, cold, and wet, and hating every minute of us.  We rode through Millwood, saw the Locke store, and then just ducked in initially to keep warm.  We were delighted to find that they had coffee.  Then we noticed they had cookies.  Then we noticed they had very good cookies.  And there was soup.  And quiche.  And salads.  We ordered some stuff.  And it wasn’t just good; it was damn good.  What was a gourmet food place doing out in the middle of nowhere?

Since then, the Locke store has been the reward at the end of many a ride and while the menu changes regularly the quality of the food does not.  It is always tasty and innovative without being flashy, and it has always filled the cavern in the center of your gut at the end of a long ride.  So today, once again, we treated ourselves to a well-deserved nosh, as the sun began to disappear.

Locke Store

The real reason for riding 100 miles.

So many thanks to the motley crew who helped keep the century streak alive and made this a birthday celebration to remember.

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