So begins the Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities, and so describes a bike ride that could be similarly titled A Tale of Three Towns and Two Civil War Battlefields, but that will probably live in my heart forever as A Tale of the First Time I Bonked.
I had been notified about a month ago that I would be sent to Winchester, VA for a client in early December. One of the first things I did was to start researching a bike route through the area. I put out a request to the good folks of RABA(.org) to give me some ideas, and I hunted through Strava's segments to find the best options around.
One area that specifically appealed to me was exploring the 'rails to trails' options that just really don't exist in Richmond. These are old rail-beds that have been converted to multi-use pathways. They are typically completely closed to motor vehicles and provide miles of uninterrupted recreational access, and there are two within a quick jaunt from Winchester: the C&O Canal Towpath and the W&OD Trail. The unpaved C&O Canal Towpath seemed intriguing because it would allow me to explore Harper's Ferry, WV, a place I'd always heard about but never seen. I was concerned about road-tires on an unpaved surface, but I'd seen enough pictures of people on road bikes to allay any real concerns. Plus, I have wider 28 tires on my winter bike, so I figured any bumps would be better absorbed.
And since I would be near Harper's Ferry, it was suggested that I take in Antietam National Battlefield.
So I put together a route that would take me from Shepherdstown, WV to Antietam, down through Gathland State Park to Brunswick, MD, along the towpath to Harper's Ferry, and then back to Shepherdstown. All told, 46.6 miles @ ~2200 feet of climbing. Should be do-able in about 2.5 hours of riding.
I planned to do a bit of shopping in Harper's Ferry, so I took a saddlebag, and with the daylight fading early, I took my big light. I also mounted up the GoPro, an extra jacket, a heavier hat, gel-packs, water, extra tools, and planned to use the phone-mount on the bike stem to navigate, rather than going off cue sheets. The bike was pretty loaded down, but has much friendlier gearing than the race bike, so I wasn't too worried about the weight.
I left Richmond at 9am, intending to hit the trail from Shepherdstown at noon, pick up lunch in Brunswick, and meander my way up the towpath in time to be back at the car before the sun set.
That is not what happened.
The drive up was relatively uneventful, but I didn't make it to Shepherdstown until 12:30, and what I expected to be a sleepy little mountain town was teeming with life, so there would be no back-seat changing in the car. That meant I didn't get on the road until almost 1pm, which put me at risk of losing the sun before I even turned a pedal.
Once I got rolling, though, the weather was perfect at 52-degrees, the sun was shining, and the bike was performing flawlessly. The ride to Antietam was a nice warm-up, and Antietam itself was breath-taking. I got off, took some pics, and explored around the area a bit.
Then I discovered a little gem of a descent that got the bike over 40mph for the first time ever. Whee!
The route from Antietam to Gathland was fantastic. There were challenging climbs, great descents, long (long) climbs, and almost no traffic. And the views! Mountains and valleys and rivers and miles and miles of beautiful countryside.
But the world changed when I made the final turn to Gathland State Park. I knew I had a big climb ahead, so I stopped and took an energy gel and a bunch of water, but almost from the first pedal-stroke I got that feeling...that feeling that either a tire is low on pressure or my body isn't up to the task. The tires looked fine.
I mashed and pushed and powered through and finally found myself on the steep stuff. With no pride on the table, I let the little ring do the work and forced every pedal stroke to the top, and I very nearly puked when I got there. The big spike in the map up there? That's the climb to Gathland. It's a beast, and it came at the end of 1600' of climbing on the day up to that point.
But I had made it, and I knew the route well enough to know that it was mostly downhill from there for the rest of the day. Woohoo!
And holy crap the ride down! 45.7mph on the Garmin--the fastest I have ever been on 2 wheels.
Another several miles of quick running on gentle rollers brought me into Brunswick, MD, where I stopped for coffee at Beans in the Belfry, a neat old church that had been converted into an even neater new coffee shop. There was a group of bluegrass players in one corner jamming out, and though I
probably definitely SHOULD have eaten lunch, I realized it was almost 3pm, and I still wanted to do Sunday afternoon shopping in Harper's Ferry. I had to skeedaddle.
That brought me to the C&O Canal Towpath, what should have been the easiest run in the history of easy runs. 20-ish miles of 0.1% climbing on packed, small-stone gravel. Fuck the towpath: it is horrible.
Up to this point, my average speed on the day had been 17.5mph. Not blazing fast, but I had done some pretty epic climbing.
I could barely get the bike to 17.5mph on the towpath. I saw 18 for a few glorious minutes, but that just wasn't maintainable. My arms were shaken, my phone flew off the bike (for the first time ever), and the fenders were picking up debris. I was grateful to have to port the bike across the bridge to Harper's Ferry...which was awesome.
I scored a Strava KOM for my run up through town, and in spite of the late hour, did manage to get just a bit of shopping done (along with buying the worst cup of coffee in recent memory). The views were awesome, but again: that late hour thing. It was after 4pm when I got back on the towpath with 13 miles ahead of me. This should not have been risky, but I was starting to get a sense of foreboding.
While the sunset was pretty cool against the mountains ahead, and the deer in the middle of the path were neat to see, my body just wasn't working right any more. I stopped and ate my last energy gel, but saw no real improvement. Then I started feeling cold. Like really, really cold. This is not normally a problem because my heart is usually going at about 172bpm, more than enough to keep my body warm. And then I started paying more attention to the speedo...I was having trouble holding on to 15mph. Then 14mph. Then 13mph. Then I was out of the big ring. ON FLAT GROUND.
I pulled off and switched to my heavier jacket. I made it half a mile before I had to put on my heavier hat.
And I ran out of light.
And I was still MILES from anywhere on that endless towpath.
I switched on the big light and rolled on, now at just barely more than 10mph, in the small ring. Not 2 minutes later I came to a sign warning of "extreme danger to cyclists". There was a passage less than 2-feet across with a 10-foot vertical drop on one side and an iron railing on the other side. This passage was built of uneven stone slabs with tire-grabbing 30mm gaps running lengthwise down the center. Extreme danger indeed, and I was grateful to have that heavy light.
4 miles and 8 years later I saw the lights of Shepherdstown, and dead though I was, I climbed the switch-backs to the bridge like a champ, bolted across the bridge, and nearly cried when I made it to the car.
I cruised to the hotel on auto-pilot, ate a whole pizza, and started looking over data to see what had gone wrong.
Analysis of the whole ride shows a dramatic temperature drop @ 35 miles, along with a drop in average speed, power, and heart rate. Cadence drops correspond to downhill segments early in the ride, and breaks later in the ride. The breaks get really frequent @ ~40 miles.
Analysis of the first half of the towpath--heading toward Harper's Ferry. Speeds were relatively stable, heart-rate stayed near my afore-mentioned 170 rate, and breaks only happened a couple of times to take in the occasional view (for the most part, the promised views on the towpath didn't happen)
Analysis of the second half of the towpath--from Harper's Ferry to Shepherdstown. A precipitous drop in temperature is easy to see, but the real humdinger is the heart-rate chart. My body was no longer capable of getting that up to 170, or even 160 after mile 39.
I hit the wall, bonked, popped, whatever you want to call it at mile 38. There's a weird swooping dip in the heart rate that does not correspond to a stop, but does happen just after temps drop into the 30's. And from there you can see each time I stopped, my heart gave me a little less afterward. This was not just fatigue--I've done 60 and 75 mile rides with more climbing and been ok. This was physiological and systemic. I was literally unable to proceed.
Not eating lunch was a devastating decision. I tried to shave time to save the daylight, but ended up losing the time, the daylight, almost the will to live. And for almost every pedal-stroke from mile 35 to 45, there was not a soul around to help.
I hate the towpath with its exposed rocks & roots and limited access for help, but it was not the towpath that put me into that position--it was entirely my choices throughout the day. And because I know that, I still look back on the first half of the ride as being one of the best challenges I've ever taken on. And now, with a little more experience and wisdom, I don't suspect I'll fall into that kind of trap again.