I have two cycling friends who do brevets. These are something like a cross between and ultra-marathon foot race and an auto road rally, except that they are done on bicycles. People who do brevets are call randonneurs, although for some reason I prefer randonistas. The distances they ride are either appalling or inspiring and are typically measured in terms of hundreds of kilometers. In a weekend. There is a brevet that goes from Boston to Montreal and back. Most people wouldn’t be willing to drive that distance but randonistas do these sorts of things all the time. For fun. So they say. My friend Gersemalina seems to do most of her brevets as the stoker (back seat) on a tandem captained (front seat) by her husband Felkerino. (We here at the Rootchopper Institute heart noms de guerre.) Gersemalina does most of the work. (She paid me to say that.) These two stout-hearted wheelpersons are going to do Paris-Brest-Paris this summer. This is the mother of all brevets. The Super Roll, if you will.
For some reason I find her tales of riding these inspiring. So inspiring that it dawned on me that I had never ridden a century (100 miles) on a conventional (non-recumbent) bike. Last Saturday, after reading the paper and downing a pot of coffee, I decided to rectify this situation. I left the house at 10 am on a warm but pleasant day. I decided to ride to White Ferry, Maryland on the C&O Canal towpath, cross the Potomac on the ferry and return on the W&OD Trail.
Just before I came to the canal, I encountered a bike rider loaded down with all kinds of stuff. I asked him where he was headed and he responded abruptly with one word: “Maine”. Then he rode off, heading toward Rock Creek Park. He managed to make it about 200 yards before turning towards “Pittsburgh” which I am pretty sure is not in “Maine”. I caught up to him and straightened him out. By now he’s probably in North Carolina.
I made my way to the towpath and started the grind to White’s Ferry, about 35 miles away. (As the crow flies it’s probably only 30 miles but the river goes whatever damn way it wants to, and straight it ain’t.) Near Great Falls I came upon an all too familiar site, storm damage. Every ten years or so, the Potomac River floods. Waters, pinched between cliffs, can rise dozens of feet, especially in this area. This Spring’s flood carried away a chunk of the hill side that the towpath passes over. The Park Service was kind enough to put in a detour that was easily ridden. It will likely take years to fix this. Congress doesn’t like to appropriate money to such things. Better to spend it on subsidies for rutabaga growers.
After about 15 miles I stopped to chat with a young couple looking a little testy on the side of the trail. They were coming from Pittsburgh, the entire way on unpaved trails. I congratulated them on being so close to the end of their journey and continued on. They managed a smile as I rode off. Stiff upper lip, you two.
Another five miles into my travels I encountered two men of a certain age. They were coming from the far end of the canal in Cumberland Maryland. They had already ridden over 150 miles, much of it through mud. If it bothered them, they sure weren’t showing it. They were having a blast, even with bikes caked in dirt. Their mud worries were a thing of the past, as I assured them it was dry all the way to DC.
On I cycled taking in the green all around, listening to the birds, enjoying the river views and listening to the constant crunch of tires on the path. The C&O is a very pleasant place to ride but, if you ride it far enough, you’ll learn that it is a grind. Rocks, tree routes, ruts from service vehicles all make for an honest day’s work. Gliding is not allowed; you’ll slow to a stop in 30 yards if you do.
A canoe slid by at one point in the quiet waters of the canal. A dog sat between the paddlers. It ignored its instincts to chase every little critter that moved. Spoiled by Milk Bones.
Some parts of the canal are covered by pond scum. In its way, pond scum has a beauty of its own. This particular stretch reminded me of Dead Man’s Pond, a refuge of my Albanian childhood now filled in by evil adults who could not appreciate its importance to 10 year old kids bored beyond belief by too much summer vacation.
In another section of the canal, a gaggle of kayakers were paddling to and fro. I like kayaks but this seemed a little confined. Kayaks are like bikes in that they are meant for exploration. Penning them up in a canal defeats their central purpose. Free the kayaks!
On I rode. On I pedaled. Gliding I did not. Bugs swam on my sunscreened arms. I wondered what SPF dead bugs were rated at. I pondered the possibility that I was covered in deer ticks carrying Lyme Disease. Ah nature!
After several hours in my linear sanctuary, I made it to Whites Ferry. The ferry was unloading cars on the far side of the Potomac so I had time to use the restroom. As I was about to enter, three women came out and headed for their bikes parked nearby. In short order I learned that they were headed for Pittsburgh. They were clean and smiling. They had not yet faced the mudfest that awaits way out west. Good luck, m’ladies. May the bugs leave you be, may the rains pass you by. Tailwinds.
I’ve taken the cable ferry across the river a dozen times. It’s always a treat, despite the smell of diesel and the chug of the engines. The ride is so smooth it feels little different than standing still. It’s hard to believe that this years’ floods carried the ferry boat far down river. A couple of times in the distant past, flood waters reached the second floor of the white building in the picture.
Once on the Virgina side, my unpaved grind came to an end. I was on asphalt for the second half of my trip. A few miles of roads led me to the W&OD trail in Leesburg. I took a left and started pumping. I had a tailwind now but the heat of the day was upon me and, unlike the towpath, the shade was more miss than hit. I came upon a new highway project involving the placing of huge steel beams over the trail. Another highway to support the sprawl of metropolitan DC. What a shame. These used to be fields of crops when the trail was first built,
Twenty miles from home I came to the Beltway. It, too, was under construction. This somehow seems to be its natural state. The construction involved widening the Beltway which meant that the trail bridge across the highway had to be longer. Out with the old (straight ahead in the photo), in with the new (on the left).
The second half of the ride featured many stops for fluids (in and out) and snacks. The one thing I truly hate about cycling is bonking. It’s the equivalent of hitting the wall in running. Unlike running, your legs are not beaten to smithereens by the pavement so you often don’t see the bonk coming. When it hits, you lose all energy in your legs. You eyelids become heavy. You legs turn to lead, You start to yawn. My Anatomy has had enough and is taking over for Mr. Brain. Fortunately the bonk can be averted by frequent oral intake of high quality foods such as Klondike Bars, soft pretzels, hot dogs, cookies, Pepsi, and such. Fueled by this nutritionists nightmare (hey, I actually ate an apple so cut me some slack), I managed to plod through the last few miles, even going out of my way to climb a big hill near my house that I could easily have avoided.
When I got home I looked down and saw 101.00. Mission Accomplished. Did I feel all pumped up with an inspirational sense of accomplishment? Yes. Did every effing muscle in my body want to kill me in my sleep? Mais oui!. For the next several days, in fact. Luckily, they were all too tired to pull off the assault, It’s now been three days and I feel recovered, more or less. We’re out of Oreos and Ho Ho’s. I don’t know if they helped my muscles but they felt pretty damned good going down.
A tip of my Ho Ho to Gersemalina and Felkerino. Bon chance en France.