There are right ways and wrong ways to do a hilly bicycling event. I chose the latter.
On Friday night, I dined on a Texas chili mac with cheddar, beans, and onions, a true gut bomb. Saturday morning I ate shredded wheat for breakfast. Then I rode 15 miles to Nationals Park to take in a baseball game, my first since the before times. There I drank my June beers, two tall, bland, vastly overpriced lagers.
The Nats won and I left the ballpark happy. Well, most of me did. The combination of chili, shredded wheat, and beer was causing me intestinal distress that would make both a gastroenterologist and a volcanologist proud.
I made it home in one piece and felt a bit better after some time on the porcelain throne.
Fast forward to the wee hours of the morning. Rumblings within woke me and kept me awake all night. By six in the morning all was calm but I now had the brain fog of a sleeplessness to deal with.
After breakfast I rode The Mule six miles to Jones Point Park in Alexandria. The park is bisected by the massive Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Beneath the bridge was the starting point for the Washington Area Bicyclists Association Sweet Ride. I had chosen to do the 50-mile route despite the fact that the registration page warned that it was “a challenge” because it included 2,654 feet of climbing.
I have issues with climbing. Basically, I stink at it. I could get better if I rode up hills with some regularity, but my thinking is: why ruin a nice ride with pain?
The Sweet Ride route was merciful for the first ten miles, following flat streets and trails in Alexandria and Arlington before using the Mount Vernon Trail for a mile-long spin along the Potomac River.
Alas, the MVT ends at a switchback climb to the Martha Custis Trail. The Custis (nobody calls it the MCT for some reason) climbs out of the Rosslyn neighborhood for a mile or so. Then the “challenging” part begins.
The next nine miles traverses scenic (check out the landscaping, see the pretty Arts and Crafts McMansions) North Arlington. The hills seemed to go up forever until they plunged down to a stop sign, stealing riders of their reward for all that hard work going up. I was glad I had chosen The Mule for this event because it is equipped with a tiny granny gear that I purchased to climb over Monarch Pass in Colorado in 2019.
I stopped at a pit stop to refill a water bottle and say hello to Kristin, WABA’s development and acting managing director. I seem to see her only when I am zonked from riding. In any case it was the first time I’d seen her since 2019 so I didn’t mind the zonked part. That is until she said there would be more climbing in the miles ahead.
And there was.
Thank the gods for granny gears.
At least the neighborhoods were interesting and the traffic was light. At mile 10, I arrived on the Custis Trail again. This led to a somewhat confusing meander through the Ballston area. I briefly lived in this area in the mid to late 1980s. I proposed to my wife at the miniature golf course and took my sister for her first Mexican food meal at a tiny place in a small wood framed shop. Those places are gone, replaced by fancy townhouses and mid rise apartment and office buildings.
Most of the riders I encountered during the event were using GPS cue sheets. I am old school and had a paper cue sheet attached to my handlebars. I couldn’t keep up with the mod crowd because I had to stop and turn the page of my cue sheet booklet from time to time. Also, I am old and slow.
We connected to the Bluemont Trail which I haven’t ridden in 25 years. This led to the Washington and Old Dominion Trail which was packed with families enjoying the lovely weather. In short order I pulled into the pit stop in Bluemont Park where I was greeted by old friend, Ursula, another WABA person, and generally all around great human. Once again this was my first time seeing her since 2019.
I briefly chatted with a man named Adam who kidded me that he thought I should be riding “out in Montana somewhere.” For the life of me, I have no idea how he knew who I was. My broken fusiform gyrus once again was paying me a visit.
Just before I was to begin riding again, Ed Felkerino, randonneur extraordinaire and co-founder of Friday Coffee Club, appeared at my side as if out of the ether. We chatted briefly, He wasn’t doing the event, just out for a bike stroll, probably headed for Cafe Amouri in Vienna. Yet another person from the before times. Maybe if this keeps up I’ll start to feel less pandemicy sometime soon.
I rolled away on the W&OD to the city of Falls Church where the route wandered past all kinds of smaller but finely designed homes. By this point, my landscaping envy was through the roof. How the heck do these people get such awesome hydrangeas, enormous bushes with blossoms that look like cotton candy. Mine just dry out and die no matter how much I water them.
After a five-minute wait to cross six lanes of US 50, scourge of my ride across Nevada, I found myself in the Lake Barcroft section of Fairfax County. Dang this is nice! I don’t think I had ever been through this area. Rolling hills and curving roads, not to mention the lake, made me not care too much about my now-all-but-dead legs.
Out of Lake Barcroft, the route traversed Bailey’s Crossroads and dropped onto the Holmes Run Trail. The last time I had used this entrance to the trail was in the Hoppy 100 ride. We descended to the trailhead in an absolute deluge. The trial runs along and across Holmes Run (run means creek in Virginia-speak). The downpour had caused the run to flood but we rode through the waters without harm. Today, without a recent downpour, some of the crossings were closed, evidence that this well intentioned trail is a bit of a mess.
The cue sheet said to take a left but it wasn’t clear to me that the left was the one that was directly in front of me or further on. I chose the latter and was wrong. I came out of Holmes Run about a quarter mile south of the route. The Google helped me remedy my error and I was back on track on the streets of Alexandria.
After a couple of easy miles, the streets led back to the Holmes Run Trail where I found the final pit stop, staffed by Anna, WABA’s events coordinator. The only time I ever seem to meet Anna is at pit stops, She’s now officially Pit Stop Anna. Anna informed me that the route has nearly the same elevation gain as the 50 States Ride. It sure felt like it but the 50 States gains about 3,041 feet in 60 miles compared to the 2,654 for this 50-mile ride. On a per mile basis, however, the Sweet Ride gains 53 feet of elevation per mile compared to 50 feet per mile for 50-States.
Anna is soon to be named WABA’s statistics coordinator.
The next several miles were along the trail and completely flat Eisenhower Avenue. I took a left on Mill Road and realized that the next few steps on the cue sheet didn’t work. Hmm. About a mile later I came to realize that Mill Road forms a U, curving back to Eisenhower; I had turned too soon.
No worries. I was now in the Carlyle neighborhood, familiar turf. The route took me up the final hill of the ride, a roughly mile-long incline on King Street headed west. I normally find this climb frustrating because it looks easy but it wears you out with its length. By this point though my legs didn’t much care. I just lowered my torso over the top tube, relaxed my arms and spun away.
The climb was followed by a lovely, curving downhill on Valley Drive through the Park Fairfax neighborhood. This led to the Four Mile Run Trail and blissful level ground. I took Commonwealth Avenue across Del Ray then continued through Old Town back to Jones Point Park.
At the finish, my starting place was now a pit stop for riders who had begun their ride at a second starting point five miles away in Crystal City. The stop was staffed by my friend Monica who seemed elated to learn that I was not passing through but had just finished the route. I was about to ride home when she asked me whether I wanted a vegan, vegetarian, or chicken lunch, I had forgotten that lunch was included in the registration fee.
The food came from Nandos. Lord did it hit the spot. This was the best ride food on a WABA ride in a long time. The grub included a wrap, a bag of chips, a brownie, and a Capri Sun. Sugary drinks taste like champagne after a long slog on a bike.
Other goodies for riders included a bandana with the pattern used on the cue sheet above and a black drawstring bag from Nandos.
After lunch it was time to call it a day. I rode the six miles home on autopilot. I arrived home weary and ready to watch the end of the Nats game on TV, (They won 5-0.)
This was my first Sweet Ride. I missed the first three because of bike tours and the pandemic. Today’s ride makes WABA’s return to more or less normal ride protocols. Aside from masks being worn at pit stops, this seemed like old times.
A final note: I wore my blue 2014 50-states ride shirt today. That year I did a ride with a bunch of 50-States rookies. One of those rookies, my friend Emilia, completed the ride with defective gearing. She didn’t have her lowest gears but managed to ride the distance anyway. (She rode it again with a properly geared bike and kicked my butt.) She proudly held up her shirt at the finish party. I call the shirt my Emilia shirt.
Emilia, who is normally the picture of health, recently had a medical emergency. She posted a couple of pictures on social media of her in a wheel chair. I was pretty upset to see her like this. (It serves me right because I have posted pictures of me in states of medical duress in the past which have resulted in reprimands from friends and family.) After a few days, she contacted me and said she is home from the hospital and on the mend. Get well soon, amiga. The 50-States Ride is in three months!