Sweet and Nasty

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!

Re-setting

Cognitive Re-setting

Some people recently gave us jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles are a torment. They lie there on a table, unfinished mocking our puny little brains. Yesterday I put the finishing touches to a 1000-piece puzzle that my wife, daughter, and I started over the weekend. Something happened, more than once, during the solving that is intriguing to me.

Late one Saturday evening when I was in college, I was grinding away at some calculus homework. I liked math in school because I regarded it as solving puzzles. This particular day I was making good progress when I hit a wall. I looked at a problem had simply could not figure out how to solve it. After a half hour of frustration I quit. That night I went out and partied. The next day I woke up with a hangover, rolled out of bed, and looked at the calculus problem laid out on my desk. The solution came to me instantly. I sat down and knocked off the rest of the problem set without the slightest difficulty. Somehow, over the course of the previous 15 or 16 hours my brain had re-set.

Over the years I have become a daily crossword puzzle solver. The same re-setting process happens all the time. I’ll get to a point in the solving when noting seems to come to mind, or worse, I know the answer but can’t retrieve it from my brain. (I think this is called presque vu.) If I put the puzzle down, and come back to it an hour later, the answer, more often than not, pops into my head.

The same thing happened when solving the jigsaw puzzle. On Sunday night I hit a wall. I couldn’t fit one more piece. On Monday, the pieces started falling onto place. Then I got stuck again with 75 pieces to go. Off to bed. The next day, all the pieces seemed to fall into place, literally and figuratively. (Oddly, since I was making a picture, literally and figuratively mean pretty much the same thing.)

Cinque Terre jigsaw puzzle complete. (One piece is missing but I found it on the floor after taking this picture.)

Is there some neurological explanation for this sort of re-setting?

Infrastructure Re-setting

Whenever I see pictures of bicycling infrastructure in The Netherlands I get envious. They build beautiful bridges and inter-city highways for bikes there. We have some decent trails in the DC area. In fact, I can pick up a trail near my home and ride with only minor on-road interruption to the eastern front of the Blue Ridge Mountains all on paved trails. Most of the route is along the Washington and Old Dominion Regional Trail, a very popular resource in these parts. The trail is along an old railroad right of way that has frequent, at-grade street crossings. One of the more dangerous at-grade crossings is at U.S. 29 near the Arlington/Falls Church border. This also happens to be one of the busier crossings on the trail. A few days ago, a new bridge was built over the crossing. They did this one right. Instead of doing things on the cheap, the designers built us one splendid looking bridge. In addition to looking fab, it has a concrete surface, attractive side barriers, and lighting. And its WIDE.

The Mule approves of the new W&OD Trail bridge.

Re-setting Winter

Winter in the northern hemisphere runs from December 21 to March 21. Meteorological winter in DC runs from December 1 to the end of February. As far as weather people are concerned, we’re in spring now. Last week we had a string of days with temperatures in the 70s F bookended by a couple of 60-degree days. Freed of my cumbersome winter riding gear, I gleefully rode 228 miles. Then reality hit and temperatures dropped back into the 40s and 50s. A month ago these temperatures wouldn’t have bothered me at all; I’d just put on layers and go for a ride. Now, having had a taste of the good life, I have retreated to the basement.

Even the neighborhood Bernie is having a hard time re-setting to winter. Her put one some earmuffs.

Bernie making the best of a false start at Spring. Pink is his favorite color.

Trails to home

Today was the first day since the before times that we allowed our bi-weekly cleaning service back into our house. This meant that my wife and I didn’t have to spend a good part of the day cleaning. It also meant that we needed to get out of the cleaners’ way. Normally, we would go to a diner then a library. With that off the table (or booth) my wife made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. “Why don’t we drive someplace, I’ll drop you off and you can ride your bike home?”

Sounds like a plan to me.

So we jumped in my dusty Accord and drove to Purcellville, Virginia at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I would ride east 45 miles on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail back to Arlington. There I’d pick up the Four Mile Run Trail for a couple of miles before turning south on the Mount Vernon Trail.

With the pandemic still in evidence, the drive to the start was uneventful. I left my wife to check out the bakery at the trailhead. (Thumbs up on the eclairs, she reports.)

I expected the ride to be mostly downhill. It is. Purcellville is at 575 feet whereas the low point of the ride near National Airport is at 15 feet. Of course there are a few long grades both up and down along the way, as well as a few abrupt rollers to keep things interesting.

What I wasn’t counting on was the headwind. Having an invisible hand on my chest put a damper on my speed. I did do a few miles at 18 to 20 miles per hour but not as many as I had hoped.

The trails were not crowded at all, except for one group of eight old folks out for a meander. Old people suck. Oh, wait….

Anyway, a few minutes delay is not much to complain about.

I had two small energy bars left over from my 50-States Ride goodie bag. That’s all I ate. I was surprised that I didn’t bonk. I also drank two large water bottles. Maybe my modest intake is to blame for the cramps that came on during my post-ride stenosis physical therapy session.

Outside Purcellville I saw a momma and a young deer. They were too shy to be photographed. Later I saw a Dad with his daughter examining a box turtle that had inched onto the trail. My final critter of the day was a rather large groundhog that was standing at attention a foot off the trail in Vienna. It seemed not the least bit concerned about me as I rode past.

The trees are turning. I had hoped for more reds but today offered more browns and yellows. One big leaf decided to hitchhike on my front wheel causing a racket when it got stuck between my tire and fender.

I was sorely tempted by the breweries and brew pubs along the trail. There seems to be one every five miles or so. You could get a serious buzz on if you stopped at each one.

East of Vienna the trail is undergoing work. There’s a detour that I couldn’t quite figure out but once I got straightened away, I found it: a on-road protected cycletrack (two lanes, one in each direction). Well done. In Falls Church city, the trail is being doubled to accommodate traffic. (I wonder if people opposed the trail when it was being built, thinking nobody will use it. Can’t imagine what they’re thinking now.) The detour around the construction is on road and unprotected. There’s hardly any car traffic so no worries.

At the eastern end of the Falls Church construction is a new bridge that will take the trial over North Washington Street and do away with a dangerous at-grade crossing. It looks like the bridge is nearly done. It’ll be a huge improvement.

Back on the street near home, drivers weren’t allowing me to move over to make a left-hand turn. I kept riding straight and overshot my turn. Before doubling back I could see the line for early voting at the government center down the street. Yesterday the line extended nearly a half mile along the sidewalk. Today, it was considerably shorter but my wife says that’s because people were a bit more bunched together. These two days brought to mind the lines at the polling place on election day 2008 when the prospect of the first black president brought an incredible turnout.

It’s been a while since I did a point-to-point ride, the stuff of bike tours. DC-area trails are limited in coverage and connectivity but if you play your cards right you can ride 57 miles and do 54 1/2 of them without a big metal thing breathing down your neck. Not a bad way to avoid a cleaning crew if you ask me.