Scrapes & Scratches, But No Crashes

Published: July 24th 2007
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Up In The CloudsUp In The CloudsUp In The Clouds

The view from atop Shenandoah Mountain after an hour or two of climbing.
We were halfway up Hankey Mountain, and I was gaining on Liz as she mashed up the hill in her granny gear. I, on the other hand, was in walking gear; pushing my singlespeed Gary Fisher Rig up the mountain. As I squeezed my helmet against my head with one hand, and watched the sweat drip out of my helmet pads, I remembered what one singlespeed blogger had posted,

“I ride singlespeed because I like walking uphill.”

Liz & I had committed to pre-riding as much of the Shenandoah 100 as we could in one weekend. But what with jobs and families, we couldn’t leave until early, early Saturday morning. By 4:30 A.M. we had two mountain bikes loaded atop my Honda Element, we were headed for the I-64 tunnel, and I was finishing off a mug of oatmeal while Liz nursed her cup of coffee. Just a few hundred feet past the last exit before the tunnel, Liz turned to me and said, “Ah shoot, I forgot my sleeping bag!”

“Uh oh,” I replied, “We could turn around-“

“No, no. Just go. We’ll figure something out.”

So we rolled on, figuring that somehow we’d pick up a sleeping bag somewhere for Liz. We were planning on camping somewhere near the start of the Shenandoah 100 in Stokesville, Virginia. We had just enough time to make our 8:30 rendezvous at the iron bridge with Blair and Hurley, two other equally masochistic flatlanders. What the plan was from there, we weren’t really sure.

I had spent most of my lunch hours for a week pouring over digital topo maps, trying to plot GPS coordinates for the race course. Blair had visited the local bike shop to get info on the route, and we figured we’d probably be able to muck our way around the course without making too many mistakes. Liz though had predicted, “we’re gonna make some wrong turns out there.” And she was right.

Fifty miles down the road we made a quick detour to a Wal-Mart, where Liz decided against buying the “Diva Sleeping Bag.” (I pointed out that true divas would only be found dead in a sleeping bag.) My GPS unit helpfully told us that we were “Off Route. Recalculating.” But within a few more minutes we were back on the highway, watching the sun rise in the rear view mirror.

We pulled up to the iron bridge in Stokesville a few minutes before Blair & Hurley came down the hill, and soon after we were climbing Dividing Ridge towards Shenandoah Mountain. Blair and Hurley led on the hardest climbs, while Liz and I pressed on behind. As the climb steepened, I stopped for a gear change, swapping my 20T Surly singlespeed rear cog for a 23T cog that I had cracked out of a Hyperglide cassette. While I’ve got a Boone Titanium 24T singlespeed cog on order, it’s still months away. So every couple of miles the short teeth and ramps on the Hyperglide cog would conspire with a bump to throw my chain, forcing me to stop and reset it. Right then & there I decided that one way or another, I’d have a true singlespeed cog for the real ride. If Boone doesn’t get my cog done in time, I’ll just have to order a Surly cog from East Coast Bikes.

Liz, Hurley and Blair watched incredulously the first time I flipped my bike over for a gear change. “Have you thought about using gears?” Blair asked as I slipped the cog off and adjusted my eccentric bottom bracket.

“Yeah, but you’ve gotta understand, it’s just more stuff to break. And I’ve got a kid at home- I just can’t afford to be busting a bunch of stuff that isn’t even designed for someone my size.”

One of these days, I’d love to see Clydesdale-rated bike gear. I want to see saddles, seatposts and drivetrains that are actually designed for riders weighing more than two hundred pounds. Heck, Campangolo recently issued a service notice that their components should not be used by riders weighing more than 165 pounds. 16 spoke, lightweight wheels are all good and fine for skinny-ass girly men, but I’ve got no place on them.

So a singlespeed bike is a way for me to minimize the amount of stuff I can break. I don’t have to worry about snapping a derailleur cage or busting a shifter. Nope, it’s just me and my eccentric bottom bracket out there. I registered for the Shenandoah 100 in the Singlespeed category, but I’m not sure how they’ll treat en route gear changes. Is it still singlespeed if I’m packing more than one gear, but only running one at a time? I dunno, but if anyone objects they can kick me out of the SS category.

The climbs were as long as and challenging as I thought- probably 6,000 feet of climbing all told. Saturday we climbed Shenandoah Mountain, but made a navigational error and ended up descending a trail that was in some respects probably more challenging that the race course. We dropped off the ridge on a trail overgrown with bramble thickets. There were several long stretches of minor rock gardens. On a maintained trail the rocks would have been of little consequence- just pick up some speed and float over them. But with visibility limited to twenty feet at best, it was just too sketchy to blow through blind sections of trail fast enough to float over the rocks. There was no telling what was beyond the next bramble patch- maybe a turn, maybe a tree, maybe a cliff. Still, I took the lead on the descent Saturday, trusting in my superior mass and wheel size to clear the obstacles on the descent. With probably a 50%!w(MISSING)eight advantage on everyone else, and my 29” wheels, I was able to generate enough momentum to roll over most everything along the way.

When I came to the creekbed at the bottom of the ridge, I laid my bike down and clambered out over the dry rocks to find the biggest patch of sky overhead. By the time Blair, Hurley & Liz had come down the mountain I had already made a GPS fix and determined that we were not where we expected to be. We were only a couple miles from camp, but on the other side of the ridge. We were lucky enough to still get a good climb in on the way back to camp for a grand total of 30 miles and almost four hours of suffering.

The next day brought more climbing and more pain. Hurley & Blair split off the front on Hankey Mountain, leaving Liz & I to make our way down into East Augusta, where we were able to top off our water bottles and buy some real food. As we were getting ready to go a couple rolled in on mountain bikes, and we chatted for a few minutes. He was riding a Surly 1x1 fixie, and claimed to be thinking about entering the Shenandoah 100 on a fixie tandem. Well, more power to him…

As Liz & I reached the beginning of the climb out of Ramsey’s Draft, Hurley came down the trail, telling us that he’d slid off the mountain, banging up his hip in the process. While Hankey Mountain had a good bit of soft off-camber sections on the descent, the “Rock House” was just that- rock. The off-camber sections went on for what seemed like miles, with stones skittering down the precipitous hillside beneath our feet. Liz was grinding her granny gear through the rock gardens, while I was just behind her, pushing my bike along. Sometimes we’d both be out of the saddle and on our feet for another patch of “hike a bike.” Occasionally I’d get a breather on a shallower section by actually getting in the saddle and riding. Finally we made it over the mountain and began our descent into Braley Pond. I headed down in front of Liz, and although it was tempting to just bomb it down the mountain, I held up every half mile or so until I saw Liz. While I had no doubt in her technical skills, I also had no desire to have to climb back up any more trail than I had to in the event that Liz didn’t make it down to the bottom, not given the hot spots on my feet. I like Liz & all, but I ain’t gonna blister my feet for her, hiking up a couple of miles of mountain to figure out why she never made it to the bottom.

Having just about worn out my old Diadoras, and desperate for a pair of bike shoes that actually fit my size 14 feet (Euro 48), I finally gave up on mail ordering pairs of shoes that inevitably didn’t fit and instead gave a call to the guys at Rocket 7 . Their shoes are second to none, and they actually carry my size. Like any good footwear, worn components can be replaced over time. But the solid carbon fiber sole and heel cup were doing a number on my feet, rubbing up a few hotspots. In a few more weeks I’ll have broken them in, but I ended up adding duct tape patches to my feet in order to minimize the friction. My Rocket 7’s are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever biked in, but while the carbon fiber sole transmits all my Clydesdale power straight to the pedals, there’s not much flex for walking. Ah well…

When Liz and I made it back to camp at the end of our 40 mile loop, we collapsed next to the smoldering firepit with the last two beers from the cooler. Then after hitting the showers we headed back to the flatlands, much more confident in our ability to finish the Shenandoah 100. While I wasn't worried about the physical demands of riding for dozen hours or so, I've been more doubtful about my technical abilities. But although I dabbed a half dozen times, I never crashed (unlike a couple of my more experience riding partners). So I think I've got the skills to finish the race. It’ll be painful, but it’ll also be fun.


26th July 2007

Have you thought of having your head examined.
If I had known that 10 months of lugging you - eight months of nursing - countless trecks to the emergency room and endless hours of listening to you would end up with riding mindlessly up mountains I don't know if I would have done it. There must be something in this that I don't understand.
1st August 2007

what fun
Had a great time in the mts that wkend. I still think the "not wanting to break stuff" reasoning for a SS is odd! Tell me there are better reasons than that, please!!
6th August 2007

"Not Wanting to Break Stuff"
Liz, you've dogged me in the past for having so many mechanicals that I figured you'd understand why I'd want to avoid any unnecessary repairs in the first place...less stuff to break means less money out of my pocket, and consequently less anxiety on the trail!

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