Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ride Review: Devil's Wicked Stepmother 414k Permanent

Being somewhat of a wimp when it comes to riding in cold weather, I've traditionally hung out on my Computrainer until the trees are in bloom.  But, when I saw that early March would serve up a midweek day of 80 degrees and sunshine, I had to go big.  As Val Kilmer memorably put it, "it's a moral imperative."

The question was, what route to ride?  It's hard to get excited about routes leaving from D.C.; while pleasant enough, they're ridden so often that it feels more like a workout than an adventure.  The most appealing rides were in the Shenandoah Valley, but that was far enough away that I wanted to make the drive worth it.  Finally, with this year's focus on a couple of truly mountainous events, I wanted to climb.  Searching the RUSA permanents, the answer quickly became clear:  Crista Borras's 414k permanent known as "Devil's Wicked Stepmother."  With nearly 18,000 feet of climbing over 258 miles, it's a route that would be challenging at any time of year, much less in March.  But, the way I saw it, I could keep the pedals turning and finish eventually.  I guessed I might be able to finish it in around 18 hours, but who knew?  Only one person had ridden it previously, and given that I didn't recognize his name, I figured it might have prompted him to retire from cycling.

After an indecently early wake-up and drive from D.C., I rolled out from Strasburg, Virginia at 4:00 a.m.  One disadvantage to long rides early in the season is that the nights are long -- the first 2+ hours were ridden in the dark.  Riding west toward Moorefield, West Virginia, the climbing began almost immediately with a 1500-foot grinder.  But it was hard to keep my spirits down: the road surfaces were terrific, the sky was full of stars, and traffic was minimal (although what vehicles there were tended to be massive gasoline tankers, which were not much fun).  Unfortunately, although the overnight lows had been predicted to hover around 50, my GPS unit and various billboards showed that the actual temperature was in the high 30s for several hours, which was an entirely different ballgame -- my decision not to wear knee warmers was a misstep.  It's a lesson I seem to need to relearn periodically: weather forecasts do not apply in the mountains.

The first control, a Sheetz in Moorefield at mile 53, took longer to reach than I hoped it would; riding in the mountains at night is no recipe for speed.  After wolfing down a breakfast burrito the size of my head, I turned south toward Monterey, Virginia, some 90 miles away.  This section, through Lost River, WV, is God's Country for any cyclist ambitious enough to take it on: endless vistas, mountain rivers, cliff faces, wildlife, and not a car to be seen for dozens of miles at a time.  It's my favorite place to ride in the mid-Atlantic.

There's nothing quite like cruising with a rock face to one side and rapids to the other, and that was the scene for hours on end.  It's roads like this that cause me to be sad when people talk about cycling on the trails around D.C. -- to me, that just ain't what it's about.  Miles 53-90, to the Brandywine control, were as good as it gets.

The toughest part of this adventure was miles 90-143, i.e., from Brandywine to Monterey.  There are virtually no services in this stretch; there is literally no cell service, and West Virginia's ambivalent attitude toward paving roads is on full display -- there was loose pea gravel over much of the surface, and certain stretches were exercises in mitigating damage.  Making matters tougher, the temperatures rose quickly, as did the elevation reading: this stretch is essentially 50 miles of false flat, into a strong headwind, punctuated by a series of 1,000-foot climbs.  It is excruciatingly slow-going at times.  Luckily, there was a country store at mile 120 or so, which allowed me to refill my bottles before continuing the southward slog.

Unfortunately, while I was stopped at the store, I noticed something alarming: apparently the rough pavement of the previous 30 miles had dislodged my flat kit, which was nowhere to be seen.  Not good: I was 120 miles from my car, 135 miles from the end of the ride, in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service to speak of.  If I'd have flatted, it could have been truly ugly -- without tire levers, I'd have been hard pressed even to get the tire off of the rim.  That's one clear benefit of riding in a group -- the ability to help each other out -- but I had no choice but to press on in the hope of finding a small-town bike shop at some point. 

The scenery did its best to cheer me up, but in truth, I was pretty nervous about the situation.

Fortunately, no news was good news on the tire front, and after seemingly climbing forever into a diabolical headwind, I rolled into Monterey on fumes.  My goal had been to stay in the saddle and make steady progress, but I needed to cool off and fuel up -- to that point, the ride had been much more difficult than I'd expected, and my 18-hour guesstimate was looking profoundly implausible.  Given my tire situation, I'd hoped that Virginia's pavement would surpass West Virginia's.

Delightfully, from Monterey, the route turned east and headed into the George Washington National Forest, i.e., The Best Cycling on Earth.  There was a toll to be paid in the form of two gut-punch climbs out of Monterey replete with switchbacks that would have been at home in the Alps, but the views from the summits were incomparable, and that immutable cycling truth paid big dividends: what goes up must come down.  The descents were just heavenly, complete with the sun speckling through trees and a gentle tailwind. 

The saving grace of this route is that, if you can hang on through mile 165, the last century will take care of itself: the Shenandoah Valley guides one home along immaculate roads, and the gravitational pull of the finish line ensures that one stays motivated.  I never did pass through a town with a bike shop, but my worries were for naught.  To the extent there was a downside, it was only insofar as darkness fell hours before I finished, an inevitable by-product of the season.

The ride finishes at a Denny's, the last refuge of cyclists wearing coral arm sleeves and, um, heavily tattood skinheads.  As I sat waiting for my late-night omelette, I was amazed to see that my 18-hour guess had been off by... 2 minutes.  Maybe I'm getting the hang of this after all.

Viewing the ride as a whole, I have to say that I think the D.C. Randonneurs are missing a step by failing to include it on the calendar at some point -- it is simply too good to lie dormant on the RUSA website for years on end.  The only downside to it is that, yes, it is difficult.  But it's surely no more difficult than the Mother of All 300ks, which has nearly as much climbing in a shorter span, and the scenery is well worth it.  Congrats to Crista on putting together something special.