Monday, April 9, 2018

Back to Big Savage in Search of Solace

A version of this article appeared in American Randonneur Magazine (Winter 2017)

It was a straight-up revenge mission, or maybe a search for redemption.  Exactly two years before, after years of ultracycling and randonneuring – always on the lookout for the mountainous routes that brought with them panoramic vistas and exhilarating downward plunges to reward honest effort – a friend and I had taken a crack at the new, daunting frontier known as the “Super Randonneur 600k.”  The course was Big Savage SR600k, a route of Bill Beck’s device featuring the sawtooth grades of western Maryland, the verdant Lost River State Park in West Virginia, and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  It was the best the Mid-Atlantic had to offer, but we’d have to earn it: 42,000 feet of climbing in 375 miles told the story. Or so we thought.

The risk of looking for a challenge is that one might find it.  In retrospect, I wasn’t remotely prepared: a nasty fall earlier in the year had sidelined me for two months, after which I’d spent far more time planning my wedding than logging miles.  Thus, my 2015 crack at Big Savagehad essentially been a bachelor’s party only a randonneur could love, complete with self-inflicted debacles and no small sense of relief at surviving the ordeal.  It was the toughest 43 hours of my life; indeed, at the first control -- 60 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing in -- I’d found myself staring into the middle distance, dazedly trying to ingest a Frito and wondering where my life had taken a wrong turn.  The remaining 315 miles were little better.  Ultimately, it was only my riding companion’s persuasive powers and refusal to indulge my self-pity that convinced me to attempt the second half of the ride instead of aborting the mission.  My blog post afterward honestly recounted my view that, if one were thinking of attempting an SR600k, the best plan was to lie down until the sensation passed.

And yet, I couldn’t quite let it go.  Surely things would have been different if I’d prepared appropriately.  Possibly. So, while outwardly vowing never again to toe that masochist line, I thumb-tacked a mental note next to Big Savagethat read: “Not done here.”  

By September 2017, two years later, I felt ready to even the score.  In 2016, I’d cruised through the Lynn Kristiansen Memorial SR600kon Skyline Drive with no undue drama, although tropical storm remnants ensured that it was a thoroughly soggy adventure. Then,  in the spring of 2017, I’d joined the roles of Cyclos Montagnards R60 honorees.  With my wife overseas for a week, the scene was ripe for revenge served Savage. 

Life, however, has a way of resisting even the best-laid plans.  Two weeks out from the scheduled attempt, my father went into coronary arrest and septic shock.  Odds were against his survival.  I spent the next ten days in the florescent glare of an ICU ward, doing little but sitting, awaiting test results, and conversing with palliative care staff before collapsing each night more tired than if I’d run a marathon.  Bike ride?  Who cared?

Improbably, after more than a week of unconsciousness, my father woke up and began what would be a long and uncertain process of recovery.  The situation having stabilized at least somewhat, I returned to D.C. three days before I’d signed up to attempt Big Savage.  It was tough to imagine worse preparation for such an endeavor, and I debated whether to be conventionally sensible and focus on putting my life back in order. Equally, though, I thought that nothing would be better than losing myself in the mountains and sunshine and letting my mind wander with the winds.  Call it a celebration of life and triumphing over adversity: if my father could defeat septic shock, I could fight a battle in my own way.  I resolved to give it hell, exhausted or not.

Mentally, I started the ride with an audacious goal: to ride Big Savage straight through. I’d timed my ride start to fit with such a plan, and I hadn’t made a hotel reservation at the halfway mark in the hope that it would be easier not to stop that way.   Thus, heart full, eyes clear, and self-delusion abundant, I easily conquered the first hundred yards of the ride before launching myself up the first climb – a three-mile, thousand-foot spike known as Sideling Hill, the bane of weary RAAM riders dreaming of Annapolis.  

Three hours into the ride, I’d traveled barely thirty miles.  The first sixty miles traveling west from Hancock, MD, boast an elevation resembling the results of a particularly incriminating polygraph test: climb for three or four miles, plunge down the backside, and season to taste.  Despite my attempts to remain enthusiastic, my legs weren’t responding.  My heart and mind remained in a hospital a thousand miles away, and each time my phone rang I feared the worst.  Endurance challenges are profoundly mental, and I felt my resolve fading as the grades steepened.

Two thoughts drove me onward.  First, I’ve found that there are few troubles that a day in the sunshine won’t improve; whatever my emotional state, the saddle was the place to work through it.  Second, the fact is that the first sixty miles of Big Savagemay be the toughest of any randonneuring route in the United States.  It’s a remarkably difficult stretch regardless of circumstances, beginning with thousand-foot spikes and culminating in a punishing 2,500-foot ascent of the eponymous Big Savage Mountain.   I reasoned that the goal was just to stay in the game and continue moving forward, and that life would look better from the summit.  A bag of Bugles had my name on it.

And so it proved.  The course meandered along the Big Savage ridgeline, twisting through scenes that contrasted centuries, crimson barns and antique tractors presaging a regiment of wind turbines spanning distant peaks.  The roads were in perfect repair, but some ancient houses were little more than scaffolds of timber dejectedly yielding to fate.  The deer divined no threat in my whirring wheels, nor did the massive black bear that regarded me skeptically from atop a railroad embankment.  A bald eagle carried its victim out of my path on the plummeting descent down Big Savage.  Only too soon, I arrived at the top of the “Westernport Wall,” a regionally famous hill in Westernport, MD, whose grade exceeds 30%, and which is paved with bricks immortalizing the riders who have conquered it during the annual Savageman Triathlon.  

From Westernport, it was an easy spin through small-town Appalachia to Keyser, West Virginia, scene of the sadly departed Stray Cat CafĂ©, a previous culinary highlight of the route, then a turn southbound on the 40-mile rolling stretch toward Moorefield.  The cycling gods signaled their favor in the form of 20 miles of brand new, glassy-smooth tarmac, and an expansive valley stretched for miles to the east before the ridgeline I knew I’d have to summit eventually. Just before Moorefield came the deceptively brief but severely steep 1.2-mile Patterson Creek Mountain climb, which is easy to miss in the elevation profile only due to the monsters on either side of it.  Its 8% average grade testifies to the lie of averages, and around each of its twists one meets the depressing reality: “Not yet.”  

But all things must end, and from the summit, a breakneck descent carried me into Moorefield and the control at Fox’s Pizza. Calories, sodium, and air conditioning were all that this savaged randonneur could ask, even if my mere presence put Fox’s at risk of flunking a health inspection.  

Fox’s location is a mixed blessing: it’s just what you need and when you need it, but it comes immediately before the biggest beast of the course, the climb up South Branch Mountain.  Eat too much and you risk giving some of it back in short order – five miles at an 8% average grade is grim in the best of times, and the last half-mile’s 14% grade qualifies as obscene.  The only blessing is a guardrail that provides a convenient seat from which to contemplate the nature of despair and the potential availability of mountain bike gearing. 


The eventual summit proved that hard work pays dividends, offering infinite views of the rugged West Virginia countryside and the encouraging realization that it was all downhill from there.  I quickly entered Lost River State Park, a mid-Atlantic cycling mecca of wild landscapes where one’s far more likely to encounter a bear than a cell signal.  At its heart lies one of the best controls in the randonneuring world, the Lost River Grill, an oasis of booth seats, great cooking, and pie slices as big as the cog I wished I’d had on South Branch Mountain.  The wait staff are so familiar with cyclists and their peculiar needs that I’ve had them preemptively swipe my empty water bottles from the table and bring them back full of my beverage of choice.  

The only downside of Lost River Grill is that it’s nearly impossible to leave, especially when one’s facing twilight and the knowledge that more climbs await.  By this time I’d abandoned any notion of riding straight through; indeed, I was sufficiently shattered that I’d tentatively decided to call it quits at the overnight control 30 miles away.  My legs had been leaden all day, and as much as I tried to prevent it, my thoughts were with my father instead of the road ahead.  And, with the nature of an out-and-back course, it’s only too evident what topographic monsters lurk on the return journey.

But what a final 30 miles!  The climbs through Mill and Wolf Gaps are arguably the sweetest riding in the mid-Atlantic, all sparkling tarmac snaking through the George Washington National Forest.  At night it’s a starry wonderland, the sounds of crickets, spokes, and rushing waters combining into a sonnet for the intrepid rider.  On the far side lay the bed into which I collapsed without setting an alarm, content that I’d had a soul-cleansing day in the saddle and needn’t push my luck with another the next morning if I didn’t feel compelled.  

Ten hours later, I stumbled out of bed confident I’d qualified for membership in the Rip van Winkle society of SR600k riders, looked out the window, and contemplated my choice: a 60-mile leisurely spin back to the car, or a 188-mile assault on the return leg of Big Savage.  While I enjoyed a leisurely hotel breakfast, I received encouraging news about my father’s health and immediately felt an emotional cloud lift.  I realizing I’d be a fool not to celebrate by spending as much time as I could beneath the sun and amidst the trees.  Bring on the reverse route!

The return to Hancock was as joyous as the first leg had been arduous.  Climbing back through Wolf Gap, a bobcat flashed across the road not ten feet in front of me, as exotic a sighting as one will find on a bicycle.   A quick slice of pie at the Lost River Grill fueled me over the much gentler side of South Branch Mountain.  So, too, the Patterson Creek Mountain spike and return climb up Big Savage Mountain seemed friendlier with the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to see them again the next day.  The final 30 miles, with their thousand-foot climbs and descents, were as tough as I remembered their being two years earlier, but no journey worth retelling would end on a whimper.  The Big Savage SR600k admits defeat only after a suitably mighty roar. 

More than most, randonneurs grasp in their souls that reward is proportionate to effort, and in that respect, the SR600ks are crown jewels.  With their new 60-hour time limit, they are within reach of anyone with the audacity for the attempt and the planning to make the dream happen.  The Big Savage SR600kis not for the faint-hearted, but it earns that highest of accolades: it’s utterly unforgettable.

Final time: 41h, 12m

Strava file for Day 1:

Strava file for Day 2: