On a cold rainy day in February I opened an email from my bike riding sister, Kathy. “Hey Pat, check this out”. A link to the Shenandoah National Parks website advertising “Ride the Drive – Car Free Day on Skyline”. On Sunday, April 23rd, for the first time ever, a 32-mile northern section of Skyline Drive from Front Royal to Thornton Gap would be open only to non-motorized users. Bikers, hikers, and rollerbladers, all free. “Well heck yes”, I replied. March came and I logged on and signed up. Although not smoothly, the website told me I was wait listed for this free event, but later an email arrived and I was able to sign on with a “reserved” parking spot at Skyline High School. I am in.
So it was now March and this ride was beginning to look real. What had I gotten myself into? I did a Google map of the route (biking option) and it says 32.3 miles and 3,858 feet of climbing (and then turn around and head back). A rider online called it “a beast of a ride.”
A bike – the home built Merlin (with gears!)
And while I do have a surplus of bikes (especially random “vintage” models collected over the years from the local Goodwill), for the last 3 years I have been commuting on a single speed bike. A very, very, nice titanium Habanero, but only one gear. Great for riding on flat roads, but not going to be a good choice for Skyline and around 7,000 feet of climbing.
And as we all know the less weight you carry up a hill, the easier the ride. So while it might be far more effective to lose weight from around by own stomach, that is hard. Online I found a British company, advertising ridiculously lightweight Chinese carbon frames for ridiculously low prices. Yes, indeed. Send me two. Fortunately I already have extra wheels and miscellaneous bike pieces left over in the garage. After a couple of weekends of assembly (and only a few broken pieces) I now have a lightweight Merlin bike with gears. Time to train.
I am 54 years old and overweight. I do however try to stay in shape by bike commuting to work. But I ride the dead flat W&OD rail trail. I do not do hills. But now I do. Upton Hill becomes my trainer. It is 146 feet of climb from the base at 4 Mile Run Creek to Wilson Blvd and close by the house. No more excuses. Day 1. Huffing and puffing I made it. A week later, huffing again I made it up and down Upton 3 times. And then the next weekend 7 times before my legs give out. And finally 1 week before, 10 hill repeats with 3 climbs up and down Walter Reed thrown in for good measure. Am I ready for Skyline?
A week until the ride and sister Kathy has read the weather forecast. Mid 40 degrees and an all day soaking rain. Not surprisingly both of us are waffling. Saturday morning, my sister decides it is just not worth the drive. I fully understand. Jeremy, my young neighbor and fellow bike commuter is still ready and willing to go. Saturday evening, the forecast has improved. While the temps will stay in the 40’s, rain could hold off. We are going to do this.
Riding the Drive!
Sunday Morning – 6 am. Coffee and a yogurt. Throw the bikes in the back of the Honda Fit and we are off. From Arlington, it is an easy drive. Volunteers at Skyline High School checked my ticket and we parked around a mile from the park entrance. We rolled on in. The park rangers at the gate said they had cut the registration off at the first 4,000 riders but the rangers never asked to see any tickets. With the bad weather forecast, they probably knew that there would be a lot of no shows and stopped worrying about being over crowded.
From the entrance the first five miles to the top of Dickey Ridge are simple. Climb. Steep but not too steep. Just grind it up. 2,000 + feet for around 5 miles. Slow and steady. The rain held off, the roads were dry. Too many clothes and I stripped off the hat at mile 1, and the wind breaker, the gloves, long pants came off around mile 2. So worth it for the gorgeous views. Spring is bringing the park to life with spectacular greens and wildflowers and every color blossoms and blooms bursting from every three. Without cars, the park is silent except for the birds. The morning fog rolls in one section, and next rolls back out. We rode through and then up and over the clouds hanging over the beautiful Shenandoah valley. And then there was the panorama of the river and valley spread out beneath us. Pictures and especially my words cannot describe these views, the sound, the smell. You really have to experience this for yourself.
And then finally, finally, finally after cresting the top of the first ridge (and a bit sweaty). it is “oh my goodness Wooohooooo!!!” The first of many spectacular long descents. The thrill of the descent, coasting as fast as you desire feels as close to flying as anything I can imagine. It feels like absolute freedom. And these descents go on and on. On perfectly maintained roads across wide sweeping turns. Gorgeous views, and not a car around to worry about. Repeat for the next 64 miles.
About mile 14 and halfway up Mt. Marshall, at one of the many overlooks the Park Rangers and volunteers had set up a rest station. Jeremy and I pulled over and chatted with the folks. A young female ranger was unloading her bike and along with her husband was planning on spending the day riding. She warned us about Hogback Mountain, around mile 21. “Stop there and turnaround because riding back up Hogback has broken the hearts of many a rider”. This is the steepest climb of Skyline Drive at around 7-8% grade.
We make it to the top of Hogback and Jeremy and I are feeling fine. “Ride on” says Jeremy and down Hogback we go. Another spectacular descent, but on the way down we do see a couple of folks pushing their bikes coming the other way. They must have started from the opposite entrance at Thornton Gap and look to be struggling.
We make it to the barricade at Thorton Gap, do a U-turn and head back. While the Park service and volunteers have done a nice job setting up rest stops with port-a-johns and first aid, the only obvious stop for food or water is the Elkwallow Wayside, a convenience store with a grill around mile marker 24. French fries and chicken nuggets. And bear claws and chocolate milk. All good. A whole lot of very nice and beautiful bikes are parked outside. Just a lot of very nice and friendly fellow riders.
With lunch sitting heavily and legs a bit stiff from sitting too long, we started the climb back up Hogback mountain. Just as advertised. Plenty long. Not as long as the ride up Dickey but long and steep enough. I found my lowest gear and stayed there.
And yet, all too soon we were back at the top of Dickey Ridge. Then the beautiful five-mile descent back down to Front Royal. Just relax, lower into the drops, and let the bike run. With the biggest stupidest grin across my face. Oh what a glorious feeling and what a glorious ride.
Thanks to my sister for the inspiration, to neighbor Jeremy for the company, and thanks so much to all the volunteers, the National Park Service and everyone who made this ride possible. It really is a most excellent adventure.
Our guest writer, Pat O’Briant “The Science Giant” in his own words, ” Fat, old, and nearly bald, Pat O’Briant is a dad and an aerospace engineer with a passion for teaching cool science hacks. With way too many old bicycles in his garage, he commutes to and from work on the beautiful W&OD trail from Arlington to Dulles.”