AXC - The bike

AXC - The bike

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Help, I'm alive!

Saturday, May 10, tour day 7.

To say this was hard would be a gross understatement. 
Here's the story of the most difficult thing I've ever done, told in three acts.

Act One - The social ride

We knew the day was going to be tough and long, but otherwise it started off the same as any of our other days. We had a group breakfast, packed up our gear, and got on the road at around 8 am. The day before had been a layover day in Charlottesville, so we were rested and ready to go.
The group had been splitting up into sub groups of faster riders and more leisurely riders. I took a little long packing up all my gear, and ended up riding with the 'social' group. Out of the camp, we were pedaling, but certainly taking our time. We split into further sub groups, but stopped often for everyone to catch back up. 

The terrain was hilly, or at least it seemed hilly at the time, we really didn't know 'hilly' then. But still, there was some climbing and that slows us down. About 20 miles into the 60 mile day, it started to rain, with the sky threatening to really open up. As fortune would have it, we also came upon a small convenience store / deli at right around that time - which also happened to be time for second breakfast. We ducked under cover just as the rain started in earnest, and enjoyed some pastries, chocolate milk, and some other snacks. Riders from a local bike club also sought cover and we got to chat with the locals for a little bit.

Good timing was a theme for the rest of the day, but I'll get back to that. 
The rain had let up to just a light drizzle, but it was hot enough that this felt nice (the other riders I was with all donned their rain gear at the first sign of precipitation.) 

With our first stop under our belts, we got back under way. 

I had chosen to ride with this group, and they're all really good people, but I was definitely getting frustrated with the frequency and length of our stops. It felt like every 5 miles we were stopping to check maps, put on or take off rain gear, stop for snacks or water. All of this was more or less necessary, but knowing we had so much ahead of us still to go, I was getting frustrated. Add to this that I ride just a tiny bit faster than some of this group, and the front half of the group was stopping often to wait for the back half. Still, we pedaled on. 

The ride was gorgeous, which is a gross understatement, but I'll also get into that more farther on. At the top of a particularly nasty hill, there was a fantastic vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains (part of the Appalachian Mountains) off in the distance. On Thursday, I had rode past something that I wanted to photograph and regretted not stopping for the picture, so this time I decided not to miss the opportunity. The rest of the group concurred that this was photo-worthy, and we had a little photo-op stop.

The mountains were mocking us from afar for what seemed like an eternity, no matter how much we seemed to pedal, they just loomed off on the horizon. 

Act two - The Crucible

It seemed that after we first saw the mountains, they began taunting us from a distance. There was a good deal of climbing even before we got to the real hills. Up, up, up. This was a climbing day, so this was completely expected, still we trudged on. 

At around 2 pm, just as we decided we were hungry for lunch, we rounded a corner and there was a peach orchard with a fantastic store / market that seemed to just appear in front of us like an oasis. Without a second thought, we all stopped. There was a large patio to the open-air store, and we all parked our bikes under some cover near some picnic tables. Most of us pulled out the bagged lunches that we'd packed in the morning and supplemented it with snacks and drinks from the market. It seems it's more apple season than peach season, and we had some delicious apple-cinnamon donuts.

Once again, timing was on our side. A few minutes after we parked our bikes, the skies opened up in earnest, and it poured for a good 20 minutes. We ate our lunch and our donuts and enjoyed the down-time as the rain came down. And just as we were finishing up, the weather accommodated and the rain let up. 
After another long stop (out of our control, this time) we headed back out. 
From the orchard, the Blue Ridge Mountains were looming large, and we were almost on top of them. 

At this point, it was nothing but up. There were some rolling hills, but the downs were small and of a very gentle grade. In fact, I started loathing the downhills, despite the reprieve they offered.  Every foot of decent that I rolled was a foot I had already climbed, and would have to climb again!

Slowly, the hills started to transform from gentle upwards treks into steeper and steeper grades, and the occasional downhills got farther apart. Finally, we were climbing a mountain. 

There was a small town called Afton, Va., with an abandoned post office, derelict stores, and houses that oscillated between mountainside mansions and run-down trailers. The group I was riding with stopped to catch our breath in front of the old Afton post office. We had just spent 20 minutes spinning up a hill in our smallest gear. Our heart rates were soaring, and our spirits, not so much. 
After resting for about 5 minutes, one more from our group caught up. We had no idea how much farther back the rest were, but decided to go on and not wait. Besides the fact that the day was ticking away, every time we stopped for too long, our heart rate would fall too much and our legs would get 'cold'. Then when we start back up, we have to warm back up. So we decided to move on in our own little sub-group.

Everything before Afton was just a tease, a warm up, a punchline where the joke was 'you think *this* is hard?'

There was a steady steep climb from there. It's hard to remember how far or how long we spun our gears for, the really hard miles started to blend together after a while. At one point we ended up on a fairly well traveled highway, with cars buzzing by (always giving us a wide berth.)

After more time and miles than I can recall, an off ramp came in to view; 'Blue Ridge Parkway.' The off ramp was a few degrees steeper than the grueling road we'd just been climbing, but I was spurred on by the promise of finally arriving at the Parkway, and the promise of wonderful views. 

Act Three - The long ride

Of the four of us, I got to the top of the off ramp first (but only by a little bit) and I pulled off into a small parking lot on the side to regroup and catch my breath. The Blue Ridge Parkway was the final leg of this day, 16 more miles of ups and downs. At the start of the parkway we took some pictures at the markers; the park sign, the altitude, and maybe a group picture as well. We were at 1900 feet, and were going up to 3300, so there was still more climbing to be done.

Climbing back on the bike, we set to roll for the last bit, that turned out to be the most significant piece of the day. 

Riding only a mile or two there was a sign that said 'Scenic overlook ahead', and sure enough as I came around a bend, the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains came into view. 

This was what I had been riding all day to see. This was glory, this was elysium, this was bliss. From (almost) the top of one mountain, I looked out at the rest of the mountain range laid out before me, the lush greens of the valley, the pale blue of the mountain range, the bright, hard blue of the sky with tufts of white and bright sunlight. 

Without question, I felt that I had earned this view, this moment of bliss and wonder. I secretly loathed the occupants of cars that drove up and popped out of their cars to take pictures, before quickly jumping back in and driving off. But at the same time knowing deeply that they didn't feel the same sense of wonder and appreciation of the view that I had at that moment. That I might never feel again, or I may, as there is still much more ahead of me on this trip. 

The other riders in my group pulled over into the overlook area. We stood and stared for a moment before pulling out our cameras. There was an unspoken understanding that I could see in the others' eyes, in the stillness of how they stood looking out over the valley at the mountains, they felt the same sense of having earned this view and this moment. 

Here, as it had been twice before that day, our timing was impeccable. But instead of avoiding rain, we had gained a view. The riders that came by earlier had a gray sky, some rain and drizzle, modest views and little sunshine. We had the opposite of all that, and it was all thanks to the leisurely pace we had kept earlier in the day.

We took our pictures, savored the scenery one more time, and moved on. Yet, this is a moment that will live with me forever, sharing space with finishing a marathon, my first triathlon, graduating college, and more. 

And yet, this was only the smallest of beginnings for what was ahead. 

A small digression - I apologize for the length of this entry and the colorful prose, but this blog is as much a trip journal for me as it is a sharing of the adventure with you. And I want to be able to look back on this, read it again, and feel the memory flood back. 
Additionally, this stretch of road was a physical and emotional rollercoaster. 

The last 16 miles of this impossible day seemed to stretch on forever. At points we were spinning up steep hills at only 4 miles per hour, and with 16 miles to go, that thought was tremendously disheartening. It was pushing towards 4 pm, and I had been riding on and off for almost 8 hours by this point. 'Tired' had passed a while back, mailed out at the Afton post office an hour ago. 'Exhausted' was more apt, but even that was in my rearview mirror. And still, the hills rolled on, and me with them. 

There were several other scenic overlooks along the way. We stopped at many of them. Often for the view, and sometimes just because we needed to rest. Occasionally we even just rolled right on past them. The view from the road was spectacular and there wasn't always a need to stop. Although there were often trees lining the road, when tree line broke we could see out over the mountains and the valley. At these times, my heart soared. Even as it was struggling to pump blood to my tired legs, numb hands and numb feet, my heart soared.

The three other riders in my group came and went, we would roll past each other, then get passed in return. We chatted some, but mostly rode in silent contemplation. 

Could I do this? I knew I could, it wasn't actually even a question. But just how hard would it be? Would I suffer? But I knew before I was even done that this was the hardest thing I'd ever done. The exhaustion, the pain, the elation, the depression, sometimes these all came on at once. Other times they'd come in quick succession. At one point I was moved almost to tears by the simultaneous elation of the beauty around me and the juxtaposition of my pain and fatigue. My mind wandered and wondered. Sometimes I had to remind myself to look up at the view, other times I had to remind myself to watch the road. 

There were some amazing downhill runs as well. One such ride was what felt like a mile downhill at a decline that offered thrilling speed and a spectacular view. There was a scene in the recent movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where he's riding a skateboard down a mountain, the music swelling and the cinematography was stunning - this felt like that. I flew down the mountain, staring at the view and looking back at the road only just enough not to die. 

And yet, the road just kept going, on and on. Distance seemed like an abstract concept, and no matter how much I pedaled I didn't actually get any further. 

One of my riding companions told me she thought she was going crazy, or maybe she had gone crazy and couldn't tell. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable response to our situation.

Paradoxically, the harder the ride got, the more amazing the view became. Until, finally we reached the peak (of sorts) at 3100 feet. There was another scenic overlook that we all stopped at, took our pictures and tried to wrap our minds around what we'd just done.

There were still 3 or 4 more miles to go, and it was still rolling hills, so the challenge didn't end at the pretty view. 

Then, finally, against all belief, we arrived at the finish point for the day. A retreat/resort with a multi bedroom house that was, of course, at the top of a huge hill. 

This was finally too much, and I had to push my bike up this last hill (it was just too steep to ride.)  
Words failed. Emotions overwhelmed. My body had given it's all. And still, this was only the seventh day of this epic journey! That thought was almost too much for my mind. Not that there would be more tough days like this ahead (I know there will be) but rather that I'd done this much, and come this far, and there was still SO much more to experience ahead. Having conquered this day, I look forward to it more, not less. 

The evening seemed mundane after such a challenge. Dinner, a shower, some small talk. But as I was texting with friends and family, I realized I just couldn't talk to them. The physical and mental exhaustion was too much and I couldn't even articulate just how epically difficult the day was. 

All said, I rode 60 miles, and climbed close to 6000 feet. I bicycled up a mountain. 

I think this one day was representative of this whole trip, but in a microcosm. All the highs and lows, challenges and triumphs that I'll have over the next several months, encapsilated in a single day. 

I had been running through my head how I was even going to convey all this in a blog post. I don't think I quite captured it, but I think I came as close as I'm going to. 


Just before I came on this trip, I re-watched the movie American Beauty, and the closing line of the film kept running through my head as I pedaled and suffered and soared: 
"[T]here's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst.... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my silly little life."

Thank you for reading.

Some other pics from that day:


  1. Almost feeling your pain. So glad I'm not. Though I wish I was feeling your joy. Wonderful read, keep on pedaling!

  2. I am speechless....your writing is beyond eloquent, and the imagery you create in this entry is like a gift to the reader.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog! You're the best!

  3. Thanks for posting! I love the pictures!

  4. I read this as I was hunched over my tri bike on a trainer in my basement. The only thing I had to look at was Netflix and my sump pump. Thanks for the imagery! Keep the strength!