I've ridden up here before, in 2012 I did a 400k, a 600k, and the Shenandoah 1200K so I was familiar with the climbing. Matt's description of the ride talks about the "rollers" out of Front Royal leading to the first climb... Translated into Raleigh flatlander that's "continuous steep hills roughly the size of Lystra leading up to the first mountain that's similar to Pilot Mtn." I decided that I'd just go and tackle each challenge as it came- if I looked at the whole ride I might just realize how crazy it was!
After a beautiful drive up Hwy 15 I arrived at the hotel in Front Royal just in time to meet a Randonneur named Gardner from Baltimore who was taking a carbon Trek off the roof of his car. We talked briefly, he was here with a couple of others, they all ride with the DC Randonneurs, and they were planning to ride most of the course together. I asked if they'd had dinner yet, and since they hadn't he invited me along. This was the best decision I've made in quite some time. It took longer than I would've liked and ate up some sleep time, but we had a very nice dinner and I made three new friends- Gardner, Theresa, and Jack who. This would come in quite handy about 24 hours later...
I had a reasonably good sleep and got up at 3am to get ready for the start. Saw Matt briefly and gave him the Shenandoah stickers I had made, then it was time to roll. It was cold out! I've been used to riding in 90 degree weather, now all of a sudden it's in the 50's and we're starting in the dark. I was in wool jersey, arm warmers, knee warmers, and vest for the first time in a long time. My only mistake here was that I forgot to start the Garmin. The first time I turned on the light to look at it I noticed it was still at zero, I started it, and Gardner told me we were at exactly 6 miles in. Simple addition is good, helps keep you awake. We rode up Fort Valley Rd. through The George Washington Natl. Forest and made good time to the first climb up Edinburg Gap.
There were 6 of us- Hamid, Chris, me, and my 3 new DC friends. Hamid was the first to take off, gapping the rest of us before the climb began. We wouldn't see him again until he passed us on the return trip. We all had different climbing speeds, so there was separation on the climb but their plan was to regroup at each summit and stick together till the next major climb. Jack had lots of data programmed into his GPS and could always tell you how far till the summit, what the current gradient was, etc. This is when I really found out what we had in store. They described to me the 4 gaps that we had to climb and descend in the first 80 miles, then we'd have 85 miles or so of these "rollers" (remember to translate that into flatlander,) then since it's an out-and-back route we get to climb and descend the same 4 gaps from the opposite direction! Yep, that's 8 major climbs. So I settled in and spun my way to the summit of Edinburg Gap where the 5 of us regrouped before the descent. Down in the town of Edinburg we were at about 28 miles in and they had planned a non-controle c-store stop. Chris didn't want to stop, so he rode on. We wouldn't see him again until the return trip either. And then there were 4... The sun came up, so I got the iPhone out to shoot a quick video.
The next climb was up Wolf Gap, at the summit was the West Virginia Line. This one was much harder and steeper, and I would come to realize that each one of these gaps is harder and steeper up one side or the other! We once again regrouped at the summit, descended together and rode to the next climb up Mill Gap. The day had turned mostly overcast, so the Sun hadn't warmed things up for us. The climbing warms you up, you get sweaty under the vest and then on the descent the wind will just freeze you. At the summit of Mill Gap they were waiting for me again, and once we were all 4 there we dropped down to the 65 mile control and breakfast at the Lost River Grill.
Back on the bikes we had a very short ride to the start of our 4th major climb through Lost River State Park. I never found out if this was a named gap or not, but it was hard. Hardest climb so far. We regrouped again before the summit- there was a false summit with a nice view so I snapped a picture. Then it was on to the real summit. When we started to descend I couldn't believe what I'd gotten myself into. The road was incredibly steep with constant switchbacks. I was hard on the brakes the whole time. My hands hurt from gripping the brake levers and I could smell my brake pads burning. This was the most hair-raising butt-clenching descent I've ever done and it would've been a hell of a lot of fun if I wasn't constantly thinking about having to turn around and climb back up it!
We all survived the descent and regrouped for a nice 40 mile ride out to Seneca Rocks and our turnaround controle. The weather had warmed up a bit, so I removed the knee warmers. The Sun had come out and the scenery was gorgeous, so I shot another video. Along the way we passed Hamid on his return trip, he was at least a couple hours ahead of us. I'd been keeping up fairly well all day so far, but during this section I started to have more trouble. They'd gap me off on the "rollers" and then I'd bridge up a bit on the downhills. Soon the gaps got big, then eventually they were out of sight. About 6 miles from the Seneca Rocks controle I saw Chris on his return leg, about an hour ahead of us.
I rolled into the controle a few minutes after the others and we all had a nice sit-down meal. It was a burger and chips for me, as well as a piece of pound cake for dessert! I applied a little embro to my knees to help keep the chill off and also in the hopes that it would help ease the pain of the day's climbing so far. We got back on the road, now halfway done and heading back to the worst climb of the day. We stopped at a Sheetz to resupply just before the climb up Lost River State Park Rd. and put on reflective gear since we figured it might be getting dark before we made the summit. Then we bravely headed up the road.
The first part of the climb was hard, but do-able. The 150 miles I already had in my legs was taking it's toll, so the others pulled away as I eased off and tried to spin my way through it. I remembered the screaming descent and knew the worst was yet to come. This is about a 10 mile climb with roughly 2100ft. of elevation gain, but the steepest sections come in the last few miles. I'd been on the climb for about an hour when it really started to get dark. I rounded a curve in slow motion to see Jack up the road walking his bike. It was incredibly steep but I decided to try to ride up to him so I could walk with him. I never made it- it got so steep that I was in my lowest gear, standing in the pedals, and simply couldn't keep the bike moving forward. I had to clip out to keep from falling over. I turned on my lights and started walking.
Turns out I can't walk uphill as fast as the others either! Jack pulled away from me in no time as I attempted to walk my bike up these incredibly steep gradients wearing road shoes. This was stretching my Achilles tendons painfully, so as soon as the gradient let up a bit I got back on the bike and started pedaling again. Soon it got too steep once again and I had to dismount and walk some more. I could now see and hear Jack and Theresa a couple of switchbacks up walking their bikes and talking. I didn't have enough breath to talk, so it was just as well that I was alone. Around another switchback and the road gradient settled down again. I remounted and started back up the mountain. In the next switchback there was a house, and the guy was out on his porch and called out to me "you're gonna catch 'em, they're all walkin'!" Sure enough, a couple turns later I slowly caught and passed Jack and Theresa, then shortly after I caught and passed Gardner too. Try to imagine how slow this happens. I'm standing in the pedals, cranking my lowest gear and moving forward at maybe 4mph. They're walking their bikes at probably 2.5mph. It's a strange feeling when you're on a bike and having trouble catching someone who's walking! Soon Theresa passed me, she'd remounted also. The gradient eased dramatically and I stopped for a drink and a snack and was passed by Gardner and Jack, also back on their bikes. We all regrouped at the summit to put on more warm clothes and make the descent in the dark.
After the descent we stopped at the store in Lost River to replenish supplies and I needed to work on my front light a bit. I was running a new handlebar bag on this ride, and while it had enough clearance over the light when I installed it as the bag got fuller and the roads got bumpier it had settled down onto my light. The constant pounding from the West Virginia tarmac had put a hurting on my little light. I adjusted it as best I could, and tried to tie the bag a bit higher to keep it off the light. I told my 3 companions at this stop that the last climb had really wrecked me and I would probably not be able to keep up. They said they were willing to wait, but I assured them that I'm used to being by myself. It was now 10pm and the little store was closing, so we got kicked out into the cold.
We left as a group, but everyone was shivering in the 40-something degree temperature. The others started to crank it up to get warm and soon I was gapped off pretty far. Then it happened- my front light swiveled straight down and pointed at my tire. I had a light on my helmet as well, so that wasn't the end of the world. Then the front light broke off and dangled down by it's wiring, tinkling along the spokes of my front wheel. I had to stop. The plastic mount had just broken in half from the pounding it got during the day, and no matter what I tried I couldn't figure a way to rig it. I removed the light, unplugged it from the dynamo hub, and stashed it in my bag. I began to wonder if my battery headlamp would last the rest of the night. I had one spare battery, and it takes a proprietary rechargeable...
I climbed slowly up Mill Gap and found that it was a bit harder up this side than it had been earlier in the morning. Or maybe it was my legs... At the summit I found that my friends had taken me at my word and hadn't waited for me. I got the impression that perhaps they waited as long as they could, but as cold as it was they weren't doing themselves any favors cooling down before a big descent. Next was Wolf Gap, which was much easier from this direction! At the summit I entered back into Virginia and dropped down to the next controle. There I found my friends waiting for me, which made me unbelievably happy! I'd changed the helmet light battery already to the spare, so if that one went I would be screwed. They were nice enough to let me recover for a bit and they didn't push me to get back on the bike right away. I have no idea how long they'd waited for me, but to have a group of randos wait like that and then be patient with you sitting still is pretty special!
Back on the road I started pushing myself harder to keep up. Not only did I not want to slow them down much more, but I figured I might lose my light and need their help soon. We had one major climb left- Edinburg Gap. I'd done it on the Shenandoah but couldn't remember from which direction. I remembered it being hard, but then again everything on that ride was hard! Sure enough, when we got on the climb it turned out to be much harder from this direction. They waited for me at the top, and we all descended together for the last 30ish mile ride up Fort Valley to Front Royal.
With about 20 miles to go my battery started dying. First Jack stayed with me to help light the way, then Gardner took over. Jack was getting a bit swervy from sleep deprivation, and I was having to push through Achilles pain on every little uphill. I could tell that I was slowing them down, but no one complained. At one point we stopped so Theresa could change batteries and I had a chance to try an idea I'd had while riding. I got the dynamo light back out and ran the cord down through a loop on my front bag, wrapped it around the fork and plugged it in. It wasn't mounted so it would stay put and shine where I wanted, but I could use my right hand to hold it on fast downhills and get through that way. It was a struggle to finish, but we all stayed together to the hotel in Front Royal for a finish time of 25hours 35min.
Jack went straight to his hotel but I went to the McDonalds with Gardner and Theresa to get a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel for a shower and a nap. That was probably the toughest 400K I've done. It's hard to compare it to the ROMA 400K in 2012- I was in much better shape! That one had lots of climbing too (everything up there does!) but this one was 8 major climbs. It's funny how seemingly inconsequential decisions can determine your path on these rides. Had I arrived in Front Royal 30 minutes earlier or later I might not have met Gardner in the parking lot. Had I turned down the dinner invite they might not have waited for me at all those summits. This was truly a great ride, and it all came down to good scenery, a good route, and great friends to share it with. Thanks Gardner, Theresa, and Jack- and I'll see you in NC in October!