Today is going to hurt, I know it. Fine by me. I don’t mind hills. I have a good relationship with hills. Downhill...not so much.
I am looking at the map and I realize that it will be a major effort today; I will deal with some of the steepest climbs in the East Coast. My mind races back to last year when I crossed the Appalachians on the GAP. That was beautiful and…easy! This time I am not on a rails-to-trails by any stretch of my imagination, this time I will ride on Highway 50, one of the very few direct routes which crosses the Allegheny Front. The Allegheny Front is a steep escarpment created by intense erosion. It is a wall of rock that rises almost vertically if it weren’t for a mass of trees and green bushes that cover its intimidating rises. However, unlike the more forested Appalachians to the South, the cliff tops here are exposed and offer great overlooks. Not that it will help my climb but at least it will offer some scenic rest stops during the ride. I know that once I crest the Ridge the worst of the Appalachians will be behind me.
I wake up feeling an uneasiness right in the pit of my stomach. I think it is because I never like the beginnings. And this is the beginning of a crazy, unpredictable journey of thousands of miles. It’s been a long wait and now it is happening. I am in a hotel room with a few clothes and the bicycle, Washington DC is already behind me. Home is far from here. Not in terms of miles.
I stretch my legs in the silent hotel room still totall shrouded in the 6am sleepy haze, as I get dressed I try to shake off the feeling of “Oh my God, it is happening”. It works.
I go downstairs to have breakfast and the weather forecast coming loud and clear from the TV shuts down any lingering feelings of excitement I might have: storms, rain, showers, water coming down from the heavens all over the place. Great! This is a promising start to my first full day. I figure I need a 120 miles+ day today. I want to ride as much as I can and land somewhere well past the middle of the Appalachians, Morgantown would do. As I charted the course on the map last night it looked at least 130 miles away from Winchester. With the Allegheny front; lots of hills in between and now with this gloomy weather forecast it is all up in the air. Literally! Where will I be tonight? I don't carry any camping equipment so I need to be in a hotel-serviced town. Don't think about tonight, think about one mile at the time, one town at the time. Get out of this hotel, it is not raining now, make the most of it, let's go.
It is only the second day of the tour and the relatively short ride yesterday didn’t really do anything to put a dent in my physical condition. I know I am well trained. Despite some dips in my motivation, I spent the last 2 months preparing my body for this challenge, rigorously and patiently. I am confident that unless I incur in an out-of-the blue injury it will be a few hundred miles at least before my energy levels start to wane. The mind? You can't never prepare that well enough.
After a continental breakfast at the hotel I ride out of town on Highway 50, which takes me most of the way well into West Virginia. I have archaically hacked together a route West, courtesy of google maps: west-north-west-north again- east for a bit-west, seem like directions out of a maze; it is my way west through the back roads of West Virginia. Highway 50 is not a pleasant option but it is the most direct way west. For most of the morning I cycle side by side, a few inches away from whizzing cars and trucks. The shoulder is a faint white line which creates a separation between the vehicle lane and a space of about two feet where I am supposed to ride my bicycle. I had thought that if I started early I can get jump on the traffic. Not really. Most cars go into the oppostie direction, they go into Winchester but I still feel the air moving and swriling next to me every time a car or a truck fly by. How much do I have on highway 50? I figure about 60 miles. I actually don’t mind having to focus on the traffic; it kind of incentivizes me to haul ass up the recurring hills as fast as I can so I can be done with H50.
Despite having to struggle to keep my front wheel away from the vehicles lane I look around me and absorb the scenery. I ride through an extremely bucolic setting, with well-kept farms, winding roads that depart from the highway at every turn or it seems and trees and wide grass fields all over. Huge hay bales catch my eyes and the line of green trees is interrupted only by the farm ho/use or the mound which forms the base of the hills. After 30 miles a tall hillcrest surges in front of me and I know I better shift into low gear to climb it. The going gets tough. The Appalachians welcome me with a smile. I smile back. I ride under an incredibly grey sky but for the first 60 miles the storm holds off. At times it is so dark that I must take the sunglasses off to see clearly. The top of the hills are constantly shrouded in the mist, which thickens as I gain elevation. By the time I reach the foothills of the Allegheny Ridge, the sky is darker than my hands and I know full well what's coming. I still take on the steep 5 mile climb, which proves to be a tough one. In a heartbeat it is pissing cats and dogs and in about three minutes all my gear is totally soaked. Even my phone. Luckily all my other valuables are wrapped in a two plastic bags and they are safe. It rains so hard that from the mountain comes down a river. Visibility is way low and the passing vehicles splash me mercilessly. this is dangerous, I find an abandoned house and I take shelter under the porch. water drips down my arms, my hands, my helmet, my shoes. The storm stops after 20 minutes or so but when it abates it never really ceases completely. It rains on and off for the next 15 miles. I am so wet that it doesn't even matter anymore.
The good news today is that I am supposed to be meeting my friend Rick from Cumberland. I met Rick last year on my LLS cross country ride and we rode together a blissful 70 miles or so from Cumberland to Confluence on the wonderful Great Allegheny Passage. Rick is 58 years old and is an amazing rider. He is the kind of man that you would want with you if you were stuck in the desert with no water. He is resourceful and no matter what happens he has your back. He rides with me from Kitzmiller to Oakland, where we find a bike shop to fix my chain which is being sluggish on account of the rain we think, the chain won't switch into the small ring. By the time we get to the the bike shop, 7 miles east of Oakland I am utterly spent. I have 98 miles in my legs, I am soaked to my core, I haven't felt any blood circulation in my feet for at least three hours and feet and hands are so drenched that I am wondering whether the skin is about to peel off at any time.
Rick and I part ways, he makes the ride back to Kitzmiller and I press on to Oakland; he has helped me with the chain problem, he has booked for me a motel room in town and when I get there the room has already been paid for. What a gentleman he is. He drove all the way from Cumberland to see me, rides with me and helps me get a roof over my head. Thanks friend. I look forward to seeing you again very soon.
By the time I enter Oakland the rain shows up again but I manage to get to the motel just in time. I take the longest hot shower ever and with a discouraging feeling of dampness right in my bones I roll into bed to write about the day. My legs feel tired but i know they will recover for tomorrow. My spirits took a beating with the storm and the chain problem. Rick, however, told me that the worst of the hills is behind. There are still several hills ahead but they are not as bad as the Allegheny Ridge. This prospect improves my mood. I am behind schedule. Without the rain I could have made it to Morgantown probably. So change of plans, it all depends on what the weather brings tomorrow. The chain still feels very rough so I want to stop at the bike shop in Morgantown. After that I don't know what is going to happen. I have to scratch my original plan of reaching Cambridge, Ohio on day 3. it ain't gonna happen. It is way out of reach now. I will find something. I'll adjust.
I wake up and take a peek outside the window: this is promising.
Highway 50 and the morning traffic going into Winchester
The road rises up gently towards the Appalachians
A thick mist is waiting for me
After 30 miles I enter West Virginia, the skly darkens but and no rain yet..
Not a happy face, I have a feeling I am about to get soaked
A creek runs under Highway 50
There are a few spectators out today
The road gets steeper and the weather is brewing
Through the fog I make out the line of the Allegheny Ridge, that's my climb
As I start the ascent the rain comes out to keep me company
It is so strong that I must stop before all my gear gets messed up
Guess what river this is? The Potomac
Waiting for the rain to stop, as I said...not a happy face
Finally the rain stops and from the top of the hills the sky clears and I can look back. This is where I came from, 95 miles
With Rick at the bike shop near Oakland
Here is Rick just before we tackle a hill together out of Kitzmiller
As I take my clothes off at the motel I am checking to see if my skin is still on. My hands have been soaked in rain almost 5 hours.
My home for the night
The scenery from my motel window in Oakland.