There comes a point on many long bicycle rides when I want it to be over and I wonder why I keep doing them. This point came on yesterday’s ride a couple of miles up from Taylors Valley.
I was riding the Virginia Creeper Trail, one of the most renowned trails in the country with old friends, Chris Hamilton and Jim Kline. We were riding the whole trail, 32 miles, twice, in two days. On Sunday, we drove to Abingdon, left our luggage at a motel, and then drove to Whitetop where we began our ride. We rode from Whitetop back to Abingdon. Yesterday, we rode back to Whitetop to retrieve the car.
I have known both these guys for almost forty years. Chris was an engineering student with me at Tech and my roommate for my last year there. Chris was one of the first people I hung around with who was an enthusiastic bicyclist, and he rode the western portion of what has now become the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail during the first year it was established as BikeCentennial in 1976. He lives in Harrisonburg, and we’ve remained friends. This escapade started when I convinced him to come down and ride the Creeper with me.
I met Jim at about the same time and he’s lived in Blacksburg since. But his interest in serious recreational cycling didn’t take root until decades later. He didn’t ride his first “century” ride – 100 miles in a day – until eight years ago. Since then, he’s ridden several and, in spite of being the oldest of the three of us at age 62, is best suited for riding due to his excellent fitness and chiseled physique.
The Virginia Creeper Trail opened in 1985 on an abandoned railroad grade that stretched from Abingdon to West Jefferson, North Carolina. It is wildly popular – and for good reasons! The scenery is unparalleled.
There is a considerable elevation drop from Whitetop towards Abingdon, starting at around 4000 feet and bottoming out at around 1750 feet where the Trail crosses South Holston Lake. Downhill riding is sheer bliss for me. My bike has shock absorbers on both wheels and I loved bombing down the bumpy trail. Chris and particularly Jim were less sanguine, as their bikes transferred lots of jolting to their arms and shoulders. As expected, our trip down from Whitetop to Damascus was fast and nearly effortless through spectacular forests. Much of the way was alongside the scenic, cold Whitetop Laurel Creek, where several fishermen tested their luck in the swiftly flowing waters. There were multiple interpretive signs along the way, but we decided to pass them by and save them for the following day’s uphill ride.
We stopped in Damascus for snacks and rest. It was a clear, hot spring day, but we unhurried. The exertion level never became severe.
Beyond Damascus, the character of the trail changes, with more fields and pastures and grander views. Just north of the South Holston Lake bridge, we rode through an area that had been devastated a year earlier by a rare tornado. A large copse of trees was broken and misshapen, and there were several piles of salvaged firewood. Worst, there stood the abutments of a destroyed bridge, formerly a great, sweeping edifice that I remembered from earlier rides. From what I’d heard, the bridge was splintered apart and couldn’t be repaired. The trail went down and back up a shallow ravine and continued on. A ranger told us that funds were being sought to rebuild it, but it would certainly be expensive.
All day, there were great rural scenes and lots of people on the trail. We were going faster than most and nobody passed us.
We reached Abingdon late in the afternoon where we rode through downtown past the iconic Barter Theater and the grand Martha Washington Hotel before finding our hotel. We took showers and walked to a nearby Italian Restaurant in a shopping mall for supper.
The next morning, we began the ride back to Whitetop around 9:00 a.m. Already it was warm, presaging a hot, dry day. Several early-morning walkers were on the first few miles of the Trail, but eventually it thinned out leaving mostly other cyclists. South of the South Holston Lake bridge on a great bend in the river, we watched an osprey soar overhead, intermittently chased by crows.
Again, we stopped in Damascus where in a fit of decadence, I ate a huge cinnamon roll dripping with sweetness and brimming with calories.
During the next few miles, I began to tire from the heat and the climbing. Being placed on a former railroad grade, the trail is never truly steep by highway standards. But I am not a good climber in the best of conditions and I don’t handle the heat well. I repeatedly soaked the scarf under my helmet in the creek to cool my roasting forehead.
Both my riding partners are newly retired and thus unhurried, willing to travel at any pace and stop frequently to read the interpretive signs and “smell the flowers.” I persevered, riding just below my threshold of what I call “heat frustration,” not as clinical a term as “heat prostration” but more descriptive. Finally, blissfully, we crested the top, where the Whitetop terminus is within two hundred yards of the highest point on the trail.
Once we had the chance to rest and cool down, we agreed that it had been a splendid ride, ample justification for a huge bowl of ice cream back in Damascus.