“We’re too blessed to be depressed,” a church sign at mile 70 read. Our riding group of three shared a chuckle. We had just climbed Wolf Gap, Mill Gap, and were en route to more gaps and roads with words like “church” and “mountain” in their names. The path ahead gave us pause.
It is one of those that keeps coming at you. The unrelenting ups and downs of the West Virginia landscape wear down the body and require the dexterity of a classically trained pianist on the shifters.
Felkerino and I were the only tandem, and I was the only woman to ride. Although it is not unusual to be the only tandem at a rando event, I’m not really used to being the only woman, as usually there are at least two or three of us.
Physically and mentally, this ride was tough for me. The rock ’em sock ’em climbs forced us into the granny ring for many segments, and we could never let the tandem loose on the tight switchback descents.
This course is one of few where I truly feel at a disadvantage on tandem. While the first and last 30 miles are manageably mellow, the meat and potatoes of this course consists of clawing out of one valley into the next without much recovery in between efforts.
It’s also the type of route that gives me a Cinderella complex. We originally did this ride 10 years ago, and were able to finish in 15 hours. I was certain that timeframe was out of reach for us, but held out hope that we could reach the end within 16 hours this time around.
All the clunking up the hills at five miles per hour was somewhat dispiriting, and I became convinced that we might not finish within the time cutoff, let alone 16 hours. Our bike would turn into a pumpkin and we’d be stranded out in the sawteeth of West Virginia forever.
This is, of course, irrational. We were never in danger of not completing the ride within the time limits. It was merely my perception that we were going devastatingly slow, and wishful thinking that we could pedal faster to reach an arbitrary goal. Like I said, the Cinderella complex.
Felkerino and I knew it would not be a fast day, and Felkerino even described the course as tandem antagonistic. We were riding for the challenge. As we rode along, I realized we were also out there to immerse ourselves in the beauty of it all.
Trees on the mountains had begun to fill in, creating a backdrop of myriad shades of greens and golds. Rosebud was exploding on the mountain sides and apple orchards along the route were blossoming. Their floral aroma intoxicated.
As we rode I took a few photos, mostly from the bike, telling Felkerino that I would look back on them later in order to assess whether I had a good ride. It pains me to take landscape photos from the bike, but I reminded myself that brevets are not photo expeditions. Constant forward progress becomes the priority.
I didn’t have to wait to look at my photos to conclude we had an awesome ride. All it took was riding into the finish at exactly 16 hours and being enveloped by the rush that comes from making it through a tough day. “What a great day!” I exclaimed to Felkerino and gave him a big hug.
He rolled his eyes, reminding me that for much of the day my conversation focused on topics like how out of shape I was, how we had ridden this course faster in 2005, and whether we should ride the 400K or not.
Randonnesia is a powerful thing on intense courses like these. You really don’t have the time to reflect on what you are seeing along the way because you are working so hard due to all the climbing and the pressure to make progress. You appreciate momentarily, but then it’s time to focus on what’s next.
Felkerino and I have never been fast climbers on the steeps as a tandem team (he’s pretty good solo), so a course like this is humbling to say the least. But a tough course can give an extra sense of accomplishment when it’s done.
We also met my arbitrary goal of 16 hours, which handily kicked my Cinderella complex to the curb. No pumpkin for us. We had not ridden particularly quickly, but we were far faster than the walking pace I feared. We spent our time efficiently off the bike– less than two hours off total during the entire ride– and managed dogged progress throughout.
We rode into sunrise, traversed quiet scenic roads, breathed in the delicious scents of springtime, saw the sun cast its last rays over the apple blossoms, watched the moon rise, and shared a scenic adventure with rando-friends. We were too blessed to be depressed. I’m still riding the randonnesia high.