Sunday, August 11, 2013

Skyline Drive Century: 105 Beautiful Miles

Skyline Drive is one of my favorite places for training rides (I've written several times about rides in the north and central districts). The road is in great condition, most of the time traffic is reasonable, it has more than enough challenging climbing, and most of all, the scenery is stunning. Michael, a friend, and I have talked for a long time about trying to ride the entire length of Skyline Drive (105 miles, ~9200 feet of climbing) in one day, but the logistics were daunting. Setting up a car shuttle would require nearly a whole day and we needed vehicles at both ends that could carry three bikes and three people. On top of that, we would likely be tired enough by the end that we wouldn't want to drive all the way home. Then Horizontal Tread offered to be a support driver for us. Another friend in Charlottesville, Virginia offered to let us stay there after the ride and a plan came together. We arranged for Horizontal Tread to leave his truck in Front Royal, Virginia and he would drive our car, meeting us at points along the way.

We started under gray skies, climbing six miles to the top of the first hill. By milepost 14, rain fell steadily, which wasn't too bad until we reached the top of that hill and began to descend. Since the road was wet, I had to stay on my breaks for most of the two-mile descent and the spray from my tires soaked my shoes. Still, before I knew it, we arrived at Thornton Gap, a third of the way into our ride. We didn't linger because we were soaked and it was chilly. We ate a bit and began the next long climb: five miles up to the top of Pinnacles. Not too long after reaching the top, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. The bright side of the rain? There was very little traffic. While I was climbing near Big Meadows, riding right on the white line, something in the ditch caught my eye. I looked over and there was a bear cub in the brush, within arm's reach (I didn't reach). That is, hands down, the closest I have ever been to a bear. Michael was riding right behind me and he said he saw the mother glance out of the brush at us.

We had lunch and a long break at Big Meadows. The roads had dried, so we were able to descend without squeezing the brakes the entire time, making the ride easier and more fun. After climbing for miles, there is nothing like the reward of descending a winding mountain road at 35 mph. By the time we reached Swift Run Gap, it had clouded over again, but it stayed dry. Traffic was non-existent in the south district. I don't think we were passed by a dozen cars in our last 38 miles. We finished at Rockfish Gap 105 miles and 11 hours after we started. It was an amazing, hard, exhausting, exhilerating ride. We couldn't have done it without Horizontal Tread's help. Big thanks to him and to our friend in Charlottesville who hosted us after the ride.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Climbing the first big hill of the ride. This is from an overlook near milepost 6. It hadn't started raining yet.
By milepost 14, rain steadily fell. By the time we reached Hogback Overlook at milepost 21, it was pouring. We rode in the rain for a couple of hours.
Lillium superbum (Turk's Cap Lily) near Pinnacles Overlook. These are over five feet tall.
Looking east from Skyline Drive after the storm passed. The unstable weather meant really interesting cloud formations.
A Fritillary (not sure which one) butterfly on Asclepias exaltata (Tall Milkweed).  There were butterflies feeding on flowers all along our ride. This was near Stony Man.
Skipper butterflies on A. exaltata.
Lunch at Big Meadows.
We took a short break at an overlook in the South District. A car pulled up a couple offered to take our picture.
We were grinding up a gentle climb near milepost 95 in the south district, when Michael loudly whispered, "Bear!"  It watched us for a few minutes and then bounded off into the woods. I have a good zoom on my camera, so I wasn't as close as this appears.
More clouds rolling in near the end of the ride.
 Milepost 105, just a few hundred yards from the car.
 105 miles from Front Royal, where we started.
The reading on my bike computer at the end.  105 miles and 9200 feet of climbing.

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