Woody Allen once adapted an old Yiddish proverb saying:
'If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.'
Regardless of your religious predilection or lack thereof, the same could be said of any impartial entity, Life, Weather, Circumstance.
The plan last night was to turn out a hundred mile day and, in a single push, go from Sarah and Scott’s (Gen’s aunt and uncle) in York, PA to Washington DC. Spirits bolstered by our success traveling between Salfordville and York the previous day, we were confident it was an achievable objective. As a precaution, I had texted my friend and mentor Lindsay Oberman to let her know that we might be in need of an escape plan at her childhood home in Gaithersburg, MD (35 miles shy of our day’s finish line). Last night I stayed up until midnight plotting and replotting course after course attempting to find the path of least resistance for the day.
We are quickly learning the meta-game of evaluating a route by the numbers.
86 miles? – No problem if it’s only 3,500 ft of climbing with a 10 mph tail wind.
You end up dealing with this balancing act of obstacles.
- Climbing Elevation
- Total Distance
- Climbing Grade
- Travel Surface
- Road Safety
- Population Density
Any one of those factors can be a dealbreaker. A 50 mile ride through the Bronx, Hoboken, Jersey City and Newark proved to be a longer day than several of the higher mileage days. While it was a tremendously direct route, it put us through dozens and dozens of red lights and high traffic thoroughfares.
The Ridgefield Day had a lower amount of climbing than several other days, but the grade of those climbs was absolutely crushing to the point that we were forced to walk bikes.
The first day of our trip we lacked conditioning, but 15-20mph headwinds sealed the deal on difficulty encountered.
Our Lancaster County day was high mileage, but over very consistent terrain with few stop signs and virtually no traffic lights.
Rail trails offer unobstructed riding and low elevation variability, but the fine gravel surface causes significantly greater rolling resistance which means coasting is a less frequent opportunity.
Sticking to bike paths or bicycle routes can be indirect and add extra miles but riding a less circuitous route can mean biking on roads with no shoulder, high speed limits and cars who have no patience for two loaded cyclists.
I plotted the trip 4 different ways:
- had difficult climbing, and was on roads unsuited for biking.
the route we chose
) It was longer but those miles meant less climbing and sticking to marked cycle routes with a 10 mile stretch of rail trail at the beginning and bike paths at the end.
– Go west to Gettysburg before turning south towards DC. This route was 1,200 feet less climbing with much more even terrain as it avoided the ridgeline that we ended up taking
– Go east along bike routes and connect with the East Coast Greenway, a coastal route that runs from Maine to Florida. This would take us through Annapolis and Baltimore.
In the end we made the compromise of the 110 mile route assuming it would be a manageable distance with elevation gain that was comparable to days we had already completed.
We ate a hurried breakfast due to my morning tardiness and were ready to start biking, As we pulled out of the driveway Sarah shouted out “Wait! Picture!” And we realized that we had neglected to take a picture the previous night with the whole family. We dismounted and took a quick photo with Sarah and Scott and were back on the road.
With little effort we were on the rail trail running out of York. Quickly I realized today was not going to be the easy day I had hoped for. While Gen cruised ahead with little effort, I exhibited some key differences in our relative setups. While we have the same model bikes (the Trek 520), I am taller by about 6 inches, I am wider, I am 30+ pounds heavier and my bike is larger. Furthermore I have fatter tires as insurance against pinch flats. All of these small things add up to making me a slower bicyclist compared to Genevieve the tiny bicycle jockey.
As she cruised down the rail trail into the steady headwind I hopelessly tried to keep pace only to find that I simply couldn’t get into a rhythm this morning and finally decided to just bike at a pace that I could maintain without exhausting myself.
Our planned route diverted from the rail trail and we were soon back on local country roads that wound up and over hill and dale.
An aside on Stockholm-like Syndrome in Bicycle Touring
an emotional attachment to a captor formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate for survival.
Early on in the trip I got excited about going down hills and would dread the long climbs that we encountered. I’ve found in the last 2 weeks this trend has reversed itself. While I still enjoy the thrill of going fast down the large hills, in New England, going down a hill often means the necessity of climbing another. The thrill of going 30mph for 1 minute does not come close to mitigating 6 minutes of drudgery that follows to regain the elevation lost.
So I have come to regard coasting downhill with the distaste of a person who just ate an entire box of ice-cream sandwiches. Sure it felt good in the moment but the aftermath is hardly worth the momentary pleasure.
No, my real friend is the climb, because I know every foot of elevation we climb is one less for the day, one fewer hill that I will climb on this trip, it is a finite countdown that I am gradually chipping away at and will overcome. I am filled with purpose and in those moments I understand the true misery of Sisyphus is chasing the rock back down the mountain able to consider and contemplate what is to follow. Climbing rewards, coasting punishes. So I will continue to regard the rush of speed as bittersweet and look to the next climb eagerly anticipating putting another obstacle behind us.
We passed another state line (Maryland), and posed for a picture taking the opportunity to reenact the rivalry of our birthplaces, Gen (New York) North of the Mason Dixon, and me (Virginia) South.
With the revelry out of the way we continued down the country road that offered minimal shoulder.
The day trudged as I spun my pedals in the lowest gears barely making forward progress. My legs have ached since the first day of the trip. That slow dull ache of fatigue that never really subsides but eventually becomes background noise that you learn to ignore. The difficulty can be differentiating the dull from the noteworthy; "midway" through the day at around the 50 mile mark I thought to myself how convenient it had been that neither of us had experienced any overuse injuries from our daily crushing. Not more than a mile up the road, during a long but low exertion climb, an intense pain shot up the lateral aspect of my right knee and suddenly I found myself barely able to bend my leg.
I quickly unclipped my cleat from the pedal and shouted to Gen that I had a problem. I explained that I might have just injured my leg but tried to downplay the severity of the pain and the concern I had as to its prognosis. I told her I needed to stop immediately and ice my knee and take NSAID's in hope that it was just a cramp. She took me seriously and we waited for the light to change. I tested my leg and found that I could not pedal at all on the right side. Panicked, I walked my bike across the intersection and coasted into the shopping plaza.
As Gen dug the ibuprofen out of the panniers I asked the waitress if I could trouble her for a bag of ice. We ordered a couple cokes and some food and I tried to quell the fear that I had just knocked a week off our trip with some show-stopping injury. Moments later, in my dazed fear, I clumsily knocked the whole glass of Coke and ice into my lap, dousing my bike shorts and my spirits further. Gen looked on sympathetically as I sullenly accepted my state of affairs and sat in my little puddle of self pity.
We discussed our available options in terms of finishing the day. Gen was worried about the prospect of me stubbornly continuing despite injury and exacerbating the problem further. In the time we had sat, the sky's collection of cumulus had metamorphosed to cumulonimbus that hung menacingly ready to dump the forecasted 3" of rain that was aiming for the region. We knew that camping for the night would be an amphibian affair, and we both agreed we would sleep indoors that night no matter what.
The previous day's call to Lindsay Oberman was appearing to be unexpectedly prescient. We looked at google maps and determined that they were only another 16 miles down the road. On any other day that is a distance that would have been entirely manageable but it was of dubious achievability at the moment. Gen gave me the option to save face, suggesting that we get picked up and spare my leg. I told her that I understood it would sound stupid to her but that unless we were going to get dropped back off in that plaza the next day to start biking again there was no way that I was going to take a ride.
An aside on style in adventure sports and life
Style and ethics are two central hot topics of interest and debate in the realm of rock climbing. Achievements are not so binary as to be whether or not you just got to the top, it was also how you got there.
Was it on lead?
Did you pull on gear?
Was it bolted or traditional?
Was it clean or did you take falls and not lower to the belay?
Did you do it in a single push or over several days?
High profile climbers routinely face criticism from armchair alpinists who are ready to invalidate any ascent that they deem substandard in style. Climbers of the 1970's pitted themselves against mortal consequences in the effort to establish first ascents of climbs that would survive scrutiny from any degree of nit-picking.
Thankfully, the modern climbing community is less hellbent on establishing new routes pushing the absolute limit of personal risk but the fundamental of style remains a critical pillar.
This is something I have always found appealing about climbing; it is a sport that professes humility through its system of self-reporting. You lose nothing lying and boasting about your false accolades other than being perceived as a pompous twit and potentially putting an unwitting partner at risk. The real deterrent though is embarassment and disgust with yourself for knowing that you represented an achievement that you cheated to earn. In terms of free-climbing (climbing with your hands and feet using a rope unassisted by artificial means) it's pretty black and white in terms of validity:
You pulled on a quickdraw to bypass a crux section? -
You fell on the last two moves before clipping the chains because your shoes were gritty and then repeated those last moves to finish? -
- You skipped the opening moves by traversing in from easier terrain? - Doesn't count.
You started at the base of the climb or pitch and without falling or weighting the rope completed the length of the climb grabbing only the rock. -
If we aren't talking about free-climbing and all you care about is pulling down hard and having fun then none of this matters at all. Yank on every cam, stand on every bolt, jug the rope. That's another type of climbing that is still very fun, but don't report it as something it isn't. Don't misrepresent yourself in the process.
Pursue achievements in life in a manner that you can be satisfied with afterwards and not regard with regret. Perfection is an unattainable goal but set the standards by which you will measure your satisfaction with an end goal and stick to them as best you can.
For me, the bike trip was envisioned as a cross-country journey. A personal vision-quest of sorts that meant traveling coast to coast, across the continental United States, unassisted by motorized transport. For me, that meant by any means necessary in terms of time and efficiency but no mile could be called earned if it wasn't with the bike. For me, style superseded fun. I wanted to be able to say I had set out to do something and done it, and not have an * on that statement with a footnote to explain some exception.
I related my obstinateness to Gen and watched her conceal the dismay at my stubbornness and arguable stupidity. She expressed her dislike for the idea of backtracking for the sake of contiguity and asked what we should do. I told her that I would walk the bike up every hill and coast down the other side for the remainder of the day if necessary to reach our destination but that skipping miles was out of the question for me. She was an incredibly good sport and permitted me my honor under the condition that we immediately discontinue if my knee started to feel worse and I was increasing my injury.
I agreed and we readied to set off.
Having quickly googled the pain I found that a possible culprit was improper cleat position that caused torsional distress by being too toe-in heel-out. I made some quick adjustments and resolved to bike on my heel with my toes facing outwards like a duck on the right side as I found it was possible to ride without discomfort.
We pedaled gingerly out of the shopping plaza and I did my best not to think about what 16 miles might mean for the state of my knee and how long it would likely take.
In a stroke of extreme fortune we found that the place where I had been injured almost exactly coincided from the descent from the Mt Airy ridgeline and we started a long series of downhill sections abbreviated by short and manageable climbs.
In short order Gen let me know that we had already completed 6 miles and I felt my spirits lifting. If that was 1/3rd of the remaining trip, we could make it the whole 16. I alternated pedaling like a duck and shifting while pedaling with only one foot to not jolt the tender leg. The coasting continued and we were soon seeing signs for Gaithersburg. The rain began, meek at first but enough to warrant the donning of rainwear. I learned the aerodynamic limitations of biking while wearing the equivalent of a sail as I pushed through the steady headwinds.
Within 3 miles of the Shenks (Linsday's parents), the heavens opened and delivered their surfeit of precipitation onto our bikes and bodies but it didn't matter because I knew we would make it and wouldn't be sleeping outside.
We arrived soaked and were greeted with towels, a dry garage to store our water-logged bicycles, a shower and a hot meal. I spent the evening icing my knee and taking ibuprofen while Gen and Nancy watched Grey's Anatomy. Jeff and Nancy have been wonderful impromptu hosts and now we are gratefully going to bed in warm bedrooms instead of an inundated tent.
Tomorrow, we have only 40 miles of easy downhill and flat pedaling along bike paths to reach our friends in Washington DC where we will have two days off to socialize and recover.
It may not have gone according to plan, but we did today together, under our own power, in style, and I can go to bed clear and content.