I was awake early this morning. After washing up and making a last-minute check of my bicycle and gear, I was out of the motel by 6:30. The morning was warm, promising to be hot and humid. At this early hour the normally busy main drag through Front Royal was nearly deserted. I coasted down into the center of town, then climbed back up and out of town heading south towards the entrance to the Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. On the south side of town, I stopped at a diner I had spotted yesterday afternoon, only to find a sign in the front window stating they would be closed for two days due to a death in the family. I settled for a bagel and coffee from a bagel shop across the street. Not much of a breakfast to fortify one-self for a long day of climbing mountains, but I wasn't willing to cycle all the way back through town to the only other diner I knew of, which was in the opposite direction from the motel where I had spent the night.
I turned off the 4-lane Route 340 into the Skyline Drive a bit after 7:00 AM. After stopping to take a snapshot or two of the entrance sign, I paid my $5.00 at the entrance station and was on my way! I had to ask the attendant for a map of the Drive. Perhaps they are used to cyclists here, and don't automatically load one down with brochures and other paperwork.
At this early hour there was almost no traffic on the Drive. Since the first 5 miles of the Drive is all uphill, I climbed very slowly in my granny gear. With plenty more climbing ahead, I wanted to save my legs as much as possible. Moving along at 6 mph, I was able to give lots of attention to my surroundings. Without the noise of other traffic, I could hear birds in the trees, as well as the scurryings of the smaller animals in the undergrowth on both sides of the road. Underneath the overhanging trees, it was still cool and damp from the night before.
As I slowly made my way up from the valley to the top of the first 5-mile climb at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, I was passed by only one motor vehicle, driven by a park ranger. In this quiet and peaceful setting, while my legs rhythmically pumped up the not-too-steep grade, my mind was soon wandering far and wide. Suddenly, a voice several feet behind my left shoulder said "Hi!", and I was so startled I nearly steered off the road as an unladen cyclist chugged past me.
The numerous overlooks along the Skyline Drive provide both opportunity and incentive to take frequent breaks. While the high humidity eliminated any grandiose views of the surrounding countryside, there seemed to always be something interesting to see. At many of the overlooks vultures could be seen riding the winds which were pushed up and over the mountains. There are two types of vultures along the Blue Ridge, Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures. Even though the expansive views were cut off by the humidity hanging in the air, stopping at the various overlooks also gave me a sense of my increasing height above the valley floor below.
In this way I slowly made my way toward the days goal, Big Meadows campground. In addition to the frequent short breaks provided by the overlooks, I also took longer breaks at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, Elkwallow Wayside, and Panorama. At these stops, I would make a point of eating more substantial snacks, as well as mixing and drinking a quart of Gatorade to supplement the plain water I was drinking throughout the day. Nevertheless, by the time I had reached Panorama at Thornton Gap, I was becoming noticeably tired. Once I started climbing from Thornton Gap towards Big Meadow, I realized the afternoon was going to be long and difficult. I walked many of the hills along this stretch. Indeed, it took me a full hour to travel the last two uphill miles to Big Meadows.
This first day had drained me to such an extent that as soon as I had arrived at Big Meadows, I asked to extend my one night reservation to two nights. My legs were still drained after a nights rest, and it was all I could manage simply to cycle the short mile or so from the campground to the store and back. This second day was passed in reading a paperback book, and taking occasional strolls around the campground, lodge, and out to the Wayside and camp store. By the end of the day I was feeling much better and was once again looking forward to getting on the road in the morning.
In the evening, I attended the Ranger's program on life in the Blue Ridge Mountains before the park. On the way back to my campsite, I noticed another group of three cycle-tourists eating their dinner by candle-lantern. Of course, this required a delay in my normally early bed-time, as we swapped introductions and tales from the road. They too had had a difficult time climbing up from Front Royal, taking ten hours to make the 51 mile trip.
The days statistics:
- 56.2 miles
- 6:20:04 riding time
- 8.8 mph average speed
Day 3: Big Meadows Campground to Waynesboro