David Goodwin last month rode the Gappity Gap 200K Permanent and posted his incredible story to the DCRand list. And what a tale it was, as bad weather rolled in early and forced him into an after-dark, icy descent down Thornton Gap from Skyline Drive. David nicely agreed to let me republish it on TDR: click Here.
Gappity Gap 200k
Dec. 20, 2008
by David Goodwin
Deciding I’d take the initiative to ride the Gappity Gap “Extreme Winter Solstice Version” 200K Permanent, I headed out Saturday morning to meet Matt Settle to pick up the obligatory cue sheet and brevet card. We agreed to meet at the Gainesville IHOP at 5:30 a.m. After a few words I was on my way to the start in Sperryville, at the base Thornton Gap, the first of the route’s five passes. I couldn’t even imagine what I would later experience some 12 hours later on my return across and back down Thornton’s. Every cyclist knows that one of the most key pieces of winter riding gear is the correct base layer-and I’d forgotten mine!
I decided to improvise by using the long sleeved, thin wool sweater I was wearing to the start. I placed this over my sleeveless polypro t-shirt and under my winter cycling jacket figuring problem solved and started off. Winter riding in mountains has its special challenges. I produced a huge volume of sweat in the first 30 minutes of the climb. Overdressed? Incorrect base layer? In what would be a crucial good decision, given that I’d be repeating this nine more times over the course of the day, I pulled to the side of the road and attempted to fix the problem now, early in the ride. I came up with the solution of removing the wool sweater and riding with only the sleeveless undershirt, bib shorts, bib tights, and cycling jacket as top layers. PERFECT! This was working–breathing on the climbs and keeping the wind from freezing my chest on the decent.
Shenandoah Valley exhibited its stark winter beauty with extraordinarily lonely views quite different from my previous excursions around Skyline Drive. I rode through Luray started up Edith Gap taking in some of the best views of the day-the town of Luray, Shenandoah River, and fields of hay rolls. Edith was making me work and even in my 34×29 I was still hitting the lever looking for a little extra gear. Note to self-go easy on the Christmas cookies. Before I knew it I had descended Edith, climbed Edinburgh Gap, controlled at Bo’s, passed Larkin’s in Columbia Furnace, and was headed up Wolf’s Gap to West Virginia.
The ride to the turnaround in Lost River was hard as always. The temperature was at least five degrees cooler in West Virginia but my layering system was working fine. I made it to the famous Lost River Grill in about 5:30, looking and feeling like a Popsicle. Did you ever try the soups here? They are AWESOME — cream of mushroom was my pick. I spent about 15 minutes there and asked about the weather forecast. Speaking of which…I’d been looking at the forecast for several days and knew that there was some weather forecast for the valley for LATE Saturday night/early Sunday morning. Folks in Lost River said don’t worry, it’s not supposed to be bad until 11 tonight or so. “But you better pedal fast anyway!”
I thought this was good advice and headed out to climb the hard side of Miller’s Gap, then up and over Wolf Gap back to the control in Edinburgh. A half mile from the top of Wolf Gap I started feeling more and more moisture in the air — like a fine mist. Crossing the gap to the east side was a completely different scene — fog and light but cold rain and very wet roads. Seems like the forecast was about seven hours off! Have I said lately how much I love full fenders and a mud flap?
The epic-ness of the day really started after leaving the Edinburgh control. I had this sickening feeling in my stomach about the final 30 some miles and having to ride all of it in the dark and wet. I changed the batteries in my rear blinky, donned my rain jacket over my winter jacket, attached a second blinky to the back of my rain jacket and headed out. The climb over Edinburgh gap was OK and I had no problems or issues with any drivers the entire day. Descending Edinburgh Gap to Kings Crossing was OK with the cars being patient behind me. Schmidt lights are so bomb proof, BTW.
I’m thinking to myself, “just two more climbs and I’m back to the car”. Dry clothes, heat, and food await! I also realized that if I even stopped for a moment there would be no way I’d be able to continue. Something about that feeling of being totally committed to a course of action! Things truly began to go “full on” near the summit of Edith Gap with freezing rain and fog so thick my light could only illuminate the next 10 feet. My rear derailleur was beginning to freeze as well — at least I could use the 27 and 29! Upon spending at least 2mm of my brake pads on the steep decent of Edith Gap I rolled into Luray to start the final climb, Thornton’s Gap. I was about 15 miles from my car at this point.
As I rolled through Luray, a bit of joy began to creep into my tired, wet, body — dry roads! Edith Gap was blocking the rain and wind. The misery was over. I started to formulate how I could call Papa John’s Pizza and have some kind of salty pizza ready for me to pick up in Warrenton. Half way up the final climb I was experiencing perfect conditions — bone dry roads, completely clear, light and courteous traffic. When I hit 1,000 feet or so I noticed a much similar feeling to my second ascent of Wolf Gap. Moisture and wind! All the cars coming down the mountain had their blinkers on. One driver actually stopped and told me that “the top was kind of slick”. Uh Oh!
This time the climb up Thornton’s never seemed to end. Switchback after switchback and more freezing mist and wind. After another 20 minutes I reached a straight section that just had to be near the top and was completely socked in with fog. I was distracted by flashing emergency vehicle lights a half mile ahead before realizing that I had just ridden my bike up on a sheet of solid ice. Just as I started to slip, I was able to unclip my right foot and get it down on the ground.
Folks, I had to just flat out walk the next mile, pushing my bike pathetically under the overpass of the Blue Ridge Parkway and down the other side. I walked up to the emergency vehicle that had stopped to help a stranded vehicle and knocked on the window. I said, “How are the roads further down the mountain?” He says, “The sand truck just went down. I reckin’ you can ride it.” I just started laughing at this point. I was only five miles from my car. Gappity Gap would still not let me go and was punishing me most severely for the audacity (stupidity?) of trying to ride this permanent in winter. I walked another quarter mile off the top and decided the prospect of walking the rest of the way back to the car was just not going to work.
I mounted the bike, clipped one foot in and balanced the other on the pedal and started rolling down. Staying in the sand and being really light on the brakes seemed to work — I was able to make a dozen miles per hour or so descending. If the weather on Edith had been a 10, the decent of Thornton’s Gap would be, in Spinal Tap lingo, an “11”. It was full-on raining those last five miles back to Sperryville and I froze solid! My cork bar tape was completely encased in ice. Even more comically, my canvas handlebar bag that was soaked from the day’s ride had frozen solid as well. I flicked the map case on top to remove the ice that was blocking my view. My face and eye sockets were frozen in some kind of twisted grin as I pedaled furiously back to the car. At that point I would have killed for some of Ed’s special randonneur Tiger Balm. (Ed. note: David means Kiehl’s All-Sport Non-Freeze Face Protector.)
About two miles from the end I realized that I had a car following me closely but not passing. When I turned into the parking lot I realized that it was RBA Matt Settle out to check on me! I got my card stamped at 8:21 p.m. (due to a 7:23 a.m. start, my total time was 12:58.) I warmed up in Matt’s car to the point where I could actually speak. After recounting the day and complementing Matt on his permanent, I stowed my gear in my own car and headed back home.
I only wish I had taken a photo of that frozen solid Bertoud canvas bag — that really said it all. Randonneuring is always such an adventure!