My Virginia Highlands Mini-Tour Story

I’ve written up our three-day mini-tour this past weekend on a separate page. It was truly a challenging, stunning and enjoyable 600K over some of Virginia’s and West Virginia’s best touring roads. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are in the Mid-Atlantic to have such wonderful countryside so close at hand.

Monterey, Va. Day Two, Turn Right. Day Three, Go Straight.

Last year Crista Borras designed a two-day 400K tour based on her “The Devil’s Wicked Stepmother” permanent from Middletown, Va., for riders preparing for the Granite Anvil 1200K. Because it is a wickedly hilly route, Crista dubbed the tour version the “Granite Advil” ride.

As we look ahead to the Pennsylvania Randonneurs Endless Mountains 1000K next month, MG and I decided the long July 4 weekend was a perfect opportunity to extend this ride to a three day, 600K mini-tour — adding the “ES” to the title, for “extra strength!” That was my little tongue-in-cheek joke, knowing that the real purpose was just the opposite of getting strong — it was to get in as many climbing miles as we could, to build up our legs for the Endless Mountains’ notoriously challenging profile.

At the overnight stop in Monterey on Crista’s route, we booked a room for two nights and added a middle day loop to Covington, Va. and back before completing the GA route on the third day. This plan worked out well — the odometer read 376 miles upon our arrival Saturday back in Middletown. The tour had the intended effect. We were spent! Our plan to ride some more on Sunday was long gone by the time we went to dinner Saturday with aching legs and a preference for padded seating.

The weather for our tour could not have been better. We enjoyed northerly tailwinds, low humidity and temperatures in the 70s under cloudless skies during the 140 miles on Thursday. Friday and Saturday saw similar clear conditions and slightly warmer temperatures in the 80s. For once, we caught a break in the hot summer days that had been in force in D.C. before we left and after we got back.

See my photos at my Flickr page. MG has also posted photos at her Flickr page and a report at her Chasing Mailboxes blog.

See maps of our routes and our ride data at my Garmin Connect page.

Day One: Will We Ever Get There?

We stayed at the Super 8 in Middletown before starting on Thurday, July 1. A cool front swept in on Wednesday and the morning air was delightfully cool Thursday morning with a light northwest breeze. Yours truly dawdled and held us up until 8:15 a.m. This would put time pressure on us later in the day to finish in daylight.

We had packed very light, taking just what the two of us could carry in our large, 24 liter Carradice Camper longflap saddlebag. That meant light rain jackets, arm and leg warmers, extra bike shorts and socks, one lightweight outfit for dinner and a few toiletry items. The hills were going to slow us down enough without panniers.

The first day of the route is all about ascending, and our GPS logged 11,379 feet of climbing for the day. The profile dips briefly after crossing the West Virginia border but then gradually gains elevation almost the entire rest of the way.

Day One: Middletown, Va. to Monterey, Va.

From Middletown, the 48 miles on Rt. 55 to Wardensville, W.V. were quiet and we had a civilized sit-down lunch at O’Neill’s in Moorefield around noon. This left us 92 to go with about eight hours of daylight, and we made the most of the tailwind, steaming south through green valleys. We didn’t realize we were gaining altitude, and the ride felt harder than we expected.

Our Co-Motion at Rest on CR3, Sweedlin Valley Road, W.V.

We made decent time to Brandywine at mile 88, where we stopped at the BP and witnessed the funniest store stop of the trip. Two minivans pulled up with moms and kids, who commenced running around and shouting at each other about who did what to whom when mom wasn’t looking and who should get back into the car and be quiet (though not as politely said as that). As we sat on a bench, the pay phone started ringing.

Then a cool customer in a black VW hatchback pumped gas, rolled down the windows, turned up his death metal music to ear-splitting volume, and peeled out with a screech. The phone kept ringing. Just as quickly, the kids and moms all piled into their vans and tore off as well.

As we put on our helmets, a peaceful family rolled up in their minivan and two little boys piled out with dad. The bigger boy knew exactly what to do — he ran over to the ringing phone. “Dad, should we answer it?” We chuckled for five miles after that one.

Our next stop came unexpectedly. As we rode through Sugar Grove and past the Navy Informations Operations Command, I was struck by the thought of a Navy base in West Virginia and snapped a picture.

Within minutes we were passed by a friendly looking Navy man in a spotless blue pickup truck who stopped ahead and waved us over. He nicely reminded me that photos of military base entrances are forbidden and asked me for my camera. I expected to surrender my memory card, but he merely asked me to delete the image. I complied, he asked us about our ride, and we shaked hands and went on. MG said she wanted him to pose for a picture with me, but decided that was not the right time!

Next we climbed the brutal Moyer’s Gap Road, mile 99. At the top I nearly toppled us when I told MG we were going to have to walk. Just as we stopped pedaling, I decided in an instant that the road was so steep that we’d fall down if we tried to clip out of the pedals. I yelled to MG to keep going, and somehow we managed to keep the bike upright as we stabbed the cranks over up to the summit. Lucky for me she could not call a taxi at that instant! Note to self — don’t change plans mid-pedal on a granny-gear struggle up a wall of a climb.

After the fast descent and nine sublime miles along the rushing waters aside the dramatic Thorn Creek Road, we ticked off the remaining 29 miles to the climb over to Monterey, watching the sun descend toward the top of the western mountain ridges.

Back into Virginia and the Blue Grass Valley

We recalled Chuck Wood’s desire to have his and Crista’s photo taken on the picturesque climb up Wilmer Mountain Road into Highland County, Va., then slogged our way through the ascending rollers of the lovely Blue Grass Valley toward the switchbacked Rt. 250 climb over Monterey Mountain. In the day’s last light we got up and over the top to arrive in Monterey at 9 p.m. The owner of the High’s Restaurant was just locking the door across from our hotel, the worn but friendly Highland Inn.

That late departure of ours (by me!) meant our dinner consisted of convenience store pizza and snacks. We were too tired to care. After 140 miles we were so happy to be showered and in bed that a real dinner could wait until Friday.

Day Two: Operation Dinner

The plan today was to ride the 55 miles south on Rt. 220 through Warm Springs and Hot Springs to Covington, Va. We had some options for the return route and left it open to decide during the ride how far we could go and still make it took to get back to Monterey for a real dinner. At breakfast at the now-open High’s Restaurant, I mentioned to MG that most of the way was relatively easy valley riding. That was true for the most part until we hit Bath County, where we started two long, gradual ascents, Wilson Mountain and Warm Springs Mountain. Mary reminded me often of my optimistic memory about this stretch.

Day Two: Monterey, Va. to Covington, Va. and return

Through Hot Springs we gawked at the golf courses and big homes, not to mention The Homestead resort, as we scrambled over some big rollers headed south. We took pictures at the Falling Springs Falls just before the climb and fast descent to Covington. Our lunch stop was the Main Street Shoppe in Covington’s struggling downtown. It looked like a former dress shop, with dresses hung in display booths in the walls. The food was just great. We had cappuccino (MG), espresso (me) and sandwiches, and great hospitality. It was worth the trip.

Falling Spring Falls near Covington

For time’s sake, we decided to ride back up Rt. 220 for two miles and then divert onto Rt. 687 Jackson River Road, which ran north but in the adjacent valley to the west. We found it to be a peaceful locals road that ran past farms and small communities of homes with soaring ridges on both sides. This stretch was one of those we encounter during a tour when time seems to slow down and all we have to do is pedal and talk and soak in the quiet countryside.

A peaceful stretch along Jackson River Road, Rt. 687

At Rt. 39 we turned right and climbed over the ridge and dropped down to Warm Springs and Rt. 220, and commenced climbing the two mountains again before the valley ride back to Monterey. Our other option was to turn left, ride up to Rt. 600 and take that to Rt. 84 and then back to 220, but that would have added six miles and another climb.

We arrived back in Monterey at 7 p.m., showered and immediately went to the Mountain Hideaway restaurant at the corner. “Operation Dinner” was a success. Statistics=113 miles, 7,107 feet of elevation gain.

Day Three: Climb Your Brains Out

When Crista’s first cue for this 120-mile day says, “begin the first of I-forgot-how-many major climbs,” it’s hard to know that overall, the route has more descending that climbing. We would end up with 5,477 feet of elevation gain but we lost 7,646 feet as well.

Day Three: Monterey, Va. to Middletown, Va.

We would start out, however, with four major climbs. The first, Jack’s Mountain, took us to the highest peak of the day, 3,350 feet. A six-mile descent led to the impressively hard Bullpasture Mountain at 2,700 feet, then an unnamed peak in between, capped off by Shenandoah Mountain at 2,936 feet.

Shenandoah Mountain Summit, the final big climb of the four this day

Shenandoah is the most breathtaking, with a final switchback that reveals a panoramic view to the west. We stopped to take a break at the top and shoot some photos. This spot marked our farewell to the Blue Grass Valley area for now. We’ll be back.

The rest of the day went by steadily over familiar roads. We stopped at Francesco’s Restaurant in Bridgewater where we ate and drank with gusto and watched the World Cup game on the TV. The slow, windy miles to lonely Singers Glen somehow passed and by late afternoon we were at our old haunt, Larkin’s Store, on Rt. 42. The sun was the hottest of the trip by now and we cooled off on the front benches before wrapping up the trip over the descending rollers of Back Road and the climb back up Rt. 11 to Middletown.

MG gets that obligatory cow photo at Singers Glen

Traffic was picking up as we got closer and closer to the finish, signaling that the July 4 rush was on. We decided it was OK to get off the road and relax after three days in the saddle. We had a knock in the front hub as we finished and that was more than enough to convince us to drop our plans for a Sunday ride.

Epilogue: What Have We Learned?

This was our first try at “light” touring, and we found that in mid-summer we hardly needed anything more than riding clothes and a set of shorts and T-shirts to wear to dinner. The tandem was far more manageable over the big climbs without panniers.

Breaking a 600K into three days, however, does not make it that much easier. We got more sleep, for sure. But we were very tired by the end. We saw the entire course in daylight — that part was nice!

If you don’t know where to go, ride one of Crista’s routes. They never fail to impress.

When touring, everything takes longer than expected. Maybe it was all the photo and rest and food breaks. We didn’t leave ourselves much time off the bike, which was OK, but by the end we were ready to stop.

Try to get to the Blue Grass Valley area every year or two. It has some of the best roads in Virginia — as long as you bring some low gears!


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