The Crooked Road: Bike Virginia (2008)

Bike Virginia, the premier Virginia bicycle adventure event, held its 2008 tour in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Over the course of five days and routes that covered hundreds of miles along gorgeous, pastoral, rolling hills and canopied farm roads, the 2008 tour was dubbed “The Crooked Road.” An apt description, as it turned out (and right and left and up and down).

For most all of our five days, the weather could not be more perfect.

One entertaining aspect of the Bike VA event are the team jerseys. One team wore a jersey that, as National Lampoon once said, was more sick than funny. The front read “Donner Party.” On the back, the jersey read “We eat the slow ones.” Another team was known as “Team Lard Butt.” A third proudly let us know that they were “Old Guys Who Are Fat in the Winter.”

Like my former life paddling nearly untouched creeks and rivers in the backwoods of Florida, our routes displayed to us the “Real Tennessee” and the “Real Virginia.” Countryside that was surely much like it was 200 years ago, before contemporary society introduced sprawl and strip commercial development to America.

Oddly, on our first two days, the Bike Virginia routes took us on more Tennessee road mileage than Virginia road mileage. But this turns out to be perfectly fine to me, as our glimpse of Tennessee shows us a beautiful portion of that state.

I start my first-ever Bike Virginia in a recklessly unprepared way: I have not ridden a bicycle for more than 10 miles on a single ride in several years (even though I am a daily bicycle commuter). In addition, I am the only one of the 1,800 bicyclists on the tour who is riding a VERY fat tire mountain bicycle (which has me working about four times as hard on the 237 miles I somehow cover during the week).

Not only that, but I learn that I must replace my damaged bicycle seat on the first day, and therefore find myself on a brand new seat that has not been broken in…Ouch.

AM I NUTS??????

Everyone else seems to be on much more appropriate, feather-light, extremely costly racing road bikes made of titanium, aluminum, and other exotic metal alloys.

Indeed, my handicap was such that on more than one occasion, one of the riders informs me that I am “his hero” and that I am a “manly man” for what I am doing with my ill-suited bicycle. I respond by letting him know that rather than heroic manliness, I am instead merely a naively unprepared fool (who gave his leg muscles quite a work-out over those five days).

On our first day, the route takes us to Holston Dam, said by someone on the tour to be the largest dam in the world when it was built in the 1930s.

I soon learn that in this part of the country, roads are given colorful names: Troublesome Hollow. Mock Knob Road. Spoon Gap Road.

We have lunch at a public park. It is the first time I have been to a public park where an actual Apache Attack Helicopter is mounted and angled aggressively towards the picnic tables. “All we are saying,” the monument seems to be saying, “is give war a chance…”

We discover that the town of Bristol has an excellent, walkable main street. Closed off to traffic for Bike VA, we enjoy good restaurants (especially Shanghai, the Asian place we select), live music, and dancing.

Each of our destinations puts us on the grounds of a public school, where most of us set up our tents to create what the tour refers to as “Tent City.” Quite a sight to see so many colorful nylon domes clustered together in all of the available open spaces at the school. Day two (like our other days) at Tent City breaks early. We bicycle to Kingsport – a 33-mile ride.

At 15 miles out, we come to a hill that is about a third of a mile long. It is a 20-percent grade. So steep that even us, the elite bicyclists of all of Virginia, are required by the tour organizers to walk our bicycles up the hill.

As I slowly ascend this cruel hill, I mutter to those nearby that these are the kinds of hills that Lance Armstrong wins the Tour de France with. Surely, I point out to others struggling up this cliff, no homes within a quarter mile of this hill of doom can feasibly own a bicycle.

As the hill makes the neighborhood un-bikeable. 

At 33 miles today, this is a “day of rest” for us.

Today, my butt remains stingingly sore from the 50 miles of abuse I had given it on my new bike seat on the first day.

Downtown Kingsport’s main street (Broad Street) shows that the City has made a valiant effort to bring its main street back to life. But the effort seems to be failing. The sidewalks and small number of stores are empty. A number of buildings are vacant. At least while we are here on a Sunday afternoon – but probably other days of the week as well.

Broad Street seems like an empty ghost town. Antique shops, a bookstore or two, but little else. The primary problem: “Gigantism.” A disease that is killing communities all over America.

For example, Broad has angled on-street parking in the middle of the street, but the space needed to accomplish this creates enormous spacing between facing buildings. As a result, no sense of enclosure is provided. This is particularly a problem when cars are not parked in this huge space. To add insult to this unwalkable misery, the cross streets tend to be over-sized, four-lane monster roads.

A relic of a better past is an old train station that terminates the Broad Street vista. Now a bank, the building is picturesque with its historic, vista-terminating location. But as a bank, it is unable to energize the street.

Roundabouts on Broad Street are somewhat admirable, but the deflection created by the inner roundabout circle is insufficient to properly slow cars and create attentive drivers.

In sum, Kingsport’s downtown suffers from an over-supply of oversized spaces and over-sized streets.

Our third day of riding once again puts us on gorgeous routes. Rolling farmlands, forested roads, and hazy, misty mountains dapple and paint our ride.

At one point, we reach a road construction zone. Here, a half mile of gravel road means that all the $3,000 thin-tired titanium bicycles must be walked. My lycra-clad companions who had been scoffing at me for my goofy mountain bicycle choice are now the impractical ones. They find themselves forced to walk their bicycles as I fly past them on my mountain bike.

It is payback time. The Day of Vindication.

Soon, however, I am reminded again of my blunderous decision to use a mountain bike. I miss a route I had intended to take at an intersection (in my own defense, I should note that I did so because a bicyclist was directing others to make a turn at an intersection, and I did so without knowing that she was doing this for others in her group, rather than everyone). This unintended turn adds three miles to my already excessive Monday distance. So I inflict even more abuse on my already smarting rear end.

The morning mist in the forested roads we ride greets us again the next morning. The route is particularly unusual today. I come upon a six-foot black snake coiled in the middle of the road, striking at us in its effort to defend itself from brightly colored monsters on wheels. Soon after, I pass bison and a peacock on a farm to my right, as well as goats and donkeys. After lunch, I pass by an exceptionally unusual barn. Its builders, oddly, had decided to build the barn in a location that was already occupied by an enormous boulder. Instead of building the barn NEXT to the boulder, the builders decided to wrap the barn OVER the boulder so that one side of the barn rises over the 8-foot boulder as if it is a frozen slinky.

Over the course of our five days of riding, we ride reasonably and surprisingly flat routes. It occurs to me that the reason the routes are often not extremely steep (despite the rolling valley terrain of the region we ride) is that the roads probably follow historic alignments that were laid out before the advent of motorized travel. Without the assistance of motors, the early settlers of these areas must have been obligated to select routes that minimized changes in elevation. Fortunately for us bicyclists, they did this rather successfully, and generally did so by following river valleys, therefore adding to the scenic nature of our bike routes.

One entertaining aspect of Bike VA 2008 is the rest stops. Not only are they well-equipped with food, cold liquids and restrooms, but nearly all of them feature a banjo player playing country mountain music for us.

After a particularly punishing, brutal, withering hill climb, some of us decide that a stream to our left is perfect therapy for our aching legs and feet. I leap at the opportunity, shuck my shoes and socks, and climb into the cool, rushing, shaded water. The small creek turns out to be a delight, with its small, gentle waterfalls soothing and cooling our muscles and skin.

The next morning, we dine at an in-town breakfast café called Chicken Little, which serves me authentic grits and a delicious omelet. Today, I am again happy to find an appropriate riding route for my fat-tire Cannondale, for I ride the unpaved, 17-mile Virginia Creeper Rail-Trail. Here, a fabulous tree canopy envelopes the riders, walkers and joggers. Great views of horsefarms and a wide river are also provided to trail users. Often, the Creeper carves through large rocks and boulders, forming human-built canyons.

After nine miles on the Creeper, I cannot resist the optional stop at the Alvarado Winery next to the trail. There, I sample five delicious wines. And am reminded of the plans for Bike VA 2009, when the planned region is the delightful rural wine country near Charlottesville VA. I intend to sample quite a few reds, whites and roses.

On our fourth day of riding, we find ourselves on seemingly endless ascents. The fifth and final day delivers perfect weather and more gorgeous landscapes.

Bike Virginia 2008, overall, was a superlative experience.


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