We usually ride Old Rag in the spring or summer, but this year we did it in the fall. Unfortunately we got record low temperatures, so it felt more like winter, at least early on. Having actually remembered to check the weather forecast, I knew it would be cold (forecast overnight low was 36F), so I packed a long-sleeve jersey, a rain jacket, tights, arm warmers, and a balaclava. But somehow I forgot my wool socks and my shoe covers. (I have this nice checklist to help me avoid forgetting things, but I sometimes forget to check the checklist.)
I broke the rear derailleur cable on my bike the weekend before the ride. It turns out that Campy shifter cables have a smaller head than Shimano cables, and my local bike shop doesn't stock the Campy version, which meant that I had to wait until the weekly shipment from QBP on Thursday, just two days before the brevet. Luckily nothing went wrong and my bike was ready on time.
I packed my stuff the night before so I wouldn't need to wake up until 5, which still felt way too early. I had a big bowl of cereal and left the house around 5:30, which got me to Warrenton by 6:30, in plenty of time for the 7:00 start. I was pre-registered so I just had to sign a waiver and get my brevet card, and drink some orange juice. We had a pretty small turnout, only 22 riders, probably because of the cold.
We left at 7. The group was immediately split by a red light, with two riders who beat the light several hundred yards out front, and the rest of us stuck behind. We all waited for it to turn green (really!) and then, with my usual early-morning silliness, I decided to ride across the gap and chase them down. They weren't going very fast, so I reached them right after the first turn of the day onto Culpeper Street, and then I came to my senses and decided to slow down and wait for reinforcements. Bill and Kelly caught and passed me on the first big downhill, which I descended with my usual lack of speed plus some extra braking to reduce the wind on my cold feet, and I chased back to form a front group of three. I went off the front briefly before the first small climb of the day, to test my legs, and the results were not encouraging. I was okay on the flats, but had no climbing power. I'm always slow in the cold, and the first cold ride of the season meant I wasn't acclimated. The power deficit, combined with the extra weight I'd been carrying all year, meant there was no way I'd be finishing with the front group.
Now that I knew, I went back behind Bill and Kelly and tried to think warm thoughts. I was warm except for my feet. I considered putting on my rain jacket, thinking that an extra-warm core might cause my body to send more warm blood to my feet, but decided against it because I didn't want to overheat. The three of us were soon joined by four more riders, and we stayed together until the secret control around mile 20.
I went into the secret control at the back of the group, and decided to eat a Gu packet while volunteer Mark was signing my card, and by the time I was ready to start, 5 of the riders were already moving out in front of me. Knowing that I couldn't climb well enough to stay with the group all day anyway, I decided not to chase back. One rider passed me, but I kept my speed down, and ended up riding solo for about the next 20 miles. The temperature started to climb, with my feet going from frigid to slightly chilly, and the rest of me going from fine to a bit warm. At one point Dave J. caught me from behind. I rode with him for a bit, but then he needed to stop, and I was by myself again, focused on navigation and making it to the first control so I could eat some lunch and lose a layer of clothes.
Then I entered the dog-infested section of the route. Around mile 40, on route 607, I saw a medium-sized brown dog standing in the middle of the road glaring at me. I'm not very good at reading dogs' intentions, but this one was big enough that I really didn't want to hit it, so I juked left then cut right and sprinted. It didn't chase me, so it was probably all just a waste of effort. A couple of miles later, on the same road, a tiny little dog (I'm not a dog expert, but my guess is half chihuahua, half squirrel) came running out of its yard yipping at me. I know the motorcycle rule of thumb that if an animal is small enough to eat in one meal, just ride straight and let it dodge you. But this dog looked dumb enough to run right into my wheels, so I went to the effort of dodging it. Luckily it's hard to run fast on two-inch legs, so it never got within five feet of me. And I continued riding along, muttering to myself about people who are too dumb to keep their dogs in their yards…
…When suddenly I heard fast footsteps behind me. Dog number three was the sneaky type. I never saw it until after I passed it, and it never barked, but it was chasing me and having no problem keeping up. Since I hadn't got a good look I didn't know if it was a real threat, so I reflexively sprinted. Going from 14 mph to 28 mph on cold legs is not such a smart idea — I felt a twinge in my right calf, and ignored it and kept on pedaling. The dog matched my speed for a while, though it started panting with the effort. After about a quarter mile the footsteps and heavy breathing stopped, and I looked back over my shoulder to see the dog loping back home. I guess it wasn't a biter, because it had me totally by surprise and didn't strike, but it had scared me badly. And I was afraid I might have pulled something. I muttered some more about irresponsible dog owners, and rode more vigilantly, but didn't see any more dogs in the road for the rest of the day.
It turned out my calf was okay — it stopped hurting after a few minutes. But I slowed down a bit more just in case, and got caught by four riders right before the 56-mile control at Yoder's Country Market. I matched their speed and rode in at the back of their group. Yoder's is one of the best controls ever. They have a clean bathroom, good food, and friendly workers. Unfortunately on a nice Saturday in the fall they also have way too many customers, so it took a few minutes to get my roast beef and salami and Swiss on wheat, but I needed a break anyway. I went outside and ate at a picnic table, where several other riders were hanging out. It was still cold in the shade, but warming up in the sun. I took off my balaclava and long-sleeved jersey and put on my arm warmers and left, riding alone again. I still had a full bottle of water, so I didn't bother filling up the empty one, with only 14 miles to the next control.
The route went through the little town of Madison, then onto the Blue Ridge Turnpike (with traffic) for a bit, then off onto empty side roads. Dave S. was in front of me and I pretty much matched his speed, but didn't quite catch up with him. Then, as we curved back toward the Blue Ridge Turnpike again, we hit a minor traffic jam of about 20 vehicles. I'd never seen traffic in this area before, so I was worried that there was a crash, but didn't see one. Just a bunch of cars. We turned off Blue Ridge Turnpike onto 670 toward Syria (pronounced sigh-REE-uh, so there's no danger of confusion with the country), and all the cars followed us. I chased up to Dave's wheel so that they'd only have to pass once rather than twice, but it was still kind of hair-raising every time one of them passed us with oncoming traffic way too close. Apparently there was some kind of popular apple festival going on. None of them hit us, and we eventually made it to Syria Mercantile. I bought a Mounds and a Coke and used the rather rustic bathroom in the warehouse across the street. Some guys in the warehouse were listening to the Virginia Tech game on the radio, but I didn't want to hear the score because I was Tivoing it, so I rushed through humming to myself. Then I left with George to ride up Etlan Road, over the foothills of Old Rag. (The actual summit of Old Rag is a popular hike, but not so bike-friendly.)
Luckily, the apple festival traffic didn't follow us up the hill. George warned me that he was having a slow day and that I'd probably end up dropping him. I told him that I was having a slow day too and he might end up dropping me. We ended up being equally slow, going up the steep switchbacks at about 4 mph. It's a steep climb but not very long, and soon enough we were going down the other side, and George blew past me. We rode together for the next few miles, and several other guys caught and passed us. Then while I was talking to another rider, George disappeared backwards — I guess he was right and he was having a slower day than I was. I kept going with a couple of other riders until the start of the hard multi-part climb up Round Hill Road, then they dropped me and I went up it nice and slowly. They call it the Three Meanies, but I'm not sure why because I'm pretty sure there are five hills not three. (Maybe two of them are less mean?)
One advantage of a cool day is that I made it up all the climbs without getting hot. I was slow but feeling fine otherwise, and made it alone to the Laurel Mills Store at mile 94 with no problems. I had another Coke and a Choco Taco. (Basically an ice cream sandwich lightly disguised as a taco, for whatever reason.) The fact that I was eating ice cream definitely meant it wasn't cold anymore either — it was just right. I chatted with a couple of riders but left alone again, toward the small town of Flint Hill, then the next hill on Crest Hill Road. I'd forgotten about Crest Hill until George reminded me of it — it's a hill, but not a very long or steep one. It was followed by a long downhill to the Rappahannock River, then a bit of a climb up to Orlean.
I had ice cream again at Orlean Market, so clearly my body wanted more calories than I had been giving it. It's only 10 miles from Orlean to the end, but it's mostly uphill, and I really didn't want to bonk or dehydrate. The climb up Piney Mountain wasn't too bad this time, probably because it was cool and I was taking it slowly. But the last five miles into Warrenton felt like they took forever.
I finished in 10 hours and 55 minutes, a little more than two hours slower than last time I did this ride. The fastest rider (Bill) finished in 9:15, so it was a slow day all around. Some of that was temperature, some was traffic, but most of it was climbing like a slug. I would like to thank the dog that made me sprint, for keeping my time under 11 hours. Other than forgetting my wool socks and my shoe covers, I don't think I did anything very wrong on this ride. No bonking, no dehydration, no wrong turns. I was just slow.