Thomas' passion for bicycles has him very active with the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition and local bike scene. His favorite time with SVBC is spent building and maintaining the great trails around Harrisonburg. Thomas lives a few blocks from the shop with his wife Julie and two sons.
Step 1: Grab your calendar and turn to February 2nd, 2020
Step 2: Put the pencil down and grab a large dry erase marker
Step 3: Write “Super Bowl Sunday Ride … I will be there”
What was just a mountain bike ride for a small group of enthusiast in the 80’s has now turned into so much more. On the first Sunday in February you will find more than just fat tire riders ascending the eastern slopes of Shenandoah Mountain, you will also find thin tire lovers going up the steep slopes of pavement and sneaker wearing folks making their trail flank on Flagpole Knob. Instead of just a group of 20 or 30 year olds you will see multi-generations of riders, from the young to the old. The diversity of participants seems to continue to grow which shows just how contagious this football token event has become. More and more folks seem to find themselves attracted to this winter leaderless event known as the Super Bowl Sunday Ride.
So what brings folks from the warmth of their home to the unpredictable conditions of Shenandoah Mountain during the middle of winter? From some it is the challenge of conquering Flagpole Knob (highest point in Rockingham County), for others it is another chance to experience mother nature’s beauty in the middle of winter, and for many it is to live one of the oldest cycling traditions the Burg has to offer!
For those who have participated in past Super Bowl Sunday rides you know first hand what I am talking about. The experience is always heavily determined by what mother nature has in store that year. You might get spoiled by a 60 degree sunny muddy Sunday or get scared from a snow/rain mixture that will test one’s survival skills. Every year mother nature brings something different which is partially why folks continually return each year, to experience the unexpected. Regardless of what the weather might bring, you will be greeted by a lot of smiles and folks who are willing to help you complete this group fiasco.
There is no real leadership to this ride but there are some general similarities from year to year that will help guide you during this adventure.
Here are a few highlights:
Early departure option
There is always a group that rides from town at a chill pace, the group rolls from Mr. J’s South 42 at 8:45am.
The meeting/parking place at the base of the mountain is the Briery Branch Community Center. The bulk of folks getting on their bikes at 10am with slower riders getting an earlier roll out and the speedster playing catch up with a later departure.
There always seems to be a handful of folks who park in Hone Quarry Recreation Area, with hopes of shortening this ride a little. They seem to mix right in with the group as it rolls by the Hone Quarry entrance.
Kids abbreviated version
More and more youngsters want to participate. An easy way to include someone in the experience without a major commitment is to park at the Briery Branch saddle (the split between Reddish and Flagpole Knob) and do an out and back to Flagpole Knob.
Group photos on Flagpole Knob!
Always a crowd favorite, this seems to happen by 1pm with the early birds probably already on the descent.
Getting off the mountain
The weather conditions will determine most participants’ decision at this point, always know that you can escape the way you came up but this is the coldest option!
See you February 2nd for the finest Harrisonburg bike tradition!
Additional Important Info About the Ride
What to expect
A cold, fun, mellow ride. Make sure to pack more clothes and food than you might normally bring on a ride. Plan on spending anywhere from 4-6 hours on the bike.
All participants will ride up 257 (paved) past the dam and reservoir, to the saddle, and then continue north on a dirt Forest Service Road to Flagpole Knob (Highest point in Rockingham County).
After a group picture, riders have several options to descend off the mountain. If you are not familiar with the area bring a map (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map #791) and or ASK SOMEONE! Most riders will descend down “Red Diamond” (Slate Spring Trail) located less than a 1/4 of a mile north of Flagpole. Others will come back down the paved road while the more adventurous and ambitions will continue to Meadow Knob and then choose from the Pond Knob trail or continue to Oak Knob. If you don’t know where you are going ASK someone for direction or better yet find someone to ride with. Just be sure not to end up in West Virginia!
This is NOT an SVBC sanctioned group ride. This ride does not have ride leaders nor sweep riders. You are responsible for your own actions. This is an event with very real risks to your well-being.
The SVBC does not provide medical care for cyclists at this event. Riders are responsible for their own health, safety, and well-being at this event. No doctors, nurses, or emergency medical technicians, or anyone with any medical training are available along the ride. Physical, medical, and emergency care is the riders’ responsibility. In case of an emergency, we will endeavor to get local emergency personnel to an injured rider as soon as possible. This is an event with very real risks.
For years my Gran Fondo day has been working the Brandywine Rest Stop with the SBC crew, helping riders recover from the mountain they just climbed and more importantly preparing them for the unknown that lays ahead. Having never done the Alpine Loop, the sharp right turn just south of the Brandywine rest stop has always been a mystery to me. I am no stranger to the beauty that shines on the country roads that make up this part of West Virginia, but there is a part of the organized route that I had yet to adventure, that was until this fall when I jump on the “Struggle Bus”.
When my old college roommate Jon sent me a message at the end of September saying he was thinking about coming up to ride the Gran Fondo I read his message with excitement and fear. I was very glad that he was back on the bike, knowing that he would not try and tackle this challenge without some preparation. I feared for my well being knowing that I would certainly have to be his side kick on this ride, repeating a history that runs deep back to our college days at Radford. Cycling had picked both Jon and I up during college, moving our motivation from the party zone to the bike racing scene, a change of lifestyle habits that was needed for us both. After college he followed my travels to Arizona, enjoying the warm winter mountain race calendar, deepening our love for two wheels and pushing our bodies to the limits. After winters in Arizona I continued the cycling lifestyle route while Jon went the more responsible and professional route. But once you have been bitten by the cycling bug it never leaves your soul.
After a few messages and phone calls we were both signed up for the Alpine Loop route, more on a dare and challenge which was only fitting for our relationship. So much of our history was base on stupid decisions like one we just agreed upon. I knew at this late in the game there was no training to be done just shit talking and faking a high confidence factor, something that had taken me this far in life. When Jon arrived in town for the event we both knew we had to prep his bike out, lowering his VA Beach gearing to its fullest potential and making sure his Cervelo was stuffed with the largest tires possible.
When the Sunday morning roll out began down Main Street I made sure that I kept Jon in sight so our goal of completing this route together would not end before we hit Route 33. If my warm up and preparation was longer than the one block ride to the Farmers Market pavilion I might have noticed that my seat was too high, giving evidence that the last ride of my road bike was not by me. After fidgeting around for 15 miles I finally pulled over on the Rawley Springs flats to lower my saddle, but the damage had been done, my hamstrings were toast and Jon had ridden up road. I doubted I would see Jon again…
Climbing over Shenandoah Mountain on Route 33 had been a staple for me 25 years ago but this morning I could not remember the last time I did this ascent. As I peddled with my long time friend Paul Johnston we both commented how this event enabled folks to enjoy this twisting climb in safe fashion, with bikes overtaking the mountain pass instead of cars. As we came to the State border I continued to ride, not pulling over for views like so many other riders, I was too excited to soak in the beautiful bank turns that welcomes you to “Wild Wonderful West Virginia”! I also had to track down Jon.
Coming into the Brandywine rest stop I was able to enjoy the event from the other side of the snack table, packing my jersey pockets with sugar waffles, knowing that I had probably taken more than this riders allotted share. Better yet Jon and I were able to reconnect, take the next right turn of mystery and experience the humorous hell called Fultz Gap. Fultz gap was the leg of the route for which I was not familiar. No cue sheet or route description can prepare one for the 1400 vertical feet of gain that you do on this 2.5 mile dirt road. It is seldom that you see folks falling over on road bikes, walking to the next single digit grade (if there is one) but this was the site on Fultz Gap. What you think is the devil laughing at you while you turn a 20 rpm cadence is just the cows mooing while they freely walk the dirt surface, knowing they own this gap. The top of the climb is the opening of Heaven, you go from the shaded tree canopy to blue skies and green pastures. Riders pull over at these Heaven gates, waiting too for their buddies so they can enter together, just like Jon and I. As the delirium wears off you begin to realize these are not the gates of Heaven just cattle guards keeping the cows back. Life can be mean!
Over the next 30 miles the Alpine Loop route takes you through the back roads of eastern West Virginia and Highland County. This is a place that seems stuck in time, where beautiful roads have been welcoming cyclist for decades. This area is a hard and beautiful place, something I experience over the next two hours of this ride while my body continually yells at me for one simple mistake that I had not admitted before, “YOU DID NOT PREPARE FOR THIS RIDE”! Once again there was no need for Jon or any other rider to wait for this guy, I had jumped on the Struggle Bus and the next stop…nowhere in sight. When you are on the struggle bus it is the “do not quit time”, the time to “dig deep”, the place you go during deeps bouts of exhaustion. The experience on the bus is one that will actually drive you to do something again in the future, but you don’t know it now because your mind and body are only thinking about pain and loneliness.
As I rolled the last few miles to the Sugar Grove rest stop I was super charged by the energizer rabbit, Paul Lottridge. Paul is the only guy I know who can do endless hours of exercise without ever breaking his smile, something this kid needed. Thank God smiles are contagious! Being greeted at Sugar Grove by Jon and Kevin Rogers was the best site for this soul, these two dudes were going to get this rider to back the Burg! As Kevin tucked ice cubes in the gaps of my cycling kit Jon waited patiently laughing, as if in a time warp back to the early 90’s, having scene this site in the past.
It is amazing what moving a saddle forward 1″ can do for ones hamstrings and ice cubes with shots of coke can do for ones inner core. As soon as Jon, Paul Johnston and I hit the steep slope just behind the Sugar Grove rest stop I knew things had changed. My 75 mile training ride that I had just completed had prepared me for the next 35 mile ride. This guy’s body had come back and was ready for the western side of Shenandoah Mountain.
As I look back at those last 35 miles it is a blurred memory, one of just endless smiles. As rain clouds and skies parted for our return to the “Burg” I was super happy to ride with numerous friends back into town. I was super grateful to the two wheel Gods for Alpine Loop Gran Fondo. I was thankful to cycling which had brought these good people into my life over the past 32 years of bike riding.
It usually takes a few days or weeks for the pain to subside after a hard ride event before thoughts of doing it again ever begin to surface. For Jon and I it only took a plate of food, one beer and an hour of laughter before we agree to see each other next year’s Alpine Loop Gran Fondo. See ya next fall Jon, and hopefully many of you too!
Yes, this was a long blog post but a 100+ mile ride is long as hell too!
Buy Western Slope Trail Passes
A few Thursdays ago the trail work crews took the final walk off the mountain from “The Puzzler” trail. With headlamps lighting up the hanging orange tape, we ripped the flags from the trees that had marked our access path for the past year. It had been 4 years since the first flags marking the potential corridor for the new trail were hung, now only a few faded and torn pieces remain. I was expecting a more dramatic end to what has become the most challenging trail built to date by SVBC. But after 2 winters of planning and 2 years of construction, all of our energy had been left in the rocks, in the jagged pieces of the puzzle. “The Puzzler” is a 1.1 mile trail that connects the Massanutten Peak Trail to the lower slopes of the Western Slope trail system.
The early exploratory days of “The Puzzler” did not hide the relentless terrain that jets out of the upper slopes of Massanutten. During the dozens of scouting days, the upper rock fields were always dark, cold and windy, uninviting to most, but for us with rolls of tape the rocks gardens were magnetic fields that pull us deeper into the woods. When we would finally break through the rock gardens to reach the ridge trail on those cold scouting days, the view of the white ski trails and resort grounded us, giving us bearing when the compass seemed to be broken. We could have continued for years exploring and searching for the “best line”, but at some point you need to take that leap of faith and release. You just need to create the line, connect the dots, and put the puzzle together.
The trail that has been rightfully named “The Puzzler” was like most SVBC projects, a partnership of passion. A collaboration by those who love to build and create with their hands and minds. Built not just for their own enjoyment but for all those who love a good singletrack trail traversing the slopes of a mountain. The partnership was a collaboration of so many groups, the dedicated Thursday work crews who showed up every Thursday for two years to build the puzzle. Sam Skidmore who spent a month building with the mini excavator, that kept finding rocks that seemed to be growing instead of decomposing. The Saturday work crews who came at the 12th hour when a hand was needed.The Appalachian Conversation Corps. work crew who help build a trail they had never seen. The amazing part of this project, like so many other trail builds, was the trust given by each group. These folks probably did realize how much that trust meant to us project leaders. It was the building of the puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the box, that is trust! Thank you!
Now that trail is built, I look forward to walking away for a while, a needed break to clear the mind. When a big trail project like “The Puzzler”, “2K” or “Lookout Mtn” is completed, I value some separation from the project, a time to clear the mind in order to come back and fully enjoy the trail experience. It is at this time when no tools are left on the trail, when I am refreshed, that I can fully enjoy traveling the memory lane that the trail has to offer. Each rock reminding me of the individual that helped with that section. There were over 150 folks who had a hand in putting “The Puzzler” together, an accumulation of more than 2300 work hours. That is a lot of triggering of great memories.
I would like to thank all those involved, especially SVBC, for always trusting, believing and providing the resources to build what we love … trails and memories. Massanutten Resort whose partnership with our local community only grows stronger with time. The Western Slope is a playground for which we are very grateful. Vince & Karl who also were there when I had to walk (or fall) away on Thursdays. Rich Edwards of IMBA who always is the distant driving force of knowledge and trail building.
I look forward to building with you all again!