Struggle Bus on the Alpine Loop!

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 humourous 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 your 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!

Thomas