Shenandoah Mountain – offering plenty of space to social distance!
With the past year being anything but normal, it seemed more important than ever to try and keep one of the local annual cycling traditions alive. To keep the most un-normal ride going for another year seemed only fitting in these un-normal times. The Super Bowl Sunday ride had to keep living. It had to go on for another year like it has for the past 35+ years. I wanted to make sure the spirit of the folks who started the annual Super Bowl Sunday ride crested the mountain even if their bodies did not. Those spirits are what keep me and others going back to Flagpole each Super Bowl Sunday, regardless of what Mother nature or the mountain has to offer.
Ever since my first Super Bowl Sunday ride in 1991, the ride has felt like an assault on the big mountain, Shenandoah Mountain. That first year I was scared and intimidated of riding with folks who had a lot more experience than I, folks who I respected in the bike community. Little did I know what really deserved the most respect was the mountain that loomed ahead. The warmth and welcome the riders shared with me that first year inspired me and gave me the needed confidence to climb the mountain. When the road went from pavement to long stretches of ice, I realized we had little to no control, regardless of our riding resume or lack thereof. Watching rider after rider slip and slide along the forest service road to Hone Quarry Ridge made me laugh and wonder what the hell we were doing on this mountain.
That first year of my Super Bowl riding history quickly taught me how much easier it is to go outside of your comfort zone when there are other trusting souls by your side. I learned that the Super Bowl Sunday ride is about battling the mountain as a team, being an army to try and make it to the top of the mountain. Not every year are we victorious; some riders make it to the top and some do not.
Watching out for each other, regardless of knowing the rider, is another part that makes this annual ride so special. I can count on two occasions where riders deviated from the posse, did not take the buddy system to heart, and ended up staying on the mountain well after the Lombardi trophy was lifted. I think this has taught a lot of folks that you don’t mess with the mountain, you don’t assume someone knows where you are, and that you have tools for the elements. We need to do this assault together; socially distant or not, we can look out for each other. But regardless of what happened in the past, a team of old and new riders will come out each year for another assault of Shenandoah Mountain. The 2021 ride had to happen!
In this year of Covid, I know of only seven bike tracks to make the final pitches to Flagpole on Super Bowl Sunday. There is another confirmed case of an assault from the Northeast but that rider had to turn around well before Flagpole. One element that excites me every year on this ride is the rider who is new to the Super Bowl ride tradition. This rider is usually filled with fear, excitement, and unknowingness of what lies ahead. Usually, those new to the ride are not prepared for what the mountain has to offer, but that is why we attack the mountain as a team. It is a group ride, not a race. We win when we are all off the mountain safely.
This year only two of us rolled out of the Briery Branch Community Center together. With snowflakes coming to an end and the shimmer of light beginning to shine through the clouds, David and I began our assault on the mountain. Once past Hone Quarry rec area we were joined by fellow SBC’r Jack, and the army grew by 50%. Your first indication of what the mountain has to offer is at the VDOT line where the plows turn around and you learn of the conditions that lay ahead. This VDOT line, ½ mile past Tillman Road, would be our last pavement siting for the next 4 hours. As we slowly made the grind in the tracks of previous 4 wheel vehicles, we felt the peacefulness of snow while soaking in the visual contrast of black and white that blanketed the mountain. When you get to the Briery Branch Dam, the mountain looms ahead, standing tall at 4300+ ft. The time to adjust your wardrobe is now, before you begin the 4 mile wall that takes you to the intersection.
When you get to the intersection (the split between Flagpole, Reddish Knob and WV), the mountain gives you another glimpse of what is in store. Here the truck tracks ended and the fresh blanket of snow gave evidence of two riders ahead, forging their way to Flagpole Knob. At this point, our ride went from on the bike to 50% traction control and 50% trudging on foot, but we were not to be stopped. As a few 4×4 vehicles passed, they gazed and wondered. We waved and knew that their tracks would only make our slow going that much harder. The final ¼ mile pitch to Flagpole is when the mountain puts up the biggest battle, but when you have made it this far you will not let 2′ snow drifts stop you from the summit.
The summit can be an hour long layover or a quick 5 minute break. For the 3 of us in our troop, we knew our time on Flagpole would be short.
The wind was picking up and the temperature made you wish for the warmth that the Valley offered. Fortunately we were on Flagpole long enough to be joined by Ken and Eli, whose assault on the mountain started in town. Regardless of your time spent at the highest point of Rockingham County, you always make sure you grab a quick photo. Like Everest or the Moon, you must take this snapshot of time. It will serve as a reminder of why you do the hard stuff.
When it comes to descending off the mountain, this is where many mistakes can be made. The body goes from being a heat generator to a vulnerable creature with a cold fan blowing in your face. The warmest way off the mountain is the quickest and steepest, Slate Spring Trails, aka Red Diamond. Through fear and excitement, this 2 mile elevator shaft will warm any body, making this the best route for the cold and tired. Red Diamond in the snow is a mix of mountain biking, surfing and snowboarding. Like all these sports you need to find the balance and strength to stay upright. For me, these slippery uncontrollable conditions are special and go to the core of what attracted me to mountain biking. To share this descent with David and Jack is another great page in my history of Super Bowl Rides.
When we finally got to the bottom of Red Diamond, where the pitch instantly goes from 30% to 0 we caught up with the first two souls who made tire tracks on the mountain that day. They had just returned from the waterfall trail and were happy to know others were on the mountain. At this point of the ride you pedal out with a sense of camaraderie, a sense of victory, another assault of Shenandoah Mountain on Super Bowl Sunday in the books. The fireroad to Hone Quarry Dam usually offers south facing warmth with a backdrop of Flagpole Knob. You look back and know what a different world it is up there. If you look hard enough I swear you can see 35+ years of mountain bike spirits and souls circling the mountain.
See ya next Super Bowl Sunday on the flanks of Shenandoah Mountain, where we will squeeze in tight for a non socially distant photo!
Super Bowl rider and lover of Shenandoah Mountain