The annual Burke’s Garden Century and Metric Century are a tradition in Virginia’s New River Valley. I rode in the event for the first time this year, and though I was tempted to do the full 100 miles, I wasn’t sure I was trained for it — so the metric it was.
The course is well known because the event has been around since 1997. The Century begins in Narrows,Va. , while the metric joins the longer ride in progress in Rocky Gap, 20 miles after the start. Click the link in the first sentence for full details on the ride, which was started when a member of the New River Valley Bicycle Association wanted a place to go to avoid the hassles from traffic on move-in day at Virginia Tech.
We arrived ready to go at Rocky Gap Elementary School at about 8:30 with a suggested wheels down time of 9:15 by event organizers. It was about a 105 mile drive from my home in Roanoke. We paid ten dollars for the privilege of riding, joined the line at the single porta-potty at the convenience store a couple hundred yards down the road and our group was set to roll — with the exception of my friend Karen Deer who wound up in the parking lot without her gear bag. With no shoes or helmet she would be subject to a nice ride home in the car and some yard work — while the rest of us went out to see how fast we could do this ride. There was a bit of debate over whose responsibility it was to load the gear bag — Karen or her boyfriend Steve Ruhf. Let’s just say it probably wasn’t Karen’s fault. I offered to give Steve a ride home after the metric, while she went home to mow and attack the shrubs around her house.
I was joining Steve’s regular riding group, which is based in Lynchburg. Some of the riders like Daniel Anderson I had ridden with in the past, and some were new to me. We quickly found that the slower riders and the faster among us were not going to be able to stay together. So I joined the first group headed up the highway.
The first 20 miles is rolling and gradually uphill. None of the climbs is serious, though a few were just enough to kill our momentum. Even so, we traded pulls and arrived at the first rest stop having averaged about 18 mph. Many of the century riders, who had already covered 40 miles, arrived about the same time. Along the way we gathered up David Simms of Lynchburg who was up the road when we started, on his way to completing the century.
After we left the store, it was time to climb. It’s about three miles of uphill that I would estimate at about 6-7 percent. The road switches back and forth as it climbs over a ridge before dropping into the valley that is Burke’s Garden below. Daniel and Pete climbed a little faster than Steve and I, and reached the top about 200 yards ahead of us.
At the top I decided to test my new Guerciotti — which handles better than any bike I’ve ever owned — to see if I could catch them on the descent. The road swoops though some tight turns and there is at least one genuine switchback. There was a good bit of gravel in the road as well, so I had to be careful, but this was a fun descent. I caught Pete about two-thirds of the way down, and eventually caught up with Daniel — though in truth he was already pretty much sitting up and waiting for the rest of us. I must have gone pretty fast however, because according to Strava — which I have just joined, I had the fastest descent on that segment this year and the 8th fastest all time.
Now that we were in the valley, the ride would continue on rolling country roads through some beautiful farmland. The valley is ringed by the ridge we had just climbed and descended, and we would do a big loop of the valley road and return the way we came.
We stopped to regroup at the beginning of the Valley road and while we were there a group of young women with some serious bikes pulled up to take photos. Pete had the great idea that we should take a picture of Steve with the young ladies and text it to Karen — which I did with a note that said, “Steve said to tell you he is having a good time here in Burke’s Garden.” This was probably not among our smartest moves, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The road surface during this part of the ride is not good but it’s part of the charm. If you go — just keep an eye out for potholes, because there are many and some of them are big. It would be easy to miss them however, because the scenery will make you take your eyes off the road. We pedaled a short distance with the women from Steve’s photo and then continued on for a while.
The Lynchburg group was now pretty well fractured, so Steve and I rode this section by ourselves. The wind was blowing in the valley on this day, and since we were doing a loop it stands to reason that at least a portion of it included a headwind. As typically happens, it was the portion that was the most uphill. It wouldn’t have been a problem, except that this ride has a reputation for being fast, so we were riding on the rivet and getting a bit gassed.
Eventually we made a right hand turn and the wind was at our back. We cycled past red barns and beautiful old churches. I pulled out my camera and took some shots.
As we approached the lunch stop at the Burke’s Garden General Store, I noticed a man on a horse galloping toward us on the highway. I hoped he would still be going that fast when we passed him, as I thought it would make for a great shot. Sure enough, the horse ran on and I snapped two pictures — one of which came out. It’s not unusual to see a horse on a ride — but not one going at a dead run. It seemed to fit in with the surroundings and made for one more story to tell later over a beer.
This rest stop is legendary in conjunction with this ride, and for good reason. Run by the Amish, the food is amazing and inexpensive. They had fresh sliced homemade sourdough bread, which they used as each sandwich was prepared to order. Steve and I split a BBQ sandwich, thinking we still had some climbing to do. But, I also bought a bag of Fritos, a freshly made fried apple pie and two Gatorades. It only cost $7.00 and change. It was to die for.
Our group arrived in bits and pieces as we enjoyed the great lunch on the porch surrounding the store. Of course there were dozens of other cyclists enjoying the ride and I spent a few minutes eating and looking at the variety of cool bikes leaning up against the building. The plan was to save my fried apple pie for when the ride was over, but I rationalized that it was quick energy and that it might get crushed in my jersey pocket. Couldn’t chance that right? So I ate it. Rationalizations are wonderful.
With lunch behind us, we still had about 27 miles to go. We had a few more miles of country road in the valley, then the climb out over the same road we had come in on, and then the glorious 20-mile slightly downhill trek back to the car. With our group no longer in tact, however Steve and I knew we might not enjoy the strength of the paceline we had been anticipating for that last 20 miles. That turned out to be true.
We climbed out of the valley on the same road we had come in on. It was not terribly steep or long, though it switched back and forth numerous times. Once over the top I hit the downhill pretty hard and had strong results once again on Strava. (My wife wants to cancel my membership.) The mountain road empties out at the same store that had been our first rest stop. We pulled in to drink some fluids and decide whether to wait for the rest of our group. In the meantime the five young women cyclists from the photo also pulled up.
So we decided to do what any 50-something year old men would do. We rode with them. By now I’m sure they were thinking we were creepers or something, but they agreed to let us join their paceline. This turned out to be a good idea cycling-wise because there was a decent head wind and the 1-percent downhill back to the car was essentially negated.
Off we went with two of the women in sponsored racing kits pulling at the front. I had no idea how strong the group was, but since Steve and I had dropped them back on the valley road, I assumed we were at least a little stronger. That meant that we should at do our share of pulling at the front. Steve and I had been riding at the back, having joined them after they were already up the road a bit, and it felt weird letting them do the work, so we went the to the front and traded pulls.
I hope this was seen as a nice gesture, but then I began thinking thoughts like, “What if we just blew up their ride?” “Did I just make a like a total man move and assume they wanted us to help? For all we knew they were planning to use this part of the ride to practice team time trials. I don’t know.
Just as I had convinced myself that we might want to drop out and let them do their own thing, we discovered one of them was off the back and no longer with the group. I don’t know if there was a mechanical issue, if the pace was too strong or if she was just tired of Steve and me, but the decision was made for us. The women sat up and waited for their friend and Steve and I went ahead on our own.
Everyone talks about how they average 20 mph-plus on this section of road, and Steve and I were doing that — but with the wind in our face and the the blissful rest afforded by the group far behind us, our turns in front became shorter and shorter. Both of us were running out of steam with about three miles to go. Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of a gear change and the words, “on your left” as the five women went by us like we were on beach cruisers. It happened so fast that I couldn’t tell for sure– but I could just feel the smugness. Assuming some of my thinking was correct — I guess it was smugness well earned.
At any rate I stood up and put everything I had left into catching the wheel of the last person in line. Now I really was hanging on. Fortunately, the last mile or so went by quickly and we were back in Rocky Gap.
As we pulled into the parking lot, my right leg cramped up to the point I had to dismount and walk the last 20 feet to the car. Three of the women pulled in behind us laughing and chatting. The other two went on to complete the century.
A short time later, Steve and I called Karen from the car to see how she had done. She advised that the lawn was mowed and the hedges trimmed back home. With nothing left to lose, we asked her to have a cold beer waiting for us when we returned to Roanoke.
I think she is still laughing.