Big Nellie Gets Populaire

The weather forecast for today was pretty darn awesome: 60s, sunny, breezy, low humidity. I had a choice: go for a bike ride or lie in an hammock all day. It was a tough decision, but since I don’t have a hammock, I decided to go for a bike ride.

I wanted to ride the full Vasa ride. This is a metric century (100 kilometers), mostly in eastern Montgomery County and Northwest DC. This is upscale suburban territory. I looked high and low for my cue sheet for that ride and came up empty. During my search I found the cue sheet to a Populaire ride that was held in January. (Populaires are rides that randonneurs do to entice otherwise sane people into their cult of long distance bike riding.)

This particular Populaire was also a metric century but it started five miles further from my house. I decided to go for it; I could always turn around if I was feeling overwhelmed. (Yeah, like I have that much common sense!) The Populaire goes into western Montgomery County which has more wooded areas and much more farmland. It’s also pretty darned hilly.

Which bike should I take? Big Nellie, my Tour Easy recumbent, is super comfortable which is perfect for long rides. The only problem is that it is not very good on hills. Come to think of it neither am I. Big Nellie got the call.

Off we went, taking hilly Fort Hunt Road to Alexandria to get acclimated to the art of spinning up a hill. (Recumbent riders have to spin like maniacs to climb hills. They can’t get out of the saddle like riders of conventional bikes nor can they use their arms to muscle their bike.)  Once in Alexandria, I took the Mount Vernon Trail all the way to the 14th Street Bridge. It was well before 9 am and a little chilly so traffic on the MVT was mercifully light.

We crossed into DC on the 14th Street Bridge. Winds were blowing hard from the northwest raising white caps on the Potomac River below. Normally, this would irritate me since we were heading directly into the wind for 50+ miles, but today I took it in stride. We came upon a police barricade along Ohio Drive. It was part of the preparations for Rolling Thunder, the Memorial Day descent of a bazillion motorcycles on DC. It was early so the police didn’t protest when we rode around their sawhorses.

As we passed the Watergate, some geese were milling about at the rivers edge. They had a nice brood of goslings so I stopped to take a picture. Then onward to the Capital Crescent Trail. In a tree between the trail and the river, I spotted several cormorants. They look like Seuss birds.  We left the CCT and encountered a group of 20 cyclists blocking the bridge to cross the C&O Canal. They spotted me coming and parted with hellos. They must have known we were bound for glory.

We continued through the Palisades neighborhood of DC on MacArthur Boulevard. I stopped at a Safeway for a big bottle of water. I had packed two Ziploc bags with peanut M&Ms. (I got the idea of eating nuts on a bike ride from my friend Florencia. She once did the 50 States ride on a brutally hot day, eating nothing but almonds. Everyone around her was suffering as she did the ride with little apparent distress. Could it be the almonds or the fact that she is a fitness goddess? Since I am not a fitness god, I decided it was the almonds. So I decided to use peanuts. The chocolate was a bonus.)

We rumbled along and left the flats of MacArthur for Persimmon Tree Road, which begins with a  bumpy uphill section. I decided to ditch my pride and dropped into my granny gear, so named because even my grannies (both of whom died in1965) could pedal it. We rode past Congressional Country Club and through Potomac Village. The modest hills combined with the headwind were making for an honest day’s work.

West of Potomac Village, the climbing gets serious. River Road is a series of half mile downhills followed by half mile uphills. The uphills won. After eight miles of this foolishness, we left River Road for farm roads of western Montgomery County. Sugarland Road had a concrete center with all kinds of potholes. The transitions to the asphault  edge of the road were nasty and would have caused me to crash so we stayed on the concrete.

We road past Poolesville Maryland toward Boyds. The scenery became more wooded and hillier still. I started having doubts about that hammock. Somewhere along the line I missed a turn. I ended up on Clopper Road, a road that I have heard of but that was not on my cue sheet. After checking the map on my phone, we were back on course, after climbing a half mile hill. (At least the pavement was smooth.) I had heard that Peach Tree Road was a hilly bitch, but I found it to be anticlimactic in that regard. It did deliver some of the nicest country riding I’ve done in years. My northwest passage ended up at a diner where I stopped for lunch. The burger and fries were no match for my appetite.

Peach Tree Road - Not Too Shabby
Peach Tree Road – Not Too Shabby

The course doubled back from this point and I found that the headwind was now a tailwind, albeit one with the occasional swirl that made high speed descents a little unpredictable The big advantage of Big Nellie’s long wheel base is the fact that it tracks like it’s on rails on fast descents. I liken riding downhill on this bike to street luge.

We luged our asses off. When we weren’t luging the tailwind pushed us along a long flat section of Peach Tree, which we stayed on for many more miles on the return trip. I even saw some peach orchards, a nice bonus.

Poolesville with its ugly little residential developments was a bit of a shock after so much bucolic loveliness. I didn’t stay to check the real estate listings. We bombed along through farmer’s fields and past a wild life sanctuary or four. My return route put me back on River Road a few miles to the west of where I had left it earlier. We banged a wicked looey and headed for Potomac Village. I was dreading the long hills, but Big Nellie used the tailwind to full advantage. I rode my brakes on most of the descents, one of which had us going 40 miles per hour (at least that was what the speedometer said before I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road).

We stopped at Glen Echo Park to celebrate the finish of the Populaire with another baggie of M&Ms. Nom. Nom.

20+ miles to go. Even with a tailwind this was work. The trails along the river were packed with people enjoying the weather. We weaved our way at low-ish speeds, frustrated that we were wasting a tailwind. Near the cormorant tree, a police helicopter came roaring past over the river, He was about level with the tree tops and banking into a turn to follow the river. Of course, it was possible that Broderick Crawford was riding shotgun, but I digress.

We plodded along, stuck behind one runner or cluster of slow riders after another. Back on Ohio Drive we rolled along amid the thousands of motorcycles parked all over the place. Suddenly, I was hit by a cloud; a car on the side of the road must have been the bongmobile.

The ride across the river on the 14th Street Bridge was a bit of a balancing act. The winds were stronger than ever pushing us to the left as I checked out the even bigger white caps below.

Normally, this kind of wind makes for a fast ride down the MVT to home but this was a Pleasant Valley Sunday and the trail was just a mess of people. I managed not to hit a single one, but the effort cost me the benefits of a tailwind. Not to be cheated, a young woman in full racing kit blew past me without warning as I was passing two pedestrians. I yelled at her, my only outburst of the day. (Digression no. 1: I refrained from cussing out the driver of a black Mercedes who laid on his horn as he came upon me on MacArthur Boulevard. Instead, I jumped onto the side path as we came to a stop sign. You, Mr. Asshat, can stop for the sign. I am now exempt.) (Digression no. 2: It’s a beautiful spring day and you are driving a $100,000 automobile. Can’t you just appreciate it for what it is without pissing other people off?)

South of Old Town I spotted three people under a tree fixing a flat. It was John (@dirteng) from Friday Coffee Club. We’ve done 2 centuries together, both involving John’s other past time, enjoying craft beers. John was repairing his friend Alex’s flat while John’s wife Kate looked on. Alex’s tire was a super tight fit, not unlike the tires on Little Nellie, my Bike Friday. John tried and tried. Then I had a go using the tricks I have been forced to adopt in order to change Little Nellie’s tires. Usually, it takes me 15 minutes to get the last bit of tire bead over the rim, but this time it only took few minutes. (John loosen it up.)

Having done my good deed for the day, I rode on. South of Old Town, we rode past a little kid with an ear-to-ear smile riding his new bike with training wheels. You’re doing great kid. (He probably hasn’t crashed yet. That will wipe that smile off his face. Life is like a bike ride, kid.)

For my last hurrah, I left the MVT and climbed the short steep hill on Park Terrace Drive. It put hair on my chest. Okay, the hair was already there, but it did manage to put a hurt in my knees.

I made it home with over an hour of daylight to spare. To celebrate our 107 mile adventure, I took out the trash, fed the birds, and watered my tomato plants.

Tomorrow, I’m buying a hammock.

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