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Our Washington DC correspondent Scott Gater (formerly our Melbourne and San Francisco correspondent) checks in from the Shenandoah 1200, June 11-14.

Riding in the South
by Scott Gater

"Are y'all with those bike riders I saw on the road tonight?"

Thus began a conversation that I thought might never end. Jeff Mudrakoff and I were at Km 650 on the Shenandoah 1200, heading south into the night towards Mt. Airy NC, and boyhood home of Andy Griffiths. A bed awaited us. We were standing outside a burger joint in Floyd VA, dressed up in our night riding-finest reflective vests, ankle bands and headlamps.

"Yes", I replied, "we were with the riders she had seen earlier".

"Well, y'all should be more careful. I came upon some riders earlier and they didn't get off the road."

"Sorry, ma'am (always best in the south to refer to people older then yourself as sir or ma'am), when you say get off the road, what do you mean?" The 'shoulder' along this section of road consisted of the fog line and 4 inches of pavement before becoming dirt and grass.

"Well, I came up behind some bike riders earlier and when I did, they didn't pull over and stop when I got behind them."

"Ma'am, we are not obliged to get off our bikes when you come up behind. According to Virginia state law, I have as much right to the road as you do."

"But that's not right! Y'all should get off the road when a car approaches. After all, what am I to do?" Hit the brake pedal in the middle of the floor enters my mind, but I refuse to add this to the conversation.

Our conversation with this southerly matriarch continued for a few more minutes. She informed us that she had told her son to call the police to "do something about this" before she got back into her car and continued along home, hopefully without encountering any more disturbances/cyclists. Jeff and I got back on our bikes after this, shaking our heads at the southern "hospitality". We got no more then 200m up the road when, at the next stop light, a sheriff car, going in the opposite direction stopped, turned on his lights and rolled down his window:

"Y'all with the bike rider's folks been seeing tonight?"
"Yes sir."
"Where y'all coming from?"
"From Leesburg VA, sir." Second note about the south: always talk to law officers with yes sir/no sir.
"Where are you heading?"
"To Mt. Airy NC, sir."
"In one day, son???"
"No sir." It was day 2.
"Where are you sleeping tonight?"
"Mt. Airy, sir."
"Do you know how far that is?"
"Yes, sir." God, I hope he doesn't ask how far, 'cause my route sheet is in kilometers.

"Y'all be careful out there. I've been getting calls all night about bikes on the road [it's around 9pm by now]. It's not that the folks here are trying to hit you, it's just that accidents can happen."

Wow, thanks for the thought that even if I'm dressed like a Christmas tree, in Southern Virginia, one can't expect the drivers to slow down.

Jeff and I had noted that the further south we traveled, the more things changed. At the start of the ride in Leesburg in Northern Virginia and as we traveled north to Gettysburg PA, the drivers were all very polite when passing us, the roads had nice shoulders and all seemed very good for driver/cyclist relations. After turning around and riding southward through Virginia, things changed. Roads got narrower and drivers got closer. The good news as we traveled south was that as day turned into dusk, the number of cars on the road got less. The bad news was that as we started to use the little back roads south of Floyd, it became apparent that leash laws were below cyclists rights on the local sheriff's list of things to be aware of. We became more attuned to the noise of paws and claws striking pavement in the dark as we worked our way through the howling back roads of Southern Virginia heading towards Mt. Airy.

Vital stats about the Shenandoah 1200: It goes the complete length of Virginia, starting in Leesburg VA in the northern part of the state, going north over the Mason Dixon line to Gettysburg PA, and including the battlefield as part of the brevet, then down to Mt. Airy, NC, the town Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show was based upon, before going northwards to Leesburg for the finish. While the hills are nothing tremendous, they are repetitive and that is a challenge. Toss in the humidity and heat that can be normal in June and the ride is a challenge for those from the coast. Jeff and I didn't hit our stride until Day 4, when the temperatures and humidity dropped to what we considered normal. We finished in 88 hours or so, getting by with about 2 hours of sleep a night and a mid day nap of about 30 minutes in the shade per day as well. Evening temperatures dropped to the mid teens and except for the thundershower, we didn't need arm or leg warmers at all.

Other notes about riding in the south (area defined as south of the Mason Dixon line from someone who has now lived there for a month:

The further south one rides, the less Prius's you see. Percentage of pickup trucks goes up. Never saw a Smart car.

Tea is a cold drink, served unsweetened (except at McDonald's). Despite the title of the Commonwealth of Virginia, tea drinkers go without or bring their own.

Drivers in the south are the same as drivers in the north--when asked for directions to a specific place/street name; no one knows where it is. They all work off of landmarks.

Afternoon/evening thundershowers are more common the further south you go. Jeff and I experienced one such storm that left us racing downhill in the drops to get away from nearby lightening strikes.

Pork products are the most popular meat in the south. Pulled pork sandwiches were on all the menus and all the controls that had food seemed to have bacon or pork on the menu.

Expect hot and humid, especially compared to the BC coast. Jeff got here four days before the event and I was here a week and a half prior; we both got hammered by the first day's 95% humidity and temperature in the high 20's.

Note to self-a wool jersey is nice, but in 95% humidity it adds 2 pounds to the weight of the bike by holding onto all my sweat.

And finally, you never know how much you miss Canada until you ride along, begging for a Tim Horton's so you can get a cup of tea, a doughnut and nap for a little bit. No such equivalent exists in the south and it is poorer for it.


July 1, 2009