The road less bicycled

The more I bicycle Ohio, the more I come to appreciate m home state–a place I longed desperately since college to get away from, did actually escape, and found myself back. Much like I can’t help comparing men I’ve dated to my late husband, I find myself often comparing Ohio to Colorado. It always seems to come out, as I’m sure my listeners would tell you, that Colorado beats Ohio every time in every story. I’ve become a droning, annoying snob who punctuates every story with, “Well, in Colorado…”

But I’m learning. Mostly that I am wrong about a great many things. For example, I thought when I returned to Ohio that I’d never find the challenge in cycling that I had in Colorado. Ha. Little did I know that Ohio–a state mistakenly perceived as flat, even by its own inhabitants–offers climbs in some ways more challenging than anything I’ve climbed in Colorado, if not in length, then in sheer steepness per mile. Ohio doesn’t have mountains, but it has lots of river valleys. In southern Ohio, large rolling hills surround roads and towns, reminiscent of the Appalachians Mountains of West Virginia. It’s another world down there from the part of Ohio in which I grew up.

A challenge can be found for riding in Ohio if you go looking for it. And beautiful scenery–the part I like most about cycling–is everywhere. This past Sunday I got the opportunity to explore more of Ohio’s hidden treasures when I accompanied my friend John (aka bAD dOG) on a route he designed from Fredericksburg–a town at the edge of the hill country where I did a road ride last year called the Fredericksburg Library Roll. This time, however, John was offering me on a new tour of the region, something a little different: Mounted on our Surlys, we were going to ride the unpaved roads, trails, and “I don’t know what this is but it’s rideable” paths that are unreachable on a regular road bike. I could hardly wait to get Beau’s wheels wet.

We started on a 15 mile stretch of the Holmes County Trail which is used by bikes, hikers,  and Amish buggies alike. The Library Roll used parts of this trail to Millersburg so I’d experienced it before; however, I’d never ridden the stretch into Killbuck. Being a multi-purpose trail, it was generally flat–a great warm up on which to test my knee, which has been giving me trouble since TOSRV, before heading off into the hilly madness that is Holmes and Knox Counties. I stupidly forgot to put on my knee brace (there’s always something I forget), even though I’d remembered to bring it, so I was slightly worried when we headed out. I suppose I should have turned around when I’d realized I’d forgotten to put on–we were only a few miles out at that point–but I was already in the heat of the ride and didn’t feel like wasting any time (even though we had all day). Fortunately, it seemed to hold out well on that intense stretch where we hauled at a nice 16-18mph pace.

At the end of the trail in Killbuck, an old–and poorly maintained–station house stands. As John pointed out to me, the sign on the building still displays the mileages to Columbus (south) and Hudson (north near where I live)–67 miles and 66 miles respectively, Killbuck being the midway point to the old line this rail-to-trail now occupies. I tried to imagine what the place once looked like as a living railway. It’s a shame The Powers That Be let the station fall to ruin.

The old Killbuck Station - 67 miles to Columbus, 66 miles to Hudson.

After we reached Killbuck, we headed off towards the hills on a lonely state route. I say “lonely” referring to the fact that not many cars passed us on a road that looked like it should be filled with much busier, faster traffic. A few miles out, we turned off the main route onto a dirt road that wrapped up a hill around a farm. I immediately felt the thrill of being on a road usually forbidden to me. It almost had the allure of doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing–like I was riding on someone’s personal driveway or something. It had rained the night before, and this road was moist, but due lack of trees, there was a lot of exposure to the sun so passing along it was not incredibly difficult, other heart-pumping climb up the first real hill of the day.

It was pretty fun to say the least. Even though we were on an official road, we rarely encountered a car. It was easy to feel as though we were on a bike path and we could easily ride side-by-side. Some of the roads got a little muddier when we were in more shaded areas. Beau did okay in these sections, but I realized–too late–that I probably should have changed the tires back out to the 700c x 36 tires that came with the bike; I was using 32s, which were okay, but I could have used a little more surface area to bite into the mud. A mountain bike would have ate up those sections.

I had one crushing moment when I realized I had pushed myself a little too hard. We were climbing a long hill, muddy hill and John stopped behind me to check something on his bike. During this pause, when I stopped, I realized my heart was pounding–no, hammering–in my ears and my laboring lungs could not keep up with the amount of air I needed to take in. After standing for a few moments, I started to realize how light-headed and nauseous I felt. I panicked for just a bit, fearing I would faint, for in my experience, a fainting spell always begins with that feeling of light-headedness. I had to sit for a bit on a rock that was thankfully available next to a driveway and chug down some Gatorade. I don’t know what happened there. As many hills as I’ve climbed and pushed myself hard on, I’ve never felt light-headed or nauseous. It must have been the combination of climbing, battling the resistance of the muddy surface, and trying to keep my tire straight as it bounced on islands of little rocks that peppered the road. Or I was having a bad day. Perhaps wearing my new “She Loves Hills” jersey was a bit of a cocky move on my part. Though, it’s not making any statement to wear that jersey on a ride that offers no challenging hills.

It took about a half hour for me to shake the nausea, in which time I gave myself a mental beating for my failure to moderate myself enough to continue the climb. I had all day–it wasn’t about getting anywhere fast–it just felt like a slight failure of beating a challenge. At least I didn’t walk the hill, though; when I felt better, I continued the rest of the climb to a rolling paved state route.

Our next unpaved destination was the rustic Mohican River Valley Trail. The trail starts with Ohio’s longest covered bridge (or so they claimed–haven’t been on enough covered bridges myself) crosses the Mohican River to start another multi-purpose (Amish buggies, bikes, or walkers) trail. Unfortunately, due to the rain of the previous night, the trail looked a little less than enjoyable even for the Surlys because the surface was wet and soft. So we took the paralleling state route for several miles, and then got back onto the trail for the last couple of miles, where the conditions seemed better, just so that I could have the experience of having ridden the trail. It’s too bad the rain had softened a lot of the unpaved roads; John said when he’d done the ride a week earlier, the surface conditions were much different.

Me & Beau at "Ohio's Longest Covered Bridge" (or so they claim).

The trail ends in Danville and we stopped for lunch at a quaint little restaurant called Lulu’s where we were served a grumpy waitress who seemed annoyed that we’d picked to sit at a table set for 12 people (it was close to the window where we could watch our bikes). You know how rude we cyclists are… The food made up for the sullen waitress. I enjoyed my favorite–a tuna melt, which was served on big, thick, delicious bread. Our waitress  started to warm up as we ate, though not before she clucked in frustration when John requested some glasses for the pitcher of water we’d requested. Maybe she wished she were riding a bike instead of serving cyclists on such a nice day! (Whenever I encounter people in a nasty mood, I always think, “They should go on a bike ride.” It’s obviously my cure-all for whatever mentally ails you.)

After lunch, we headed back on a different return route (John, like me, prefers loop routes) that included an undefined path of some sort through the woods that John had found on previous explorations of the area. It was composed of soft mud, but was not in too horrible of shape, and it seemed to incline slightly upwards for the entire stretch we rode. I had trouble maintaining 9-10mph with the mud and the incline, though riding through the dense trees that lined each side of the path was really a treat. We only passed two other people–both going the opposite way on horseback.

Our last stretch back to Killbuck and the Holmes County Trail was several miles of a rolling, scenic road where I experienced some moments of childlike joy as I watched the scenery slip past (and was thus inspired to write the first few paragraphs of this blog entry). It was pretty fun rolling quickly down hills at 30+ mph and then pushing the last little bit to the top of the next hill. I was really enjoying more of this part of the ride than suffering. It was wonderful.

We stopped in Killbuck to refuel our water at a little market (where I almost bought ice cream, but decided to stick to my diet). It was getting mighty warm by this point in the day–I am sure in the 80s–and I was drinking like I’d never drank anything before. I think part of the reason I’d bonked on the one hill earlier had something to do with not drinking as much. It was a humid day, even from the start, so I probably should have taken more in (maybe should have taken my hydro-pack). I made up for it the rest of the day, though, drinking tons of Gatorade and water. We stopped to fill up on liquids twice.

The last 15 miles were along the flat Holmes Country trail again where I felt a little less eager to push those high rpms. Our speed was a little lower than when we’d gone out (or at least mine was) with about a 14-15mph push. It seemed a little windy in that direction, or maybe that was my imagination. That’s why I actually like climbing hills better than spinning/pushing on flats. You always have to keep your legs moving without much room for rest, whereas on climbing you have moments of intense pushing followed by moments of relaxation as you fly down the other side of a hill. I wonder, too, if perhaps the reason my knee got so wacked up after TOSRV was due to the amount of time spent spinning on mostly flatish grade; I only started to feel a dull ache in my knee in the stretch between Circleville and Columbus when I was forced to keep moving the legs in the windy sections of the flat plains south of Columbus.

Anyway, we made it back to Fredericksberg at a leisurely 5:30 (4 hours plus a long lunch stop and two additional small stops). I only averaged 13.7mph, but that really wasn’t the point of this ride. We were just out enjoying a beautiful sunny day, after a week of rain and gloom, on the Jeeps of the bike world–our twin Surly Cross-Checks. We logged 71.5 miles which is just perfect for a day’s ride to me. (I like between 50-75 miles in a single day when I’m not feeling masochistic.) I truly did feel like a Jeep driver with all the stomping on dirt roads and paths. I’m looking forward to a chance at taking Beau out for another “wilderness” adventure.

Perhaps someday I’ll even try mountain biking…


2 thoughts on “The road less bicycled

  1. H –

    This is really good. Needs editing of course, but I loved the story. So simple. A slice of life.

    Get your head out of the mountains – and into the hills. You are where you are.

    That statement has more to do with than geography.


    • Arna, it’s a blog, not a professional piece so you can forgive me the lack of editing (though I did reread before posting and did fix some major problems). It’s like a journal. Jack Kerouac didn’t believe in editing. He believed that the art was purest as it came out the first time! So if you believe in that philosophy, I already ruined the art by rereading it before posting. :)

      (Yes, I’m a little defensive about my writing and pointing out my errors. :) )

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