” You lot never smile! “. Eh?, what?, who me? ” You cyclists always look miserable “, he clarified his position a little. When you are wearing cycling kit you represent the sport and every one who has ever turned a wheel from your granny to the Tour de France. You have to answer for everything from jumping red lights to doping and not paying road tax. On this occasion, I was looking miserable, but in context that was almost unavoidable. I had not slept for over 24 hours if you do not count falling asleep for 10 minutes with a banana in my hand as I sat in a bus shelter 70 miles ago. Now, over the delights of a Full Scottish Breakfast I was being picked on by a stranger in a cafe.
I had started out from the outskirts of Edinburgh at 6.00 the previous morning on the Daylight 600Km Audax. After the first 50Km I had been solo, as my pal Al had turned for home. 600Km would be a long days drive in a car, on a bike it is purgatory of the purest kind. Thanks to some navigational blunders near the end, when I could not have told you my mother’s maiden name, my first school or childhood pets name, I ended up covering just shy of 400 of the most desolate and beautiful miles in Scotland. To this day I am hurt by the accusation made in that remote cafe.
We are riding through rural Virginia at the moment. Very few days include a recognised summit to be climbed, but here is the strange thing that you learn from having an altimeter on your handle bars. No day has had much less than 3,000ft of climbing, and then there has been the head-wind on days that looked easy. On the back roads that the Trans Am takes you meet the locals. Cheerful people in country hats, driving country trucks that raise a tanned arm to wave. I missed a few, or made them out too late to answer. For some I may have looked miserable and now they are gone. Their country dogs bark from the open window, long hound ears flapping in the wind. Virgina is near perfect biking and behind the scowl I may be blissfully happy.
For a while, the weather was far from perfect. Strom cells had wound themselves up into deadly tornados further West, and now we were getting the dregs of these as heavy rain. We were pinned down in a hotel in Troutville near Roanoke. We ride to a Warmshowers host before we realise that we have given ourselves a horrid climb to get back on the route. We back-track to the hotel and wait. The forecast for day three is apocalyptic in every one of the five websites we look at. It is a grey sky but dry and we are going ‘ Kennel Crazy ‘, so a short bike to an outdoor shop is therapy. We buy socks and talk to Appalachian through hikers. It is good to have things in common and to chat. We have all been cheated out of the day by the forecast as the storm passes to the north of us. Baltimore gets the Biblical flood we were promised and we even get a patch or two of blue sky.
Back on the road. The socks are foot-specific and the day begins needing to pay attention. It is out and into a head-wind towards Catawba that stays on our nose and even tracks our left turn onto the 779. The rain has bought out the full body of the aroma of countryside rushing into spring bloom. It is as young and fruity as riding with your nose deep in a wide brimmed glass of Beaujolais Nouveau. The Appalachian trail runs first to our left and then right on the rim of this beautiful valley. This morning it is a good day to be on a bike.
An old Methodist Church comes up on our left close to the road. There are three people outside, a man and two women who are helping him. We get talking. Warren is 95 soon and this was where his father was Pastor back in the day. Then it dawns on me that I have never met another Warren. I am face to face with my first Warren. It is not a common name in Britain and my Mum got the idea from the credits of a Cowboy film in 1960. Looks like it may have been shot here. ” There are lots of Warren’s in Virginia, two in my house ” says old Warren. He is not enjoying getting old, ” Sleeping is just about the only thing I am still as good at “.
Our legs give out on us and we pull over. We are about three miles short of Christiansburg, our spirits have just snapped. There is an inviting bit of mowed and flat grass and we pull onto it to make a brew. A quad bike shows up with two young girls curious to know what we are doing. We get permission to pitch and stay for the night which is how nice Virginia can treat you. A cold and rather damp tent night, we are at 1800ft and late winter creeps back in the night here.
Morning is warm enough from the off for summer wear riding, and there are stiff climbs to be made. I am wondering about the countries that we have biked through. France has culture, Italy has more than enough style and now the USA is showing us courtesy and good manners. I would take manners over sharp suits most days, and it is nice not to have heard a curse word yet and be called Mam and Sir by checkout girls. There is not too much wrong with good manners and waitresses that can remember twelve different orders without writing down any. It is good to be back.
Today is easier than yesterday and a happier air amongst the riders of Team Sportswool. We take a left and drop down a steep descent into the village of Draper. The two key words – Coffee and, well I do not remember the second, but the first will do, and we are bought to a stop outside the Mercantile Store. We have not even noticed that there is a cool bike store just around the corner of the building. Within 10 minutes we are thinking about staying. There is a place behind the church to pitch the tent and the promise of blue-grass music in the evening. We are staying.
We are the guests of Thomas of the Junction bike shop. The tent is pitched and we slip inside the cafe for some food. You can get quite a bit of education from place-mats here in the USA. These bring us up to speed on local sayings. Without knowing it I have been ‘ peaked ‘, some mornings lately – Pale or sick looking. There have been days when we should have been hoping it would not be a ‘ Gully-washer ‘. This it turns out would be a hard rain as in ” we shore had a gully-washer last night “. We call it a half day and walk around the village poking our noses into things.
Of course we pay for it the next morning as we ride, push and curse our way up some steep climbs on cold legs that do not want to turn up for work. By 1.00 pm we are in Wythville, for what you could call third breakfast at a classic old dinner. Waitress and customer at the bar have a combined age that would take you back beyond the civil war. We pick up HWY 11 and bike by the fourth Skunk roadkill of the day. This cadaver is fresh and particularly pungent, but the first two occurred on a grade and required anaerobic peddling. There must be a lot of skunks here to be hit in such numbers by what is light traffic.
We stay on HWY 11 as the official Trans Am takes a left turn in search of hills to climb. We stay put as we have an appointment up the road with friends in Abingdon and need to make up some distance. This has once again been a wonderful day on the bike. Virginia is nice, very nice and I almost forgive it’s constant up and downs but not it’s head-winds.
Once more we are looking for a site to pitch our tent. We end the day at Marion, VA. Constant head-winds with the heat of an open oven door have desiccated our skin. We are now as dry as Autumn leaves and both have red noses despite factor 50 treatment. Esther is getting agitated about asking for permission. I favour pitching and begging forgiveness if it a problem. Her method takes ten times as long and we are running out of daylight. We push our bikes onto the lawn of a likely looking Methodist chapel and get a happy ” By all means and make yourself comfortable “. We have a pitch for the night.
It is a quiet spot away from the road. But there is a railway track behind us. Nowhere else in the world do trains blow their horns so much. The ground shakes as the Leviathan passes and of course twice in the night the air is cut by horns sounded ever few seconds. This may save the life of an idiot once every million years, but I am sure it kills a few every year through nervous exhaustion and disturbed sleep. Trains, we notice do this a lot through poor neighbourhoods and this is no exception.
The day starts bright. It is a Sunday morning and we are off before the service. Second breakfast is at a McDonald’s and every screen has bible worship on. It is a sales pitch of impressive length and passion by the speaker and looks to be without prompts or edit.
We pass trailer parks and clapper homes. Most have porches and a rocking chair or two. Many have wind chimes that are being driven to a frenzy by the strong gusts. I have never, I repeat never heard anything with even the merest hint of a melody coming out of these things, not once. If your heating system made that noise for just ten minutes you would have a man round that very day to fix it. Why do people have them?
We end the day in Abingdon with friends at an All You Can Eat buffet. There are six fast food places that we can walk to from our hotel room and the furthest would take us a little over a minute to get there. The woman on the motel desk has been here thirty years, ” Best place in the USA “. ” Far enough north not to be too hot in the summer, far enough south not to be too cold in the winter “. She is on a roll ” Far enough east not to get tornados and west enough not to get hurricanes “.