Illustration by James Callahan
My co-workers believed me to be the lucky one, freed from the office grind for the day to enjoy a leisurely ride along the 51.2-mile Virginia Capital Trail. I angled for this assignment for months, imagining a National Geographic-worthy adventure. A bluebird Wednesday in early March presented the perfect opportunity. How hard could it be?
The trail near Curles Neck Farm in Varina. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
The night before the trip, I stretch dutifully and go to sleep early. The next morning I eat a bowl of Cheerios and two fried eggs. I arrive at the office dressed like I’m heading to a pick-up indoor soccer game, wearing Sambas, shorts and a T-shirt. Rob, a designer at the magazine who I cosigned to the trip to take photos, looks similarly peculiar by cycling sartorial standards. A walk to 7-Eleven serves as our strategy session: Start fast. Get some miles under our belt. Photograph this. Photograph that.
“Are we prepared or are we woefully unprepared?” I joke on our way back to the office.
“Woefully unprepared,” he says.
Before we depart, I call my former editor, Jack, who is something of a cycling sensei. I ask his advice. Water, water and more water, he says, but don’t forget carbs and rest. Easy enough. Before he hangs up, he warns, “Your ass is going to hurt. A lot.”
We pick up our rental bikes from Carytown Bicycle Company at 10 a.m., and cruise through the waning downtown traffic before catching the Low Line to Great Shiplock Park, just off Dock Street.
As we arrive, two mother-son tandems are readying for a ride. The boys inspect a map at the trailhead denoting color-coded segments: Richmond Riverfront, Varina, New Market Heights, Charles City Courthouse, Sherwood Forest, Chickahominy and Greensprings. A decade in the making, the route was completed in September at a cost of $74 million.
“Are you guys doing the whole trail today?” I ask one of the moms.
“Gosh no,” she says, only the Varina leg. She and her son had biked sections of the trail before. The last time they rode together, he admitted that he wished he had padded cycling shorts, the kind that protect your butt if you’re unaccustomed to sitting on a bike seat for hours on end.
They wish us luck, and we’re off.
After leaving Rocketts Landing in our rearview, we encounter what is, as it so happens, one of the more formidable hills on the trail. Through a fierce headwind, I foolishly attempt to climb it as if I were Peter Sagan on the last lap of the UCI Road World Championships, not a Gumby-legged, desk-job-having novice five minutes into our 50-mile trip. My legs are burning when I reach the top.
The rolling Varina section of the trail parallels Route 5 for several miles, before veering off into the woods and winding through subdivisions until it reaches the Four Mile Creek trailhead in Henrico County. There, an hour into our voyage, we take our first break. Spirits are high, but not for long.
We had not trained, or even considered training, prior to this ride. Rob, at least, cycles a few miles a day to and from work. Prior to February, I had not so much as sat on a bicycle for more than a year. My lone practice run, a 20-mile loop on my squeaky, single-speed road bike to the Henrico trailhead and back, did not put me out of commission, and thus instilled in me a false sense of confidence in my ability to bike more than twice that distance in hotter weather.
It becomes apparent about 15 miles into our trek that we are woefully unprepared for what we signed up to do. We just cross the Charles City County line, where we stop to hydrate.
“I’m going to go ahead and put this out there, I think this is the most arrogant thing that I’ve done in recent memory.” We laugh, because what else can we do?
Soon after, we climb back into the saddle and pedal at the pace of a slow crawl up a hill. Just over the crest, we come upon Boomer Harris, a hulking man in red spandex leaning over his handlebars, fiddling with his phone.
Inspired by the UCI race, Boomer Harris got back on his bike. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
Harris, a firefighter of 27 years for the city of Richmond, is in the midst of a 30-mile ride he has completed many times before. Some days he bikes 60, from his front door to the Charles City County Courthouse and back. Riding the trail helped him lose 30 pounds since September, he tells us.
“Matter of fact, you know what got me motivated?” Boomer says. “The UCI race. It got me motivated to get back on my bike. I used to ride years ago, but with kids and a job, I kind of put it to the side. But when that came through Richmond, I got my bike tuned up and got back out here.”
I tell him we’re going all the way to Williamsburg.
“Oh, are you?” he says, his tone some combination of surprise, concern and amusement. “Take your time. Get you some breaks and some fluid and food in you. Not too much. Just keep a nice steady pace. You’re not trying to break a record or something.”
He clips his shoes into his pedals and heads back toward the city, and we the opposite way.
Boomer’s words of encouragement have all but faded from our minds by the time we sit down for lunch amid the pinecone-strewn picnic area at the Herring Creek trailhead. (Positive that we had missed it, we’d sat for 10 minutes in the grass less than a mile away and asked a passerby if she knew whether there was a trailhead close by. “Not that I know of,” the woman said as she whizzed onward. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”)
Lunch at Herring Creek trailhead. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
It’s 1:30 p.m. and the temperatures are flirting with 80 degrees. Thankfully, my girlfriend, Hope, had packed us lunches: peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, cheese sticks, peanuts, granola bars, grapes, an apple and my favorite gummy fruit snacks.
I crack a Gatorade and eat a banana. Rob devours his peanut butter sandwich and sifts through photos on his camera. We’re barely halfway through the trail. Morale is cratering.
“I feel like we just need to crush these next 10 miles.”
Rob, unmoved, replies, “I would hang out here for like the next half hour and then really try to light [it] up, but I know we won’t.”
We stuff our remaining snacks back into our backpacks and roll out. By some combination of carbohydrates and adrenaline, we achieve our best pace of the day after lunch and knock out the next 8 miles in about 45 minutes, aided by a terrain change from rolling hills to vast plains.
It feels positively sub-Saharan under the afternoon sun. I had applied sunscreen before the ride; Rob had not, and his shoulders are roasting. He also divulges that he has, at some point, lost feeling in his fingers. This is troubling news, but I can only laugh in exhausted delirium.
Also troubling is our dwindling water and energy. By the time we reach the courthouse, around 3:15 p.m., I’m running on fumes. We still have 20 miles to go.
I had wanted an adventure. What I got was a slog.
Halfway up a hill I can’t reach the top of, we stop and I text my Dad. I tell him I’m in the midst of the ride and it’s kicking my butt. He replies: “You’re getting old.”
There is no sports-movie-esque turning point in our story. No Knute Rockne halftime speech. No ghost of Babe Ruth telling us to follow our hearts to Jamestown. We simply have no choice but to keep pedaling.
By the time we pass the 10-mile marker, around 4 p.m., I’m wobbling along with my head down, indecisively switching through my gears in search of a sweet spot that didn’t exist. We fall silent, too tired to complain or curse anymore, our banter replaced by the whir of our tires. The miles seem to stretch longer and longer.
Then, suddenly, it rises before us, one last looming obstacle: a steep, arching bridge spanning the Chickahominy River. The bridge might as well be the Washington Monument. We had snaked past fields of dead cornstalks for as far as you could see, through low-lying woods with swamps creeping toward the asphalt. We had wondered, aloud, where the hell is the scenery on this damn trail? Finally, here it was.
I race to the top, the first time since lunch I hadn’t lagged behind on an incline of any kind. At its peak, we survey the water. This is our trophy view.
There are about 6 more miles of trail after that, but I don’t remember them much, only the overwhelming desire not to be on a bicycle anymore.
Around 5:15 p.m., we cross U.S. Highway 31 and spy the Jamestown Trailhead, our finish line. Rob pedals the last 100 yards or so. I coast behind him. Our time? Six hours and 30 minutes, including a dozen or so stops for water, rest, photos and lunch.
Mark Robinson at the finish. (Photo by Rob Hendricks.)
Our legs are heavy. Our asses are sore. Our pride is diminished, despite our triumph. I only feel relief that it’s over, that my naiveté hasn’t resulted in an embarrassing failure, only an embarrassing, daylong reckoning with my fitness level.
Oh well. Nothing that pizza and beer can’t fix.