Back To The Old Grind

It’s been 17 days since I rode my bike, which may be something of a record since March 2010.  I went out for a quick spin after work and reacquainted myself with the local routes.  The weather was fantastic and the leaves are in full color.  I paused for the above pic next to Lake Terrapin, which is an embarrassingly small body of water that probably should be called a pond.  It’s still quite fetching and always good for a nice photograph.

In short order, the sun set.  In the gathering gloom, I was able to sneak up on three deer as they grazed along the side of a multi-use path.  Very nice.

Most of the soreness from the Army Ten Miler is gone, although my injured calf continues to voice its displeasure with my insistence that it cooperate with the other muscles.  The ride was very therapeutic and helped loosen up my stiff muscles.

There’s never much to say about these short evening jaunts.  I’m trying to enjoy what little sunlight is still available to me.  Daylight savings time will shortly be at an end and I will be forced to do all my weeknight rides in the dark.  Sigh.

The Montclair-Lake Terrapin Criterium

Fellow blogger Matt Gholson over at Barn Door Cycling recently took readers on a tour of his town.  I liked the post and warned Matt that I would shamelessly copy him.   I have now done so, by revealing this exciting criterium-style course I have been using through my suburban neighborhood of Montclair and the adjoining neighborhood of Lake Terrapin.  I have creatively named this 4.75 mile circuit the Montclair-Lake Terrapin Criterium.  I believe a tour of this route gives a nice picture of cycling in suburban America.  Enjoy.

Le Depart

The course starts on Spring Branch in the stately neighborhood of Montclair.  Montclair has grown from its initial role in the 1960s as a recreational spot for wealthy Washingtonians with cottages next to a manmade lake, to a gated community, to a sprawling 15,000-person neighborhood with a Home Owners Association.  Most housing construction was completed in the 1990s, making it one of the elder neighborhoods in the area.  Old-timers will tell you stories of how this entire region was nothing but forests and dirt roads in the 1970s.  It’s hard to see that now.

A short climb up Spring Branch brings the first turn, a left across rush hour traffic onto Holleyside Drive.  There is a steady stream of cars to negotiate but, in the unfortunate event of a crash, first aid is close at hand as Fire Company 17 of the Dumfries Triangle

Spring Branch & Holleyside with DTFD #17 in the background

Volunteer Fire Department sits proudly at the intersection.  I don’t know much about these fellows except they stop by the house once a year soliciting donations in return for a nice photography deal.  They also sponsor a very popular pancake breakfast every July 4th.

A few hundred yards down Holleyside and the road slopes downward dramatically.  Speeds in excess of 30 mph can be achieved as long as one is careful to dodge skateboarders, loose dogs, joggers, cars being driven by teenagers, and other impediments of suburban life.  On this occasion, my descent was slowed by an ice cream truck, making my ascent on the far side of the ravine more demanding.  Stupid ice cream trucks.

After making the climb, the rider is rewarded with a gentle

Montclair Elementary

descent toward Tallowood Drive.  The intersection is congested and the opportunity for collision is significant as the cyclist will be tempted to coast through despite poor visibility due to trees and cars parked along the curb.  A short distance further and we pass one of the neighborhood’s institutions of learning, Montclair Elementary (home of Monty, the Cardinal!).  Distinguished alumni of this school include the author’s youngest son, who will someday invent cold fusion or cure the common cold or do something of similar consequence.  In the meanwhile, he is playing video games and eating potato chips.

Let no one say this is not a technically demanding course.  Immediately after the school, the rider must negotiate the challenging transition from Montclair to Lake Terrapin.  This is

Entering the path

done by somehow getting on a short walking path that connects the two communities.  You can either attempt to use the sidewalk, now shared by a large bush, or swing leftward and pedal through a parking space, past a guard rail and hop onto the sidewalk from the left side.

The challenge isn’t over at that point.  The rider must now travel downhill toward a sidewalk, execute a right turn and enter the road near the intersection of Leatherneck and Lake Terrapin Roads.  You will note the doggie poop bag distribution box on the right side of the trail.  This is a favorite pet walking area, along with anyone attempting to move between the two communities, which happens with great frequency as the Terrapinites travel to and from the school.  Bike handling skills are almost always tested at this point in the course.

Descent into Lake Terrapin

Lake Terrapin and the beginning of “Lake Terrapin Hill”

Having traveled two miles at this point, the rider dashes down Leatherneck Road until it once again joins Lake Terrapin Road, the major thoroughfare for the subdivision of the same name.  Lake Terrapin is a newer neighborhood than Montclair, with most homes being built within the past ten years.  This is where the “new money” goes.  As we pass by the manmade lake, the rider comes to his greatest challenge – the ascent of “Lake Terrapin Hill.”  With a slope of 10% for about four hundred yards, the rider eventually climbs sixty feet (that’s about 5,000 meters for those more comfortable with the metric system).

Descent on Daybreak Lane

The turn onto Loggerhead Place is the highest point in the course.  If this were a really cool race, fans would be handing out newspapers at this intersection so the riders wouldn’t freeze on the upcoming descent.  Unfortunately, the only people greeting riders are drivers of automobiles; if they simply pass without incident that is the most comfort we can expect.  The descent down Loggerhead and onto Daybreak Lane is actually quite fast.  Riders must watch out for cars, fathers hauling in garbage cans from the curbside service earlier in the day, and mothers crossing the street with their little boys as they head to Boy Scout meetings (all these happened on this ride).  The turn onto Diamondback Road is greater than 90 degrees and at 20-25 mph can be a little tricky if one is not careful.

The Most Ancient and Venerable Community Center

Further down Diamondback is the Lake Terrapin Community Center (Social on August 10th, Luau August 17th and a Board of Directors Meeting to be held later this month).  There are basketball courts and a playground, which were empty, and a pool which was occupied with a few early evening revelers.  Quite often police officers from the Prince William County Police Department park at this intersection and write speeding tickets for cars descending Lake Terrapin Hill.   I worry that one day I’ll be caught as I have been known to reach speeds in excess of 35 mph while traveling in this 25 mph zone.

Dashing past the lake a second time, we find ourselves pedaling uphill on Chula Place.  There is often a street basketball game in progress here but not tonight; the only obstacle was the work trucks of Garcia and Sons Construction which was doing some work in one of the neighborhood lawns.  Turning onto Leatherneck once again, we come to an old family cemetery that has been fenced off by the developers.  You can tell there used to be several rows of graves here (about five rows of ten graves) but there is only one marker still remaining, that of a Charles Thomas who died in 1902.  I wonder what Mr. Thomas would think of his country farm now.  I ask the owner of the house across the street what he thinks of living near a grave yard and he informs me they make excellent neighbors.

Cemetery

At the top of Spring Branch, ready to sprint to the Start/Finish Line

Having completed the Lake Terrapin portion of the ride, it is time once again to cross the treacherous pathway into Montclair, make a sharp right onto Camellia Lane and follow a loop which deposits the rider back on Tallowood near the school.  Riding back to Holleyside and turning right, we climb the final ascent of the route, about two hundred yards of climbing at 8% grade.  All that remains at this point is the descent down Spring Branch to the Start/Finish line and your lap is complete: 4.75 miles and 900 total feet of climbing.  You may repeat as often as you can to achieve your cycling goals.

Hope you enjoyed the tour and Matt, thanks for the idea!

The Hoadly Road Bike Path (or lack thereof)

    

A mixed-use path off Spriggs Road, and the debris one often has to cycle through to use it.

Cycle paths are an important part of urban planning efforts to accommodate cyclists on busy city roads.  Prince William County planners have not placed a great amount of emphasis on bike paths, casting their lot instead on mixed-use paths which line most major roads.   

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do know this: using these paths forces you to contend with walkers, joggers, skateboarders, and all other manner of traveler, most of whom are completely ignorant of your presence as you approach them from behind and inevitably scare the bejeebers out of them.  A cyclist is also forced to navigate “transition areas” when the path intersects with side roads.  These areas include a plethora of rocks, glass, sand, and dirt.  The method of merging with the side road is typically a metal ramp leading to a gutter. 

All of this combines for some nasty terrain that may very well have contributed to one or more of my unfortunate flats. Finally, drivers aren’t expecting cyclists to come barreling down the pathway at speeds over 15mph.  They regularly block the path when attempting to merge with traffic on the main road and (if a cyclist’s timing is especially bad) will race up to the main road at precisely the same time the cyclist is attempting to cross it on the path.  Thus, the primary advantage of the path (keeping cars away from cyclists) is nullified.

So cycle paths can be helpful.  They give a cyclist a clear, smooth, piece of asphalt to do his/her thing.  Cars know bikes are present (in theory) and pedestrians may use sidewalks and mixed-use paths without fear of bicycles swooping down upon them. 

So let me tell you about Prince William County’s one and only bicycle path.

It’s on Hoadly Road, which is an odd spot for a path.  There are so many congested areas in the county such as Manassas, Lake Ridge, and the entire Route 1 corridor that are in need of a dedicated bike path.  Yet the county planners chose Hoadly Road, a relatively calm (if that adjective can be used to describe ANY road in Northern Virginia) stretch of road connecting Prince William Parkway and Rte 234.  Having traveled this road several times, I must conclude that the entire bike path was an afterthought, thrown together at the last-minute because the county road construction budget had a few thousand dollars lying around that nobody knew what to do with.

Eastbound on Hoadly - no path.

Consider first the location of the path, or to be more specific where the path is NOT located.  Only one side of the street has a path.  The other side is a traditional shoulder.  Apparently, cyclists are only supposed to travel westbound on Hoadly Road.  What’s the sense in that?  Still, the shoulder is wide, smooth, and relatively free of debris.  Frankly, I prefer it to what waits for me on the other side.

This is the view a cyclist gets when he comes off the mixed-use path on the Prince William Parkway and prepares to head west on Hoadly Road.  This is a major intersection which handles tens of thousands of cars per day.  And you’re sitting there right in the middle of it.  Note the slight incline on the other side of the intersection.  There is a shopping plaza on the right side of the road and there are two separate turning lanes which cars use to gain access to it.  You will also note there is no bike path yet.  Tally Ho!

Having moved through the intersection, taking care not to move into the turning lane and thus be killed by a right-turning car or puncturing a tire on the pile of rocks and glass that inevitably gathers at these points, the cyclist then charges up the small hill, all the while making sure that none of the cars bearing down on him/her want to turn into either of the two turning lanes into the shopping center.  Having successfully completed these manuevers, the cyclist is greeted with this site:

The west side of Ridgefield Village Dr - no path and little shoulder

A bicycle path.  Well, better late than never I suppose.  The path leads up to the intersection with Ridgefield Village Dr, an intersection that is not nearly as busy as the previous one.  Grateful for a place to sit while waiting for the light to change, a cyclist cannot help but notice that on the far side of the intersection, the path inexplicably ends.  200 yards of bike path was nice, but what’s the point?

A half mile later, the path starts up again.

A few hundred yards after this, it once again stops in the middle of the nowhere.

As you bounce along the uneven shoulder pavement, you need to be especially observant because your next clue isn’t an obvious one.  After passing a parked semi tractor trailer, the path reemerges as a mixed-use pathway on the side of the road.  Quickly, I swerve over to stay on the path, going over the shoddily paved portion of what used to be a curb and grateful not to puncture my tires.  See the road intersection just up ahead?  The path ends at this point and the cyclist once again must merge with the traffic he/she left about 100 yards ago.  An accident just waiting to happen.

Gamely, the cyclist presses westward, encouraged by the bike path that once again emerges on the side of the road.  However almost as quickly as it starts, the path has another trick up its sleeve: portions of repaved shoulder that are extremely bumpy, followed by another diversion onto a mixed-use path.  After a few hundred feet of this, the cyclist must merge with road traffic a second time in less than a mile as the path moves back onto the road shoulder.

The End Of The Line

Still, the path (when it exists) is nice and this one takes you up to the intersection with Dale Blvd – another busy place and I am grateful for a spot to call my own while waiting for the light to change.  Immediately after crossing this intersection, the cyclist sees the path has ended.  This time there is a sign to officially confirm this fact.  Although wide, the shoulder is nasty.  The pavement is cracked, uneven and full of debris.  My wife occasionally wonders why cyclists are in the road when a “perfectly good” shoulder is available to them.  This is why – it’s a virtual minefield of obstacles which at a minimum will slow you down and could very well cause you to flat.

So that is the Hoadly Road bike path: a testament to some long-forgotten road planning afterthought.  Of the three-mile stretch of road, no more than a mile has a path and much of this requires a fair amount of dexterity and puncture-resistant tires.  It’s enough to cause most serious cyclists to say “the hell with it” and just stay on the road.  And that’s quite a sad commentary on a bike path, if you ask me.  Which you didn’t.

Lest I leave you down in the dumps after such a negative report, let me share with you a more pleasant portion of tonight’s ride.  This photo was taken at the ambitiously-named Lake Terrapin.  I think “pond” is a more appropriate term for this body of water, but it is still quite fetching and there is a lovely dirt path which surrounds it.  I went for a spin around the “lake” at the end of my ride and took this pic as the sun was setting.