Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year-end analysis of racing in MABRA

This post is just an advertisement for the 15th edition of my year-end analysis of bicycle racing in MABRA. You have to get the full (47 page) report on-line: Link to PDF

Some visually interesting plots from the report appear below. 
Distribution of ages of all racers in USACycling.

USACycling membership since 1970.
Attendance at popular MABRA criteriums since 2012.
Racer retention in the US. Plot shows the fraction of racers remaining as a function of the number of years since they first took out a USACycling license.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Tom and Bill's Appalachian Trail Death March


In the fall, Tom and I usually try to do a long-weekend bike tour, but this year we indulged his dream of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail with a four-day backpacking trip. I'd never been overnight backpacking before, and the trip gave me the excuse to research buy a lot of gear. 


We hiked 46 miles over two full days and two half days, from Harpers Ferry to just north if I-70 and back. 


The unanswered question from this trip is why do I turn every endurance activity into a death march? On Day 2 I wanted so badly to make it to Annapolis Rock, even though it was at least 18 miles, and not just because I thought it would be a nicer campsite than the Pine Knob shelter. What is so appealing about finishing an event completely on fumes? On this trip, it was not about the speed--I was more than happy to stop at the overlooks, but I definitely wanted to have every day be a stretch.

Maybe I'm addicted to that level of exhaustion. Maybe I it's that "we can always do a little bit more."

After trying to turn every day into a death march, I was struck by how much harder the days were than I expected.  After our diagnostic hike in September, I thought it would be within our capability to do at least 15 and probably 20 miles per day, which would have allowed us to get to the Pennsylvania border and back. I was never tired at the end of the day, but my legs felt like someone had beaten them with a stick, and my feet were in real pain.

Did I need to carry so much food? I never really saw Tom eat anything substantial. I would be gnawing away at a salami and shoving pecans into my mouth, and he would be quietly sipping a Cup-o-soup.

Day By Day

Day 1  Harpers Ferry to Ed Garvey Thursday 2017-10-19

We ended up parking at the National Park visitor center around 12:30 and hiking down to town, which added another couple miles. The day was spectacular, and first three miles are on the towpath were delightful. 

The trail from Weverton was rocky and vertical. We slogged on with our heavy (to us) packs. As the afternoon wore on, we began to wonder if we had missed the Ed Garvey Shelter, though it seemed impossible that we could have simply walked by it without noticing. We stopped for a nature break, and Tom noticed that the shelter was visible through the woods.  Neither of us felt like pushing on to Crampton Cap, so we stopped.

The shelter already held five more people: 2 late-middle-aged guys who disappeared pretty quickly, a lone middle-aged guy, and a 30-something with his 4-year-old son, whose backpack was large enough for him to get into. Amusingly, the 30-something turned out to be a bike racer. 
The lone-middle-aged guy was a snorer, and I slept poorly. 
Ed Garvey shelter. Day 1

Day 2 Ed Garvey to Pine Knob Friday 2017-10-20

I really thought we could make it to Annapolis Rock. The segment near Lambs Knoll really slowed the pace down. The path was so rocky that you could never really take a stride. Instead it was all half steps, staring at the boulders and making sure you didn't fall over.
We came first to Gathland State Park, home of the National War Correspondent's arch. I've been to Gathland many times, mostly on rides, so I didn't know the history of the place. It's basically the failed estate of a famous Civil War correspondent/essayist. It's the 19th-century equivalent of visiting Dan Rather's home. 

Obligatory photo of the National War Correspondent's Arch at Gathland state park

Our quick lunch was at the White Rocks overlook, which is probably the only trail-side overlook on the entire 20+ mile section.  We then bushwhacked trying to find the map-listed Lambs Knoll Lookout tower, which I later discovered was closed to the public in the 1980s. So much for accurate maps. The descent from Lambs Knoll was pretty grim, with lots of boulders.

Next on tap was Reno Monument, which memorializes Union General Jesse Reno who as killed at the battle of Fox Gap during the 1862 battle for South Mountain. 

I guess we're still in the south. Jesse Reno monument at Fox Gap. Note that Reno was a Union general, and the CSA general killed here has his own monument down the road. But apparently somebody felt it was important to claim this site for the noble cause as well. 

Shortly after Reno Monument, we came to the original Washington Monument, which was originally built by citizens of Boonsboro to honor GW himself. The CCC completely rebuilt the derelict monument in the 1930s.
Tom on the original Washington Monument, first built in the 1820s, and then completely rebuilt in the 1930s by the CCC.

By the time we hit the I-70 bridge, I was pretty sure we were not going to make it to Annapolis Rock. My feet were killing me, and I had to call a short halt so I could take my shoes off.  My aching feet meant we were camping at the Pine Knob shelter. We had it to ourselves, since it's a terrible shelter. The constant whine of traffic going downhill on I-70 acted like a white noise machine, though.

Tom and his 250 calorie "cup-o-soup"dinner at the Pine Knob shelter. 

Day 3 Pine Knob to Crampton Gap Saturday 2017-11-21

My legs and feet recovered for Day 3, and after a quick breakfast we were off back across the I-70 bridge.  Tom stopped for a shower at the Dahlgren campground, but I opted to stay dry. Since it was Saturday, the trail was positively crowded with people, compared to the day before. The day sped by, possibly because were covering ground we had already seen, and we reached the turnoff for the Crampton Gap shelter around 4PM.
Lunch break at the White Rocks overlook. We're avoiding the guy behind me, who was wearing a kilt.
We shared the Crampton Gap shelter with three millenials. They were carrying an impossible amount of gear, including a shovel. They played some kind of monster-themed card game. The shelter was completely unbearable, since one of them had sleep apnea. Initially it was like sharing the shelter with a demon, but as the evening wore on the snuffling became more feline. It was like sharing the shelter with a mountain lion. I gave up and pulled my pad out of the shelter and finally got to sleep.

 Day 4 Crampton Gap to Harpers Ferry Sunday 2017-11-22

We pretty much hauled through the last day to get back to the car, since we were covering ground we'd already traversed. 
And we rescued a tiny turtle!


  • Pearl-Izumi trail running shoes. These were too light, and beat up my feet.
  • Since I was paranoid about weather, I had a gore-tex jacket. I was prepared to spend days outside, soaking wet at 45F. 

Lessons Learned

  • Water is heavy. I was worried that the water sources were well off the trail. I was completely wrong, of course, but I started the trip with 4 liters (8lbs) in two camelbacks. 
  • The shelters are full of snorers. I thought the first night was bad, but our companion Devon on the third night was unbearable. In the future, I'll just use the one-person tent. 

By the numbers

With 4l of water and the food, my pack weighed 34lbs--too heavy.


DayDistance (mi)Segment
17.8Harper's Ferry Visitor Center to Ed Garvey Shelter
215.5Ed Garvey Shelter to Pine Knob Shelter
311.8Pine Knob Shelter to Crampton Gap Shelter
411.5Crampton Gap to Harper's Ferry Visitor Center


My food supply. 
Weight Calories Description
32 oz 3200 cal 4 salamis
28.8 oz 3000 cal 12 Clif bars
16 oz 2700 cal bag cashews
8 oz 1600 cal salted pecans
12 oz 1760 cal trail mix
5.6 oz 800 cal Kind bars
16 oz 1100 cal Prunes
5.25 oz 860 cal chocolate bars
123.65 oz 15020 cal
16 oz 1600 cal 2 salamis
2.4 oz 250 cal 1 Clif bar
8 oz 1600 cal salted pecans
1.4 oz 200 cal Kind bar
1.75 oz 267 cal chocolate bars
29.55 oz 3917 cal
94.1 oz
11103 cal

Monday, July 24, 2017

Intelligentsia Cup 2017


I did four of nine days of the 2017 Intelligentsia Cup 50+ series, which runs from Saturday to the following Sunday.  Each day had a $650 prize list with $200 in primes, put up by a local masters team, Team Mack. The four days that I raced each were some of the best organized, most technically challenging, fastest races I did in 2017. Their quality in every respect rivaled or exceeded the best races we have in MABRA.  Fields in the 50+ were typically 35 to 45 each day.  Racing was so fast, that I could not manage to crack the top half. 

All in all, it was an incredible racing experience. 

Random Observations

  • I hope I wasn't "that guy" but the line I wanted through every turn was nothing like the line that everyone else wanted. I like the the inside, just kissing the apex of the turn, but everyone else always swung way wide.
  • Despite the speed and constant attacks, the racing seemed less pointlessly aggressive than east-coast racing. 
  • The speeds were more like a MABRA 35+ criterium. 
  • Midwestern bike chicks: more nose rings, fewer tattoos than east-coast bike chicks. 


Day 1: Niles 

Thursday 2017-07-20
Description: 6-turn 1km pancake flat criterium with perfect pavement in an early 1960s neighborhood. 

I had no idea what to expect--I thought I had been riding pretty well in the weeks before, especially in the 55+ races I had done. We started in the mid-afternoon, with the temperatures in the mid-90s. Ugh. I had scoped out the start list before the event, and knew that it was stacked with geezer ringers. I was still getting rolling on the second lap when the first five guys stacked it in one of the turns. Yikes.  We rolled several laps behind the moto while the medics cleaned up the damage. Attacks were constant after the restart. I tried to go across to one move, and was rapidly put in my place. I made it, but I had to jack my heart rate to about 195bpm to make it across, which eroded my confidence. Shortly thereafter the winning moved escaped with two Texas Roadhouse and two Florida Velo. With about 8 laps to go, someone a few behind me got Sagan/Cavendish-ed and tangled with the barricades, and we were neutralized again. Weirdly, despite the two serious crashes, and for the rest of the series, the racing was fast, but never aggro. Perhaps it was just midwestern politeness.  I sprinted for all I was worth, for  19th place.

Results: 19/29 classified finishers

Day 2: Elmhurst

Friday 2017-07-21

Description: 6-turn 1.5km flat criterium around Elmhurst College

No matter how hard I worked, I could never get past about 15th wheel. Every prime sprint was agony. I came unglued on the last lap and rolled it in off the back for about 22nd.

The vibe on the course was incredible, and was something I've never seen in MABRA. Fully a third of the houses in the very wealthy neighborhood had outdoor parties going on. At one, a band was setting up on a stage. I crashed one party, and the homeowner (Maui!) explained how the event came about. Before the first year, the promoter had personally knocked on every door. In year five, he thought the entire neighborhood was on board, and actively looked forward to the block-party event.

Results: 22/31 classified finishers

Day 3: Lake Bluff

Saturday 2017-07-22
Description: 5-turn 1.25km  flat criterium in Downtown Lake Bluff. The course was like a mini-Clarendon, complete with a 180 at the end of the finish straight and an uphill, into-the-wind long finish. 

I was once again still working my way up from the back on the 2nd lap when the field split. Stupidly, I missed the second split, when two Intelligentsia and two Texas Roadhouse guys rolled away. At least this time the group was slow enough that I could at least try to get away a couple times.

Results: 19/34 classified finishers

Day 4: Goose Island 

Description: 4-turn, 1 block-wide 1.25km criterium with a dogleg on the back stretch and uncharacteristically sketchy pavement. 

Goose Island. Photo Credit Brian Lin

This reality of this course turned out to be the most different from what I expected. The start/finish was at the series-sponsor Intelligentsia Coffee's roastery, and the Goose Island Brewery, in an early 20th-century industrial district about two miles west of the Loop. While I was warming up, the breeze alternated between fermenting beer and fermenting garbage. 

Once again, the racing was just crazy fast, and after three days of beat-down, I was slightly physically and definitely mentally beaten. I spent most of the race recovering from the prime sprints, and when the field wound it up for the final sprint, I found myself going backwards, despite heart rates in the mid 190s again. 

Our old post-doc Brian appeared on the finish stretch as a spectator, so we got to hang out and catch up.

Results: 26/31 classified finishers

Monday, June 12, 2017

It's not a safe sport

Note: I wrote this the evening of June 16, 2007 when I got home from the race, and haven't edited it since then. 

Crystal City Criterium, Arlington, VA
June 16, 2007

All to frequently we hear about death in cycling. We probably even knew someone who died in competition. Today, those stories touched me personally: I saw a man die right in front of me in a race.

We lined up this morning for the first Crystal City Criterium in Arlington, just north of National Airport. The entry fee was high, but so was the prize money. The course was exciting, and after the Master 35+ race, we could stay to watch the pros race after lunch.

The fifty-rider field contained most of the usual MABRA heavy-hitter masters: Superdave, Ramon B, etc.  The course was shaped like a backwards "6."  The top of the six went under the overhang of an apartment building, around a 180, a 90 and then down a 600m straight through the finish. 

I spent the beginning of the race groveling. I could ride in the field, fifteen guys back, but I couldn't imagine leaving the safety of the group. The pack dynamic wasn't particularly nervous, although my teammate did knock my bars once. The businesslike dynamic is one of the benefits of masters racing. We all know each other, and we've all raced for years: no surprises.

Little moves went all through the race, but nothing got more than a few seconds. With eight laps to go, coming out of the second turn, I'm trying to move up. I'm on Keith Mitchell's wheel. It's neither a good nor a bad wheel. He's a 50+ rider, riding way down in age today. Despite his slight build, he often pushes a huge gear. He doesn't tend to crash, but sometimes he goes through holes that I don't care to follow him through.

Suddenly, Keith looks to his left at the ground just in front of his bike. His bike starts to slide to the right, as he continues to look at the ground. There was no contact, and even if he had overlapped a wheel, I would have expected him to keep it up. I'm not panicking yet. But he's not straightening it out. The bike continues to the right as he goes to the left. I realize that he's going down. Now I'm panicking. There is no exit right or left--I'm right up on him and I'm full on the brakes. He slams into the ground right in front of me. Still no exit appears, and I'm frantically trying to figure out if I can ride over him and not crash.  Fortunately for me, the coefficient of friction between him and the ground matches the one between my brake pads and my Zipps, and I screech to a halt up against his bike. I unclip to avoid tipping over.

He's lying on the ground, like so many other guys after a crash, but he's not moving. Spectators are running up. What should I do? It's just a crash, I think, like so many other crashes I've watched, both from the sidelines and from saddle. I clip back in and bury it to try to catch back on. Before the next turn I see Keith's teammate Grant
Soma circling around and heading back to the crash site. But I'm already lost in an anaerobic fog trying to close the gap before the straightaway. I fail to complete the mission, and soon I can see the finish line. The group is receding into the distance. I think about giving up, but then I realize that the officials will undoubtedly neutralize the race, so I redouble my efforts.

Sure enough, I catch back on just before the second turn before the crash spot. I realize that the situation is bad. Keith is lying face down on the pavement, in exactly the same position he was in when I almost ran over him. Emergency personnel ring his prostrate body. I try to think the best, "He hit his head on the way down, and he's just unconscious." But as we roll past, a darker thought comes to mind: his crash was the symptom, and not the cause.

At the start/finish the officials neutralize us. Rumors circulate through the peloton. Twenty minutes later, the officials restart us with four laps to go. The quick restart is not a good sign. Serious accidents take much longer to clear, because the EMTs want to stabilize the patient. 

We finish our race. I never made it back to the front and chose to sit up in the sprint.

Keith Mitchell died of a heart attack. Apparently, the EMT's never found a pulse. 

I have raced against Keith for as long as I can remember. He was an enigmatic figure, for whom I had a grudging admiration. He could be a reckless rider, and he was more frequently on the wrong side of the rules than suited me. But we had a friendship of the sort that comes from competition. 

We tried to look at this sad occurrence positively. At some level, don't we all wish we could die doing what we loved? Better to leave this world coming out of the second turn in a $1000 criterium, than to have a massive heart attack sitting on the toilet, or stuck in traffic, or yelling at your kids.  

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Monster Cross 2017


Conditions were fast, and the weather was astounding. I actually started the race in short sleeves, with only a base layer under my kit.  I staged poorly. I wish the promoter would stage by class and not just one giant wave after the elites go.

I rode conservatively for the whole race, since I didn't know how I would respond after not racing for nearly seven months. I didn't feel like my usual reckless self, and really dialed down the risk level--I didn't want to start 2017 lying on the ground with a broken collarbone. For the first big lap, I worked my way through the field, and really made up time on the paved uphill section. Although I faded a little after after the halfway point, I didn't notice it, and I felt really indestructible for nearly the entire race.

Unfortunately, at the end of the second big lap, and only nine miles from the finish, we were neutralized as a group so a woman who had crashed could be helicopter evacuated. I had caught (for the second time) 65+ national cyclocross champion Fred Wittwer, and was thinking "podium!"  I could spin the neutralization two ways. Negatively, all the guys I had dispensed with on the road all caught back on. Positively, I caught all the guys who had dispensed with me on the twisty hiking-path sections. So it was probably a wash. After the restart, the fight went out of me for a while, unfortunately, and it wasn't until we hit fire-road sections again that I could dial the intensity back up.

I completely fell apart on the final single-track downhill section less than a mile from the finish. At least ten guys passed me in the final two minutes of a three hour race.

The finish order was a replay of my racing career. When I was a second-season Category 4, I had more than ten top-ten finishes, but they were nearly all sixth through tenth. If a race paid three places, I was fourth. If it paid seven places, I was eighth. This time I ended up 4th in the 50+: one place off the podium. And like Hilly Billy Roubaix 2015, where the winner passed me with less than five minutes left, I'm sure the third place guy this year passed me on that single-track section where I came unglued.

The race in graphs

I faded less toward the end than in past years. The horizontal section is the six minutes I spent during the neutralization. 
All five years compared. I have never been faster. than this year.  2015 was the year of the epic mud bogs, and in 2014 I DNF'd after flatting twice and then getting lost in the woods. I am astounded at how close 2016 and 2017 are for the first 80 minutes.
I averaged 175bpm for the three hours, even including six minutes standing motionless. I have no idea what was wrong with me in 2016. 

The race in pictures

Hey! I'm with a teammate! A lot of the course is fire roads like this one.
The road section. Time to drop the mountain-bike guys. It's always a good sign when you're riding with a national champion. 
Stream crossing. I rode this like a grandmother--I refused to flat. I'm off to the side to try to stay out of everyone's way.

The only steep section on the entire course just after the stream crossing.


Same as 2016. Crux with hydraulic disk brakes and Challenge Gravel Grinder 38mm tires @ 45 psi (5psi lower than 2016). I'm done with file treads; I'll ride regular cyclocross tires in 2018. Definitely needed more hookup on the twisting sections.


  • 2017: 49.4 miles in 3:11:42 57/309 overall and  5/46 in the 50+
  • 2016: 49.4 miles in 3:15:47 82/342 overall and 10/55 in 50+
  • 2015: 45.4 miles in 3:28:47 58/252 overall and 5/38 in the 50+ 
  • 2014: DNF--two flats before the 1/2-way point
  • 2013: 47.7 miles in 3:05:23  71/382 overall and  9/46 in 50+
  • 2012: 3:17:33  58/336 overall and 12/50 in 40-49

    Links to results

    Strava link

    Links to previous race summaries

    Wednesday, February 22, 2017

    On academic integrity

    The questions

    • Should you get to declare a mulligan when you're caught plagiarizing part of your thesis, by just removing the parts you didn't write and then be allowed to keep your degree?  Or does this situation constitute a "one and done?"
    • Bonus question. If you're caught and you get to keep your degree, should you have to acknowledge that your thesis was withdrawn and reissued for ethical revisions?

    The back story

    In 2015 I reviewed a manuscript for an additive manufacturing journal. It was the first "double blind" review I had ever done--where the author and institution information had been removed from the manuscript. Many problems existed in the manuscript, ranging from the grammatical to the scientific. Chief among the science problems was that the materials science in the explanation of the findings didn't make any sense to me. It just seemed random and unconnected to the experimental results. It was also clear that multiple authors had contributed different sections. That's jarring, but ordinary, in scientific publication where multiple authors contribute.

    I  resorted to the cited references to try to understand the confusing discussion of the results. One of them was Iain LeMay's Principles of Mechanical Metallurgy, which I had on my bookshelf, since I had stolen it from Sandra's box in the attic.  Imagine my surprise, when I found an illustration in LeMay that strongly resembled one of the figures from the manuscript. But in LeMay's book it illustrated a very different deformation mechanism, in a completely different material system. And the text surrounding LeMay's illustration appeared nearly verbatim in the manuscript I was reviewing, with just some of the nouns changed.
    At this point, I began drafting my rejection of the manuscript on the grounds that the author had plagiarized part of the manuscript. Nearly simultaneously, inter-library loan finally delivered one of the other cited references from the manuscript under review. The rest of the confusing discussion of the manuscript was a nearly word-for-word copy directly from the second reference. The author had not even corrected the direct-from-French-to-English sentence structure that he had plagiarized from the cited work.

    The double-blind  nature of the review fascinated me, and I immediately challenged myself to find the identify of the authors. A few Google-scholar searches of unusual phrases from the manuscript made short work of that, and I rapidly identified the US university and research group. As is often the case, the manuscript under review was actually an already published and awarded Masters thesis, which I downloaded from the university archives.

    I repurposed my review of the manuscript, and addressed it to the academic integrity board of the university in question. I included high-lighted versions of both references and the masters thesis that demonstrated the plagiarized sections. After a few weeks, an associate dean at the university informed me that they were investigating the case, and thanked me for my input.

    The interim

    I didn't expect that the university would keep me informed of the progress of their case or even, for that matter, their decision. Nevertheless, every few months I checked the university's archives to see if the thesis was still available. Within a few months it was gone from the on-line archive without a trace or notice that it been withdrawn.

    In late 2016 my search found the thesis again. It had a new number (like what passes for a DOI at this university), and the plagiarized pages and figures had been excised. But nothing else was different, and no new explanation replaced the missing section. Even the acceptance dates and signatures in the front matter were identical to the original version. There was no statement that the thesis had been revised and resubmitted.

    The changes were literally at most a couple hours of work of cutting and reprinting

    What did I expect would happen?

    I guess I thought that this would be the end of the student's career. It never occurred to me that the university would just re-issue the thesis with no comment.

    Were there sanctions for the thesis advisor and committee? I have no idea, and probably could never find out. But the advisor had to know that his student did not write the entire thesis--if I could discern multiple authors in one reading of the manuscript.


    • Is this outcome fair? Or right? 
    • Should plagiarism be an academic death sentence? After all, if I stick up a liquor store, get caught, but return the money, I still committed the crime, and will be charged and probably serve time. (Though I won't get the electric chair)
    • If a student plagiarizes (or invents data), should the advisor also be sanctioned? 

    Monday, February 20, 2017

    Caverngasm 2016

    The 2016 Hyland-Luecke road trip them was "Caverngasm 2016. It takes its name from a chapter on the "Civil Wargasm" road trip  in Tony Horwitz book Confederates in the Attic (link) My original idea was that we would visit every commercial cavern in Virginia. Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. I'm glad we didn't. By the end, we were caverned out, and even though there was time for one more, neither of us wanted to. 

    After a few caverns, I was convinced that every owner must subscribe to a trade magazine probably titled "Cavern Owner's Monthly." The tours were all very similar. Most interesting were the origin stories, most of which involved some boys and an animal:

    Endless Caverns: "According to the tour operators, the cave was discovered by two boys in October 1879, while hunting rabbits " (Wikipedia)
    Grand Caverns: "The cavern system was discovered in 1804 by 18-year-old Bernard Weyer, a young trapper, looking for his missing trap."
    Dixie Caverns: "The caverns were found by a couple farm boys back in 1920 after their dog fell through a hole that led to the caves." 
    So, if you want to find a cave, employ some boys and a dog.

    Also, every cavern has to be somehow unique. Endless Caverns: "The longest commercial cave tour in the state of VA!" Grand Caverns: "America's oldest show cavern." Shenandoah Caverns: Virginia's only cavern with elevator service!" and "best cave bacon!" 

    Since I was still in the agonies of my National Championship crash-induced sciatica, I was able to check out the area around every hotel every night as well. 


    • Best formations: tie: Grand Caverns or Shenandoah caverns
    • Best Tourguide: Natural Bridge Caverns
    • Best tour experience: Endless Caverns, because we were the only two on the tour. 
    • Don't bother: Natural Bridge Caverns--this is like going in a mine rather than in a cave.

    Day 1 Two caverns

    After a mostly on-time departure, we hit Endless Caverns, just outside New Market, VA for the 10AM tour. Score--we were the only people, so we got a personalized tour from Maria, our very charming tour guide. Endless Caverns is more of an RV park with an attached cavern. The formations are nice but not spectacular, but they haven't been endlessly beaten up like the ones in Grand Caverns. The private tour made up for the formations. 

    Sandra and I in the "Cathedral Room" just before the cavern exit. 

    After a quick lunch at a Mexican restaurant in New Market, we headed for Grand Caverns in Grottoes.
    Grand Caverns bills itself as "America's Oldest Show Cave," since it opened for business in 1806. Unlike Endless Caverns, Grand Caverns was mobbed with people shuffling along in both directions (the caverns are mostly linear in and back out. The formations were certainly more spectacular than Endless Caverns, but also showed a lot more abuse. Almost all of the individual stalactites near the paths were broken off, presumably from the 19th century. 

    We detoured onto the Blue Ridge Parkway on our way to overnight in Lexington, and stopped at the Humpback Rocks visitor center to check out the chickens. The visitor center tries to recreate a late 19th century homestead as it would have been in the hills. 

    Sandra lectures the heirloom chickens (They are Dominiques--America's First Chicken Breed!--this was clearly a trip of superlatives.

    Night walk observations: 

    • Dude with a headlamp weeding a traffic island at 4:30AM. 
    • Face to face with a skunk rooting through trash bags (the skunk, not me) Interestingly, I had smelled him (her?) 20 minutes before, while I was several blocks away.
    Face to face with a friendly skunk out looking for a late-night snack. (He's right by the doorway in the center of the frame. I didn't want to get too much closer!) 

    • Special-needs guy doing a booming business selling newspapers at the corner at 5AM (I bought one too). Everyone who drove by seemed to stop and chat and buy a paper. 


    Day 2 More caverns and some trains

    Natural Bridge may be the oldest tourist trap in the country. The owners have been charging visitors for more than 200 years. As usual, I would have liked more history of the place, which also has a reenacted native american village and A CAVERN! We took in the cavern, whose tour guide was the most engaging of the four we visited. The cavern, which opened in the 70s, unfortunately was the least engaging of the ones we visited. It's more like going down in a hand-dug mine than a cavern.

    Fun facts about Natural Bridge:
    • Thomas Jefferson bought it from the King of England in the 18th century. 
    • TJ mined a cave on the property for guano to make gunpowder in the war of 1812.
    Sandra pointing at Natural Bridge. The highway actually goes over the arch. 

    Sandra Hyland pointing to the entrance to Thomas Jefferson's bat-poop cave. 
    How did I miss the Roanoke Museum of Transportation? Oh,right, I planned this entire trip in just a few days. We only found it because I googled what was in the area during our lunch stop there. We didn't leave anywhere near enough time. An actual working steam train had pulled in the day before and was still leaking water when we checked it out. 

    Blacksburg night walk observations: 

    • Not too much to see in an industrial park at 4AM. Two cute cats sleeping in the middle of the road. 


    Day 3 Asheville

    Wow, the streets were mobbed for a Thursday lunchtime: aging hippies, street kids, millenials with man-buns and batik-print skirts. All these people can't have come just for the Biltmore. I could see myself living here, especially for the riding. Literally two blocks from our downtown hotel we were on the base of a 350 m climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
    We walked to the downtown theater after dinner to see Hunt for the Wilderpeople: charming without being saccharine.
    Two thumbs up for the historic Princess Anne Hotel. Expensive, but not as expensive as the new hotels on the downtown side of the interstate. We slept through (oops) the complimentary wine and cheese-plate happy hour. 


    Night wandering

    I slept until 5AM, which was great, so I was able to walk for coffee when I woke up. 

    Day 4 Blue Ridge Parkway and Valle Crucis

    It was going to be long drive back to Blacksburg, and we made it longer by taking the Blue Ridge Parkway right out of Asheville. Great driving Sandra's Mini instead of my tank-like Subaru. Mid-drive we stopped at the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, where Sandra's mom had gone to high school for several years. Unfortunately, the building next to the store had caught fire and burned, and the road was closed. 
    We tried to make it to Dixie Caverns (discovered by a boy and his dog, of course) but the day was late, my leg hurt, and we were both tired. 


    • Dinner: The Cellar, Blacksburg
    • Overnight: Microtel Blacksburg

    Night wandering

    Young woman, all dressed up, sitting on the curb of the Microtel at 2AM crying into her phone. Later she was wandering around the industrial park like me, but was gone by the time I completed my second lap.

    Day 5 One more cavern before going home

    Shenendoah Caverns caverned us out.

    Shenandoah Caverns also has a giant exhibit of Rose-Parade floats,, department store animated window displays from the 1950s and 1960s, and the stage of some political party national convention. Roadside museums are the best.

    Finally, the caverngasm was over--we didn't have the energy to stop at either Luray or Skyline caverns.