It’s easy enough to get in a figurative rut, though not always easy to get out of it.  Literal ruts are more physically threatening and controlling.  They are as old as the wheel, I suppose.  Covered wagons left ruts on the trails going west; heavy vehicles left four-inch-deep ruts in the stone streets of Pompeii; the famed “First Emperor” of China, Qin Shi Huang, standardized axle lengths throughout the realm to facilitate commercial traffic and trade in standard ruts.  I found my own ruts on the W&OD Trail today.

Though snow patches in the shady areas of the W&OD have mostly frozen into hard ice, they have uniformly spaced ruts through them, from Park Authority vehicles that drove over the trail on those rare thaw days.  These ruts are down to the asphalt almost everywhere, leaving two narrow but well-defined parallel passageways.

Discovering this happy state of affairs at the end of our right-of-way was my inspiration to forget my planned neighborhood ride and get out to Herndon today.  Again, the worst places on the whole route were between right where I got on and Vienna Town Center.  This confirms my thought that the sudden heavy wet snowstorm of two weeks ago was worse in my neighborhood than practically anywhere else.  The snow is gone from downtown DC.  It’s mostly gone in Herndon and Reston.  But our unfortunate neighbors across the street, with their northern exposure, have front yards that are full of snow, and our backyard is much the same.

On the trail, the ruts are about 12″ to 15″ wide.  On either edge is a bumpy layer of 2″ to 3″ of snow/ice, hard as a rock, that begins abruptly.  So the challenge is to keep the bike in the middle of the rut and avoid the edge.  It’s really shocking how difficult that is when you’re not going very fast and are in a low gear, so that more revolutions of the cranks are needed to move the bike forward for a given distance.  The least little wobble threatens to make your thin road tire lurch against the ice rim, perhaps tumbling you off or at least leading you unexpectedly onto a slippery, bumpy surface.  It’s so much easier when you’re rolling along at a moderate speed.  You just have to keep it steady for a few seconds and it’s behind you.

The Park Ranger didn’t help, either.  To avoid what must have been some bent-over branches he drove off the pavement every so often, so that one of the ruts strays off too, projecting the rider onto a muddy, messy fine gravel surface, and making re-entry onto the pavement an issue of some difficulty.  Other pitfalls of the ruts include the jogger ahead of you, whom you have to follow at his pace until the trail is clear again because you can’t pull out to pass.  The idiot walker who has started down your path and should be on the other one is another problem requiring only a warning shout, which I always hope I can execute without allowing my “you fool, stay to the right, this isn’t England” tone of voice to project itself.  I’m never quite sure if I succeed.  There were enough risk-potential areas going out toward Vienna that I decided to change the route slightly when I headed back.  I got off the Trail and onto Park Street at the Vienna Community Center, took it to Cedar Lane, then a short jog over to Stonewall Drive, down to Jackson Parkway, left and up to the foot of Academy, and then my slow uphill sprint for home.  The Park Street ride is nice because it has three uphill crests, the first shortly after the Community Center, the second at Cunningham Park School and the third at the turn onto Cedar.  Between the second and third there’s a great downhill where one can easily hit over 30 mph.

Today journey on the Trail meant riding slowly at some points (see above), but the plus side is that so few trail users or drivers were out and about.  More walkers than cyclists were using the Trail, but the road crossings were a breeze because of the oddly light traffic.  For me the ride came down to a challenge of distance and wind.  It was not an overly long ride (23.7 miles) but longer than I have been doing.  And as for wind, it was at 40° and 8 mph (gusts to 30 mph) out of the west, so it had some bite.  The only way I get through a headwind like that with persistence is to imagine the return leg: the wind will be at my back, and the sun will be on my back too.  An entirely different thermal experience.  And since I’d seen all the ruts before, I knew exactly what to expect.  The literal ruts had set me free from the figurative rut of riding in the neighborhood.  “No chain” going home today.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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