Steep Hills and Wooly Bears

On Sunday I felt so good that I tackled Hunter Station Road again.  I’ve blogged about this climb before; it’s relatively short but quite steep, and a real challenge to my current level of muscular, respiratory, and cardiovascular condition.  I used to ride it all the time, but this year I’ve limited myself to three or four attempts.  One of them was that cool autumn day before yesterday, the kind of weather I love for cycling.  Cool enough to wear a thinner headband, to forget being drenched in sweat, to take care of hydration easily, to breathe drier air without gasping, to maintain a low core temperature naturally.  All I needed was a long sleeve jersey: no wool socks, no leggings, no underlayer, no insulated gloves, no skullcap.  Easy, simple, perfect.

I did take my Fuji, the bike that provides the lowest gear ratio of any, and I did end up using 28×24.  But I could have gone two more clicks to 28×32, so I had a margin of error.  As I approached the climb by roaring past the 15 mph speed limit sign at a cool 24 mph (downhill curve) I noticed that the road had been repaved during my two-month absence.  That was good news, both for the smoothness of the ride and the general principle that the patchy, bumpy, crumbling eroded surface that had developed on some key parts of the uphill was starting to make the ride slightly precarious.  But now it’s a smooth, calm, no-hazards ascent to the top, not exactly a “glide” but eminently manageable.

It was fun to be on the rest of the circuit back to the W&OD as well.  After a short run along Lawyer’s Road, I turn right onto Twin Branches for another swift downhill that carries me past Lake Audubon on the left (every “lake” in Virginia–save two–is man-made, quite a shock to this New England boy when I first moved here) and up another challenging but more manageable hill, then a right onto South Lakes Drive at a shopping center and another almost immediately onto Sunset Valley Drive.  Right there is one of the best, most sustained downhills I do (I hit 32 mph on my “slow bike” Sunday), and that carries me around a curve and slightly uphill again through a traffic light and back onto the Trail.  Sometimes making the left turn off the 4-lane divided road that is Sunset Valley is difficult–and it needs to be done with caution–but this time the coast was clear and I didn’t have to stop.

Smooth open road, good speed, what more could I want to finish off the climb?

Also on Sunday I noticed that the Wooly Bear caterpillars are out in force.  They’re the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth, a yellowish moth that I’ve never been aware of in its adult stage.  But the caterpillars are quite noticeable with their 13 segments of black and copper-red hairs (technically setae).  The copper segments are in the middle, and folk tradition has it that they predict the harshness of the coming winter weather, with the broader band anticipating less cold, the narrower bands more.  If this folklore is true, and ample experimental evidence suggests that it is not, we’re having a warm winter in 2011-12 because the red bands are very wide.

What I noticed this year is that these buggers are almost always crossing the Trail rather than traversing along it.  I wonder why.  Do they sense that the asphalt is uncomfortable and seek the quickest way off?  That answer attributes a degree of perception which I doubt they possess.  Are they seeking a more distant goal, and just going there as fast as they can?  Or are they crossing the trail for the same reason that the chicken crosses the road?  Science has yet to solve this profound mystery.  But I didn’t see any climbing Hunter Station Road.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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