Descent

Adam Yates is a professional bike racer for the Mitchelton-Scott team.  A climbing specialist, he’s participating in his third Tour de France.  On Tuesday, Stage 16 took the riders 218 km (135.5 miles)  through southern France and into the Pyrenees, from the medieval walled town of Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon on the Spanish border, winding over three high mountains (one 2nd category and two first category), and finishing with a twisty, highly technical descent into town.  The first riders over the last summit would stand a good chance of winning the stage, especially if they were good descenders, as the race leaders would probably wait until the next day to duke it out on a wicked uphill finish rather than risking a fall at 50 kmh or more.  Earlier in the stage the race would traverse a descent on which the Italian rider Fabio Casartelli had fallen and died in 1995, a crash that greatly influenced the mandatory wearing of helmets in professional racing.

Descending is a special skill, one that many climbers do have, though not all.  It requires an ability to “read” the turns correctly as one approaches each one, so that one can go through them on the best line, with a minimum need to brake and a minimum chance of demonstrating Newton’s Laws of Motion by careening off the road.  The less force needed to change the direction of the bike, the better.  And any hard braking risks locking up the wheel so that it doesn’t revolve for a moment, resulting almost certainly in a skid and a crash.  Along with those skills, the rider needs a sure and delicate touch in bike handling–no over- or understeering,and just enough lean to keep the center of gravity in a stable spot.

Yates falls

Adam Yates falls on the descent of the Col du Portillon

Going up the Col du Portillon, the last climb of the stage on Tuesday, Yates attacked out of a group of seven riders who were leading the race by a wide margin over the more cautious peloton.  He was 2 km from the summit, and he got a 30-second gap quickly.  The others couldn’t respond, except for the Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe.  No slouch himself, Alaphilippe wore the polka-dot jersey (red on white) as the best climber in the race to that point.

Cresting the summit, Alaphilippe was 18 seconds behind Yates, the others badly distanced.  As the cyclingnews website narrator put it: “Here we go then. One white-knuckle descent to the finish line. . . . Yates begins his descent and takes it aggressively. He . . . can’t afford a single error.”   Two minutes later, on a simple and moderate left-handed bend, that single error came.

Yates crashed.

He was in the middle of the road, whose surface was dry.  The sun was out, the air was dry and clear.  But he crashed.  Alaphillipe went by him in a flash, and though Yates remounted, he was visibly shaken.  He took the next few curves at very moderate speed, compared to the hell-for-leather intensity he exhibited before.  By the end, Alaphilippe was all by himself, 15 seconds ahead of Yates, who was caught by two other riders from the lead group and was the third overall across the line.

In a flash Yates’ fate was reversed.  He and Alaphilippe are both 26.  They’ll have more descents together.  But Adam Yates will have to wait for for another day to get another great opportunity for a stage win at the Tour, and who knows when, or even if, that will be?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018

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Cherchez le Tour

Yesterday I was about ready to quit watching this year’s Tour de France, as the cold, ruthless hand of Team Sky fell on the peloton in a fashion eerily similar to the way the hand of US Postal would fall on it, in the first serious mountain stage each year.  Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome and his chief lieutenant, a Welshman named Geraint Thomas, took the field by the throat.  Froome almost seemed willing to gift the stage to Thomas, who attacked from the leader’s group with 5km left to go after the two stage leaders.  Froome did not counter until another overall contender, Roman Bardet, also tried to bridge the gap to the leaders.  In the end, Thomas made the final strong move

and it appeared nobody else could counter, even the favorite, Froome.  But Froome still finished third and put time into all his serious rivals except his own teammate.

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Geraint Thomas in yellow.

But today showed that the unexpected is always lurking. Team Sky may still be dominant, yet now the question is whether Froome has it in him to win the Tour again.  Today’s stage ended with a much, much steeper climb than yesterday, up the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, with its twenty-one switchbacks over 13 km, average gradient of 8%, and 1700 meter (5570 foot) elevation.  As the end approached, one rider (Steven Kruijswijk) remained ahead; the leaders were in a fairly large group, led by another Sky rider (Colombian climber Egan Bernal), then Froome and Thomas (the two Sky teammates), then most of the other contenders.  After various feints and charges, as many as five or six were together across the road with just 4 km left.  Then attacks began, and in the last fairly sharp corner Thomas was took the best line and had the most strength.  Froome finished 4th, only three seconds back.  But his lieutenant has now beaten him two days in a row on terrain suited to Froome.  Thomas is the better time trialer, but there’s only one ITT in the Tour, on the next-to-last day.
Finally the booing.  Near the end the crowd was booing some or all of the contending riders.  Perhaps it was that they did not wait when contender Vincenzo Nibali fell with less than 4 km to go.  But the fall was too close to the finish line to establish a “level playing field” for all to contend.  The contenders had to contend, and they did.  Or was the booing directed at Froome, who was allowed to race only at the last minute because of an unresolved doping finding.  The Tour crowds didn’t show much love for Lance Armstrong in his last race up L’Alpe d’Huez either; he has booed and spat on because of suspected doping, which the crowd believed long before the eventual investigation, findings, and fall from grace.
Bradly Wiggins, former Team Sky Tour champion, said Sky would have a problem on its hands if Thomas won.  And he knows, because he was the victim of Froome, his then-young teammate who outpaced him and ultimately replaced him as team leader.
Stay tuned!  The Tour has more feats of derring-do and behind-the-scenes drama to offer in the next eleven days.
© Arnold Bradford, 2018.

Cyclist Assault on the W&OD

This never happens.  Sexual assaults?  There have been a few over the last 15 years. Collisions?  Of course.  Cyclists hit by vehicles at crossings?  Sadly, several.  Angry words exchanged?  Every day, I am sure, and several within my hearing.

But “road rage” attacks?  Never, until I heard this on the radio a couple of days ago:

A bicyclist was seriously injured Sunday on one of the area’s most popular bike trails when another cyclist reached out and struck him as they passed each other, authorities said.

It sounds horrible.  Somebody just reached over into the other lane and smacked another rider.

But wait; there’s more.  In the expanded Washington Post report, the story goes on [I disavow and deplore the painfully clunky prose you are about to read]:

According to the sheriff’s office, the victim was headed west and reportedly on the center line of the trail as he tried to pass two other cyclists. A cyclist going in the opposite direction purposely extended his arm and struck him on his helmet, the sheriff’s office said.

The westbound cyclist fell to the ground, the sheriff’s office said. The other cyclist rode off to the east, the sheriff’s office said, heading toward Ashburn Village Boulevard.

In a statement, the sheriff’s office said the suspect in what they described as an assault wore a white/light green shirt, a helmet and sunglasses, and was about six feet tall.

According to the office, his bicycle was said to resemble a time trial bike or a triathlon bike. The bars on the bike were “aero bars” and his helmet was an “aero” helmet covered with a sun shade that covered half his face, according to the statement.

Now it’s a whole different thing, right?  Clearly the “victim” was on the wrong side of the yellow line, not “on” it.  Check out the photo, taken at a place not far from the incident;

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The W&OD Near Ashburn Village Boulevard

there’s not enough room on that section to pass without getting out of your lane.

So it is easy to infer that the “suspect”, the tri-bike guy with the white/light green jersey and the aero helmet, was faced with a speeding cyclist coming at him on his side of the trail, passing other bikes headed in his direction on their proper side of the trail.  He had no place to go except way over to the edge or off the trail.  The shoulder varies in width and quality, but it’s never a good place to be forced onto at a second’s notice.  It’s easy for me to see why the “suspect” would want to smack the “victim,” or true assailant, who had put himself, the “suspect,” and others in harm’s way.  Not that I am condoning a deliberate attempt to injure another cyclist in any circumstances, but the “victim,” it would appear, got what was coming to him.

It was a Sunday afternoon.  It was a rare (for this spring) warm April day.  The cyclists being passed were probably going slowly.  They might well have been a family.  They, along with the dog walkers, the septuagenarian couples taking walks, the second graders being taught how to ride their bikes, the riders stopped on the trail to take a cell phone call, and the rest of the human comedy that occupies the Trail on nice weekend days, can’t be expected to know or follow the Trail Rules.  If regular riders want to get out there on days like that, they have to ride slowly.  Period.

So it’s a shame it happened, and I am glad such events are very rare.  Two guys trying to squeeze too much intensity out of a rare recreational moment.

But I bet I know one guy who’s not going to be wearing his light green kit, donning his aero helmet, or riding his tri-bike for a while out on the Trail.

Copyright Arnold J. Bradford, 2018

Day One

Spring finally arrived in northern Virginia today.  It was in the mid-80s by late afternoon, breezy and wonderful, the first entire day that was truly like spring is supposed to be.  Nature was completely undaunted by any ominous omens of the calendar, which made it Friday the 13th.

Just three years ago yesterday I began my cancer treatment, quite a different spring regimen.  The aftereffects of the successful treatment have left me with less stamina and less determination to subject myself to discomfort.  So since 2015 I have not ridden my bike on the relatively more temperate days of midwinter or early spring.  All of the first three months of the year were on the exercise bike, or walking, and even these activities did not have the compelling allure they’ve had in years past.  But I was whipped into better shape by the visit of my daughter and granddaughter, who wanted to see the sights of our nation’s capital.  I was tested by Capitol Hill, challenged by the stairs of numerous subways, government buildings and museums, and generally called to consider that I was not too old to “use it” lest I “lose it.”

So this morning I was eager to get out on the W&OD Trail in the belated warmth of the season.  Couldn’t just pick up and go, of course.  I first discovered that we had no 2032 batteries to replace the dead one in my bike computer.  So off I went to CVS, returned and then sought out the manual that would allow me to reprogram the gadget.  After a mere 40 minutes from start to finish I had my electronic source of statistics back.  I’d carried over the mileage tally for 9 or 10 years, outlasting several batteries, but today I started over again at zero, because I think this is the beginning of a new era in my cycling life.

Coda

Jamis Coda Comp, my basic ride these days. That is a 52-tooth chainring.

Out in the garage my next challenge awaited.  Since the Jamis Coda had not been ridden since late September 2017, its tires were low despite my pumping them up once over the winter.  And sitting idle in the garage is not good for the drive train, particularly the chain.  Though I had oiled it in September, it was stiffened with rust and dirt.  Luckily the tires held air, and about ten minutes with a rag and chain oil got the drive train workable.  More oil for the cables, a readjustment of the rear brakes (new brake shoes needed soon!), and I was ready to suit up and go.  I decided on my trusty Kelme / Costa Bianca jersey, the colors of a European pro team of the Lance Armstrong era.  Sandro Botero rode for them, as did a couple of riders—Chechu Rubiera and Roberto Heras—who switched to Lance’s US Postal team and helped him win several of his seven straight Tours de France almost as much as PEDs helped him.

I took off with a lurking trepidation—would my body be up for this?  The plan was to ride just 11 miles, out to Hunter Mill Road and back.  No overkill on the first ride of the season.  I felt good on the bike, and going up Jackson Parkway and onto the right-of-way over to the Trail, I passed a couple of neighbors planting new bushes along the 50 or 60 foot paved link.  Everybody’s loving the warm air.  Once on the Trail, I found my strength and stamina were OK.  I was passing the really slow riders, was being passed by the strong ones, and dodging a number of walkers.  As always, I marveled at the convergence of roadblock groups, like the two moms pushing strollers side-by-side, and the walker passing them, spread out across the whole trail just when I wanted to go by.  My cheery “on the left” was not met with any rush on the walker’s part to get over quickly.  Cheeky!  I knew I had missed the Spring Peepers in the marshes of Difficult Run by about a month, and the bullfrogs too.   But on the way home some kind of froggy noises were emanating from Eudora Park, where Piney Branch flows.

I was feeling good as I approached my turnaround.  Inside my head something whispered “go ahead, you can do a few more miles.”  But I said “get thee behind me, Lance,” recognizing the voice of the temptation to do more than one is naturally capable of, whatever the price.  By about halfway home I realized how smart I had been to keep to my plan.  I was riding into a brisk quartering headwind, and all the muscles that were doing things unfamiliar to them were starting to ache: quads, shoulders, arm and hand muscles, knee joints.

Back at my desk, the computer said that my numbers for time and speed were in the same range I had reached near the end of last year.  So now it’s nothing but onward and upward.  I well may be out there again tomorrow because it’s supposed to be another warm day.

Rare Tour de France Flip

July 14 (Bastille Day)

In the Tour de France, it’s not every day that the race leader loses 22 seconds, and the race lead, in the last 300 meters (328 yards, or 984 feet) of a 214.5 km (133.3 mile) stage.  But that’s what happened to Chris Froome, 3-time TdF winner, yesterday.

The stage featured six categorized climbs, including two 1st Catégorie and one Hors Catégorie, but the true killer was in the last 500 meters or so, a short Cat. 2 with a 20% grade.  That’s one foot of rise for every five feet of distance.  Climbs like that, taken at race speed with everybody trying to finish first, are not for the faint of heart, or of leg.

Froome and his strong Team Sky mates took the lead in the opening time trial when Welshman Geraint Thomas won, and Froome himself grabbed the leader’s yellow jersey on Stage 5.  At that time he said he saw no reason why his team could not hold the lead all the way to Paris.  Such a feat would have been the first in 89 years, since 1928, when Nicolas Frantz, the Luxembourg National Champion, did so for Alcyon.

Froome’s closest rivals at this point in the race were Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet, and Rigoberto Uràn, who trailed after Stage 11 by 18, 51, and 55 seconds respectively.  Beyond 30 seconds or so, against a formidable climber like Froome, any gap is significant, and riders finding themselves more than a minute and a half adrift are in deep trouble if they’re seeking overall victory.

So when the race entered the Pyrenees yesterday, rolling out of Pau toward Peyragudes, with the six climbs looming ahead, all cards were on the table.  No more holding back.  This was the first big mountain stage, the one that was the consistent launch point for Lance Armstrong back in his United States Postal Service heyday.  His strong, tireless team would ride at a pace that would keep others from attacking, led by support riders whose efforts would keep Lance’s legs fresh for the charge up the last climb of that first day in the high mountains.

That’s how it was going yesterday, with Froome behind a couple of leadout men.  By the next-to-last climb, the legendary Col de Peyresourde, A group of about riders, including all the remaining contenders, was in the lead.  Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana got dropped before the last climb.  The rest followed the wheels of the Sky group of three, with Froome in third position.  TV announcers suggested that nobody was attacking because the pace set by Sky was so high.  Truth is, the potential attackers were saving it for when it would do the most good, inside that last steep kilometer with a climb that looked like a wall.

Fabio Aru (l) begins his move on Chris Froome (r). Romain Bardet, eventual winner, is just behind. Getty Images

All of a sudden, with about 500 meters to go, they went.  By 300 meters the stronger men created separation from Froome.  Uràn and then Aru looked good for the win, but Bardet at last shot ahead, taking it cleanly 2 seconds ahead of them.  Meanwhile, Froome looked as if his gears had jammed.  He was zig-zagging across the road, riding at an angle to lessen the steepness, looking just like me riding up Hunter Station Road on a bad day.  He came in alone, in 7th place, 22 seconds behind, not even the first man from his own team across the line.  Mikel Landa had gone on his own, because there’s no way to help a team leader whose legs just couldn’t take the angle of the slope.

Chris Froome, now trailing Aru by 6 seconds thanks to the time bonuses, may well win this Tour, but yesterday he was the central figure in an abrupt, unprecedented loss of time and race lead.  Good cycling, great theater.  Vive le Tour.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

Close Encounters of the W&OD Kind

Yesterday was the first day since about early June that I would call truly comfortable.  El niño, climate change, or both, have made this summer truly miserable in the mid-Atlantic states.  The sky was clear, the air was dry, the breeze was from the northwest.  At breakfast time the temperature was in the low 60˚ range.

Energized by the weather, I took off for a cruise to Herndon in mid-morning.  Before I got back I had two very unusual encounters, not unknown to frequent riders on the trail, but firsts to me.

I got out to the west Herndon Trailside Park, with its skateboard facilities, thinking that the skateboarders there were enjoying their last week of free and easy fun; those boarding next week would be playing hooky.  After a brief rest I headed back, feeling cool and fast, enjoying the tailwind.  Suddenly the only rider I could see, about 50 yards ahead of me, went down like a sack of potatoes.  It was as abrupt as the moment in the 2004 Tour de France when Lance Armstrong caught his handlebar in a musette bag held by a fan beside the road: the fall was definitive and heavy.

When I got there a few seconds later he was just rolling over, a middle-aged guy with a small backpack, somewhat heavy-set, wearing glasses, a t-shirt and cycling shorts.  He had road rash on the left side of his left knee, and more severely on his left elbow and upper arm.  He said there wasn’t much pain, and he thought he could make it back to his start point.  Then he tried to lift his left arm.  He was suddenly in a world of hurt.  He said he’d had rotator cuff issues, but this seemed different, located below and inboard from the tip of his shoulder.  He got up, in more severe pain (shock wearing off I suppose), and walked over to the chain-link fence that marked the border of the Herndon Centennial Golf course to compose himself.

Trek

Trek Madone 9.2 in “Stealth Fighter” matte black

Meanwhile two other riders passed.  The first stopped, and we discussed what we might do.  We waved off the second.  The fallen rider came back and talked of riding one-handed back to his start point at the Route 28 overpass.  We both thought that was a bad idea, and convinced him to call his wife.  He explained that he fell because he caught a little bit of the grass at the side of the trail, and then lost control when his wheel caught a rut in the grass.  Looked to me as if the front wheel abruptly turned 90˚ left, and he was thrown by his momentum.  Not just a “fall.”  [His bike, by the way, was a Trek Madone series, I think a 9.2 ($5000-$5500) in “matte Trek black/ gloss Dnister black” that everybody thinks is so cool right now.  Ironically, one can also get these bikes in a variety of color combinations that are actually attractive.  Guess his Bontraeger R3 slicks did not handle the grass well.]

The guy turned out to be a former Air Force pilot (Lt. Colonel) who since then has been a captain for Eastern and then United.  He was saying this when another rider came by, and she (on a matte black Felt with green highlights) was an orthopedic nurse.  What luck!  The other would-be assistant left while she got the victim’s symptoms, sized things up as a probable dislocated shoulder, and directed us to the next intersection, Ferndale Avenue, and just down the road to the golf course.  She was determined to wait with him by the street, but then decided he’d fare better out of the sun, so she got the golf course to provide a van to take him to the clubhouse, some ice for his shoulder, someone to carry his bike, and shelter in the shade.  Once all that was settled we took off.  He had

Airbus

United Airbus 320 Not Being Piloted by Fallen Rider

determined he needed to go straight to Emergency Care.  Interesting how he, like most of us, realize only slowly the full implications of a serious situation.  We begin by assuming it’s just a minor interruption to our day, even if it truly means we can’t possibly pilot our Airbus A320 to Houston and Philadelphia the next day, as planned.

The other encounter was briefer and sillier.  I was nearing the top of the low hill between Vienna Community Center and Cedar Lane, almost home, when a vehicle crested the rise.  Vehicles on the Trail are not as uncommon as they should be; I had thought earlier on this ride that it was a rare day because I hadn’t seen one.  No Park Ranger truck, no mower with its huge circular blade on an hydraulic arm, no subcontractor out to prune trees, no electric company vehicle to work on the lines or some wayward transformer.  But here was a vehicle, with headlights on.  It soon was evident that this was a civilian car, moving very slowly.  Another cyclist only a little behind me and I immediately started shouting.  “This is the bike trail. No motor vehicles are allowed.  Get off of here! You can’t be here.”  The car stopped.  It was a red sedan with Virginia plates.  The driver was easy to see and hear because his window was already down. He looked middle eastern, wore sunglasses, and spoke with an accent.  “I know I shouldn’t be on here.  I made a wrong turn.  How do I get off?”  Our advice was to turn around and go back to Cedar Lane.  As he moved on ahead to begin the turnaround process, we two cyclists looked at each other.  “What the hell?” the other one asked.  “Takes all kinds,” I said.

When I got to Cedar Lane a half-mile later I looked back.  There was no sedan to be seen, so I don’t know what he did.  I crossed the street, rode the last half mile, and mused on one of the stranger rides I’ve ever had.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

Nature Report

Last Saturday my ride launched at about 11:30 in 77˚ weather.  It had been cloudy and even threatening for part of the morning, but finally things broke up into bright sun and copious cumulus clouds.  The sun was as yellow as the button in the middle of the asters by the side of the trail, the clouds as white as the circular doilies of Queen Anne’s Lace in the meadows nearby, and the patches of sky in between those clouds as blue and intense as the first blossoms of the copious Cornflowers that were newly opened everywhere.  All felt fresh and new after the midweek downpours ensuing from a slowly moving frontal boundary.

It being Saturday and school being newly out, every Weekend Warrior and their whole family—Warrior spouse, kid on a bike, and toddler on a tricycle—was out on the trail, so one had to ride with one’s eyes open.  The line for the light at Maple Avenue was about ten people long.

Apparently the animals felt the same way about the coming of nice weather.  Outbound from Vienna, along Difficult Run, I spotted a terrapin on the trail ahead.  It was traversing at a testudinarian pace from right to left, and had almost reached the center line.   So I veered slightly to the right to pass.  Just as I got to the terrapin a rider coming the other way stopped smack in the middle of her lane, reached down, and picked the reptile up to help it complete its journey safely.  The angle of her lean, however, brought her head, shoulders, and arm onto my side, and I just avoided a glancing blow.  Weekend warrior behavior.

I went on all the way to the skateboard park at the west end of Herndon, but I promised not to further discuss this topic, so I will not report that it was my first ride to my former regular westbound turn-around point.  On the way back there is a long downhill stretch from Michael Faraday Ct. to Hunter Mill Road, featuring a speedy, leafy descent from Sunrise Valley to Buckthorn Lane, with a short, steep rise just before Buckthorn.  Along that stretch an animal ran right into the buzz-saw of my front wheel.  I suspect it was a squirrel, because they characteristically cross roadways in frantic, demented dashes, featuring instant 180˚ turns if they see a vehicle coming in mid-dash.  Could have been a chipmunk.  In any case, this one dashed straight into the spokes from about 20” away.  Why it didn’t see me coming I can’t imagine.  But the spokes were revolving so fast—I was probably traveling at about 22 mph—that it made a fur-muffled bump sound and bounced straight off again, grazing my right shoe, which was on the downstroke.  I barely saw it, because needless to say I was focusing on the road ahead.

Immediately I heard an approaching rider exclaim “oh dear.”  I didn’t brake or stop pedaling, because it would have been to no avail.  I have no veterinary skills, nor do I carry needles with units of tetanus vaccine, or leather gloves.  I am not equipped on any level to render assistance to wounded wild animals.  I assume it was the worse for the collision.  If it died, my major regret is that it did not live out its role in the food chain by providing a meal to some hungry predator, a hawk or a fox.

About a mile inbound from Hunter Mill, headed for Vienna, I saw another Weekend Warrior stopped in the lane ahead of me.  I reckoned it was somebody on their cell phone, or with a mechanical.  As I approached she was looking ahead, not at me, so I said “on the left” and swung around her.  Then I saw what she was looking at: a long Black Rat Snake, wriggling again from right to left, crossing the trail ahead of her.  Its head was in the grass on the far shoulder and its tail just past the center line, with a set of slithering S-curves worthy of the Shenandoah River.  Straightened out, it would have to have been at least 5 feet long.  Too late to stop, I swerved back to the right in front of her and just missed the snake.  I said “sorry, I didn’t see that!” as I passed.  She laughed and said “neither did I at first.”  So glad not to have injured a large reptilian eater of vermin and (less happily) bird eggs and baby birds.

runner lunge

Department of Silly Walks: Runner Lunge

After all that action I didn’t know what to expect today, equally warm and sunny, though a bit more humid.  But I found: nothing.  The closest I came was the mundane, familiar domestic scene of an immature English Sparrow, now fully as large as its parent, standing in the middle of the trail, flapping its wings, chirping helplessly, demanding to be fed (before going back down to the basement to play more video games).  And then there was the exerciser, in tank top, spandex pants, walking shoes with low socks, and a pink baseball cap with an oversize brim about as big as the one Jayson Werth wishes he had yesterday.  She was blending yoga and walking by making each step a Runner Lunge.  As I passed I was SO tempted to say “Perfect for the Department of Silly Walks!  John Cleese has nothing on you.”  But I didn’t.

Still, you never know what you’re going to run into on the W&OD.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.