When the MTB trails are closed and I feel the call of the mountains, I venture out of DC to the majestic Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, VA. Skyline Drive is a paved non-commercial road (with a speed limit of 35mph!) that runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park (105 miles). In my opinion, it offers the most exhilarating and scenic road riding in the mid-Atlantic.
In order to ride “along the sky” and appreciate the stunning overlooks, one must first partake in a fair amount of climbing.
As you can see, there is nearly 2,000 ft of climbing in the first five miles. Fortunately, the gradient is relatively mild throughout. I prefer to stay seated and keep my cadence in the low 90’s, but there’s nothing stopping anyone from shifting up a few gears and dancing on the pedals.
The hard work of increasing your gravitational potential energy (physics throwback!) is promptly rewarded starting around mile 4, with a steady dose of scenic overlooks.
Even better, for several long stretches, riders are blessed with ‘continuous’ overlooks, and traveling at just the right speed (when riding uphill) to soak it all in.
By the time you reach the 10th mile marker, you really begin to feel like you’re riding along the sky.
Even on a sunny summer weekend, the traffic is not very heavy. I really enjoy the quiet and solitude, but always ride with a bright jersey and a LED tail light on the back of my helmet. There’s not such thing as being too safe when sharing the road with motor vehicles.
The gradual nature of the climbs are a blessing in both directions. On the downhills, by steering with my body through the turns (as opposed to turning the handlebars) and sitting upright to increase my air resistance, I can stay at or below the 35 mph speed limit without ever touching the brakes. The thrill of speed on the descents is tempered by desire to stare in awe at the mountain ridges that extend to the horizon.
Distance in the mountains can be very deceiving, as a demonstrated by hills blanketed with 30ft trees that from afar look like tiny bushes.
I’m very fortunate to have a bucket list ride available as a day-trip option on the weekend. On top of the everything else, summer riding provides a small respite from the oppressive DC heat. Spring is often colder and wetter in the park, but is a can’t-miss time for nature enthusiasts to see the mountain blossoms. Fall (leaf season) is by far the busiest time on the parkway and demands extra caution. Winter is my favorite season for riding by far (at least in dry conditions – sections of the parkway are often closed due to snow). The almost nonexistent car traffic and still of nature in slumber allow for a soothing, meditative ride.
I plan to use Skyline Drive as a training grounds to prepare for the XTERRA Mountain and National Championships (both of which involve over 4,000 ft in elevation gain). How my body will fare at actual elevation (i.e. 7,000+ ft) is yet to be determined.