Days 3 & 4: Bike Fitting, Overpacking, and Anterior Knee Pain
Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. Lolz…
So, Beau here, from sunny, hilly, beautiful Charlottesville, VA. We're technically on day 5 of the journey, but we aren't journeying today. We're posted up for a bit, and I'll tell you why soon, but — first let's talk about overpacking. Yeah?
On the first day of the trip, while biking, I kept working over a treatise on the benefits of overpacking in my head. Because I have long preferred the burden of being over-prepared — I once took 13 books on a 6-week backpacking trip. Another time I traveled extensively with an electric hotplate. I have brought boxes of wine through customs, hauled chairs into the wilderness, and once carried a prayer rug around for several months.
And no, I didn't ever regret any of it. At least hardly ever. Enter bike-packing.
I actually felt great at first — I think that was the issue. These bikes are made to haul weight, and once they get moving it's pretty easy-going, even up some pretty strenuous hills. For the first day and a half, I felt like I could bike forever.
My knee starts bugging me a little on the afternoon of Day 2. It feels like the knee cap's loose, but there's no pain, so I just ride through it — I had a little of this same sensation back in the Peace Corps, and it never caused me much trouble. In fact, I had it looked at back then (10 years ago), and they did an MRI on both my knees: both perfect. No problems = no worries. Right?
But still the knee feels wobbly, so we stop at a Walgreens and grab a knee brace. That should help support the knee. Right?
First mistake? Probably more like the second or third, but it quickly becomes the most obvious: knee braces aren't made for biking. They're made for supporting a relatively straight leg — on a bike they're one of those forms of torture that time has mercifully forgotten.
After 10 miles or so with the knee brace, we hit Richmond w/o incident, take a nap on the grass by the river. But as we head north out of the city, my knee starts to scream. When I decide I can't handle one of the hills we're on, I jump off, curse a little, and start walking the bike. Then I slide the brace down off my knee. Suddenly everything feels better. It was like — it was like seeing color again. It was like coming up for air. It was like someone strangling my leg for fifteen straight miles and then suddenly letting go. Sheesh.
That lesson learned, I'm still a little tender but we get to the hotel in decent enough shape. Goodnight again, Day 2.
Day 3 Stats: Glen Allen to Mineral, VA. 54.1 miles. A lot of stops. Too many hills.
Let's come out and say it: day 3 is hard on me.
We started out with the intention of breaking up the ride, taking lots of little pit stops so that my knee could rest. We knew we were putting in 55 miles, but that seemed easy compared to our first two days — I was fairly confident that, given enough time between rides, I would be fine. And, at first, I was. And we took some good little rests.
But by the time we took lunch at the Belsches Kwik Stop, a little more than halfway through the day, my knee was bothering me again. So while we ate we started Googling.
Turns out what I'm experiencing Is SUPER typical, and it's the result of at least two of the following four things:
Seat Placement: my seat is probably too low and too far forward (this is definitely true).
Overuse: going too far too fast too early, which I'm also definitely guilty of — the problem/joy of biking, at least for me, is that it doesn't wear you out the way something like running, or even hiking does. You pretty much feel like you can go forever, so long as you don't run out of calories to burn. But your knees can't go on forever, at least without working up to that forever, and definitely not on a poorly fitting bike. (And, yes: this is exacerbated by carrying more weight than you really need…) Also, when you do make these long rides, you need to stretch & massage the muscles, which I'd been neglecting — tension builds up and pulls the patella off-course. I should also be building up support muscles like the core & VMOs, etc. I'd been working out plenty leading up to the trip, but I hadn't been specific. Wheee…
Cleat Placement & Crank Length: I don't think these are issues, but I'm gonna talk with some folks here in C-ville before setting out again, just to make sure.
But here we still are, halfway through the day's miles, sitting outside the Belsches Kwik Stop in Bumpass (!), VA. We'd already raised my seat. We had 25 miles to go before the place we'd planned to camp (and eat). We'd just rested. We tried setting out.
After many more roadside stops, we have about 12 miles to go and my knee starts feeling dire. At a little over 8 miles left, we stop for a while and I re-download the Uber app after years of boycott. But there are no available rides — as is often the case, lack of access helps me maintain my moral high ground.
We stand around awhile trying to think of options. I stretch and massage my leg a lot. Sara works on being patient with me while I work on being patient with these fresh limitations to my corporeal form. Eventually we just set out again.
I ended up walking the bike up the hills, then riding it down. I'm not quite sure how long this last bit took — we didn't take many pictures since it was all heads-down-just-get-there, so we don't have timestamps. Let's just say it took a mo'. But we made it to Mineral, VA, where Sara knocked on the door to the fire station and the firemen showed us a place to camp in a field behind the station — this place is an established spot on the TransAmerica Trail, and they're old hats at settling people in. Once we had the lay of the land, we walked a block to a Mexican restaurant and each had a jumbo margarita and a half while contemplating the existential status of this endeavor.
We make the call that, until the bike is fitted and my knee is rested, I should stay off. Sara calls her mom in nearby C-ville, and she agrees to come pick me up the next morning.
But here's what else is decided: while pushing my bike up the hill into Mineral, I'm struck by the strange appeal of this small town, as well as the long stream of other strange and wonderful places ahead of us. And I'm about overwhelmed with the desire to make this thing happen — I want to bike across this country with Sara, I want to sleep in all the strange parks and talk with the forthcoming strangers and cross the plains and the mountains — there have been so many joys already in these few short days that there won't be the time to catch you all up on all of them.
My knee is an issue, but I'm committed to dealing with it, seeing how quickly I can recover and how far I can go in a stretch when I'm back on the bike again — one of the frustrating aspects of this is that when I'm off the bike I'm fine: no swelling, barely any tenderness or weakness. I'm hoping that getting the bike adjusted will alleviate most of the issue, and I'll be taking all measures to get healthy and stay healthy. One of those measures is that Sara biked Day 4 without me: Mineral to Charlottesville, where we're staying with her parents for the moment. It broke my heart a bit to be left behind that morning, but it's only for a bit — I'll make up the rides either soon, or when we come back here at the end of the whole journey, so as to have biked the whole thang.
But for now, here's a photo of our campsite in Mineral, and then I'll pass it off to Sara.
DAY 4. The stats: 55 miles. 2,750' of climbing. Mineral to Charlottesville, VA.
Sara here, reporting on Day 4 of the ride, which I was sad to do solo. Even though I've personally wanted to do this trip for a long time, it's not about just me — in this and in all things. What's that rather cliché, embroider-it-on-a-pillow saying? "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together"? Well, cliché or not, I've realized over the first several days of this endeavor that I'm still a little too addicted to going fast. I need to give that a rest — for both our sakes and for the sake of actually seeing this wild, huge, insane country that we're riding through. This isn't a race (though, holy shit, it is for some people), and there are lots of reasons to slow down a bit. Especially in this first leg, which contains some of the most tiring inclines of the whole trip.
Speaking of HILLS. They are ALIVE around here. It's gorgeous countryside in central VA, but there's definitely a pretty high barrier to entry for a casual bike rider. You don't really fully appreciate the meaning of "rolling hills" till you're trying to roll up them, over and over again. Coming into C'Ville from Mineral, I got to the point where I couldn't fully appreciate the downhills, because you're always just headed straight back up again. Oof. (And this is NOTHING to what's coming up as we hit the Appalachians on the rest of our long ride towards Kentucky.)
I made a couple of friends on the ride (which I overall tried to take quickly — yeah, yeah, I know what I just said, but for the sake of getting back to Beau), including a box turtle that I removed from the road, and a gigantic moth that I startled when I leaned my bike against a willow tree. The bark moved and then... this guy appeared!
I had actually ridden the last leg of this part of the TransAm before (we both have) as a day-trip bike ride from C'Ville. The trail links up with the roads I'm familiar with at a little country store in Woodbridge, and then continues through the land of presidents—you pass Ashlawn and Monticello—into town. It's a hilly-ass ride, but very beautiful.
Today (Day 5) has been about catching up with emails/life-things and starting the process of reassessing based on what we've learned so far. We've also been enjoying this guy's blog from last year — he did the trail in the same direction we're doing it, and on the exact same bike as Beau! It seems to be a pretty common trope that people are like, "Haha, I'll take this [stove/book/extra shirt/lock] with me, NO PROBLEM!" and then are quickly like, "ABORT, ABORT, JETTISON ALL EXCESS CARGO NOW!!!" I am... now one of those people. (Y'all, who has two thumbs and rode from VA Beach to Mineral with War and Peace in her handlebar bag? THIS GURL. I need to switch to the book on tape.)
All this to say: I'm happy to be at home for a couple of days regrouping, and the priority is to make sure Beau and I can do this thing together. We'll keep breathing, keep listening to our bodies and to each other, and we'll find a way. Patience, flexibility, discovery, joy, care. We're going far.
All for now.