A tale of weather, Sir Arthur Eddington, counties, and Pike’s Peak

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Adventure 1 – Thanksgiving – I attempted a 550 mile out/back-ish (tight loop) from Birmingham to Panama City Beach and back to record my own GPS data for Washington and Bay counties in Florida. The ride was going to be split into 265 miles there and 285 miles back for back-to-back Eddington 256 rides. Nasty rain and headwind turned me around before Montgomery for a 142 mile out/back in pouring down rain. Later that same day, I drove down to the beach through a ton more rain, spent the night and then did a 108 mile loop starting at about 3am. On the way back, I did a 28 mile ride from Troy University out/back to the highest point in Pike County, which surprisingly is NOT called Pike’s Peak (but there is now a Strava segment appropriately named). Grand total: 0 Eddington 256 rides, 2 “new” counties, and 1 new county high point – 268 miles.

Adventure 2 – Analise Rendezvous post-fall semester – I attempted a 540 mile one way commute (again to be split up into two Eddington 256 rides) from Birmingham to Bristol, Virginia to meet Analise on her drive home from college. Nasty rain and storms diverted me off the route to the safe side of the mountains and only made it to the far side of Knoxville. Grand total: 1 Eddington 256 ride, 0 new counties, and 0 new county high points – 367 miles.

Sir Arthur Eddington

Sir Arthur Eddington (wikipedia) was a renowned physicist, and like Albert Einstein, liked to ride his bike! In physics, Eddington postulated a number that was important for trying to establish a grand unified theory of the universe. In cycling, he came up with a unique (and quite devious) way of measuring the repetitiveness of long distance cycling achievements. This number, known as the Eddington Number E, is calculated by determining the number of days you have ridden a given distance. A life-time Eddington Number of E means that you have ridden E miles as least E days/times.

According to at least one wikipedia editor, this number is analogous in the cycling world to the h-index in the author world as a way of measuring scientfic productivity and scientific impact of research scientists. I like to view this number as an exercise in goal-setting. If you set your goal too low, then you will end your long rides too soon so that they won’t count for a higher number. If you set your goal too high, then you may never make it to your goal at all. You’ve got to find the right goal for how much time you are willing to devote and how long you think you will live.

I had set a lifetime goal of 200, but I blew past that goal several years ago as I retired from serious racing and started more traveling and ultra distance racing on the bike. I increased the goal to 250 miles thinking that was a good stretch goal. But then last year, I realized that I’m likely to hit that goal within the next decade. So I pushed it out farther to 256 miles. That may not sound like much more than 250 miles, but to put it into perspective, as of December 2023 I have ridden 250 miles on 160 days meaning I only need to ride 250 miles (or more) 90 more times to increase my Eddington Number to 250. But I have only ridden 256 miles on 132 days meaning I need to ride 256 miles (or more) 124 more times to increase my Eddington Number to 256.

This year, however, I did 23 “Eddington 256” rides. At that rate, I could hit the Eddington 256 number by as early as late 2029 or early 2030. I’m getting old, though, and my body is starting to show the wear and tear of so many miles on the bike. So a more realistic lifetime stretch goal should probably be an Eddington 300, but for now I really am going to focus on these 256 mile rides because they fit within my time constraints nicely whereas the extra 3 hours may not sound like a lot, but let me just tell you – it is.

Why 256? Well, as the number of combinations of 1s and 0s in one byte of data, 256 is a fairly significant number in computer science, so I appreciate the double meaning of it. If I bump my Eddington up to 256, it will be stuck there for a while since I’ve already ended seven rides at that distance and will likely end a few more at that distance as well (usually adding on miles at the end of an already long ride), which means that all those 256 mile rides will need to be replaced to increase my Eddington number. In fact, I could spend an entire year just bumping up my Eddington from 256 to 257 … especially since I will probably target 300 miles at that point and only ride longer than 256 miles if I am sure I can make it all the way to 300.

Some of the details

Adventure 1 – over Thanksgiving, I found myself trying to nap at a closed gas station at 3am on their rubber welcome mat outside the door which was the only thing keeping me off the wet ground because of how hard it was raining the water was running underneath the covered pump area. Temps were in the 50s, which may not sound bad, but since I was already drenched from riding in that rain for the past few hours you get pretty cold pretty quick when you stop moving. On top of the rain, I had been battling a nasty 10+ mph headwind for 70 miles with gusts up to 30mph.

Furthermore, the weather forecast which saw the rain arriving a few hours earlier than predicted indicated that it would be an even stronger headwind throughout the day gradually turning during the night so that it was 180 degree opposite – meaning a strong headwind for day 2 with much colder temps. This just sounded so miserable that I opted for the strong tailwind to make it back home. The only downside with the decision is that it put me on the Hwy 31 corridor during morning rush hour from 5am to 8am while it was still pouring down rain (so much for a “quick line” of storms). During the ride back to the house, I decided I would get something to eat, get some work done at the house, and then drive down to Panama City Beach around lunch time.

The drivers were OK through rush hour, but especially with periodic trucks, there were also some angry people. I feel like most of them were just sympathetic as I surely looked miserable in that rain. Also, the featured image for this post shows the radar image in Alabaster at about 10pm where, despite what it looks like, it was already starting to spit rain on me. And it definitely started to rain more steadily before that line of storms made it. And that line of storms continued to grow and widen instead of simply passing over.

Around lunch time, I hopped in the car and drove down I-65 to Montgomery not far from where I had turned around on my bike a few hours earlier … and then headed over to Hwy 231 to finish the drive down to the coast. Just past Troy, it started to pour down rain again. And I thought, hmmm, if I had been riding I likely would have been in this second rain storm as well and been very, very puzzled and frustrated from where on earth it came from.

Eventually I drove out of the rain and pulled into the hotel at Panama City Beach, where I stepped out of the car into 75 degF humid air where it felt like it was the middle of summer instead of Thanksgiving. Excited about warm rain-free weather, I went for a short ride over to a nearby park. While I was there, I saw some lightning, felt some rain drops, and got completed soaked by another tiny isolated rain shower by the time I scrambled back to the hotel. It perfectly fit the theme of a rain-soaked day from start to finish.

It was still pretty early so I planned out a nice 108 mile loop that would take me up into the two counties I needed to finish my county heatmap for Florida with my own GPS data. After that I went to bed so I could get an early start to make it back home before Kristine made it back home from Virginia with Analise.

By 3am, I was out the door and had a very, very quiet ride on some normally busy state highways that were practically deserted. This did make for some fast passes by cars going very fast, but with a nice shoulder and my radar, I could easily abandon the road long before the cars got there. One interesting interaction I had was with a very nice lady who pulled up to a stop sign I was approaching at about 5am. I realized I needed to turn, but not until after I had passed the intersection, so I turned and intended to ride behind her car, but she had rolled down her window.

She said firmly, “it’s really hard to see you”. (Yet she had seen me from at least a quarter mile away and waited for me to pass, which probably took way longer than she had anticipated because most people think I am a motorcycle and will be approaching at motorcycle speeds by the time they realize it’s just a bicycle). Anyway, I thanked her and told her my light was low on battery, which it was, but it also made me decide to switch it over to the steady/flash mode so that it would burst at a brighter intensity for each flash while staying at the lowest setting between flashes. After that I told her that I had missed my turn, and she wondered where I was riding and I explained part of the county situation to her. Then she wished me a happy thanksgiving as I did to her and then we went our separate ways. I hope the interaction brightened her day as it did mine. Very different than the typical angry driver / angry cyclist confrontation. And also not the “be careful, there are crazy drivers out here” discussion I get told at a lot of gas stations. She never once said “be careful” which I appreciated.

My original route home from the beach was going to pass by the highest point in Pike County, which I noticed as I was making the route that there was a nice looking hill my route was going to go by. Out of curiosity and knowing the area, I wondered if that was the highest point in Pike County. I looked it up and sure enough the highest point in Pike County was indeed that hill. Unfortunately, instead of being named Pike’s Peak, it was simply called Beck’s Mountain Northeast.

So on my drive home, I decided to stop and park at Troy University and do a 28 mile out/back to the highest point in Pike County. It was mostly uneventful except I ended up on Beck’s Mountain Southwest because it supposedly had a fire tower (but it was gone) And the dirt road up to the top was somebody’s personal playground with all kinds of very interesting things spaced out at regular intervals to some sort of shack at the top where the missing firetower used to be. Thankfully, nobody was around but I would be very careful if you try to recreate this ride.

To summarize, my back-to-back Eddington 256 rides turned into 0 eddingtons and a long drive to/from the coast. I did make it to the high point-ish, technically it was the other peak a few feet higher on the other side of the dirt road I climbed. I also got rained on a ton. I had an absolute blast on the Florida ride with extensive tailwinds and even explored a bit of Panama City (not Panama City Beach) as part of the ride. It all turned out great in the end.

Adventure 2 – Over this past weekend (Dec 8-10), I found myself waiting out another rainstorm laying in a mulch flower bed planter that was perfectly human sized at the Cedartown, GA train depot (they had already dug up the flowers for the year). Also, I found myself watching out of the corner of my eye a duck swim past me while I was ratcheting across a flooded section of Little River in Maryville, TN south of Knoxville trying to make it to an island of pavement still above the water so I could assess my options without stepping down into 18 inches of water. In case you were wondering, these are things that do not typically happen on a bike ride.

How and why did all this happen? Well, originally, I was going to leave a day earlier to meet my daughter on her drive home from college in Virginia. But then she found out that she had to stay until late in the day on Saturday and was allowed to spend the extra night and leave Sunday morning instead of midday Saturday. This basically pushed my ride plans back 22 hours to make it to Bristol. It still looked like I could get out ahead of the weather. But the weather came in sooner than was predicted and lasted much longer and was more severe than predicted.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter what was predicted, though, I had a very specific time I had to leave at in order to make it to Bristol at the time Analise would be there. Still, it would have been nice to know ahead of time that I was going to be riding in two days straight of rain instead of the forecasted several hours of rain on the second day only.

I did start out dry and climbed up to the highest point on my commute route into work – the Vestavia overlook of Shades Valley and Red Mountain. I wanted that climb to be on the elevation profile to compare against the traversal of the Appalachian Mountains I would be doing late in the ride on Day 2. But I felt rain drops in Leeds and thought “this isn’t good”. Those rain drops turned into a more steady rain by Pell City … and then it rained off and on, sometimes quite hard, all the way to Cedartown, GA on the Silver Comet. I skipped a couple sections of the Chief Ladiga trail because they are so hard to ride in the rain at night with so much debris down. I could ride several MPH faster on the main highway. So that’s what I did.

Eventually, though, I had to get back on the Chief Ladiga and made my way to Georgia where the trail turns into the Silver Comet. The cement of the Silver Comet drains a bit better than the Chief Ladiga so at least there wasn’t as much standing water. In fact, it had only been drizzling for a while by the time I made it to Cedartown. Nearly exact as I made it to the railroad depot it started to pour down rain. I looked at the weather radar on my phone and it looked like it was going to rain hard for the next hour. That’s when I found the flower bed and decided to lay down in it to try to keep warm.

It was while laying down and waiting it out that I realized with this much rain already that it was unlikely that I could make it to Bristol and would likely encounter nasty weather and possibly even snow trying to cross the passes. So I decided to route myself north to the I-75 corridor between Chattanooga and Knoxville and then start working my way backwards on Analise’s route so she wouldn’t have to go way off the interstate to find me.

Google Maps bicycling directions took me on some cool roads parallel to the main roads norths from Cedartown, and I had a massive tailwind so the ride was great. Nevertheless, it only stopped raining every now and then for short periods where I would then ride into the next batch of rain. I stayed soaking wet the entire time. I was on the “warm” side of the storm although it really never got out of the 50s until well into Tennessee were the temperature did spike up into the 60s for a while.

By the time I made it to the hotel I had booked while riding (Athens, TN), it had pretty much stopped raining. There was more rain in-bound, though, so I quickly checked in, dropped off my backpack in the room, plugged in my head lights, and took off for a lap around Athens to get enough miles for my Eddington 256 and also to explore a bit and enjoy riding without a heavy backpack and in relatively warm temps without rain.

But then the next storm system hit when I was about two miles from the hotel. I booked it back there, but I was completely soaked again by the time I made it. I knew at this point that I was NOT going to make it to Bristol, VA. I also, knew that the main / severe part of the system wasn’t even going to hit until later that night. So I was able to relax, have a nice waffle house dinner, yard sale everything to try and dry everything out, and plan out my ride for the next day.

I fell asleep and woke up around midnight with the sound of hail hitting the window as well as lightning and thunder. This was likely the main severe part of the system that dropped tornados in central Tennessee and a small one (EF1) that hit back home. I had originally toyed with the idea of getting up around midnight to still have enough time to make it to Virginia, but with the severe weather outside at that moment, yeah, no, I’m going back to sleep.

About 3 hours later I woke up again on my own, having been asleep for more than 6 hours total by this point. I looked at the radar and saw that the tail end of the severe storms had just finished passing and there looked like a pretty wide window of rain-free weather before the next rain would hit.

Well, with the yard sale of all my stuff everywhere around the room and still being pretty groggy with only 6 hours of sleep after pretty much no sleep the day before, it took me about 45 minutes to get ready. And the next wave of precipitation had already arrived by the time I left. It was just barely drizzling, though, so I thought I might as well get started and see how far I can make it before the “last wave” of rain would hit.

The drizzle turned into that “last wave” of rain within a couple miles of leaving. The streets were already completely soaked and flooded from the severe weather, and at 4am it was quite dark as I made my way through the outskirts of the city. Temps were in the mid 50s and I had a bit of a tailwind as I turned off the main highway onto a county road that would end up being chock full of dogs on my second pass through the road.

Chased by dogs in the rain

That’s right, I would end up riding this exact same road twice. The first time was about 5am and the chip seal was nice because the rain puddles didn’t sit up on top like the state highway so that I wasn’t getting as much spray.

[Side note – it was a HUGE mistake to leave my rain fenders at home thinking that it was only going to rain for a few hours towards the end of my ride and that I didn’t want the extra weight or wind resistance (particularly the front fender). Even if I had only brought the rear fender, I would have been so much better off. But I didn’t have either fender because the weather forecasts I looked at 24 hours before leaving had the rain arriving behind me as I made my way east. I am still pretty disappointed in how the forecast really missed the mark on this storm 24 hours out. Sure, they got it right by the time the storm hit, but I was already on my way!]

Back to the nice chip seal road – with farm house after farm house, I just knew this was dog territory … yet, there weren’t any dogs! I even thought, “it must be too cold and wet for them to chase”. It continued to pour down rain and also the temperature started to drop a bit more as the wind started to turn more westerly and even northwesterly bringing down some cold air with it.

By the end of the county road, I was so wet and cold that I started to look for bailout spots where I could get out of the rain. With the temps into the upper 40s by this point, I knew I had to find somewhere open that I could go inside. The only place that was open was a Circle K about halfway back to the start. With my options being drip dry in the corner of a Circle K while drinking coffee I would have to buy vs biking about 10 miles farther back to the start where I still had a hotel room and a free breakfast and free coffee available, there wasn’t much of a decision to make … so I booked it back to the hotel – a 32 mile round trip ride in pouring down rain in the cold that made, quite literally, ZERO progress towards Analise.

This time, I thought for sure I would wait out the rest of the rain, and get to ride the rest of the day dry. By 9am another heavy downpour had passed over, and I saw that behind it was just some light precipitation with one darker section of green. So I packed everything up and left. I finally got to ride without rain for a nice grand total of 45 minutes before I could see the next wall of precipitation (must have been the dark green) heading straight towards my path.

Sure enough, it hit right about the time I made it to that same county road from earlier in the morning. This time, the dogs were out, and a whole pack of them came racing down the hill at me as I finished climbing a hill towards them. I tried to do my normal point and shout no, but the lead dog had too much momentum and he ran straight into my rear wheel hard. I thought for sure I was going down but the wheel just slid sideways a bit and I stayed upright (probably because I wasn’t going very fast). One of the other dogs became the lead dog at that point and I pointed at it and shouted and that dog backed off. A third dog came in and also backed off when I pointed and shouted. And finally the original dog that had hit my wheel had come up again. I had some momentum by this point having crested the hill and probably made it close to the edge of their normal territory so this time when I pointed and shouted it backed off and turned around.

As I had suspected earlier, though, almost all of those farmhouses did have dogs. They just weren’t out in the cold, dark rain earlier. Now they were out, though, or their owners had let them out after keeping them inside for the night. And I got chased by more dogs at the very next farmhouse and then a couple more later on the road. All of the dog chasing had warmed me up quite a bit, which was good because I was starting to get cold again. Still, though, there has got to be a solution for loose dogs out in the country. I get that there probably isn’t very many people biking through there, but I almost feel like invisible fences or actual fences should be mandatory at this point. Or just like we do with so many vehicle deaths every year, a certain number of dog deaths is deemed acceptable and certainly bikers getting injured, bitten, knocked over by dogs is deemed acceptable by society. Nobody will admit that directly, but by the lack of action over dogs and drivers, we have deemed it all acceptable here in America because America suffers from a HUGE “it won’t happen to me (or my dog)” problem.

By the end of the road, I was cold enough to have thoughts about turning around and taking a different way back to the hotel and then just waiting out the day in the lobby for Analise to come pick me up there. But then I thought “surely, this is near the end of the rain”. Oh, how wrong I was! It never stopped raining the rest of the day and even poured down rain hard TWO more times including the very end.

Getting passed by a duck

It continued to rain as I made my way north towards Madisonville. Church traffic started to pick up with people heading to church. Then it quieted down as I made my way towards the Little Tennessee River and the Tellico Reservoir. As I approached I thought I saw what looked like the top of a huge boat but there was also some industry buildings. I had no idea there was a big lake so I ended up turning and thinking it was just a creative looking industrial building.

I turned left onto the main highway and saw a huge marina across the street with lots of boats including some quite expensive large ones. That made me wonder if what I had seen was indeed a super yacht. As I approached the bridge over the river, I could see it docked all by itself back from the direction I had ridden. It was the largest yacht I’ve ever seen in person – probably cost many tens of millions of dollars.

The highway was very busy with bursty traffic, but Google Maps had routed me off to a side road just a couple miles later called East Coast Tellico Parkway, which I thought was quite the name for a relatively small state highway. Also, there was another industrial park. This was all surprising to me because I had been riding in quite rural areas and all of a sudden popped out into basically Knoxville far-out suburbia. I turned off the state highway onto a nice, initially quiet road alongside the lake. But that quiet road got busier and busier culminating with a mega church letting out right as I passed by in the outskirts of Maryville.

I had seen IHOP on my Google Maps directions from my initial routing (even without zooming in) so I had been planning on stopping there to warm-up and dry out at least a little bit for many hours by this point. But with it being just past noon, I was going to be stuck with all the after-church crowds going out to eat. And, sure enough, IHOP was packed. I didn’t mind though because it was warm-ish (they had the AC blowing hard, though, which sucked for me but was probably great for the staff – I imagine it was in the 60s inside the restaurant – better than 40s and raining, though). And I could spend time out of the rain (it was pouring down rain again outside).

My cloth work gloves from a gas station I bought at the start of one of our 300K randonneuring rides in Alabama, were completely soaked by this point. My hands were freezing. There were actual puddles in my shoes and inside my socks, which I carefully took off under the table trying to contain both the smell and the water. I took them off because it was much, much warmer to dry my feet off outside the shoes than inside the cold, wet shoes.

By the end of the meal, I had broken into my emergency warm, dry socks I was looking forward to wearing on the ride home with Analise. I put my plastic bags I had put my wet clothes from yesterday over the socks to isolate them from the very wet shoes. And I had decided to buy some chemical hand warmers (hot hands) from the Home Depot which was next to the IHOP.

I left, thinking surely the rain will be done, but it was still raining pretty good as I made my way to the Home Depot. They didn’t have any hand warmers! Instead, though, they had a large selection of winter work clothing. It was a dream clothing resupply with heavy weight thermal socks, base layer shirt, several kinds of thinsulate work gloves. All I really needed was some dry gloves at that point, so I bought the cheapest (\$9) which ended up being “good enough” to get me to the end. But with the rain continuing all the way up to the end and temps down into the mid 40s I definitely could have used some hand warmers, too.

With dry socks and dry gloves (both of which were quickly becoming wet) I took off through the Maryville traffic following my Google Maps route. Pretty soon, it directed me onto a greenway alongside Little River. I thought, “this is great, I can finally get off these busy roads”. Less than a mile in, I made it to the first flooded section.

Another few hundred feet past that, I made it to the next flooded section that I was definitely not going to try to cross.

So I took the paved exit up onto the main highway, thinking I would cross it and go down the other side, but there was no entrance on the other side of the highway. Instead I took a side street until I could reconnect with the path. I followed it back behind some sort of landfill or quarry until I reached the next flooded section.

Shortly after I took this video, I started to hear voices of people talking. They were coming from up ahead so I figured it may have been kayakers paddling backwards upstream. I was trying to figure out a meeting spot for Analise and I convenient to the interstate yet closer to where I was because she was already getting close to Knoxville. While I was doing that I see a guy trudging waist deep through the water with someone who I thought was in a kayak (because I had already been thinking that) but was actually just a lot shorter and was walking almost chest deep through the trail ahead.

I hollered out if they were on the trail and he couldn’t hear me so I rode across the next stretch while they were walking this way. We chatted for a few minutes and laughed about the situation. They were both in shorts and short sleeves and trail running shoes that looked like decent water shoes. He said I could make it through if I carried my bike on my shoulder. But I said, “no thanks, trying not to submerge my feet completely”.

I turned around crossed back across the long deep section and made it back eventually to the last road I had crossed (it was probably half a mile). My google maps was flipping out at that point repeating “Continue 2 miles”, “Make a u-turn”, “Continue 2 miles”, “Make a u-turn” constantly. I turned left and made my way to a state highway (TN-168 which Google Maps absolutely didn’t want me on. It tried to route me off at every intersection back to that bike path.

It wasn’t bad, though, with a decent shoulder albeit variable width and sometimes debris filled. Traffic didn’t get bad until a traffic light intersection at which point I think the main flow of traffic merged onto that highway. The shoulder got wider, but traffic also got much busier and faster as it continued to rain even harder than it was on the greenway.

Sadly, not too far before the end, these teenagers in a jeep (I’m guessing because of the pitch of the scream) came flying by and they had rolled down the passenger window and screamed so loud right into my ear less than a couple feet away while driving by at 50mph. They nailed the timing perfectly and if they were attempting to scare me, they most definitely gave this guy who has been hit and hospitalized for weeks by two cars and has PTSD from loud noises a terrible scare. Thankfully I didn’t hit anything or fall. It made me very angry, but I didn’t yell anything back because I was too rattled and there were too many cars and debris to dodge to let the anger really get to me. I’m sure they thought it was real funny.

America, and especially the South, is becoming the land of the increasingly anti-intellectual, “I don’t care about anybody but myself” people, not thinking of the consequences of their actions. I see it every time I go out to ride my bike. Sadly, though, I don’t think it’s limited to the South. I get the brunt of this anger directed at me while I’m riding my bike because anyone on a bike has to be a damn liberal that needs to be owned, right? That’s what a not insignificant number of people around here think, but certainly not all people, but still, enough people to get yelled at nearly every ride. And no, they aren’t just yelling me at me because I’m in their way and preventing their God-given right to drive a car as fast as they want to. They are yelling at me because I’m in their way AND I’m not like them. That’s what scares some people. That’s what really angers some people.

Shortly after this, I made it to the French Broad River bridge and stopped to take a picture of the waterfall. Less than a mile up the road, I found Analise at the gas station where she snapped the picture below of a wet, cold, and still somewhat shocked me, but elated to be finished and looking forward to a long, dry trip back home to catch up with my daughter.

Long story short

In summary, these were all epic adventures, punctuated by moments of fun, lots of misery, too, though and some mean dogs, careless dog owners, and mean car driving jerks, and a duck — the highs and lows of biking long distances in the good ol’ USA.