Ahh Crush the Commonwealth… still the most agony and enjoyment I’ve ever had in any one ride. The race is ~400 miles across Pennsylvania where it swaps start/finish locations between Philly and Pittsburgh. This year we started at The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and ended at the Point in Pittsburgh. There’s no pre-reg, no race fees, no support, no prizes, no nothing. The route isn’t too confusing. You start with a neutral roll out through Philadelphia, jump onto the SRT, take that into Valley Forge, pick up bike route S until the abandoned turnpike, get back on bike route S in Breezewood, get onto the Great Allegheny Passageway (GAP), try not to die of boredom on the trail, then try to make it to Pittsburgh without getting lost.
I hadn’t thought too much about CTC this year until a week and a half before when a friend brought up the idea of doing the ride. We talked about it a while at the bar that night and decided to cruise it this year and have some fun doing so. From then on I was scrambling to get my ‘touring’ bike together. I put a few spacers under the stem, put the Carradice bag on, and even swapped out the road pedals to mtb pedals for the first time. As we got closer to Friday the weather was calling for some terrible weather and we started to double think our plans. Riding in cold is one thing, but mixing in rain/snow is a whole different ball game. I could tell there was a chance he wasn’t going to be making the journey as he had a ton of stuff on his plate and was getting ready for a cross country bike trip in the next couple weeks. I was already mentally preparing for a solo ride but was hoping for the best.
Years past I tapered my daily bike commute to work in order to keep fresh legs. This year I wasn’t even positive I was doing CTC so I rode all week in order to make sure everything was dialed in. Wednesday night came and we were still on the fence and agreed to decide at the last possible moment, i.e. Thursday night. After seeing that the forecast still called for rain, I borrowed a pair of rain pants from a friend (thanks Ted!) Thursday after work and that sealed the deal that I was in. Later that night I got the text that I was expecting, my buddy wasn’t going to make the ride. I grabbed my iPod shuffle and threw it in the bag before trying to go to sleep. After tossing and turning for a while I got to sleep around midnight.
I woke up a bit after 4:00am Friday morning and hurried to finish packing up my stuff. I can never eat breakfast in the morning so I drank a bit of greens powder, threw the lights on, clipped in, and cruised down to the Liberty Bell. I was amazed at how many people were at the start already. Didn’t anyone see the brutal headwinds predicted for Friday? or read the sub-freezing forecast for the next day with chances for rain/snow?? or the general suckiness that this ride can become???! I’m only kidding as it was great to see so many new and old faces out there. I think there were 25 starters this year! We all talked and BSed a bit before it was time to head out.
One thing I’ve learned for this ride is to get with the pack at the very beginning that you want to ride with. The only way to know what group would suit you well is to talk with people, figure out what kind of pace their thinking, what kind of stops during the day they’d like to do, and how far they’d like to make it before resting or pushing on. Obviously things rarely play out like you expect, but its good to have a rough idea.
We rolled out around 5:15am and followed Max through the city, past city hall, down the parkway, around the art museum, and onto Kelly Drive. We cruised the newly improved Manyunk tow path (which is smooth even for skinny tires) and onto the SRT. After the second fork at Conshohocken the flag was waved and people took off. The Tressler brothers sprinted ahead and a second later there was one chaser. Myself and 6 or 7 others ramped the speed up a bit but nothing too wild and continued on our way loosing sight of the other three within minutes. I liked seeing the brothers there that morning and once they took off, I knew there would be no chance of catching them. Any small bit of pressure to try and ‘win’ was off our shoulders. We could relax, get into a good rhythm and grind out the miles.
We cruised out in Valley Forge together taking turns at the front. The head winds had started early and weren’t supposed to die down at all that day. The longer the group could stay together, the better we could fight against the 15-20mph constant headwind. At times it didn’t feel that bad, but other times you would realize you were pushing your small ring on the flats… always a bad sign. As the number of miles grew, the people in our group dwindled.
Our first stop was the Sheetz in Morgantown for a quick bottle refill. Making good time is highly dependent on how quick you can get in and out of these stops. After 10 minutes or so we were back on the road. We saw a few people from the original group trickling in as we were leaving but pushed on with hopes of making good time.
The stretch to the Lancaster area was brutal. It’s very scenic with rolling hills but also very open with no trees or buildings to block the winds. Even with the head/crosswinds we were keeping a reasonable pace (a bit under 16mph), but we were all worried that the extra energy used during these miles would come back to haunt us later in the day. We made another quick stop before York to refill bottles and regroup a bit. The next question was to stop at Roburrito’s in York (~100mi) or to hit the Sheetz. I might have pressured to group a bit into a shorter stop at the Sheetz as I had goals to get to the abandoned turnpike with some sort of light.
Hard to tell but you can get a sense of the wind if you look at the clothes on the clothesline.
Guess its almost October.
After the stop in York, we continued on with the next stop being Chambersburg (~150mi). At some point during this section there was a road detour. We decided to take detour which took us over some sweeping hills and west one to route 30 for a bit, then back north and onto the route. At this point out group of 4 dwindled to a group of 3 with the extra hills. Paul who had been looking strong until then, started to burn out. The headwinds stayed constant and the temperature was holding in the mid to upper 50′s. I had on long tights, an under amour baselayer, and full finger gloves on the entire time.
I think we got to the Sheetz around 4pm and hit quite a bit of traffic coming through Chambersburg. As we rolled in we met up with Matt who went off the front with the brothers at the very beginning. After grabbing a naked juice, couple drinks, and filling up the other bottle with tap water, I went outside to enjoy a Laura Bar from my bag with everyone. Paul who had dropped from our group during the last stretch told us he was going to hang around for the next group so Joe, Gavin, Matt, and myself went on our way.
‘Free range’ veal…
I think we all were in pretty good spirits around this point as we made it out to Cowan’s Gap. At some point Joe had fallen behind but not too far as the three of us took in the scenery. The climb up is actually pretty nice. It’s long but gradual with no steep kickers in between. We saw a slew of boy scouts going to camp at the top as we made our way down the decent to burnt cabins. It was getting closer to dusk at this point but I really wanted to make quick work of these miles to get to the abandoned turnpike in some sort of daylight. The stretch from Chambersburg to Breezewood is a rough one. By that point you already have 150+ miles in your legs, there’s a good amount of climbing, and the last 10 miles of turnpike can be painfully slow, dark, and cold.
We made it to the abandoned turnpike during twilight. We stopped to take some photos/videos before turning our lights on and getting ready to navigate the labyrinth of usable pieces of pavement for the next hour. We talked and enjoyed the new scenery but we had been out for a couple hours and the tunnels were cold. The three of us were ready to get to Breezewood, relax a bit, warm up and get some dinner.
We finally hit the end and debated whether or not to ride down the dirt incline on the outskirts of Breezewood. I took the front and gingerly walked down the path in order to keep us from breaking any collarbones. We rolled under the turnpike, down the hill, and to the Sheetz. By the time we got there it was fully dark and I was freezing! My goal was to stay away from Sheetz food as it only leads to heartburn for me but the tempature overcame me and I found myself clicking through the touch screen menu just to see what they had. Ahaah, Burritos?!! I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad idea but I needed something warm and a bean and rice burrito sounded great. I also got a hot tea to warm myself up and took my food back to the table ready to gobble it down. When I got there I saw Gavin with a pint of ice cream he was shoveling down… ice cream? It was freezing out, I mean it was almost 32F out and something cold sounded good to you??! I was amazed but I should also point out that he had been riding in shorts with no knee covers or tights and I believe fingerless gloves until that point. On the other end of the spectrum was me holding onto my hot tea for dear life. He said it had something to do with his euro heritage, I summed it up that he was a tougher man than I.
After spending a while in Sheetz eating, recovering, charging our phones/Garmins, and wondering where Joe was we started to get things together to roll out. We checked the weather one last time, temps under freezing, chance of rain, with the only plus that the winds were dying down. I put on everything I had, tights, under amour long sleeve, SS jersey, rain paints, rain jacket, ear warmers, and cycling cap and was ready to hit the night. I also grabbed some Advil and Tums and shoveled both down. Both my knees were killing me since around 60miles in as I expected they would and I was anticipated the heartburn. This was my first time using any pain medicine and I have to say I liked it! Right as we were heading out Joe came through the door. We talked a bit then went on our way, I think it was about 12am or so but I forgot to click start on my Garmin until I realized later.
Warming up at first wasn’t a tough task as are cores were still warm from Sheetz especially with the climbing throughout the route. We made it pretty quickly to Bedford with good morale. I pointed out a couple places and we cruised through. At some point Matt asked about the Sheetz/Hotels in Bedford. I guess he thought we were going to stop or they were along the route. We sat and talked a while about if he wanted to go back or push through. It did not seem like he wanted to make the next push to Somerset but backtracking also didn’t sound enticing. He ended up pushing forward with Gavin and me through the 40+ hilly miles to Somerset.
Morale was getting low as was the temperature. My nose had been running non-stop for the last 100 or so miles and was annoying me to no end. Matt was in the pain cave and ever hill (which there were plenty of) were taking their toll. My knees hurt severely but the legs themselves felt pretty good. The majority of the climbs I would stand and crank to use the quads as much as I could so that the knees took less abuse. This approach worked well but had me waiting at the top of climbs, sweating a bit, then cooling down just in time for the next fast decent. As the hours went on the miles to Somerset seemed to barely wind down. It felt like we would pass signs that would say 19 miles to Somerset then half an hour later, 17miles to Somerset… It was getting bad.
On one of the steeper climbs Gavin dropped a chain and went down. The mental and physical fatigue mixed with the darkness and the lack of ability to know where up is really takes its toll. He seemed alright and we trudged forward through the mountains. My lights were going low but I was in no mood to change the batteries in the cold. I did a bit of squinting during the fast downhills and turned them to low during the climbs. As we came up to the last climb I let them know we were almost there and Gavin and I pushed forward looking for the oasis over the mountains known as Sheetz!
We finally made it there ~4am and took shelter on the floor while waiting for our food to be made. Matt made it there shortly after and looked exhausted. I think we all ate for a bit and he went on to find a hotel for the night. Gavin and I decided the best idea would be to push through the night with the forecast of rain later in the day. We stayed at Sheetz for an hour or two, I’m not really sure but the manager seemed to hate us. She didn’t hate every one, as she seemed very pleasant to her regulars. It is interesting riding through the night. You first encounter the people coming from the bars that will honk or open the throttle on their diesel track past you to surround you in a thick black cloud but then around 4 the drunkard turn to hunters/fishermen getting ready for their daily excursion. After trying to get warmed up and get mentally ready for the task at hand we geared up and got ready to fight the sub freezing temps around 5:30am that morning. Again I put every article of clothing on I had as I knew it would be rough until the sun came out.
Not even sure what this would mean?
It’s about 10 miles to Rockwall from Somerset where you pick up the GAP trail. Now the GAP sounds fun after you’ve been climbing endless hills/mountains but I knew better. I didn’t let Gavin know but I hate the GAP. Its so monotonous and boring, plus it had been snowing up there the week before so I was positive the trail would be soaked, and it was. The first part of the trail seems to stay wet and is more of a dirt constancy which slogs your speed down dramatically. When the trail turns to crushed limestone it does a better job of draining the water but you can still feel the speed sucked from under you.
Around this time the sun started to rise which tends to heighten moral as well as warm things up. I think mentally we were in some other place so as the sun came up we stopped and took off layers. I was down to my tights and long sleeve base layer with just a short sleeve jersey for a while. After 20 minutes or so I realized I was freezing and looked at my Garmin that said it was still in the low 30’s… What the hell were we doing shedding layers??! We stopped and proceeded to put all the layers back on and determined that we were stupid.
The goal was to cruise on the limestone path at a comfortable speed and get done whenever we did. We had no time goals, no expectations, we just wanted to finish. At some point on the trail we saw rustling to the right of us and saw a black bear trample out of the woods and run (luckily) the opposite way down the trail then bust a hard left. We both stood there shocked. It was too cold to even try to get the camera out of my jersey pocket in time, but it was one of the highlights of our day. Not sure if I’ve ever seen a bear in the wild before… After doing some bell ringing and whistling we proceeded down the trail. I think I told Gavin to turn on his borrowed GoPro incase I got mauled.
We hit Ohiopyle and instead of stopping to fill up or get food we continued. By this time both of us could barely hold anything down food or drink wise. I felt like I was on the verge of throwing up all the time for some reason. Not a good sign when you still have 80miles to ride.
We kept a constant pedal going with random pee and layer stops throughout the woods. We talked about stopping in Connelsville or one of the other small towns but never did. The thought of food was terrible and taking more time to finish didn’t see like an enjoyable option. At this point the left knee felt alright but the front of right knee was collecting fluid and hurt to the touch. My butt had been hurting for a while but I realized at some point my bibs were sticking to me, ie open sores. Every bump hurt, ever pedal was worse than the last but we were on the last leg of the trip and there was nothing to do but finish.
Gavin and I made small talk most of the trail sitting next to each other trying not to die of boredom. Talk of beer, bikes, our Mediterranean and vegan diets, beer, travel, work, and more beer kept us out of our own heads for a while. I seriously couldn’t imagine tackling that entire stretch by myself. Thank god Gavin was a super nice guy, great to talk to, interesting, and could tolerate my nonsense, random noises, and general tomfoolery for the entire trip.
Eventually we made it to the end of the trail but not before almost going insane. We hadn’t eaten in probably 4 hours, barely had anything to drink, and to be honest we didn’t care. We were both running on E and a bit sheer will power. We made our way off the gravel and onto some old trail that ran on the side of the train tracks. This helped us bypass the majority of downtown McKeesport. We quickly jumped back on the main road in McKeesport right before the T just to jump back off on the new and nicely paved pedestrian trail that would lead us into Homestead. The asphalt was freshly laid and the bridges were steep, but the surrounds looked a bit ratty. We made it into Homestead and got overzealous and rode across the first bridge we came to, The Homestead Grays Bridge. Instead of being smart and just going back, we took this route and continued. At this point it started sleeting on us and I was cursing Pittsburgh. I always get lost in Pittsburgh, I hate it, seriously. Of course we hit relentless steep climb after steep climb going this route before we made it to Second Ave in Hazelwood.
After hitting Greenfiled Ave we checked our maps to figure out how to get on the Jail Trail and that was it. I put my head down, forearms on the flats, and took a pull. It was nice seeing other people out and about but we had no time to dillydally. We wanted to be at the Point and be done already. As we got off the trail and onto the road, we could see it. We were there. We cruised in to the park and saw Gavin’s family and friends waiting. We talked for a couple minutes then remembered we needed to call Eric the organizer. I left him what I thought was a legible message, it wasn’t. We got in at 2:30pm that day with a total time 33:15.
After saying our goodbyes I called my buddy and asked if I could come grab his keys and work and sleep on his floor till he was off. After grabbing his keys I headed off to Polish Hill (yep hills…) which took me up climbs that I wouldn’t want to do on a good day. The knee was shot, the butt was in pain, and I could start to feel the achilles starting to act up. I eventually made it to his house where it took me forever just to get a shower going. I couldn’t think or do anything right.
The girlfriend called and I had to tell her I could only talk after a long shower was complete. I lurked through his cabinets, put some pasta on and tried to talk on the phone for a bit. I found some peanut butter, garlic powder, salt, and Redhot and threw it on top of the pasta. It was great to have a warm meal. At some point I checked the blog to check how people were doing. After reading a couple post I noticed the Tressler brothers had dropped out… I wasn’t expecting that at all. I gave Gavin a call to tell him the news but he was sleeping. I was happy about our accomplishment and passed out a few minutes later.
Later that night I wanted to hang out but I was worthless. We cruised to a pizza place so I could get dinner/lunch for the next day; some veggie wings and cheesesteak. It was good. We hung out for a while; I clicked on the alarm clock for 6:00am and went to bed around midnight. I’ve never slept so good on a floor as I did that night. Thanks Bill for letting me crash at your place and use up all your hot water!
I rode the couple miles down to Amtrak where I got a ticket and got the bike ready for the giant box. All you have to do is turn your bars, take off your pedals, and if you have a longer stem you might have to turn your bars down. After getting the bike boxed, I saw Max walking in. We got everything ready and headed for the train. Amtrak is SO much nicer than Greyhound especially if you’re on the tall side. We both had a row to ourselves and talked about the ride before taking a nap.
There is a quick stop in Harrisburg were we jumped off to find a bite to eat. We stumbled upon a bar where there were some more than interesting folks and I grabbed a Budweiser 40 for the ride home. We talked, drank, and shot the shit a bit before Max got off in Exton. I cruised to 30th Street Station then jumped on the MFL back to my apartment. It was a good weekend but I was exhausted. I was excited to sleep in my bed again as it felt like I had been away for forever. The thought of ‘never will I do this again’ are still ringing in my head but like years past, in a couple of weeks you’ll only remember the highlights of the journey.
Garmin Data via Strava: