Ahhh #CrushTheCommonwealth … my love/hate relationship with this event started way back in 2010 ( Part 1 / Part 2 ) . It was the first year I ever owned a road bike and was talked into doing the ride by my two close buds. We were so under-prepared it’s actually scary to think about… we had the worst lights imaginable (think crappy cateye AAA blinkys & free harbor freight bicycles lights), no rain/cold weather gear, and my longest ride to date was a single 50mi flat ride to Valley Forge via the SRT. Flash forward 7 years & 3 more CTC adventures later and I was back in the same boat. Two buds were opting to tackle the Philly to Pittsburgh CTC route and easily convinced me to jump in the mix. This year I actually had a bike and bags that would be quite perfect for a rando event. Unfortunately work had been nuts for the last month or so with 65+hr weeks yielding almost no riding at all prior to Friday morning. at least I had fresh legs.
After grabbing dinner & beers Thursday night I finished packing my bags and tried to go to bed. I woke up at 4am Friday morning very excited to see it dry-ish outside. I got myself together, kitted up, and rolled with Blake down to the Liberty Bell. We got there a bit before 5:00am and took a quick gander around. I think there were about 28 starters this year. We saw Brett and quickly found out that, YES his 3rd bottle cage now matched his brown bike, but there was ZERO ounces of water in any of those 3 bottles. No worries… we’d fill them up along the SRT, hopefully.
At 5:05am we were led out by the tandem for the neutral start. We cruised through the city and to the Kelly side of the SRT hearing sweet brags of touring/bikepacking/rando adventures from years past. The three of us (#teamvegan) stopped and filled Brett’s bottles on the SRT, then hurried up to catch the group. The tandem wished us luck at Falls Bridge and we did a slow cruise through Manayunk making sure everyone got onto the tow-path. Once we got from the towpath to the SRT at Umbria, Brett sat at the front doing his thing. The pace was fast. Faster than my legs wanted, thats for sure. There was probably 8 of us or so at this point: Brett, Blake, Gavin, Tom, Ponytail QCW guy, and his buddy who wasn’t doing CTC but continued to ‘go off the front’ for some reason, Mike a randonneur from Brooklyn, and myself. We made fast work of the SRT portion and jumped off to hit Bike Route S.
The next X amount of miles were a blur. The pace was fast and we were all taking pulls. The plan was to skip the stop in Morgantown (50miles) and make it to Lancaster (75mi) to fuel up. About 40mi in Gavin, Tom, and QCW guy gapped us a bit and we kept doing our thing at a solid pace. We ran back into them in Lancaster as we were heading to our food/drinks/bathroom stop.
As we were leaving the stop we ran into Brooklyn rando, Dave, and another guy. We all ripped together just as it started sprinkling. It wasn’t too bad so I didn’t want to get into my rear bag for rain gear yet. As the miles clicked on the rain kept coming and after a bit I was wet and more importantly my feet/shoes were soaked. Oof! It was 45F out, it was raining, I was sitting in a paceline getting a face full of spray next to a very busy rt462 where I could kinda see out of my glasses. During this time all I could think was ‘Shiiiiii I have another 300mi to ride in wet shoes?!’ We all trudged along not talking much, hugging the shoulder of the road hoping our blinkies were doing their jobs.
At mile 100, we made it to York and after passing through town we got off the busy rt462 and onto rt234 and we were able to relax a bit and get into a groove. Our plan was to make it to Chambersburg (155 mi) next for a pit stop but the rain/wet hands/life had us make an extra stop at a Rutter’s right before Heildersburg at rt15. We grabbed some food, bought some AWESOME gloves, ate some pickles, and Brett even got yelled at by an older man for talking with his mouth full. He also gave us the news that 2 other cyclists were up the road about 30mins on us. We then got back to it and pedaled west.
The next stretch leads you to Michaux State Forest where there was a debate if we could fit some single track into our adventure but we thought it might not be for the best. Instead we followed along bike route S on rt30 and into downtown of Chambersburg. This section of rt30 is almost always really hectic and can be stressful depending on when you get there. We stopped at the Sheetz in town and grabbed food. Brett and Blake ordered up burritos and I opted for liquid calories and junk food. The next push from here to Breezewood is a long one (50miles ~ 4hrs of ride time) and there isn’t much between the two towns other than the abandoned turnpike. In my opinion getting to the abandoned turnpike in the daylight is KEY. For 1) its much more interesting to go through the tunnels when its light outside and 2) picking lines on the shitty pavement is slow going if you’re depending on lights.
Leaving Chambersburg is about as much fun as coming in on rt30. Eventually you branch off to rt75 in Fort Loudon which leads you to a fun sustained climb through Cowans Gap State Park down to Burnt Cabins. From here to the abandoned turn pike its just roller after roller with a few steep kickers throughout. Eventually you will make it to a ‘T’ in the road where Bike Route S turns right, but to get to the abandoned turn pike you take a left onto Pump Station Road. (if you need a fill up here you can continue right and go to the Sideling Hill Service Plaza). You then head down Pump Station Road and will see a hill of white rocks on your right, and right after that there will be a small driveway on the right which will lead you to a few jersey barriers / the entrance to the turnpike. You are then on broken up false flat pavement for the next 9mi with 2x tunnels to travel through. It then pops you out of a rock/dirt descent. I fell victim to wanting to ride the descent which was kinda fun I guess BUT then while not paying attention in the gravel parking lot I proceeded to double flat on a sharp rock. Sweet! I was more than pissed as Breezewood/Sheetz/FOODZ were just over the hill 1/2mi away. After a helping hand from Blake/Brett we changed the flats and rolled into town only to find that Blake got a puncture as well. We limped to Sheetz and I helped him change his flat.
By this point it was 7:45pm / 205miles in and it was dinner time. We decided to take a long break here and change some clothing out. In the next 1-1.5hrs we became ‘those’ people. We sat in the cafe while nice families ate dinner and we were there with no socks on, paper in our cycling shoes, drying/cleaning our toes with napkins under the table (sorry!!). After the cleaning sesh, I go grab some more food, drinks, and heartburn tablets (for the inevitable) and run into Brett whos talking with a guy who was planning on doing CTC. He couldn’t make it this year but is siked to see us in Breezewood so early and throws out the old record time that I know is going to get smashed this year due to NOT CRAZY HEADWINDS! We hang out some more, go to roll out and run back into Dave who wants to join up. We hang out some more in the front of Sheetz and get ready to roll.
We leave Sheetz, make the left onto bike route S and within a minute Blake realizes the flat change on his bike needs to be re-seated due to a hop. We stop and adjust that as Dave continues to roll. We spend 10min messing around with that in the dark and finally get back to it. We eventually catch back up with Dave and continue in the night. During this stretch I started to get really tired out of nowhere… sure it makes sense, you’ve been riding all day, 200+miles in, didn’t get much sleep the nights before, yada yada, but ive never had this happen before in years past. It was more than odd. It was the same sensation on a long road trip driving where its hard to keep your eyes open… but this time it was on the bike. It actually got pretty bad at points but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it other than trying to stay engaged by talking to both of them, and the occasional ‘SHAKE YOUR HEAD REALLY FAST’ or slap yourself in the face trick.
On top of that I had forgotten how shitty the section from Breezewood to Sommerset was. Usually its cold and dark… theres about 60miles and 5000ft of climbing and to top it off every so often there will be signs for # of miles to Sommerset and you will see a sign 10minutes later and it will have the exact same mileage on it somehow… oof! Be mentally prepared, it can be a bummer. The good news is after you climb and climb and climb some more, you will descent to the oasis known as Sommerset and there will be a Sheetz waiting for you. This stretch can also be scary due to time of night and number of drunkards out on the roads. We were pretty lucky and only got buzzed once the entire trip.
We were at the Sommerset Sheetz (265 mile) for quite a while getting our heads on straight. We got some food, and like normal people do, posted up on the floor near the register. I did the only thing I could think and crushed a Redbull and filled my bottles up with Coke. It was around 2am at this point and I got to listen to the townies discussing where they thought we were from, what we were doing, and why we were sitting on the floor. I even got to watch Blake/Brett try to take a nap sitting on said floor. We were there for ~1.5hrs before heading out with Dave who had made it there just a few minutes before.
The stretch from Sommerset to Rockwood/the start of the Great Allegany Passageway (GAP) is only 8miles but has a few kickers along the way. Those three were more than excited to hit the limestone rail-trail but I knew better. It seems fun in theory, no cars, no climbs, nice scenery, but its SO MONOTONIS and it seems to go on forever and ever. The original plan was to stop in Connelsville which would be almost exactly halfway between Sommerset and Pittsburgh 55mi/~4hrs. Unfortunately for me the super dark, unchanging riding environment got to me and neither the redbull or coke or candy was enough and I got back into the dozing off game. By this point we had covered probably 30 miles from the last stop and it was ~5am. I told the guys I needed to stop and rest. I was hoping that plus daybreak would get me through the next 90miles. Based off mileage, I thought Ohiopyle should be ~10mi away and knew they had a park office that was always open right on the side of the trail that we could sleep in and grab water/use the restrooms.
We pushed on for another 30 minutes and finally hit Ohiopyle still in the dark of night. Unfortunately for us my plan failed and the park office that has ALWAYS been open before was closed. Fuuuuu. Whatever, I parked my bike, took off my helmet and laid vampire style on a picnic table. I wanted to put a jacket on but didn’t want to unpack my rear bag so I said F-it, set my alarm for 20min and proceeded to passed out within 15seconds. Dave pushed on while we were sleeping.
I woke up to my alarm, on top of a park bench, in the middle of the GAP trail with the sun rising and thought, ‘holy shiiiii Im cold.’ Lesson learned, a kit isn’t enough to keep you warm when its 45F out even if its only 20min. I went to wake up Brett who was smart enough to cover himself in a rain jacket at least. He yelled for me to go wake Blake up first and turned back over. I went and poked at Blake to wake him up next. I took a few artisanal panoramic photos on the bridge while we waiting for Brett to get up. It was slow going at first after the wake up but the sunrise + a little sleep made me feel like a new person. Brett thought the opposite and told us it was the worst decision hes ever made or something to that degree.
At that point we decided we were going to push on… From Sommerset à Pittsburgh = 115mi, no refill water/food stops. Gavin and myself had done that back in 2012 (recap here) and I remember how cracked we both were at the end. Hopefully this time was different but there were plenty of places to stop along the way if needed. It just a bit hard to force yourself to stop and eat when A) all you want to do is be done and off your bike and B) eating sounds like the worst thing in the world. Usually around this point I feel like im going to throw up constantly/have heartburn/hate life. At least for me, liquid calories were still working well and going down the hatch quite easily.
For the next X mile life is a blur. My knees hurt just enough, my brain is cloudy, but im wide awake and that feels great! I think with about 50miles or so to go we spot Dave on the side of the trail. We stop and talk for a bit and hes packing him rear bag (again) and he tells us to go on and he’d see us at the finish in Pittsburgh. Blake, Brett, and myself push on and start to pick up the pace a bit. The end is near and its amazing what happens when your body senses that. I do a little mansplaining and tell them were going to paceline it out for the next 20miles and get this thing done.
We eventually make it to the end of the trail and start seeing people. The section from the end of the GAP trail to Homestead is a bit confusing if you’ve never done it before. KEY: print really great directions because you will be very tired and the last thing you want to do is get lost/tack on extra miles. Luckily ive done exactly that before so I knew better and printed a good cue sheet for this section. They followed me and we got off the GAP, through McKeesport, and back onto the trail heading to Homestead.
It felt like we were hammering it. Passing youngersters and ladies/gents on cruisers left and right. Some may have called us Pathletes that day but we just wanted to be finished. We got to Homestead and routed behind the Bestbuy/Lowes/etc and tried not to get crashed out by the other Pathletes. We continued on the path, hooked a right over The Hot Metal Bridge, then a quick left onto The Three Rivers Heritage Trail aka The Jail Trail. We were all giddy and the pain from all of our ailments vanished on the last 4miles heading into town. We got to the end of the trail in downtown Pittsburgh and Brett somehow spotted Lauren (our ride) who was sitting in traffic and was actually on her way to the fabric store since I gave her an estimated time much later. We crushed it down Fort Pitt Blvd and hooked into The Point State Park. We had to opt for a photo on the outskirts since the festivities for the Pittsburgh Marathon/5k were going on there. We smiled hard for the camera and were all more than excited to make the dream a reality. It was 11:45am on Saturday ie 30hours 45mins of total time to Crush the Commonwealth.
We hung for a bit and rode over to Lauren who very very graciously offered to pick us up… Seriously the best part of the trip was knowing we didn’t have to box bikes on the greyhound or Amtrak Sunday morning. It was a game changer! We changed clothes on the sidewalk and packed up the car. We were getting ready to roll out when we saw Dave rolling in on his way to The Point. We talked for a few minutes and said our goodbyes. Next stop was food and no better place that Spak Brothers for some Pizza, Wings, Steaks.
We crushed some Za’ with plans of staying the night to hang out in Pittsburgh but the marathon had foiled our plans. Lauren decided to drive us sleepy/smelly/weirdos home even though she had just driven there earlier that morning… again cant thank her enough. We slept for an hour or so then BS’d in the car the rest of the time. Overall it was a ‘fun’ day and a half and one more experience that I will never forget with two close buds who I couldn’t have finished without.
What I learned this year:
Not having headwind from PHL -> Pitts is a game changer
My bikepacking bags from Rockgeist worked out awesomely. Having bags that you could reach into while riding was amazing. The only issue was I had too much space to pack items and because of that I overpacked a little bit. I will say it was a bit hard to pack for 45F-55F temps and potential downpours throughout the day/night.
Having someone pick you up is amazing
We stopped a ton. Its hard not to but if your goal is to crush, limit the amount of time at each stop as much as possible
Oh, I also learned that Brett sprints for county lines… literally every county line he sprinted for from Philly to Pittsburgh BUT I was able to catch him off guard and got the only one that mattered, Pittsburgh!
Elapsed Time: 30h45m
Moving Time: 24h18m
Off the bike time: 6h27m
AVG Riding Speed: 15.7mph
Lancaster – Crappy Turkey Hill w only 1 bathroom
Heildersburg – Rutter’s
Chambersburg – Sheetz
Breezewood – Sheetz
Somerset – Sheetz
Ohiopyle – Slept for 20min on park benches
Bike setup: Lynskey Cooper CX + Bikepacking gear from Rockgeist
1st year I did this Jamie/Ben/myself were stuck here trying to figure out where the turnpike was… brought back good/bad memories 🙂
The GAP at night…
I almost forgot the phrase of the trip was A-O River which we yelled out repeatedly on the GAP trail juuuust incase.