Friday, May 06, 2016

Crush the Commonwealth 2016

Pre(r)amble - (if you’re in a hurry you can safely skip this and scroll down to The Actual Story)

CtC 2011 was my first try at a real long distance ride. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never done anything nearly that long, but at the halfway point I was mixing it up with the guys that went on to win it and set a new record (28.5 hours). I finished in 35.5 hours, having stopped to sleep in Chambersburg. I was so trashed when I was done, but I also suspected that maybe I had some talent for endurance. I learned a ton, especially that stopping to sleep had been a complete waste of time. I still felt like shit and the finish line was still the same distance away, only the clock was advanced by 5 hours when I awoke.

I knew I could do it faster so I tried again in 2013, still going the “smart” way, west to east, but not sleeping. I was hoping for 30-32 hours and ended up finishing first in 29.5. I was still wary of the east-west direction, as everything I read about it sounded heinous, so I skipped 2014. In 2015 I pushed the endurance boat out a little farther and did the PA Randonneurs series of 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k, followed by Paris-Brest-Paris in August. Carrying some of that fitness into 2016, I figured now would be the time to sack up and tackle CtC the dumb way. Plus the mild winter and early spring boded well for better-than-normal weather conditions. Still, I was a little bit scared. Headwinds are like kryptonite to a 130-pound pipsqueak like me. And 20+ hours of them would be sheer misery.

I started upping my mileage in February and piled on more and more all through March. In early April I was still putting in good work, but also wavering in my resolve to face the challenge. Then came the news that an old cycling friend, Jay Heverly, had died. Brain cancer. I knew he was sick, and I knew he was fighting. But then suddenly, poof, he was gone. A young, strong, active family guy struck down in a few short months. It was a stark, sobering reminder that our time here is limited and we better get out there and do the stuff we want to while we can, even if it’s just a stupid, long, painful bike ride. I quit my waffling and booked a hotel and a one-way car rental.

The Actual Story - (sorry, this is still going to be kind of long and tedious, much like the ride it describes)

I loaded up the rental car and drove into Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon. I was a little nervous about getting around in the big city, but Google Maps had my back the whole way. Returned the car and the guy behind the counter scolded me for not bringing my copy of the rental contract. I was tempted to tell him that this is the 21st century and we deliver documents electronically now and his company should get with the program, but it was wiser not to rile him since he hadn’t checked the vehicle over yet. I walked my bike a few blocks to the hotel. My original plan was to box up and mail my street clothes back home but Sheila convinced me to wear some of the many ratty, raggy things I have and just throw them away. Smart lady. I looked like a ragamuffin checking in to the Hilton with my holey clothes and plastic grocery bag “luggage”, but whatever. I took a nap, got up and had a shamefully delicious, questionably nutritious fried chicken dinner and then went back to bed.

4am came all too soon. The trip to The Bell was quick, easy and stress-free, making the cost of the much-fancier-than-I’d-prefer downtown hotel worth it. I am loath to pay for luxury, but convenience I’ll happily shell out for. I was glad to see Gavin there, and PA Randos Patrick and Cecilie rolled up on a sweet, curvy-tubed Bilenky tandem and bearing a box of donuts. They weren’t going to Pittsburgh, but gave us a nice escort through town to the trail. We had a head count of 27, but a few of those were there to see us off and not do the whole thing.

crappy Tracfone pic of the start

When we got onto open trail some dudes got excited and ramped it up to 23-24. Silly to be going that hard that early, but never one to pass up “free” speed, of course I latched on. The group gradually got smaller and by the time we left the trail there were 7 or 8 of us. The roads were wet but we had a nice 3-5mph tailwind as forecast. We stayed together pretty well until one of the bigger hills on Rt. 23 split things and it was me, Gavin, and Jay from Pittsburgh at the front. We rolled together through Amish country to Lancaster, mile 80, getting plenty of horse shit sprayed up on our water bottles along the way. We made two stops there because the first place didn’t have a bathroom. It started sprinkling. I had been riding great going into Lancaster, but suddenly felt awful when we got moving again. The pace was just a bit more than I wanted to do, but I held on as best I could. Jay was super strong and Gavin was right up there with him. The rain increased, but it was one of those subtle drizzles where you go “I don’t need rain gear...I still don’t need rain gear...” then suddenly “Oh shit, it’s too late for rain gear” and I was soaked by the time we got to York, mile 103.

At mile 112 I finally pulled the ripcord and let Gavin and Jay go. Mile 118 I shifted down to the small ring for the first time that day. Mile 122 I saw their bikes outside a Rutter’s. I wasn’t quite ready for a stop, so I continued on. Jay rode by just as I was stopping in Arendtsville, mile 135. Gavin must have passed too while I was in the store.

I rode the next section past Caledonia State Park alone. The old Iron Cross race course used that stretch of Route 30 also and I reminisced about all the fun my pals and I used to have on those trips. Jay Heverly did one of those with us, and I thought a lot about him.

bunch of chilly dorks at Iron Cross VII, 2009

The festering hellscape of Chambersburg, mile 155-160, snapped me back to the present, requiring 100% focus to avoid becoming a hood ornament. At one point I was nearly clipped by a truck towing a boat that passed about 2” from my elbow. Then somewhere along there I saw a whole uncooked turkey, or very large chicken, behind the left front tire of a car parked on the roadside. I didn’t have much time or energy to ponder it then, but wtf? Gavin and I joined back up and gladly pedaled out of that mess.

He was still going stronger than me and dangled in sight but just out of reach all the way up the climb to Cowans Gap. It was good - made me push harder than I would have alone. He slowed up at the top and we cruised down the other side together. When we rounded a curve on N. Hess Rd., around mile 195, suddenly there was Pittsburgh Jay ahead of us. He must have bonked hard because he was creeping up that hill. As we passed, Gavin told him the turnoff to the old turnpike was coming up soon. He was already out of sight when we got there. I had an impish impulse to sneak down the road and leave him to find his own way but Gavin said it would be nicer to wait. He was right and I’m glad we did. We all got through the tunnels just fine. Someone has done a lot of work cleaning things up on the Pike 2 Bike. The pavement still sucks, but the tunnels themselves are much more clear than they used to be.

We took our longest stop, maybe 20 minutes, at the Breezewood Sheetz, mile 208. Gavin and I pressed on and Jay stayed to recover a bit more. That next stretch to Bedford was nice. Darkness was approaching. My clothes, socks and gloves were still slightly damp, but dry enough that I wasn’t too worried about staying warm overnight. But I was starting to fear how my skinny tires were going to do on the GAP.

my cheat sheet for places to resupply
We did a quick stop at Bedford, mile 228. The woman behind the counter at the convenience store asked what we were doing and when we told her it nearly blew her mind. She spread the word to every customer and they all wished us luck and safe travels. It was kind of nice to have some encouragement at that point.

There were a couple of really tough climbs on the way to Somerset. We stopped at the Sheetz there, mile 267, and Gavin discovered he had a rear flat. I ate a sandwich and cleaned a day’s worth of road spray off my glasses while he quickly fixed it. Then he found the front had a slow leak too. He topped it up and off we went. Somewhere on the dark road to Rockwood I slammed a pothole super hard and heard a loud “CRACK!”. I was sure I had pinched a tire or broken a spoke or something and was surprised when it continued to hold. In retrospect, I think maybe it was the tubeless tire burping and then the bead snapping back into place. We hit the dreaded GAP at mile 277 and were happy to find the surface firm and dry. We moved along as best we could, dodging downed sticks at 14-15mph. Neither of us was super talkative but it was still very helpful to have company.

The Pinkerton tunnel was open and once we were through there I breathed a sigh of relief that my narrow rubber wasn’t going to be a liability on the trail. Came upon a Coke machine at Ohiopyle, mile 305, and enjoyed my first caffeine in a week. I had cut out coffee the week before, hoping that caffeine would be more of a boost when I needed it, instead of just a dependency. It worked, especially when I grabbed a coffee drink at Connellsville, mile 322. It was about 3:30am and that was the perfect time to juice up to fight off the pre-dawn sleepies. A guy outside the Sheetz there asked what we were doing. We told him and he said “So you’re going through McKeesport?” We said yeah and he said “Are you packin’?”

Sometime before sunup my headlight battery died. I could have stopped and plugged in my external battery pack, but I just wanted to keep rolling, so I mooched off Gavin’s kickass dynamo setup. We rolled through McKeesport in the morning light and didn’t see any signs of the thugs we were supposed to arm ourselves against. It was a beautiful sight when the Pittsburgh skyline finally came into view and we knew we were nearly done. We crossed the Hot Metal Bridge, zipped down the Jail Trail, dodged around some streets closed for the 5k, and pulled up under the overpass at Point State Park at 7:40am. We had left Philadelphia a few minutes after 5am, so that’s under 26:40 total time. My Garmin showed 382 miles with around 24 hours of moving time and 2 ½ hours of stoppage.

winner, winner, chicken dinner
We shook hands, snapped a few pics, and agreed that was the very fastest we possibly could have done it. Of course, looking back on it now, it’s hard to resist thinking that with better planning we could have gotten through Lancaster a little quicker. And we didn’t really need to sit down at Breezewood. And the stop at Bedford and the Coke at Ohiopyle weren’t strictly necessary etc., etc. Maybe we could have trimmed off another 20-30 minutes. But then again, maybe not. Anyway, we were extremely lucky with the weather and I’m proud of the ride we did and happy we finished together and set a new best time.

obligatory  Point State Park fountain shot

Sheila was disappointed to not be there when I finished, but we just got done way quicker than I ever could have imagined. She picked me up shortly thereafter and drove home while I dozed. Now, once again, I owe her big time for supporting me on another of my goofy endeavors. I look forward to repaying the debt and helping her out on her next adventure(s). Now get out there and go after yours too!


dennyv said...

Nice Write Up Tom, great job on the CTC. I enjoyed reading it.

Tom Oswald said...

Thanks, Denny!