|CJ in Pittsburgh|
Crush the Commonwealth, Friday, April 28th to Sunday, April 30th, 2017.
Was excited and nervous going into Crush the Commonwealth. Odds stacked in our favor: Eastbound = upfront climbing and tailwinds, plus the weather forecasts were calling for nighttime lows of 65 degrees, and mid-70s to 80s during the day. I’ve heard many horror stories from a PHL bike friend Eric G. about relentless rain, freezing temps, and strong winds going Westbound; no thanks.
About 20-30 at the start, including PA Rando / CtC veteran Chris N., but unsure how many were there to “race” vs. how many locals to lead us out and see us off. Fun to mill about and meet some of the other riders; a quick look around indicated that touring/rando-types were in the vast minority, and most everyone were on road or gravel bikes with bikepacking saddle bags, frame bags, etc.
Started shortly after 5am, and the large group immediately stretched out along the various trails leading to the GAP. I told my long-time friend and roommate, Gary W., “This is probably the last we will see of any of those people.” I emphasized our need to just ride our own ride. Crush the Commonwealth would be Gary’s first ride over 150 miles, and I wanted to make sure I could see him through.
The GAP trail was initially nice and scenic. Fog and haze, the sun peeking through, and a small group to while away the miles. Trailside bike repair stands, water fountains, and tons of bathrooms (or at least porta-pottys) had me impressed and not worried about services. We ‘controlled’ at Connellsville Sheetz [mile 60]. Most riders had already been through or were just leaving, but I did get to chat with a rando from NY on a 650b. Finishing out the GAP to get to Rockwood  was tough; we had picked up the pace, were gradually climbing upward, and I started developing weird pains in my left leg that I had never felt before. Somewhere in this stretch, a large rock had gotten sucked up into my front fender, but my quick-release fender tabs did their job, and detached the stays without any damage. I managed to wiggle and snap them back into place, and we were rolling with little delay. Could have been ugly with the traditional hardware…
After a few random water stops and getting on pavement(!) in Rockwood to join Bike Route S, our next proper stop was Somerset . Chris N. rode past, but we caught him and eventually passed him on the next fairly hilly stretch to Bedford. At this point, Gary had developed some stomach issues which dictated an emergency CVS stop. Dinner around 6:30 or 7pm at Subway, and we were back on the road, now as a group of 5-6 after linking up with a few PGH-ers, who we subsequently dropped on the first climb and then never saw again.
Night fell and we managed to get to Breezewood [~175; sometime before 9pm]. Really crappy to ride through. We saw 3 riders ahead getting honked at, but luckily it’s not very far to get to the abandoned turnpike. Our new crew of 5 enjoyed the tunnels a lot, but hated the busted pavement sections between. Even with 5 lights, hard to navigate, and we were all thankful that no one flatted during this section. I’ve heard many times that getting to this section in daylight can be crucial if you’re actually racing.
Gary and I stopped at Sideling Hill [185, 9:45pm] before the long push to Chambersburg . I love PA Turnpike rest stops and thoroughly enjoyed the rest time, knowing that a warm shower and a bed were waiting after Cowan’s Gap. It started to drizzle during this leg, but it was warm enough that we didn’t need layers. Gary got pretty quiet and we weren’t feeling that great, but we managed to make it to Rt. 30 and felt much better being back around civilization. A stop at Sheetz to get a few hotel room snacks, and we were checked in, showered, and asleep by 2:45am.
Loose plan was to wake up 5am, eat breakfast at Chambersburg Diner, and start rolling at 7am. That plan went out the window when we woke up at 6:57am. We got dressed and looked outside; apparently a huge storm rolled through and we had managed to miss nearly all of it. We would later find out that groups both ahead and behind us got stuck in torrential storms and would eventually DNF after having to sleep outside or pushing too hard and burning out.
After a relaxed breakfast at the diner, we rolled out into light drizzle around 8:45am for 40 miles to East Berlin. The sun came out, we had a tailwind, and we were on smooth pavement. Everything was going swimmingly, until I realized I had dropped Gary, hard. After getting him back, he dropped the bomb that he was going to abandon, about 35 miles into Day 2. I tried to talk him into pressing on, but he was steadfast. It didn’t help that we were at Rutter’s, which is MUCH nicer than Sheetz, and definitely wins my vote for “best not-Wawa convenience store”. A super-nice dining area, upscale finishes, a shower stall in the spacious bathroom…. All in the size not much larger than a Super Wawa. A++!! But I digress. I refueled, we said our goodbyes, and I pressed on. Noon and 200k left to go for me.
The early stop threw off my planned segments the rest of the day. The sun was also beating hard, so I stopped early at Roburrito’s York, force fed a burrito and tons of ice water, and laid down for awhile in a booth, much to the dismay of the staff and maybe some of the other diners. Burnt up and my skin hurt; the sunscreen I had bought and had been reapplying all day had just been sweating off, or terribly ineffective, or both. After an hour of collecting myself, continued around 3pm.
Section through York, Columbia, and Lancaster wasn’t great. At least there’s a shoulder? But as I got through familiar territory/undergraduate stomping grounds, a bit of a morale boost. However, after checking the internet, I found out that the one person I knew behind me has leapfrogged me at York, and I was now lanterne rouge (for the two-day riders at least). I decided to ride past Lancaster and stop at the Turkey Hill at Jct. 340. 5:45pm, and I had about 2 hours of daylight to make the next ~25mi stretch to Morgantown, my last planned stop before Philly.
Was enjoying Lancaster County farmlands, but eventually this section got pretty demoralizing, as it felt like everything just looked the same. A car passed me and then pulled over to flag me down. It’s Clair Beiler! He recognized my PA jersey and figured there was a very good likelihood he’d know who it was. He was my assigned-by-Tom riding partner for my very first brevet in 2013. It was great to catch up and inform him of what exactly I was doing in his neck of the… farms since seeing him so long ago. A much-needed boost, as I had only been talking to convenience store employees all day.
Morgantown Sheetz at 8pm on Saturday. Was determined to make it different this time around: On the 400k, I crawled back the 50 miles to the hostel on what was (and still is) the hardest ride I’ve ever done; on the 600k, I was again bonking and barely made it to the Blue Ball turnaround by closing time. But this time, I relaxed, making sure to eat as much as I could comfortably to get me to Valley Forge. Back on the road at 9pm. No cut-off time = no pressure.
Quick work of Rt. 23 and was so glad to be getting closer. However, some missing Bike Route signs near VF had me second-guessing my GPS and consulting my phone. Eventually, I found my way on Pawlings Road, and laughed at fact I was semi-lost maybe only a quarter-mile from the SRT, my red-carpet home.
Weird things on the trail late at night, especially around Norristown and Conshohocken, but otherwise was in the drops hammering away all alone. Made the mistake of thinking it would be better to ride on road through Manayunk….. at midnight. D’oh. One block of that quickly set me back on the towpath as far as it goes. The Parkway was closed due to the NFL Draft, so I ended up hopping off at Race St., then onto Market for a “proper” ride around City Hall and then to Independence Mall. Arrived at 12:57am Sunday [43:57], snapped a few pictures, and then sat down reeling. Did I really just ride from Pittsburgh to about a mile from my house in 44 hours?
Really glad to have finished Crush the Commonwealth. Experienced so much of my home state by bike, and met a ton of new and interesting people that might never come out for an official brevet. Also something to be said about the straightforwardness of the ride: Outsiders can grasp the distance between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, vs. telling friends and co-workers “400km” or “600km”. After scouring around, found out there were basically 3 groups: the one-day racers (sub-30), the two-day randos (35 – 45hrs), and a few three-day tourists (60hrs) including Chris N., who had decided to break off at Morgantown to get to Easton. I don’t blame him at all for riding straight to his house; that’s exactly what I did.
Thanks for lending the SPOT! It was great to be able to link family and friends, and receive so much support on so many different communcation streams. The PA Series was great preparation, and now I'm thinking Westbound doesn't sound *that* bad...
CJ's pictures are here: https://goo.gl/photos/dWNAM4Cqt9T7SULZ6
His ride data is here: https://www.strava.com/activities/963819831
Congratulations CJ, and thanks for the story.