Crush the Commonwealth Part 1

In: Just Riding Along, NEWS By: Eric McKeegan On: June 14, 2008

For three years running now I’ve been putting on and riding in a little event called Crush the Commonwealth. Pretty simple concept; start in Philadelphia (odd years) or Pittsburgh(even) and ride your bike to the other city along a route that incorporates parts of the Great Allegheny Passage, Penn Dot Bicycle Route S and the Schuylkill River Trail. Just about 400 miles, just you and your bike. No aid stations, drop bags or support. With all this comes a low entry fee of zero dollars and a prize list consisting of absolutely nothing. Sound like fun?

Strangely enough it appeals to more than just me and this year saw 10 hardy souls lined up at the Liberty Bell at 5:00 on a recent Friday morning. The forecast called for rain, and it was already drizzling and would continue to do so for most of the day. I rolled up only slightly late and we got started at 5:05.It looked like everyone, including the 4 first timers had packed light. I’ve whittled my kit down substantially from the first year. Sleeping accommodations (which I was hoping not to use) were stuffed in a Carousel Design Works Handlebar bag, 45 down sleeping bag, bivy sack, inflatable sleeping pad. Spare clothes(one pair socks, one pair shorts, wool long john bottoms, Buff, mid-weight fleece top), tool kit and tubes where in a matching CDW oversize seat bag. My small frame pack held food and my wallet and cell phone. Other than the clothes on my back that was it. No cyclo-computer and no watch, no distraction from the job at hand, cutting as much time from last years time of slightly under 48 hours.

After confusion the first year, I’ve started the race with a neutral roll out through the city. We made our way through downtown Philadelphia in a light rain and light traffic and picked up the bike trail which eventually would take us to Valley Forge. After a quick stop to stand around in the rain in front of the locked restrooms, we headed back out onto the trail for a short bit before getting back on the road to head west on Penn Dot Route S. Route S is an official route signed and mapped by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Detailed maps are available online, and the route is well marked, with three signs at every turn, one to alert riders to an upcoming turn, a sign at the turn itself, and a sign after the turn has been made to put worried minds at ease with reassurance of proper direction.Now on my third year on this route, and second in this direction, I was pretty confident with my navigational abilities, and for the most part my confidence was justified, although there was a notable exception.

Most of the group stayed together with what seemed like some jockeying for position going on up front. A loose cleat and lack of dinner the night before kept my speed down. I was in no kind of hurry anyway. Max (who I met the first year on this ride) and I had a loose plan to just ride till we couldn’t anymore, so a fast start was not on the agenda. The majority of riders stopped for breakfast at the same place, leaving, standing around in our wet clothes out side under the awning.

Donuts and breakfast sandwich down the hatch. Max and I headed back out into a steady rain, now squarely in last. We both were feeling good though, legs fresh, spirits high. The rain increased steadily and I soon had to stop with an odd problem. My helmet pads, which are well past their expiration date, had become saturated in the rain and water was no running into my eyes, along with a few years worth of sweat, effectively blinding me. I stopped and rinsed them a few times with water and wrung them out, dribbling a milky-colored liquid on to the ground. It took a good 4 rinses before the water ran clear and we got back underway. It still stung a bit from time to time until I washed them out in a sink at our next break.

The morning went pretty quickly and we soon started thinking about a stop a Roburrito, a punk rock burrito joint on the outskirts of York. It was nice to have something to fixate on, and the hours went past quickly until we spotted the unassuming restaurant . Ken’s bike was locked up out front, and inside he was demolishing a burrito about the size of his thigh. Ken is another 3rd year rider, the first year on a brakeless fixie ending in a DNF when he missed a turn and ended up in Maryland, finished the second year on more sensible bike, and was back this year with a geared road bike and minimalist kit.

We chatted for a bit and tried to get a feel for the other 7 folks out there. There was a group of 4 up front including this year’s only fixed rider on running something like 44-17! and three geared riders who seemed to be keeping a pretty speedy space.We all left together and soon passed Nick. We interviewed him in issue 127. Nick certainly doesn’t look fast, but he keeps a steady pace and doesn’t get off the bike much, Ken must have stayed back with Nick as we didn’t see him after that, or Nick for that matter.

Fueled up on beans and rice Max and I kept a steady speed, both of use feeling fine as the miles ticked off towards the 200 mark. We knew there was a large climb looming in front of use up into Cowan’s Gap State Park, and we wanted to stop at the last town before hand to resupply. After that is was quite awhile before we would reach the truckers mecca that is Breezewood where we planned to sit down again to eat.

Between us and a warm meal was the climb up Cowan’s Gap, a multi-mile descent down the other side and some rolling terrain to get us to a 5 mile stretch of the original PA turnpike, long since abandoned but open to bike and foot traffic. We stopped and got the makings of a meal and headed out in to the growing darkness. Both of us started to feel a bit fatigued here, Max had been spinning his singlespeed all day and was not looking forward to the long climb ahead.Although the climb was not a steep as I remembered it, it still reduced us to walking in a few spots. We eventually topped out at and found a picnic table sheltered from the wind.

We ate, drank and were merry, or at least glad to be out of the saddle for a bit. I changed shorts and socks and put on the rest of my clothes for the decent, including a pair of glove liners I forgot I packed.

We then rode off to find a restroom and water. We were passed while wandering around in the dark parking lot by a park ranger, who turned his truck around and headed back towards us. I honestly expected to spend a bunch of time explaining who we were, where we were from, where we were going, etc, but the young ranger was very friendly and just wanted to be sure we found what we needed. He also told us the group in front of us had passed through before dark and was headed to the old turnpike to camp for the night.

The main attraction of the abandoned turnpike are 2 tunnels, one just over mile long. We still had a good bit of riding to do to get there and would decide on out plans for the rest of the night once we made it. With a warning form the ranger to “watch out for the drunks” we rolled out of the park and coasted downhill for two or three miles, our lights poking small holes in the darkness.It didn’t take long to get hungry again, and my mind moved on to a big hot breakfast and milkshakes. It was a nice distraction as we pedalled into night. There is a series of steep rollers before the entrance to the old turnpike, and I was convinced we had already ridden them and would arrive at the turn off just around the next corner, only to be proven wrong multiple times. It was only when we were presented with steep enough hills to require Max to walk his single speed up that I realized we were almost there. I joined him in hoofing it up the hills, hoping to save a few bullets for later on.

A big abandoned house marks where Route S goes right to climb some serious hills and we went left to take the flat route through them. A short down hill, a quick right, around a gate and we were in the parking lot of the long gone service plaza for this section of America’s original super highway.We stopped to stretch and reapply needed chafing protection and rolled off onto the broken pavement.

For some reason our lights had a hard time picking out the imperfections and gravel on the road and our pace dropped considerably. You can sense the first tunnel before you see it, and it appears looming out of the darkness. I admit to being glad to having a riding partner through this section, the tunnels are a pretty surreal place in daylight, at night they are a bit other-worldly. We kept our eyes out for the group in front of us, but the first tunnel was empty and we continued to pick out way towards the next. Our lights picked up the reflections form various shiny bits on the other riders bikes as we neared the mouth of the second tunnel. Three bundled up riders were asleep just inside the tunnel and Max and I rode past quietly, not wanting to disturb them, and perhaps not give away that that had been passed.

It seemed to get even darker after exiting the tunnel and our pace slowed more, even with the glow form the Breezewood truck stops goading us on. It seem to take an hour to make it to the the steep embankment and down onto unbroken pavement again, but soon we were seated in a mostly empty restaurant ordering up a big breakfast. If I recall correctly it was about 1 AM and mileage was somewhere between 200 and 220 putting us about halfway.Stay tuned for part two…..

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