Mentally, physically, and spiritually, this winter broke me. I went through a tremendously hard breakup around Thanksgiving, compounded with the sullen frozen grey that took over Pittsburgh, this winter felt like it lasted an eternity. I nearly stopped riding my bicycle altogether, until I bought a set of rollers, and although I don’t want to say that I fell in love with the them, it beat the fuck out of spinning on a trainer mindlessly for hours. The rollers also helped me focus on cleaning up my form and develop better riding habits. It was in mid-January when I remember telling myself that this race was an imperative thing for me to do this year; my everything needed to do this. It was going to be a sort of spirit quest for me, a journey that would teach me some new things about myself. It did just that.
I started getting motivated in early March, training harder and kicking up my hill climbing club called the Hill Killers. I was doing everything on my track bike, fixed, redeveloping my power and fluidity that I had let grow stale through the winter. Once my legs woke up, I rode as much as a I could, knowing that this race would sneak up on me before I knew it. Between long commutes, the Hill Killers Club, and some late night solo training rides, I grew stronger. By the time I reached early April, my mind, body, and spirit were feeling prepared and I spent the remaining weeks leading up to the race just trying to stay loose and in good form, visualizing myself completing each section from the Liberty Bell back to the Point.
Thursday, the day before the race, Stefanie Burch and myself headed down to Philly. It was nice weather on the ride down, and knowing that Stef had done this race before in both directions, I picked her brain trying to pull together a plan for the ride ahead. I really wanted to keep pace with her and finish the race alongside her; little did I know what was ahead. We checked into our hotel less than a mile from the start, ate some mexican, and tried to sleep. Eventually, I think we did. I think.
Race day morning arrived and I felt ready. I woke up and pulled on the layers through blurry eyes, loaded my bike, and rode it to the elevator. We got breakfast at the WaWa down the street, where we ran into a weird guy and escaped when Stef had a Poop-911. Back to the hotel! Following that, we made our way to Liberty Bell and saw all a pile of blinky lights and reflective striping. One of the promoters, Adam Newman, who unfortunately could not make the ride, charged me with organizing the start at 5AM. I did and one of the locals racing, Bob, guided us to the trail through Philly and we took off as a group of 14: 12 men, 2 women.
It was shaping up to be a perfect spring morning, the sun was coming out and the temperature was hovering in the low 50’s, going up to around 70 by the afternoon. The miles quickly rolled by as the groups positioned themselves. Despite having to pee twice in the first 20 minutes of the ride from all of the coffee and water I had downed right before the start, I managed to set a good pace for myself, jumping up to the first group which had 6 or 7 riders, three of which I knew and had ridden with several times, including Stef. As I pushed to the front group, I realized this might be the last time that I saw a few of riders on the back, and I wished them luck in my mind, nodded as I passed. I focused on my form and got comfortable with my bike’s gearing and weight.
The miles rolled by as we took turns pulling in the front of a loosely organized paceline, talking and enjoying the sights as we rolled through towns and the simple spreading beauty that is rural Pennsylvania. I got distracted a few times, lost to the open open space in my mind, and subsequently got dropped by the group. I quickly pulled myself back together and within an hour, I caught up with them again. We rolled into a Sheetz in Lancaster and I quietly shed an uncontrollable laugh and a few tears, I had just completed my first real century and I still felt good to ride.
Feeling accomplished we pushed onto York where we had to deal with driver aggression, a few riders almost getting hit, Stef being one of them. It was stressful but we pressed on, cruising to East Berlin. We stopped at Rutter’s, which is another Sheetz/WaWa subsitute, refueled, and checked the weather. Rain. Lots of Rain.
We resituated our gear in our packs so the rain goods were ready when needed. When the rain did start, it blasted us and we took shelter under someone’s carport to change clothes. I was starting to feel the dark creep in. I peed and threw on my rain gear. It was time to go to work.
The group pedaled through the rain, climbing, pushing to Chambersburg, unable to stop because there was nowhere to take shelter. After enduring a few miles through the Michaux State Forest, a surreal feeling took over. I had ridden this exact road in previous years of racing The Iron Cross. The thought of the courses overlapping made me smile as I slogged through the rain. Eventually, I found a tiny gas station on the corner of a turn. I got a cup of coffee there which may have saved my race and my soul. The tiny little man, behind his tiny little counter, in his tiny little gas station, looked at my soaked, shivering self and said with a mildly insidious tone, “They were calling for this.” I nodded and said, “ I am going to Pittsburgh.” “That’s a long way away.” “Thanks for the coffee.”
I came up on Stef and a few of the other riders who were stopped because she got a flat. She told us to press onto Chambersburg where we would reconvene at the Sheetz. I forgot about how drenched I was, shifted into my harder gears and raced into the Sheetz parking lot focused on getting out of the rain. We all ordered food and took some time to wring out our wet clothes, our spirits. I stuffed a pile of paper towels into my bibs, jersey, and put on an extra layer. I felt warmer and a little better after eating some hot food and drinking another bit of coffee. Unfortunately for me, Chambersburg Sheetz was the last place that I saw Stef for the remainder of the race. I had a Poop-911 and she had the determination to go. I was happy to know that she was now at the front of this thing, holding steady.
The rain let up eventually and the shrunken group pushed on. John Arita, Greg Allan, Ryan Popple, and myself rode our bikes to Breezewood in the diminishing light. Morale was regenerating with the break in the weather and smiles began to reappear. At a good clip, we worked our way towards Cowan’s Gap and the Abandoned TurnPike. There was talk of trying to ride through the night and finish the race. Then It started drizzling. I pleaded my case to Mother Nature. It drizzled harder.
We summited Cowan’s Gap, which is beautiful even in the dark. Focused on beating the rain which was slowly gaining strength, we rode on in search of the entrance to the Abandoned Turnpike, hoping to avoid a bunch of bonus climbing if we missed it. We grew anxious in the dark, in the rain, not finding the landmarks we believed to dictate our turn. The rain was getting heavy and we took shelter under a tiny awning of a building. There were even bigger problems than wet technology that could not get reception. I was suffering hard for the first time at this point, asking myself why this was ever a good idea, and how the fuck was I going to get myself through this shit and into Breezewood. My head swirled with fatigued frustration and my body revolted. The rain backed off a little bit, I changed my socks and we rode our bikes. It rained harder, it rained softer, and I just pushed one pedal at a time, finding the warmest place I could find inside of myself to go.
The group split, Ryan and John went up the road and Greg and I kept pace with each other, commiserating. We climbed, and climbed, never finding the Turnpike and accepting it. Delirious and almost broken we finally saw John’s taillight flickering a couple of hills ahead of us, I got excited again. We reconvened with John and gritted our way through the remaining miles of climbing. At the top of the hill, we saw a downgrade sign for trucks and I let out a feral cry and gave a good push down, layed out on my toptube, and coasted all the way into Breezewood with a smile ear to ear. I beat that shit and no one can ever take that away from me.
At Sheetz, we ran into Ryan, who seemed happy to see us arrive to meet him. We ate food and decided to get a few hours of sleep at the hotel next door. Day One, 208 miles. Don’t ever miss the Turnpike. The day also ended up being my first Double Century. Greg asked me how that felt and I told him, “ Twice as good as the First.”
We woke up around 5:30 and were informed by the Sheetz workers that Stef had been there and gone a few hours. We rolled up the hill, sore, fed and caffeinated, but in better spirits with a new day ahead to get home. The sky was clear but the wind was awful. Gusts up to 40 mph were blowing me all over the road, in fact, off of my bike once. John, Ryan, and I took a break at the top of a climb and laid out for a few minutes in the sun. Greg passed by and exclaimed, “I am not doing that!” Ryan took off a few minutes ahead of John and me. That was the last time we saw him, he was holding a faster pace and was no doubt widening the gap with every passing minute that we stalled.
After a few heaving sighs, John, and I saddled up and continued on through the monotonous rolling hill and flats getting hit by the wind. We met back up with Greg and drank the last of our water in the small shade of tree on the edge of the road. It seemed like forever until we hit the biggest climb of the ride, 31 up to Somerset. That climb is steep and long. And there’s like Three. Fuck. It was on the steepest of these climbs that I chose to battle some things that were deep inside and through the tears, I didn’t put a foot down. I pushed until I didn’t have to anymore and held at the top. Greg and John caught up and we rolled our way into Somerset after what felt like to longest 60 miles of the whole trip.
We took a good break at the Somerset Sheetz and ate a ton of food. The end of this race was starting to come into sight and the three of us knew it. We talked about how happy we were to know that Stef was up there, barring any mechanicals, working to win. Ryan too. This race inspires camaraderie when it works, I appreciate that. Mike, who was riding with Stef earlier, caught up to us and again, took off a little before us. We made a plan, John and I were seeing Third place as a real possibility if we played our cards right. 110 miles out, we stocked up for the remainder of the trip, made our getaway plan, and cruised to Rockwood for the GAP.
Right at the entrance, Greg flatted. This sucked hard because John and I could see Mike up the road and knew he was the only rider standing between us and a tied Third Place finish. The fresh lift of a competitive spirit took over, John and I took off hunting. I felt bad that we left Greg, but I had a feeling he would find a way to catch up. John and I took turns on each other’s wheel and for the first time, this ride became a race.
We let Mike hang out in front of us for a little, allowing us time to recover on our bikes for the first attack. We waited and closed in slowly so as not to spook him and as we did, he grinned, I am pretty sure he had us figured out. So much for clever tactics, he hung on for a few miles until John threw the hammer. I was barely able to hold onto him, but Mike did drop off and we built up some miles up. Taking only slowing breaks, we kept a fairly grueling pace for the next 20 miles.
Greg did catch us, and he wasn’t happy. He passed us at a good clip when we were resituating clothing. Fuck. We chased him hard for about ten minutes until we caught up. The three of us made an agreement to not split up anymore. Third was ours if we could hold form, and riding the GAP alone at night sucks. A lot.
We kept riding as the sun dipped down, my mind and body were starting to really feel the fatigue. I couldn’t handle focusing on anything other than eating, drinking, and pushing the pedals. It grew dark and the temperature began to drop. The aches were growing, we formed a paceline to try and keep each other moving. I have to say that without Greg and John working for me in this section, I would have been in trouble. I simply did not have the strength to pull at the front and desperately wanted to quit. Again.
Looking for hope, I reached out to my friend James who arranged a welcoming squad to ride in alongside of us when we got close to Pittsburgh. With grim determination, the three of us pushed on through Cedar Creek to Little Boston where I saw a headlight coming at me. My coworker at Thick Bikes, Chrissy Buerkle got up beside us. Just seeing her gave me a boost to keep going and finish. One by one, a couple more coworkers joined the procession and rode with us all the way to the Hot Metal Bridge.
They all peeled off and we crossed the river, seeing our destination off to our left. I was so exhausted, the final mile felt almost impossible. We passed the Jail and rolled through Downtown, delirious and barely holding on, to the Point. I jumped off of my bike and went down the two flights of stairs and ran to touch the Fountain. The three of us had just ridden our bicycles 384 miles in 44 hours and 10 minutes across damn near the entire state of Pennsylvania taking a shared Third place in the 2014 Crush the CommonWealth. What I felt inside was overwhelming and still is two days later, I am still sorting through it in my mind.
After touching the fountain, I turned around to see my parents, who surprised me, and James with a growler in his hand. I couldn’t really think, I couldn’t barely speak, but everyone understood and I was more or less carried back to my house, to my bed, where I never slept so well. For me, this race was everything that I needed it to be, it is easily the hardest thing that I have ever done on two wheels and I had a great time. I look forward to going the other way next year. Thanks to my sponsors, your support made a huge difference: Thick Bikes, All-City Cycles, and Endura Clothing