2014 Crush the CommonWealth

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

2015 Crush the Commonwealth Ride Report

It was cold,  No.  It was fucking freezing.  3:30 AM in the morning, late April, Mother Nature affords no certainties for Western Pennsylvania weather.  We got up, put on almost every layer packed, packed way too much food, and made to the Point five minutes late.  It wasn't the best start to a race, it was my fault, but we made it, and it was fine.  I really wasn't totally awake at the start and was completely overwhelmed by the sea of blinking lights around me, I don't know the official number, but it seemed like there were almost 50 people at the point on loaded bicycles.  Compared the 19 I experienced last year, this shit was banannas.  

    My ride partner, Anna-Lena, took off to the front at the start of the neutral rollout, stuck in the mass and unable to make the move up to her, I kept her in eyesight and sat in the veritable peleton.  Sitting in the blinking mass, shivering, I focused on getting comfortable with my bike, worked out the eating /storing situation,  and pumped a very righteous Stones Throw podcast into my brain, waiting for the sun.  It is worth nothing that the first 50 miles of  this race is a route that I have traversed by bike more times than I can recount; I stayed on auto-pilot and watched people peel off one by one as the miles went by.  

    Anna-Lena and I had made a plan prior to the race that we would try not to stop for the first 100 miles, only breaking for water and pee, in order to maintain a good average speed to get us to Philadelphia in our goal time of under 30 hours.  We really lucked out that the GAP Trail was pretty dried out and were able to hold 15-16 miles per hour.  As things started to open up, we found ourselves sitting at the back of a paceline with a kit-matched team from Baltimore, leading the charge at almost 20 miles per hour.  That was starting to hurt, and they really didn't want us hanging on, and we were dumped off the back.  Sixty  some miles in, almost to Ohiopyle and we hitched a free ride for last twenty miles.  Cool.  

    We took turns pulling for each other, getting back to the much more sustainable 15-16 mph pace, and pressed on.   At one totally unsuspecting point, a stick popped up into Anna-Lena's front fender and she went OTB right in front of me.  I locked up the Hayes brakes on my King and skidded to a halt less than a foot behind her.  I knew she was okay because immediately she calmly looked up at me from the ground from under her loaded Space Horse and said," Can you unclip my right foot, please?"  I checked out her bike, although it was a drive-side fall, the hanger was straight and nothing else appeared bent or wasted, other than her front fender.

    I did some quick trailside bolt turning and popped her fender off.  I told her bike now just got lighter, she didn't think it was funny, we rolled.  It was smooth sailing the rest of the trail except for getting chased by a couple of dogs and made it to Rockwood around One PM.  We hit the pavement and my spirits lifted, I didn't care if I ever rode on that trail ever again, I was ready to be off of it.  The GAP was my biggest concern, and it was now behind us.  Out of the saddle, ten miles to our first Sheetz stop, all of the hammers.

    Egg, bacon, cheese, on a croissant, with a hashbrown tucked in the middle and a giant cup of coffee,  and how.  We took about twenty minutes to stretch and reorganize, noting the riders arriving and leaving around us.  It warmed up to the low 50's and the sun was out, we got back to it, and stepped on it for the next 40 miles.  Weird pains coming and going, this kind of racing is a thing all unto itself.  It's a strange game of attrition that requires careful internal communication to keep the body from completely shutting down.  Her shoulder, my saddle sore, something else, we kept pressing, even if at times a snail's pace.  

    At around 6PM, we arrived in Everett and stopped at the Sheetz.  A crew of BMX kids looked at us amazedly, "where are you going?"  

"Philly."

"Whoa."

They checked out our bikes and asked another five or six predictable quesitons before taking off to come back later.  Small town kidstuff.  They were alright.

    My body was starting that warm fuzzy exhausted feeling that I am no stranger to and with the sun going down, the temperature started to drop again.  We checked the weather, it was going down to 29 degrees with a good chance of snow somewhere in the night.  Since we didn't feel like this race was worth giving death a bone, we made a plan to get a hotel at the limit of what we thought we could push by midnight, and existed for us to stay.  There was a cheap Hotel in Fort Littleton, 40 miles out, only a half mile off of course.  We had miles through some big hills and the Abandoned TurnPike at night to go through.  Oh boy.

    The Abandoned Turnpike was used in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's  "The Road" .  It's a bit rough.  Cops do bomb testing on the road, and in the dark, it is very hard to navigate comfortably.  There are also two very long tunnels, filled with appropriate backwards swastikas and penis graffiti.   As we were driving through the second tunnel, a couple of riders entered the tunnel and made ghost noises.  Not knowing who they were at the time, being cold and tired, in the dark, I got scared and told Anna-Lena to step on it.  Didn't matter, they caught up to us, fresher, and passed us into the night.  We made it to the end of the Turnpike a little shaken and totally beat.  That said, it was nice to know that they we were within ten miles of the hotel, or were we?  I went to check my Garmin and SHIT.  No Garmin.  It jumped off out of the top of my bar bag.  It is amazing how upset one can get over the loss of an inanimate object; I wanted to get off of my bike.  It was getting really cold and I was in a great mood to throw a fit.

    We made it to the hotel room with the cracked main window and huddled around the provided radiant heater eating gummy fruit and jerky since there wasn't a delivering pizza place within ten miles.  We also brushed our teeth with towels since we couldnt find a toothbrush at any Sheetz throughout the day.  It was a cold night and we were starting to feel that creeping inevitable feeling, the urge to quit that happens to everyone, at least once, somewhere along this race.  A little over 200 miles in with a little less than that to go.  Sleep.  

    Woke up to snow flakes falling.  Everything in my body screaming.  So many miles to ride.  I was happy that I had clean socks and a fresh set of bibs to put on.   Eleven hours too long of being stopped, we got on our bikes when it reached above freezing and with slowly pushed onward down Great Cove Road.  Cowan's Gap is a beautiful state park and in the direction we were riding  it would be a very fast, nice lolling roller feel with a mountain view.  It brought the second wind and somewhere in those rollers I regained my confidence and knew I would finish this race, albeit not with any specific goal left to achieve.  Continuing, found our way to Chambersburg where we made another Sheetz stop for breakfast.  A man tried to get us to talk to his dog and other locals told us that it would be a bad idea.  We tried not to. Perfect timing, we met another racer, Suz, who seemed very excited to see us .She had been riding solo for a good clip and alone all morning.  She asked if she could ride and the three of us departed breakfast with the sun starting to swallow the grey of the morning.   

    Feeling extraordinary from the caffeine and breakfast sandwich intake, I tried to take more turns on the front and rode at a strong pace into the Michaux State Forest.  Somewhere in coming out of the forest roads we lost Suz off of the back and stopped to drop layers and see if she was close.  Being able to see a half mile of rolling hills and no fluorescent pink jacket, I peed and continued on.  There were lots of interesting things to note in this 20-30 mile stretch of road: I saw a ton of dead robins, plastic water bottles filled with pee and managed to get chased by two more dogs.  Also, there was a burnt trailer on the side of the road coming into  Arendtsville that had a burned bmx bike with melted tires in the middle of the floor.  I thought that it was fitting.  The sound of wind.  Pedal.  York.

    York can drown in a fire.  That sounds harsh.  It should.  The meanest drivers in the state of Pennsylvania all live here and breed.  Even the motorcycles swerved at us.  What's more, the road is in terrible shape and I knew all of this from last year, going the other direction.  We put on our city skills on and rode hard through that horrible place, getting close passes and buzzed by seemingly every other car.The landmark to getting out of York totally is a very long bridge over the Susquehanna River that is often very windy, fortunately not today.   Ichabod Crane and Friend over and out.    

    Getting out of York was very exciting because it meant that we were close to Lancaster, where we had a planned stop.  We ate cold pizza with Coca-Cola and it was the most wonderful thing in the world.  More food, some coffee, and off we went.  It was about 7PM and we were prepared to finish this.  As we were exiting Lancaster proper, Suz and a few other riders were at a red light.  High fives and well wishes, Anna-Lena and I put on a strong pace into the dusk out into Lancaster farm country.  It was like riding on the cover of Land-O-Lakes butter package for anyone who has never been.  Beautiful, rolling hills under a big purple sky, everything felt good and what didn't felt reasonable.  Pedaling on into the night, we took it easy on descents, kept a strong eye on traffic and onto Philadelphia we rolled.  

    The last 10 miles getting to the trailhead are really pretty in the day time, but as we could not see, we pushed hard looking for the trailhead and working hard to not make any wrong turns.  We had done a training ride two weeks prior that covered from Lancaster to Philadelphia, everything felt familiar and controlled.  Just keep eating and drinking.  It is easy for me to forget to do those things at night, when I am exahausted.  Last year, my body nearly shut down in the final mile getting to the Point from not eating or drinking in the last 10 miles.  I learned my lesson and this year stayed up on that game.  We rode the trail until it ran into Manayunk and switched onto Schyulkill.  Manayunk was drunk.  Taxis.  Bees around a big hive, Philadelphia was close.

    We made it to the Liberty Bell at 1:40 AM Sunday Morning, finishing the ride in 44 hours 40 minutes not in our under 30 hour original goal but it still felt amazing.  Our friend Heather greeted us with hugs and a warm car that took us to a hotel room with a showers. There was also a diner, and although I wanted to eat everything, I very simply ordered hot chocolate and hamburgers with chicken fingers on the side.  I drank all of the hot chocolate and ate one bite of the burger.  Big eyes.  

    Sitting at the diner, still feeling the wind on our faces, quiet smiles all around, our race was over.  Heather's boyfriend Dave, our teammate, was still out there trying to get a room for the night after some bad luck in the day with wrong turns and a flat tire.  We would go on to greet him around one in the afternoon at his arrival at the Liberty Bell.   He set his bike down,"Never Again." We all hugged.  I caught a bus back to Pittsburgh three hours later so I could make it to work at the bike shop the next day.  I refused to let anyone sit next to me and watched Jurassic Park on my phone one and half times by the time I made to Pittsburgh.  My bike would follow me home the next day with my people.

    This race takes much and gives little.  There are no prizes, no spectators, no support car picking up wasted riders.  The glory had often is even only to oneself, and after doing this for a second time, I understand what this race asks.  I know what it is willing to give back in the end.   The pain stops, life moves on when it's over, but while it's happening, it is the most real thing in the whole world.  Time feels different.  For me, it's that intense feeling of being out there without a choice but to pedal, to rely on strength and instinct, that inspires the want to compete in this event and others like it.  That said, it was wonderful to have such an awesome partner out there,  Anna-Lena.  I don't know if I will do it again in the immediate year, I want to try some new big things both on and off of my bicycles, but CTC is certainly something that I will always take pride in having done and will hold both experiences near and dear to my heart for always.