A two-part tour of Pennsylvania

After a year riding around the Washington area, Mary and I were itching to get the tandem out on the open road this summer. We ruled out air travel, which seemed a bit too far, even though we’re both fully vaccinated.

Instead we plotted a two-week tour from our home in Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, on to Pittsburgh across the center of the state, and home again via eastern West Virginia. That was the plan, at least. But as the last 17 months taught us, things can change and it’s good to stay flexible.

We made it. Pre-fireworks scene at the Philadephia Museum of Art.

We left D.C. on July 2 and made it into Philadelphia on July 4th. But that day Mary came down with a stomach bug and wasn’t able to keep food down.

We got up on Monday and Mary didn’t feel any better, so we headed over to the 30th Street Station in downtown and arranged for Amtrak to get us home. The Amtrak baggage staff really took care of us: one of their staff taped two bike boxes together to hold the tandem and we were riding home that afternoon.

We were a little crestfallen that our big trip appeared over so quickly. Luckily by Tuesday evening Mary felt much better and we reconsidered our options. The new plan was to drive to State College, Pa., which was our original Wednesday overnight on our tour.

We’d resume from there on Thursday morning and alter the tour to return to State College and come home in the car. It was just crazy enough to work, as they say.

Details

1. We stayed at hotels reserved in advance. We’d rather cover more miles and carry minimal gear: an outfit to get dinner, some rainwear and extra bike clothes. This approach forces us to ride to the hotel, but we’re OK with that.

2. We relied largely on routes from Adventure Cycling Association and Pennsylvania state bike routes. You can see all the stages at this Ridewithgps.com page, including the routes we didn’t ride back to D.C.

3. There are hardly any flat roads in western Pennsylvania. It’s super-scenic, meaning the hills just keep coming. I plotted a few shorter days to keep us from getting exhausted.

4. The routes put us on some through roads, especially into Pittsburgh, though nothing scary. I’d swap out for more back roads next time, though that would add miles — we generally took a relatively direct bikeable route.

5. We were treated well by drivers, with no punishment passes and only a couple honking at us. I think it helped that we rarely held up drivers and occasionally pulled off to let traffic get past.

6. We rode our steel Co-Motion 650b travel tandem with Revelate and Oveja Negra frame bags and a Swift saddlebag. This system worked well and we had no mechanical hiccups. We did go through the tread on our tires, the 42mm Grand Bois Hetre. The rear tire’s tread started smoothing over and flatted twice in two days, and we replaced it late in the tour mostly for peace of mind.

Tour Days

July 2, Reistertown, Md. 72 miles, 4,741 ft. https://www.strava.com/activities/5565367557

An escape through the north side of Washington. Increasingly hilly but nothing too hard. Mostly we were relieved to finally be on the road, as Mary’s work was very active right up until our departure. Reisterown appeared decidedly workaday, but dinner at the humble El Paraiso Mexican restaurant was quite good.

July 3, Strasburg, Pa. 72 miles, 6,161 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5570681317

A hilly day. We rode into Amish country under sunny, warm skies on little farm roads. We noticed road riders as we left Reistertown and came upon the Veloccino Bike and Coffee right on our route. Of course we stopped for another coffee and long look at all the cool gear.

Hanging out at Veloccino.

Strasburg had a cute tourist vibe going. Dinner at Agape Cafe was a bit heavy on the portions, which we didn’t mind. The hotel wasn’t cheap but felt good.

Buggies are cool.

July 4, Philadelphia. 77 miles, 3,156 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5576319188

The day started out well at the luxe Speckled Hen, a upscale breakfast and espresso cafe. The french toast lived up to the online hype. Mary had the granola bowl. We headed east on rolling roads towards the Schuylkill River Trail into Philadelphia.

We’re happy to be here!

By Phoenixville, however, Mary’s stomach rebelled and she threw up multiple times. We got some Sprite and pretzels at a store and managed to get into Manayunk for shelter from a massive rainstorm, and then into Philly. She went to bed early after giving up on some hummus and pita bread, and we skipped the fireworks.

July 5: Mary wasn’t ready to start eating on Monday morning. That afternoon we were on Amtrak headed back home. She slept the whole way. Tuesday she felt better and we started thinking about resuming the tour on Thursday.

Let’s build a box, a very long box.

July 8, DuBois. 66 miles, 5,787 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5596671989

After nearly bailing out on the plan due to the ominous storm forecast, we decided to ride anyway and things worked out well. We had to saddle up in the rain but the expected heavy storms never happened and we rode over the big ridges west of State College without incident into the industrial town of DuBois. The highlight was a shaded climb on Old Penfield and Dubec roads, both gravel/dirt, from Clearfield that let us avoid an uphill segment on busy US 322.

Back on the road. Not fully recovered, but getting better.

Dinner was downtown at the big Luigi’s Italian restaurant, a regional institution with a 1980’s flavor. The food and service was great and we were glad to be back on the road.

Goofing around in Luigi’s.

July 9, Butler. 91 miles, 7,884 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5601639586

A tough day on the bike, nothing flat, with lots of miles on rolling US 322 before turning south. This was easily the hardest day of the trip. The proceedings started wet with a heavy shower on the way to coffee and pastries at the serviceable Aegis Coffee in downtown Butler. We moved out as the rain cleared and started tackling the endless hills.

Old-timey, and very good.

The riding was safe, with courteous drivers and a decent shoulder. Lunch and coffee drinks at friendly Michelle’s Cafe in quaint Clarion was a highlight. The hardest part was the grind out of tiny Emlenton after crossing the Allegheny River, a double-digit uphill slog with a safety wall to our right to catch runaway vehicles. I can’t imagine riding up that slope on a loaded touring bike.

Takeout dinner came from across from the hotel via Mac’s Brick Oven Pizza. It was very good.

July 10, Pittsburgh. 43 miles, 3,579 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5607019274

A short hop to Pittsburgh but we had to work to get there. We started at Cummins Candy & Coffee in downtown Butler, where your vehicle noise is obviously a status symbol, given all the trucks and Harleys getting revved on Main Street. The shop was a time machine from the early 20th century but they made a decent latte and sold nice pastries. The rolling roads started rural but got increasingly suburban after Saxonburg, founded as a utopian community by future Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling.

Saxonburg, a town founded by John Roebling.

After a detour due to road construction that sent us onto nicely quiet roads, we dropped into Pittsburgh and crossed the 40th Street Bridge to Lawrenceville for coffee at Espresso a Mano and lunch at Cinderlands Foederhouse brewing. Our hotel at Bakery Square was a welcome sight.

July 11 — layover day. No bike miles as we spent time with my daughter on her birthday. This was my first day not on the bike (indoor or outdoor) since February 2020. I purposely wanted to break the streak as a symbolic bookend to the long pre-vaccination months of 2020 and this year.

July 12, Connellsville. 63 miles, 1,024 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5618546150

A quiet day on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail, or GAP, after coffee in Squirrel Hill at the welcoming Commonplace Coffee. The GAP has become a regular jaunt for us over the past few summers as our route to and out of Pittsburgh. The threatened afternoon showers arrived but didn’t last long, just enough to muck up the bike and our legs. There was the usual mix of local day riders and the occasional bikepackers riding toward Pittsburgh.

This day starts off right at Commonplace Coffee in Squirrel Hill.

We had pizza delivered to the Comfort Inn just off the trail in Connellsville and ate with Rob K., a solo rider who was headed to Washington. We also chatted with some other riders. I like staying at this hotel for the trading of notes with our fellow cyclists.

July 13, Frostburg, Md. 79 miles, 2,198 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5623075053

After coffee and breakfast sandwiches at the Sheetz, the GAP beckoned for another day. The segment slowly rises to the continental divide before the run to Frostburg. The sun was strong today. We stopped in Meyersdale for a Sheetz lunch and to fix a rear flat that we got coming in to town. A talkative young man on his mountain bike kept us company while I extracted a shard of glass from the tread and installed a fresh tube.

On the GAP again.

Frostburg sits on a ridge above the trail and after hauling ourselves up to Main Street we had the pleasure of climbing again from downtown to the Hampton Inn. It sure was a quiet hotel though. We ignored the threat of thunderstorms and rode back into town for dinner at the Toasted Goat which was nice.

The iconic bridge photo at Ohiopyle.

July 14, Altoona. 87 miles, 4,459 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5628871227

After coffee and breakfast things at Mountain City Coffeehouse & Creamery, we flew down the hill back to the GAP. From there another 10 blissful descending miles flew by before the turn toward Bedford under idyllic summertime blue skies. Another rear flat happened soon after and this time I could not find the culprit.

I put in the patched tube from the day before and it punctured as I pumped. I pulled out our second spare (a fancy Tubolito plastic tube) and put a Park Tool tire boot over the puncture hole as I couldn’t find any remaining glass but figured something was in there. I also noticed the tread was getting very thin. This time everything held but we could feel a light bump from the booted section on smooth roads.

Lunch at the sublime Horn O’Plenty farm-to-table restaurant outside Bedford was as good as expected. I had the quiche and potatoes and Mary had the white bean burger with slaw. Everything was just great.

Horn O’Plenty never fails to satisfy.

Our route took us past Fat Jimmy’s Outfitters bike shop in downtown Bedford and we stopped to ask about a spare tire. The manager Jim (not the namesake Jimmy!) was super helpful and found a Pacenti Pari-Moto in our size on a peg and let us install it using a shop repair stand. It set up perfectly and I handed over the Hetre. The Pari-Moto is also a thin performance tire but I figured new-thin was better than used/booted – thin. It ended up working without incident to our finish the next day in State College.

Fat Jimmy’s in Bedford. Thanks Jim!

The afternoon was hot and we stopped again at another Sheetz before the final run in to Altoona. From there we had to navigate semi-urban roads and a number of gruesome steeps through Hollidaysburg before getting to our hotel near the VA medical center. In a fitting reminiscence of our first day, we ate at a nearby Mexican restaurant on the commercial strip that turned out to be pretty good.

July 15, State College. 50 miles, 3,537 feet. https://www.strava.com/activities/5632556471

More intense climbing greeted us as we rode over another ridge into downtown Altoona for morning coffee at Greenbean Coffee House. At least the forecast was pleasant. The lattes were decent as were the pastries. We seemed to among the few who didn’t use the drive-through and didn’t order whip cream with our drink.

We exited town uphill via Kettle Road and then took in a wonderful downhill tailwind segment through the valley toward State College. Rather than stay on the main road after Spruce Creek we turned up unpaved Colerain and Brady roads on the parallel ridge and rode about 12 miles on gravel before dropping back to the pavement. It worked out fine other than some walking the bike on an eroded downhill pitch.

Maybe we should walk this section.

We reached the car in time to load up and drive downtown for lunch and a nice visit with Justin and the team at Freeze Thaw Cycles. They do neat things and always hava some kind of treasure — this time we found a new shipment of Nittany Mountain Works bags.

Down from the ridge outside State College.

Epilogue

We ended this tour with a good feeling for having pushed on despite the early setback. It helped that we were close to home and were able to grab the car and get back on the road.

The roads of western Pennsylvania are just lovely and what would summer be without a couple days on the GAP trail?

Let us know in the comments of any questions about our gear or tour planning. Thanks for reading!

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