A 1000K in Pennsylvania in September, how hard could it be? Count me in.
When I signed up this summer for the Pennsylvania Randonneurs Endless Mountains Liberty Bell 1000K, I thought Mary might join me on tandem and that there would be nice warm fall weather.
We rode a previous version of this event in 2010 — you can see her report here — and we had withdrawn from the Coulee Challenge 1200K in August due to a lack of fitness. This offered us a chance to get in a long event this year.
But as the Sept. 22 event neared, Mary decided it didn’t work for her. Too much school! That decision left me fretting over riding a single bike on a randonnee for the first time in more than a decade.
The forecast only added to the stress. A system was expected to bring heavy rain with strong winds the first evening and two more days of unseasonably cool weather in Pennsylvania and southern New York.
Mary listened to me expound on clothing layers, cold fronts, and my bike setup as I vacilated over whether I should ride or not. Cancel? Go. Cancel? Go.
So where was I on the 22nd? In Philadelphia, clipping in at 4 am with 10 other brave riders who, like me, packed their stuff and showed up, too.
Over the next three days, I re-learned a lot of good lessons about what it takes to be a randonneur, including determination, common sense and cameraderie. I also had good laughs with my fellow riders and saw the hills of Pennsylvania in its gentle transition from summer to fall.
Day One: Some rain, some wind, and then rain and wind
Iwan Baransky and Brad Layman of the PA Randonneurs team helped set the stage with a very informative report on their pre-ride that urged riders to get through the first day with its 255 miles and approximately 18,000 feet of climbing. The big message: If you got back out on day 2, you’d finish. Also: watch out for bears in the woods!
We set off in warm, humid air from the Chamounix Mansion and Carriage House in West Fairmount Park, located across the river from Manayunk in Philadelphia. The club booked hostel-style lodging the night before and after the ride, which saved a ton of money for riders compared to nearby hotels.
Patrick and Cecile Gaffney on tandem, and Josh Armstrong, led us away from the start and around downtown Philly on quiet streets. We stopped at the Liberty Bell & Independence Hall area for an initial control, and then Josh took us to the Kelly Drive trail towards Manayunk and set us off north on the course.
I was concerned about riding alone, and moved up to ride near Pittsburgh rider Steven Kunsak, who I hoped would let me tag along until the major hills appeared. He finished first on the Mason-Dixon 1200K and is a strong gravel race rider so I expected him to pull away on the steeps. We settled in to a duo after getting caught up on life since the Mason-Dixon, where I helped on the volunteer side.
The group came back together for a morning feed at mile 67 at the bagel shop in Milford. N.J. which made terrific sandwiches. I wolfed down a gigantic ham, egg and cheese and got a grilled chicken and avocado sandwich to carry along. From this point until mile 203 we would be gaining elevation, cresting more than a dozen high points along the way.
The roads were slick from earlier rain in many places and this was nearly my undoing at mile 84 on Buttermilk Bridge Road, as it was for two others. A steep, wet descent curved left at the bottom and then snapped right over a small bridge, but this last bend was out of view.
I braked hard while trying not to lock up, and overshot to the left. I barely managed not to crash into the guard rail — and narrowly missed colliding with Darren Bartels and Chip Coldwell, who were standing there off their bikes.
Steven and I rolled on as I thanked my lucky stars that I had managed to stay upright. I didn’t realize that Chip had crashed and Darren was helping him. I found this out later. Chip was not badly injured, with some road rash, but one wheel was damaged and he abandoned.
Misfortune befell the group some minutes later as Mimo DeMarco crashed into the same guard rail, hard enough to require a trip to the hospital for examination. He had no broken bones, but that was the end of his ride as well.
After that near-disaster I was skittish about downhill speeds and we took it easy on the rough roads ahead, especially in the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area. A steady rain set in as we approached Blairstown at mile 105. I warmed up at the Gourmet Gallery coffee and sandwich shop and waited for Steven, who went to resupply at Dale’s Market.
At Dingman’s Ferry at mile 126, the rain having stopped, we found the bridge closed and four of us — Steven, Darren, Ben Keenan and me — detoured on the barely-paved Old Mine Road.
At Milford, Pa. we rode up the wall that is Christian Hill Road to rejoin the course. It added 2.8 miles to the day and we were glad it wasn’t more.
There was a lot of fast-moving afternoon traffic on Twin Lakes Road to Sholola which took some of the fun out of a beautiful wooded road, but we had a nice visit with Bob Dye who came to staff the control at mile 152. I finished my lunch sandwich here and thought about the night ahead. I purchased two Tootsie Roll pops at the convenience store to give myself a little treat along the way.
The night ride would turn into an odyssey. The predicted high winds kicked up after dark and we put on all our cold weather gear somewhere at a country church beyond Honesdale. The wind chill was serious.
The real drama began after we summited the steep gravel road known as Great Bend Turnpike at over 1,900 feet elevation around mile 200. Little sprinkles of rain turned into a wind-whipped squall. My Rapha insulated jacket started getting soaked. I got out my Gore Shakedry rain jacket but I had waited too long, having already become wet from the rain, and I started shivering on the descent to Halstead.
The rain had become a lashing storm and we darted into the truck stop at Halstead for shelter, eventually settling in the Flying J trucker’s lounge at mile 212 to wait out the worst. The next two-plus hours were spent napping, checking the radar, looking out the windows, napping some more, eating, and buying a hoody for Steven.
He unsuccessfully tried to get me to go in on a two-fer hoody deal even though all they had was large and extra-large sizing! We saw the rain taper around 2 a.m. so out the door we went.
Wearing his new prized hoody under his rain jacket, Steven led the way and we pedaled though a very quiet Binghamton to the overnight hotel at Owego. There were only a couple of rain spells and the winds abated. We rolled in at 5:27 a.m. with two hours to spare before the control closed.
The wet three-plus hour ride in the lower 40s felt sublime at times, but not all the time. I don’t remember much of it.
Control volunteers Bill Fischer and Bill Olsen got us inside and fed and we got down for another hour’s sleep in our room after hot showers — which felt incredible.
Day Two: Back on Track
Plans can break your heart. My goal of getting out before dawn was long gone when we woke up at 7:30, pawed around in our drop bags and didn’t ride until nearly 9 a.m. Bill and Bill (and organizer Chris Nadovich) got us fed again (thanks for the breakfast sandwiches Bill F.!) and off we went into some crisp fall morning air.
I took a SPOT tracker with me that had been retreived from one of the riders who DNF’d (Dawn and Travis had stopped Thursday evening in the rain, leaving seven of us on the course). Grabbing the SPOT would be a good move as it let Mary and our friend Jerry S. follow along and send cheerful text messages to me.
Tailwinds and blue skies tipped the scales from our long arduous night back into “this is great” territory. Even the big rollers and occasional convoy of fracking water trucks couldn’t dampen our fine moods. With 185 miles to cover and a favorable forecast I felt confident that we would not repeat our 25-hour trip of the previous day.
Multiday randonnees have what I consider work days and magic days. If Thursday was a work day, Friday was a magic day: green hills with light traffic, favorable weather, easy conversation and welcome rest stops. We pedaled in that pleasant isolated randonneuring world. Central Pennsylvania is good for that, I’ve decided.
At Towanda, Pa., mile 36 for the day, we stopped at The Community Cup on Main Street for some actual good coffee and a second breakfast. I had a big quiche slice served hot, a scone and latte and Steven had a breakfast sandwich and an americano. We filled out our control postcards and there were chairs to sit on.
I took a ham and cheese sandwich with me for lunch down the road. I had them stuff it with potato salad instead of taking it on the side — this turned out to be a good move. The group (aside from Ben, who was long gone) next came together after many more hills at Canton, Pa. for a convenience store stop.
A highlight of the entire 1000K was the gentle winding descent through Little Pine Creek State Park, with an actual babbling creek through a notch valley that all but rode itself. Photos were taken. The hills started anew at the bustling McConnell’s Country Store at mile 106. We arrived around 5 p.m. I ate the to-go sandwich from earlier and it was amazing.
We passed through Lock Haven at nightfall. It was somewhat depressing to have only covered 126 miles, but at least the temperatures were not cold. Steven and I saw a brightly lit rider far ahead of us and assumed it was Ben, but we never caught him and that was presumably the last we’d see of him.
We just had to get over the Bull Run climb and soar down the 20-mile descent into Lewisburg. Greg Keenan nicely sat in the parking lot at the TA Travel Center control and gave us provisions and encouragement for the final push.
We summited onto Brush Valley Road in Raymond B. Winter State Park after riding past farm fields and gigantic trucks with intense night lights for harvests. Mary and I had been on this road in the opposite direction in August on our Pennsylvania tour, riding to State College.
Brush Valley is a lovely, tree-lined road in the daylight, but tonight it was all about the wind chill and sleep deprivation. This made for a stressful descent, and Steven and I pedaled whenever possible to generate some body warmth. We could have taken turns drafting to get some break from the wind chill, but it was safer to ride separately.
The roads flattened out into Lewisburg. Our lodging was the Aderi hotel, a decidedly two-star affair that takes on a four-star sheen at 12:40 a.m. in the night cold. Control captain Steve Schoenfelder and Bill Olsen (yep, two overnights in row for Bill!) got us fed with some much-appreciated chili and threw us into our room.
Final day: Your hills won’t stop us
Is the 1000K harder than a 1200K? I asked that question a lot during the final day. On a 1200K, there is usually a progression of shorter days with the fourth being around a 200K or less.
Not for us. Another day near the 300K mark was in store, which meant a late evening arrival if all things went well. We started on the back foot, though, by oversleeping.
At 6:56 a.m. I opened my eyes and realized it was light outside and I was still in bed, having silenced my watch alarm at 5:30 and gone back to sleep.
Oh well! I didn’t mind the extra sleep at all. We were on our way by 8 a.m. At least the sun was up and the temperatures were rising out of the 40s under more clear skies. The view over the Susquehanna reminded us that we were still in central Pennsylvania.
The “party train” of Misha, Dale and Jose were ahead of us and we all came together at the 7-11 at mile 26 for the day, where second breakfast was consumed and layers adjusted. We were ready for the hills into Amish/Mennonite country before the final run into Philly.
Highlights of the day included Greg Keenan appearing again to resupply us and the unpaved Swatara Rail Trail at Pine Grove just a few miles later. Steven and I stopped to eat at a slightly sketchy Speedway where some unfortunate eating decisions were made.
I downed a La Colombe triple latte canned coffee which snapped me out of my drowsiness, so I’ll remember that Speedway fondly despite the spicy chicken sandwich that was so spicy I threw it away.
Darren and the two of us were overlapping in the farm fields headed toward Lancaster and we met up again at the Sheetz in Smoketown for “dinner” at mile 114 for the day. I am a Sheetz fan and this was a good moment for me. A cappuccino (well, not truly but hey) and an edible chicken sandwich were rapidly consumed.
Steven showed me the Pittsburgh way of fries inside the sandwhich, which surely exceeded my pototo salad sandwich maneuver.
We headed east with the late afternoon sun at our backs, dodging the horse manure on the shoulder along PA340 past Intercourse (a town name ripe for many a bad joke). A pilot maneuvered a powered parachute above us in the twilight while we put on our night reflectives and jacket.
My goal at this point was Phoenixville, 40 miles away. We’d then join the Schuykill River Trail for the final 27 miles of the event.
So how hard can 40 miles be? This was to be a work day after all. Our organizers kicked us up into a series of steep rollers and gravel segments. This drained any last bit of energy from our legs.
To add to the fun was a rough patch at the bottom of a descent that we hit hard enough to rotate our handlebars a smidge, requiring a roadside stop to bring them back level.
Finally we exited the gratuitous hills into Phoenixville, got the obligatory cursing from exurban rednecks in their pickup truck, and arrived at the rather busy Wawa control around 9:30 p.m.
Darren came in, still smiling, as we went about buying whatever looked good. I purchased my traditional almost-done, semi-celebratory Snickers ice cream bar. More photos were taken as we paused to recognize our efforts. An easy run down the trail awaited.
All day Mary and our friend Jerry had pinged me about our progress and it was good to see them excited about us being so close. I certainly was.
The ride down the trail was uneventful. No deer or bears. We dodged a couple of folks wandering about.
Manayunk appeared and we finished just past midnight to applause from the folks gathered at the carriage house. Chris Nadovich congratulated us but also noted that we missed a sub-68 hour finish by three minutes. I was just glad to be done.
Darren follwed a little while later and the party train showed up at 1 a.m. Seven arrivals all under 70 hours, plus both of the pre-riders: a great result on a hard course
Writing this five days later, I’m still somewhat amazed that we rode into a fall storm and managed not to DNF. Sheltering indoors at the Flying J saved our ride! I think Steven and I made the best out of a tough situation, at least in randonneuring terms.
The course has changed a lot since Mary and I rode it in 2010. But it was hard then and remains hard now. Get your climbing legs and gears together for future editions.
I extend my thanks to Steven for forming our team, and keeping up our morale and momentum. I haven’t ridden a long one without Mary since 2007, and it was great to have a riding buddy.
Also thanks go to our fellow riders who inspired by getting through their own tough moments. I’m sorry Mimo and Chip couldn’t be there at the end, and the same for Dawn and Travis.
The support was terrific and you’re in good hands with these folks. Good job volunteers!
For all the results and more, see the Pennsylvania Randonneurs blog post.
My bike rode without mechanicals or flats and I had enough luggage capacity and lighting. Here are some details:
Frame: All-City Zig Zag 700c
Wheels: DT Swiss R500 rims, Shimano 105 hubs
Tires: Continental 5000 32mm with Tubolito CX tubes, 60 p.s.i.
Drivetrain: Campagnolo Racing Triple 30-40-50 crankset, SRAM bar end 10-speed shifters, Force Wifli rear derailleur, 12-32 10-speed SRAM cassette
Chain: KMC X10 and NFS lube
Brakes: SRAM aero levers, TRP Spyre mechanical disk brakes
Fenders: Portland Design Works
Lights: Exposure Race and Joystick (helmet mount); Light and Motion Rando 500, Cygolite Hotshot 150.
Computer: Garmin Edge 1040, Varia rear radar/light
Luggage: Revelate Tangle frame bag, Swift Zeitgeist saddle bag, Bagman rack, Oveja Negra top tube bag
Saddle: Rivet Independence Allroad leather