Biking Around the Tour

LIGONIER, PENNSYLVANIA

June 28, 2008 — Although I had the opportunity to travel with the Tour of Pennsylvania the entire week, I turned it down in part because it would not leave me time for biking. Nor do I think I could have brought my bike.
On Friday, after I left my post in Bedford and assisted on Laurel Summit, I parked in Ligonier and went for a ride. I rode first out U.S. 30 east towards Laughlintown, passing Ligonier Beach, the massive swimming pool next to the Loyalhanna Creek. It’s as pretty as it was when we lived there 40 years ago and even then it was 40 years old.
I came to State Route 381 and turned down the tree lined road to Rector. It is bordered on both sides by post and rail fence, most of it belonging to Rolling Rock Farms and perhaps still, the Mellon Family. When we lived in Rector in the late 1960s, Richard King Mellon also lived here.
Once in Rector I rode up Old Linn Run Road as far as Devil’s Hole. Devil’s Hole is hard to find if you don’t know where to look. For years it had been a public swimming hole and sometimes people would drive from miles around to swim there. It was fed by a mountain stream and the water was always cold. In the late 60s and early 70s we helped to dam it every spring.
A large rock across the steam was the one that we would dive from. The water naturally in the pool area was about 3-4 feet deep. But each spring the locals would lift rocks and build a dam just downstream, often reinforcing it with plastic. Once it was dammed another 3 feet or so high the water in the middle was easily 6 feet deep. We sometimes would swim for hours and always our lips would be blue and teeth would be chattering.
But a number of years ago the property owners, probably wisely, posted it with No Trespassing signs. In this day and age of lawsuits, who could blame them? The approach has been built up with a mound of dirt and had been grown in.
Linn Run Road used to connect all the way to Valley School of Ligonier but that too has been closed and probably has reverted to forest.
I turned and went back to the only intersection in Rector. I then passed the United Methodist Church and parsonage which is where we lived until 1971. I took Weaver Mill Road in front of the house to the top of the hill. It is short but steep. I remember getting my first 5-speed, one of those banana seat bikes with the high handlebars. I was so proud the first time I was able to bike all the way up to the top of this hill. It was a little easier with the Trek Pilot 40 years later. Or I’m a little stronger.
I turned on Byers Lane and went over to Linn Run Road. I took Linn Run Road up to Linn Run State Park, but only as far as the Adams Falls area. Two things struck me about my ride up to the park. First how good of shape Linn Run Road was in. I never remember pavement this good on this road. And it wasn’t just my carbon fiber bike which does deliver an nice ride. The second was how bad the road was. Once I reached the state park the road deteriorated quickly. Had the road been in great shape I would have ridden much deeper into the park. But instead I turned around for the nice descent back to Rector.
Once back to Rector Green I took Darlington Road which would take me up to Rte 711. This is an extremely steep hill which we would avoid in the winter when there was snow on the road. I wondered how steep it was and whether I could make it. Answer: Steep and yes. *
But I pedaled on up the mile hill without difficulty. I turned on 711 and took the road back to Ligonier. Before I reached the town, I turned on Peters Road which cuts over to Rte 30. It also cuts through Laurel Valley Golf Club one of the premier private golf courses in the world.
When I returned to Ligonier I hadn’t yet pedaled for 20 miles so I went down around the high school, the school I attended in 10th grade in 1970-1971. I cut through the parking lot and ended up on Carey School Road. It is a short climb, maybe 1/4 mile, but pretty steep. On my descent I went 45 mph.
JUNE 29, 2008 — Saturday was even a better biking day. The race would leave Ligonier at noon so we had to check in at 10:00 a.m. I arrived in Ligonier and parked in front of my brother’s house although he was out of town. I rode back down to Carey School Road and climbed it again. It is steep and was a good climb for me. Again my descent was 45 mph. I did a loop around the west end of town and then cut through the school parking lot again back to Carey School Road. This time when I reached the top I pedaled full out. I reached 46.5 mph which was a personal best on my bike.
I went to the Diamond to meet up with all the volunteers. Assignments were handed out and I was sent beyond Stahlstown. At first I was disappointed it was so far out (10 miles) but I knew it gave me a chance to bike and not drive. It was mostly uphill out to Stahlstown which gave me a chance to pass my fellow volunteers who had been stationed at every intersection along Rte 711.
My return to Ligonier could have been a 10 mile run-in on 711 but when I came to Darlington Road to Rector I decided to go down the road I went up the day before. The road is scary.
It was 1970 or 1971 that my brother, Brad, was on this hill on his bike. I can’t imagine that he was far up the road because no one would venture that high. But he was on a bike, just 10 or 11 years old, and on his descent he hit some gravel at the bottom of the hill where the bridge crosses Loyalhanna Creek and crashed hard. He chipped a front tooth and was generally messed up.
This was in the back of my mind as to whether I even wanted to go down this road, let alone fly down this road. I approached the top of the hill, which is flat, with trepidation. I looked behind me and a car was coming up on me. My thought turned to the car as to whether or not he would try to pass on this narrow country road which went straight down. That would be no problem.
I pedaled, though not hard at first. My speed went from 20 to 25 then to 30. I looked back and the car was farther back. My speed was 35 then 40. I was headed down and was pedaling even harder. The speed was 45 then 46.5. I last saw it at 49 but couldn’t risk looking at the speedometer. I had to watch the road and worry about the bridge where Brad wiped out.
I finally just sat in my tuck and let it roll. This was a combination adrenaline rush and excitement mixed with pure terror. In other words, it was great! I flew across the bridge and as I was rolling on a slight uphill, looked down to view my high speed. It was 49.8. I guess I can round it to 50 mph! That was a personal best.
I then casually rode Rte 381 back to Rte 30 then took Old Rte 30 back into town. I wasn’t sure if or where to ride next.
I drove out Rte 30 headed back to my parents in Somerset and came to Laughlingtown. And I thought, “Why not?”
I parked and got my bike out and decided I would ride up Laurel Mountain from Laughlintown. The distance to the summit is 3.5 miles and the signs at the top warn of an 8% descent. I hadn’t biked far this day, only 20-25 miles, but wondered how my legs would be on a 4 mile climb. Basically, they did fine. I made it with no problems and no stopping.
I was disappointed in my descent. My speed was only 40-45 mph which was the posted speed limit. I bet the Tour riders on Friday were 10 mph faster.
JUNE 30, 2008 — I was up early and decided to ride some more in the mountains. I drove to Jennerstown and parked on Main Street. I rode the mile or so out of town then the steep descent on Rte 30. After a quarter-mile drop one is at the lowest point before the climb. The Tour of Pennsylvania described this as a two mile climb with a very intense mountain pass that sees grades of 15%. I had no problem going right up the mountain although not as fast as the boys on Friday. I wanted to go over the top back to Laughingtown then come back up and over but the sky looked ominous. It looked like a storm was about to move into these mountains and I didn’t want to get caught in it. I turned around at the truck area and headed back to Jennerstown. I was even more disappointed that I never got above 45 mph on this descent.
I thought about driving over to Rector and going up, then down, Darlington Road again but wasn’t sure where the storm was and wanted to try something new. I drove to Altoona.
I had remembered an article Bicycling about the toughest 100 climbs in the U.S. One of those was the Horseshoe Curve climb in Altoona. I parked on 58th Street and started out towards Kittanning Point Road. The climb was up, past three reservoirs, but never very tough. As I climbed I heard a train creaking and breaking as it descended the Allegheny Mountains towards Altoona. It was way too easy that I reached Horseshoe Curve.
I couldn’t believe this was a tough climb. It wasn’t.
I saw a tunnel and went through it under the Horseshoe Curve. On the other side was a beautiful forested country road. I kept riding and it kept going up. And that was the new deal I made with myself. As long as the road turned up, I would keep riding.

I saw a sign for Adopt a Highway and saw it was sponsored by Blair Co. Bicycle Club for the next four miles. I figured I had four miles. Cool.

After about three more miles I was getting tired. I was in my granny gear and was standing and sweating. But I kept moving without “paperboying” back and forth across the road to make the grade a little easier. Finally it became easier.

I read later that this section is 10-12% but then one hits the wall at a 19% grade for a half mile before settling back to 12% for the last mile. That was it. And I made it. I love riding in these mountains.

On the descent I wanted to let it out. But this road had many curves and it was raining. The rain was following me. The last speed I saw was 43 mph in a curve. Then my computer went out. On the transmitter a support broke off so it wasn’t in the right position to read the magnet on the spoke. I was doing 0 then 10 then 6 then 4 then 38.

It was a great day and weekend of Pennsylvania riding. I would love to do more. Too bad I didn’t take more advantage of it, especially in the Ligonier Valley, when I was a teenager.

____________
*Knowing how steep Darlington Road is was important to me. So I wrote to a local bike shop, Speedgoat Bicycles in Laughlintown, Pa. I never shopped there and they certainly didn’t owe me a response but I got one — a great one. I will definitely stop there the next time I’m back in Ligonier Valley.

While we certainly have much steeper climbs in the neighborhood (I tend to rate them according to how close my tongue is to the road immediately in front of my face), Darlington up to 711 is only considered “steep.” This is worse than “not steep” but not nearly as bad as “pretty steep,” “real steep,” “damn steep,” and our peculiar regional Hors Category col nomenclature, “sucks.”

I’ve also towed my twins up that road with standard road gearing, and I can quickly think of five climbs also within ten miles of the shop that I’d definitely not try that on. So it’s probably not too bad, though I don’t have hard numeric data for you. We have good customers who’ve done the Mt. Washington race/ride multiple times, and it appears that the length is also a major factor. The very, very bottom section of Darlington road probably does spike over 15%, and then it wanders back and forth under that initial grade.

Apparently Mt. Washington would be like going up that thing repeatedly for seven-and-a-half miles. With oxygen depletion, fog, and freezing temperatures waiting at the top.Depressing, but hopefully helpful, too. That Mt. Washington climb is “brutal.”

Using my Garmin Edge 705 GPS, I later measured Darlington Road at 10-11% grade. However, turn off and head up Country Club Road and that goes at 12%.
From Laughlintown up Rte 30 to Laurel Summit is probably a true 8% grade much of the way. However, I could not measure the west side of the mountain at 15% which is what the Tour of Pa. called it. I will need to bike it again but in the car with my GPS, going down, I measured it at 9%.

Tour of Pennsylvania

American Eagle Outfitters Tour of Pennsylvania
presented by Highmark Healthy High 5

BEDFORD, PA — 27 June 2008: This was the first in hopefully the start of an annual event. The Tour of Pennsylvania. It joins the Tours of California, Georgia, and Missouri but was unique in that it was for espoir riders, those elite international professionals ages 19-24. With $150,000 in prize money, it was believed to be the largest purse in the world for young riders. But it was a signature event for Pittsburgh 250, a commission to celebrate Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary in 2008. Much of the sponsor money came from this budget and it also helped celebrate the 250th anniversaries of Bedford, Latrobe, and Ligonier and thus they all played prominent roles in hosting the tour.

The race started on Tuesday in Philadelphia with a prologue time trial and criterium. On Wednesday it was a road race from Downingtown to Carlisle. On Thursday it was a stage race from Camp Hill to Bedford.

Friday’s race was from Bedford to Latrobe on U.S. Rte 30. This is a road I have traversed many times. While “only” 60 miles, this was predicted to be the stage to break open the race because of its two large mountain climbs. The first was out of Shellsburg up Bald Knob to the top of “Seven Mile Stretch.” As a kid I remembered this route for the “Ship Hotel” which was a hotel built on the side of the mountain. It is only a memory now for after it closed and before it could be preserved, it burned to the ground in 2001. Arsonists.

 
I had volunteered to be a course marshal in Bedford. I was excited to leave the house at 5:30 a.m. for the three-hour drive to Bedford. Check in time for volunteers was 9:00 a.m.

We had our orientation and I tried to decipher what the tour would really be about. I had followed the results on the Internet but the television coverage on Versus was a day behind and spotty at best. I had only seen the time trials.

I was especially curious if the cyclists had the entire road to themselves or just one lane westward. Answer: the entire road.

 
Our volunteer coordinator was Dave “Lumpy” Williams. He explained how good the Pennsylvania State Police were at sealing the highway to oncoming traffic. The front part of the caravan was all policemen and they forced any oncoming traffic to pull over and wait until the race passed. Our job was to be at intersections and make sure that vehicles did not enter the race course once underway.

 
I volunteered to be as far out of town as I could get. Nothing against Bedford but some of the locals wanted to stay in town and I had my bike with me and wanted to ride. I rode out to the intersection of Old U.S. 30 with U.S. 30.

 
Our job also was part ambassador. This was a role I was well suited for. Rather than tell a local they couldn’t use “their” road until the race passed, we could talk up the race and explain what it was all about. I met two families who had come out to the end of the street and I chatted with them the entire time.

U.S. Rte 30 two miles west of Shellsburg

After the race passed I biked back into town then got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and went to Somerset. I then tried to get to Jennerstown as quickly as possible and almost lost. I was relieved when I got to Jennerstown the caravan wasn’t there yet but make no mistake about it, these boys fly. Even climbing Bald Knob then Laurel Mountain, and some major hills in between, they would average more than 24 mph on this stage.

 
I had hoped that I would be assigned near the top of a mountain where one can see the cyclists going a bit slower. But the traveling road marshals were to be dropped off at the more remote locations including Laurel Summit, so I thought.

 
It was bright and sunny in Bedford when I left. Not so at the summit. It was chilly with a light rain but mostly just chilly. The riders probably loved it while climbing, not so descending and I don’t think anyone had newspapers to hand to the riders to stuff in their jerseys for the cold descent to Ligonier.

 
When I arrived at the summit parking was hard to find. There weren’t a lot of fans on the mountain, maybe 50-75, but enough had come out to cheer on the riders. Unfortunately, some showed why spandex (or is it Lycra?) should only be worn by 19-24 year old riders. A couple of “Clydesdales” were wearing bike gear. Yikes.

 
I found a couple officials manning the KOM (King of the Mountains) point. I introduced myself as a volunteer. I was wearing my official American Outfitters Tour of Pa. staff shirt. The official told me I wasn’t needed so I could go ahead and spectate.

And I did. The first riders, a group of 13 came over the summit to the delight of the crowd. But then three cars slipped into the race. The State Police quickly moved to remove them from the course and I quickly moved to seal off Laurel Summit Road. I think it was supposed to be manned by a traveling marshal who just didn’t make it up the mountain in time. No other cars got on to the course.

 

Cresting Laurel Summit

The trail group was about 18 minutes down. That was a sizable gap. Once they cleared the crowd dispersed. And I followed. I had hoped they would have two-laned the eastbound lanes of Rte 30 between Ligonier and Latrobe and I would have a chance to pass the peloton before they reached the finish. No chance. As it was, I drove down the mountain but still didn’t catch the rear group until Kingston Dam at Latrobe. In fact, I never saw the convoy, just lots of cars traveling 25 mph. Done for the day, I went back to Ligonier to go riding.

LIGONIER, PA — 28 June 2008 — I rode early in the morning then went to the Diamond at 10:00 a.m. “Lumpy” thanked the volunteers and “without insulting the volunteers who came from other towns” opined that Ligonier was the prettiest town on the tour. I would agree.

Whereas in Bedford the volunteers were assigned to location in town, this race was to start by the Fort just below the Diamond then out of town on Rte 711. All our assignments were out 711 all the way to Donegal. I knew the location I wanted was the intersection with Darlington Road but when it was offered as the “unmarked four way intersection” everyone just looked at each other and one person said he would find it. Only later did I realize which intersection it was.

Still, it all worked out. I got to bike out past Stahlstown to Fort Hill Road. As I rode some locals thought I was leading the race and were cheering for me. But when asked I always stopped and told them what real racers looked like. Young.

I reached Fort Hill Road and rested my bike against a sign. There was a young mother, no older than 30, on an ATV with two small kids in a field across the road. I went to talk with them and told them how exciting it was to watch a race, especially with all the police cars and motorcycles. Since we were at the bottom of a hill, the racers flew by in a matter of 3-4 seconds. And that was it.

Back on the descent the road was blocked and an ambulance was tending to someone in the ditch. The “broom wagon” which had gone by with the caravan doubled back so we know some rider was done for the tour.

I said goodbye, the family thanked me for explaining to them what the bike race was, and I headed back to Ligonier but got in some more riding along the way rather than just go straight back.

It was fun being a volunteer. I hope I get a chance to do it again next year. Hopefully, there is a Second Annual Tour of Pennsylvania.

The winning time from Bedford to Latrobe was by David Veilleux at 2:27. In a sprint.

EPILOGUE

JULY 17, 2008 — It just dawned on me that Tour never followed up with a simple word of thanks to its volunteers. I find that a bit strange. Email is free and takes about 10 seconds to compose. Not a very nice way to end the experience.

EPILOGUE – II

FEBRUARY 28, 2011 — Sadly, this was a one-and-done tour, mostly funded by the Celebrate 250 money. Pennsylvania offers great cycling and is good for tourism, but this event never came back for a second year.