A late fall / early winter getaway to bring my mother to Florida gave me a chance to ride in the Tampa area. I chose Sarasota as it was close to my friend, John’s, place.
I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn – Bradenton-Sarasota Airport. I researched some routes and found a 50-mile loop ride of Sarasota. When John and I discussed routes he said he could meet me at the hotel for a 40-mile loop. I hoped to do the 50-mile ride but would go with the local knowledge.
It was 70° when we were ready to roll out at 10:00 a.m. Sunny, I applied sunscreen and we were off through the campus of the University of South Florida. We took a bike path, briefly, then followed side streets to downtown Sarastoa.
We rolled slowly through the downtown area. John had a Christmas music playlist and a portable speaker and was playing (blasting?) Christmas music and was wishing people a Merry Christmas as we rode.
We crossed the high bridge over the Sarasota Bay. John kept the pace high over the bridge. It wasn’t difficult but I didn’t feel like having a nice easy conversation either. I’m not suggesting he was trying to drop me but no worries, I matched his pace side by side ti the top.
Once over the bridge we visited Lido Key before crossing another bridge to Longboat Key (someone can double check me on this). We slipped into a couple private communities just to ride on quiet streets away from the busy traffic which was on this key.
We crossed another bridge onto Anna Marie Island and Bradenton Beach. John proudly showed me the (Green Bay) Packers Bar. We stopped in briefly at his place. He grabbed me an energy bar from his fridge which was appreciated. With one bottle on the bike – I need to ask for a refill and didn’t, I would need energy today.
We left the island via a causeway back across Sarasota Bay to Bradenton. We tried to avoid the main roads but a couple of times had to jump on US 41 which was very busy. It has a “bike” lane which is a small strip next to the main road’s three lanes separated by 5″ of white paint.
But John and I made it safely back to the hotel. He had asked me the mileage earlier and I wasn’t displaying it. As we got close I looked and asked him if he wanted to know. He agreed and I told him it was a lot more than 40. At that time we were at 52 miles. We arrived back at 54 and change and John wanted to ride to get to 55.
Once he left an headed back to downtown Sarasota. I wasn’t sure how far it was but it was farther than I thought. I turned around knowing I would have finished 100 km and ended with 103 (64 miles).
Sun. Water. Friendship. It doesn’t get better.
DISTANCE: 64 miles SPEED: 14.5 mph (we toured a lot on slow streets) WEIGHT: 165
It was cold. It was 32° (freezing – 0° C) as I rolled out. I trusted my phone app to find parking and a trailhead. It was an open area but there were a few trucks from the Indiana County Parks department working in the area. There was a sign: Property of Devine Destiny Ministries – Park at Your Own Risk.
It was perhaps 50 yards on an access trail to reach the actual Hoodlebug Trail. The trail follows the rail line of the Indiana Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, an 1850s line that ran from Blairsville to Indiana. Single self-propelled cars ran on this line into the 1940s. Called Doodlebugs, or locally, Hoodlebugs, it became the nickname for this line.
The trail runs 12 miles from Indiana to Black Lick and connects with the Ghost Town Trail. Because of the cold, I planned to ride five miles out and back or 10 miles total.
At the access trail I didn’t see a sign, not that there wasn’t any. There were men working on the trail on their truck may have blocked the view.
It was gray without a hint of sunshine. I had no idea which direction was anything. I headed right which turned out to be south towards Black Lick. The trail is parallel to US 119 so despite a wilderness feel at times, I was never far from the din of the highway.
I crossed the Stoney, Two Lick, and Yellow Creeks. In Homer City the trail ended briefly and followed a two-block work around (not a detour because this is permanent). I had gone a little more than five miles and decided a turnaround was in order. Ten miles would be good enough today.
When I got back to the access trail, at a little more than 10 miles, I decided to continue north to see where the trail would lead. IUP is where. The trail cuts through the Indiana University of Pennyslvania (IUP) on the street. Before reaching IUP the trail was paved with emergency call boxes every 100 yards or so.
I am much more comfortable on a trail with no improvements than I am on an improved trail with emergency call boxes. Nothing says danger more than the need for these call boxes. I imagine this section is also used as a night walk on campus.
I followed the trail on street for a while but wasn’t sure how much farther it went. Nor did I need to find out. I turned around while on the IUP campus and headed back.
The trail is crushed gravel. It was a good riding surface. But there was nothing structural or natural as big attractions. It’s a nice trail and maybe the perfect length for some riders. I would not make this a destination trip but I was already in Indiana so this was the perfect ride on this day. Except for the cold.
My ride was planned from Mount Airy, Riverside Park, to the famous Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I found a ride on RidewithGPS by user, Adrian, and downloaded it to my Wahoo bike computer. Adrian elected to keep his profile private so I cannot publicly thank him for the suggestion.
Although I was to ride north out of town, I was close to Main Street and started out by going into downtown Mount Airy. That is by going UP into downtown. It was quite a sizeable climb although probably no more than a quarter-mile.
The downtown was only a few blocks long but was very vibrant. Not so much at 9:00 a.m. but by 1:30 p.m. it was teeming with people. It was hard to see an empty parking space. Many of the store fronts had a Mayberry theme from Floyd’s Barber Shop to Barney’s Cafe.
Although I should have headed out of town then I swung by my car to pick up some cycling food (gels) which I had forgotten to put in my pockets. And then I headed north.
It was eight miles on a two-lane road, no shoulders, to the Virginia state line. And then it was about four miles to the turn up the mountain. The course profile was not complicated. Go straight until Rte 614, Squirrel Spur Road. Then turn left and be prepared for climbing. What a great road this was.
It was six miles to Blue Ridge Parkway and three of that was on a steep portion with switchbacks. The pavement was good but there weren’t many great vistas. But at one, on a sharp curve, there was a picnic area. I really enjoyed this climb.
I came to the Blue Ridge Parkway and jumped on it. I left behind the beautiful pavement of Squirrel Spur Road and picked up a very rough chip and seal road on the parkway. It was quite rough. Not potholes, but just a rough-riding surface. Or a “heavy” road in cycling terms.
The parkway is a two-lane road, signed for 45 mph, so no traffic takes it for speed. On a chilly November morning, there were only a handful of cars that passed me in either direction.
Only yesterday in a weak attempt at “research,” I read that Mabry Mill closed for the season five days ago. Was it worth riding to it if it wasn’t open? I decided it was. I could still get a photo op and would not take advantage of the amenities like a gift shop.
After a brief stop, I would have normally just retraced my route since this wasn’t a loop ride but an out-and-back (or an up-and-down). But in the tiny hamlet of Meadows of Dan I followed the Wahoo and took the Squirrel Spur Road which is parallel to the parkway. I was greeted with beautiful pavement instead of the rough chip and seal on the parkway. I was also greeted with screaming downhills and leg-killing uphills. The parkway would have been easier, much easier, but in tourist season this alternative makes sense. Today, I wish I would have stayed on the parkway.
The descent down Squirrel Spur Road through the switchbacks was great. But I was facing a pretty strong headwind. I was also running on empty. The climb up Mount Mitchell yesterday left me a little tired. And while I remembered to stop at the car in Mount Airy for food, I forgot my Skratch drink mix for my water bottle and was only drinking water.
Uncharacteristically, I changed Wahoo to display miles to go on the computer. And I was counting them down. When I reached zero I decided I would go to Barney’s Cafe for a quick bite before my long drive home. It would have so much easier to go through a drive-through anywhere and get food to eat in the car. But I was in Mayberry and that deserved to sample the local cuisine and atmosphere.
It was a good ride. But with yesterday’s effort, I was tired.
Distance: 53 miles Average Speed: 13.2 mph Weight: 167
Our friends from Colorado scoff at the tiny mountains in the east. With 58 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet (4,267 m), they certainly have that right. But it’s not all elevation. Some if it’s elevation gain.
Mount Mitchell stands at 6,683 feet (2,037 m) above sea level. The elevation gain on this 24-mile climb is 6,076 feet. By contrast, Mount Evans, Colorado, which I have ridden up twice, stands at 14,272 feet, climbs 6,772 feet from Idaho Springs (elevation 7,500′) over 28 miles. So scoff if one must, but it’s not much difference. Well, if you ignore altitude (which you can’t).
Mount Washington, New Hampshire is the highest peak in the northeast U.S. at 6,289 feet. Most of the elevation gain on that mountain is on the 7.5-mile auto road giving it an average grade of 12%. Beast!
Mount Mitchell was a bucket list climb for me. Consistently listed as one of the best or hardest in the U.S., I never made it a destination. With 2020 being the year of the Corona Virus and all my cycling events canceled, I decided to make my own adventure.
I had hoped for a mid-October day but that did not work out. So I found myself in November driving to Statesville, North Carolina, where I spent the night then drove to Marion for the climb up the mountain. While on I-40 I crested a hill and had my first look at THOSE mountains. Ugh. It was reminiscent of seeing the White Mountains in New Hampshire and realizing I was signed up to race up Mount Washington.
But I would not be racing up Mount Mitchell. Just a ride. And the first order of the day was to find a place to park. The climb starts at the edge of Lake Tahoma but there is no parking to be found around the lake. So, generally, one must park about four miles away. There is a small area at the intersection of Routes 70 and 80 but I saw a Dollar General nearby and asked them if I could park there. And they agreed.
The first four miles were basically flat. Then I came to the dam at Lake Tahoma. This dam almost failed two years ago and all residents downstream were ordered to evacuate. But thankfully, it held. There are some beautiful homes around the lake.
At the end of the lake where the creek flows into the lake is where the climb to Mount Mitchell begins. This is on Rte 80 which is a narrow road with no shoulders. Today it was lightly traveled and all drivers were respectful.
The views were wonderful if you like a forest view. That is to say, there are no vistas to see for miles because this climb of 10 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway is in a forest. But it sure is pretty. There is a river or creek flowing for part of it and it’s soothing to see it and to hear it. The switchbacks in the last mile are absolutely delicious.
I was thinking “this isn’t so hard.” Then again, I never tried to go fast, and if I saw something of interest I stopped and took a photo. I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped long enough to remove my leg warmers. It was a cool day and I had unzipped my vest and was sweating.
The road kept climbing. I went through three small tunnels. I hadn’t studied the course enough to know where but I knew there was a one-half mile descent and a two-mile descent on the route.
The road to Mount Mitchell State Park is a four-mile climb off the Blue Ridge Parkway. It seemed to be harder than the rest of the climb and it was. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was getting tired or if it was steeper. And it was the latter. Maybe the former too.
It was a beautiful sunny day but I also some ice in areas normally shaded from the Fall sun. And as I was climbing the smell of Balsam and I thought sorry for those who drove and missed out on the smells.
When I reached the summit I saw just a few cars in the parking lot. I had been here before – in 1963 – and knew the photo showed my siblings and me in front of a tower at the summit. And it wasn’t here. I circled the lot and saw a trail or walkway to the actual summit.
It looked like a stone walk but was probably pressed concrete. I expected to see a NO BIKES sign but did not. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. And in-season, no sane cyclist would ride on this path crowded with tourists. But I saw no one.
So I started up the path. And it was steep. My guess was 15-18%. Halfway up were some benches and a brief flat section. I looked up and the path kept going. And so did I. I turned the corner and saw the sign. I had made it. And there were seven people at the summit – four by the sign and three walking up the observation deck. And they all starting cheering me. “You made it!”
I probably shouldn’t have ridden my bike up there. Sorry. But I don’t think I could have walked up in cycling shoes and I needed to get there. I’m thankful I went on a November day after all.
Distance: 56 miles Average Speed: 11.8 mph Weight: 167
A search of trails in the area landed me at the American Tobacco Trail. This is a 22-mile trail (15 miles are paved) starting at the American Tobacco Company in Durham, right next to the ballpark for the Durham Bulls. From there the trail heads south to Cary.
The trail loosely follows a rail line that was built in the 1970s for the American Tobacco Company. In the 1980s it was shut down. That wasn’t a good investment.
My first order of business was to find parking. There is parking in Durham at the trailhead as it is a shopping and entertainment district. Despite the offer of free parking for two hours, it necessitated downloading a parking app for my phone which I didn’t want to be bothered with. And I didn’t know if I would take more than two hours.
I looked for locations south of the city and found Solite Park. There was a playground and the parking lot was almost full. It looked safe enough. In preparation for this ride, there seemed to be a lot of safety questions on the reviews on TripAdvisor. Someone smarter than me can research this but this rail line divided neighborhoods, i.e., the wrong side of the tracks. But I was oblivious to that history and just rode my bike.
Solie Park was located at MP 4.5. It ad restrooms and a water fountain. I headed south on the trail. I was expecting rail trail – straight and level. However, as I would soon learn, in this section it was part sidewalk and often turned where one would not expect. Keep the eyes open for turns.
The bridge over Interstate-40 was pretty cool. It had its own contour instead of being a flat bridge. For this user, it was pretty awesome.
Around Mile 8 I seemed to come to the real rail-trail portion of the trail. Straight and flat. Not real sure of the location except it’s the Huntington Ridge section of Durham. It’s really a one-mile section where one is seemingly on sidewalks and has the feeling of an urban trail rather than following a former rail bed. This often happens that development takes place after removal of tracks and before a rail trail is created. These detours are a minor inconvenience compared to having use of a 20-mile trail.
Mile markers were provided every quarter-mile which was very cool. At 14.5 the trail turned to gravel so I turned around.
The city of Cary had a nice lot at New Hope Church Road and if I ever rode this again I would come to this lot. There were also restrooms here as well. The trail has more restrooms and water fountains than any I have been on.
When I arrived back to my car I saw the trail was closed for a detour. It wasn’t a new discovery as I had driven through a construction zone to park there. It was part of the reason I started my ride heading south as I could navigate the detour later. The parking lot was almost empty. I wanted to ride the 4.5 miles into Durham but was concerned this was one of the high crime areas that I had read about (one user said police were making more patrols).
But when I got to the main street (Fayetteville Road) to follow the detour, I was lost. I could not find the detour, and not being from the area, didn’t really know where to go to pick it up. I wasn’t about to set out on a trail that wasn’t well-marked. I put my bike in my car and drove 1/4 mile where I saw the end of the trail detour was. From there I parked and rode the rest of the way into Durham.
As I got close to Durham, I went across at least three, and maybe four, bridges or trestles with great rickety boards. They really made a racket. The closer to Durham the louder the bridge that I rode across. This was awesome, actually.
The downside was around Mile 2 I went through a litter-strewn section. There were some men hanging around. I’d say it looked like a homeless hangout. Nothing wrong with that but it didn’t feel safe although I went through it, twice, with no issues.
Bottom line – very nice trail. For this ride, the detour section was not well-marked but that will be temporary. There was the one-mile section where the trail zigged and zagged but just take it slow and watch for lane markings. The users all seemed courteous and it was surprisingly busy on a November weekday. My recommendation for others or if I am in the area again, is to park at the New Hope Church Road Trailhead.
Distance: 29.3 miles Average Speed: 14.8 mph Weight: 168
Those yellow bracelets. Launched in May 2004 as a fundraiser for the Lance Armstrong Foundation (Livestrong), they took the cycling world by storm. And indeed, a lot of the world. The majority of riders in the peloton in the 2004 Tour de France wore them.
It would be personal what the band meant to each wearer. Generally, it would mean, “I support people with cancer” or “Cancer research” or “Cancer awareness.”
I joined the masses and had one but wore it sporadically. But when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, I slipped it back on and wore it full-time, 24/7. Ironically, over the course of 11 years, the only time it wasn’t on my wrist was when I was fighting cancer. When I was being treated at Johns Hopkins I could not wear anything. Johns Hopkins had their own tubes and wrist bands for me.
In June 2013 I was in Durango, Colorado, where I met Bob Roll. Eight months earlier, Lance Armstrong had admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. So by 2013, most users had thrown their yellow bands away.
The yellow band represents Livestrong – the cancer-support organization. It does not represent Lance. But for most people, the yellow bands became a lie. Some believe that it was all a shame. Lance was a fraud. Livestrong was a fraud. And those bands ended up in the trash.
I continued to wear mine. And at Ride the Rockies, where just one year earlier most riders would be wearing one, now they were much less popular. But Bob Roll was still wearing one and I commented to him about it. He said he would never remove his. By last year on the Tour de France broadcasts, I saw Bob was no longer wearing one. (And maybe earlier than that too.)
I posted to our group, Cyclists Combating Cancer. I asked them if they still wear them or when they stopped. Most (who responded) still wear them. But two answers stood out.
Peter Collins stopped wearing them as they broke. But he added that (cancer) “no longer defines me. I am always ware of it but it is no longer in the forefront of my life.”
And a couple feel like the organization is a fraud. Jerry Kelly summed it up:
Jerry alleged that the CEO (Doug Ulman) and the Board lied about what they were doing with donations.
I hold no animus towards Lance Armstrong. Only he knows in his heart what was behind the creation of the Lance Armstrong Foundation (the nickname became Livestrong and the organization later took that name, erasing Lance’s name from the organization). And only Lance knows what was behind the creation of the yellow bracelet. It was alleged that this was to take pressure off him for doping allegations. One great big yellow distraction.
In June 2016 I was in the audience at Ride the Rockies in Aspen as Lance addressed the crowd. Moderator, Ron Kiefel, was selecting people to ask questions. He just called on raised hands with no idea what the question would be. I was not picked.
I wanted to have everyone stand if they ever wore the Livestrong bracelet. And then have everyone remain standing if they were still wearing it. And then ask Lance to address all those people who just sat down.
I would like to know. And what does Lance think of those of us who still wear that yellow band?
I hate cancer. I wish I never had cancer. I am a survivor. But I will not let cancer define me. And after 11 years of wearing this, I began to think I was being defined by cancer. My grandchildren have never seen me without the yellow band.
Today was to be the Livestrong Challenge in Austin. It was changed to a virtual event. And when the event went virtual, my band just went virtual.
I support cancer research. I support Livestrong and a number of other cancer-fighting organizations. But it’s time to turn a new leaf. I will wear my virtual band. You just can’t see it.
All my events and rides for 2020 have been canceled. When the Sea Gull Century announced their cancellation about three months ago, I decided I would do the ride anyway.
I came down yesterday and met Chey Hillsgrove in Bethany Beach. We went for a nice 25-mile late afternoon ride.
My plan was to stay in an Ocean City hotel rather than Salisbury. I checked in and no mention was made that the sign which stated “Breakfast Served Daily 6:30 – 9:30” didn’t actually apply. I would discover that in the morning when the nice young lady said they don’t serve breakfast “because COVID.” She handed me a bag with a mini-muffin.
This was not good. I needed those hotcakes or waffles. A muffin would not hack it but it would have to.
There would be two major differences about today’s route. First, I was starting and finishing in Ocean City rather than Salisbury. And second, I decided to ride the normal route backwards. I did that to see the route from a different perspective and it would also let me see who was on course today. Was I the only one or would there be groups of riders today?
Some allowances would have to be made on my ride because this was not an official event with SAG support and rest stops. There would be no water or Gatorade on course. No fruit or cookies. No port-a-johns.
I decided that because I knew where most of the country stores or gas stations were, I could stop and get water and food on the route. As far as port-a-johns, the route traveled through lots of forests. I could do this.
It was gray when I rolled out at 7:38 a.m. And it was windy too. I never did get a handle on the wind direction. Being a loop course, sometimes it was a headwind, sometimes it was a tailwind, and the rest of the time it was a crosswind. But there was always wind. Always. And the sun shone for about 15 minutes.
In Newark, I passed what was normally one of our rest stops and saw a group had set up a tent. I passed and said hello then went back to talk to them. Although the tent was for Mid-Shore, from Salisbury, the volunteers were from Virginia Beach. I asked them who they were supporting and one guy said “any cyclist who comes by.” They offered me something but I was only 17 miles in and hadn’t really started drinking so had nothing to replenish. I declined.
I was expecting hundred of riders but probably didn’t see more than 100. I saw some women yesterday from the Major Taylor Cycling Club which I assumed was Columbus or Dayton. But I see there are Major Taylor Cycling Clubs all across the country so dang me for not asking them where they were from.
It was perhaps a mistake by me not to carefully retrace the route backward. In building my course RideWithGPS seemed to follow some previous routes that I had done. I never checked the details. The first instance where I went off-course was in Newark. I recognized I was going to cross the dangerous tracks the course used 3-4 years ago where there were lots of falls. I made it through OK but there wasn’t a legal way to cross US 113. But I’m on a bike and I can do anything.
I had made myself a deal that I would stop near Snow Hill at the Assateague Bay. Except the route I was following never took me there. I knew there was a port-a-john in the park there so having missed it, I would have to improvise. I also hoped that I would follow the perimeter of the Salisbury Airport but rode past the entrance. There may have been a detour in place though so it worked out.
But the biggest change was in the town of Berlin. In the regular route the ride returns through Berlin. It is routed through a residential area before hitting the country roads. Going backwards today, my Wahoo took me right into the downtown. And what a charming, beautiful place Berlin, Maryland is. What a great discovery. And I also understand why the organizers would not want to send 8,000 cyclists through here.
In Salisbury, I stopped very briefly at a Royal Farms, store and gas station. Should I replenish or not? I check my water levels. I had eaten just one of my gels at that point and was 57 miles in. I ate the second and through away the wrapper. I decided I was good to go, and if not, could stop near Assateague.
The winds were brutal at times. Approaching Berlin I was overtaken by a tractor. I was riding at 21-22 mph and wasn’t sure he could go much faster. But her did. Once he passed I sped up to 28 mph and was sitting in his draft. I thought I could ride all day at 28 mph in his draft but probably only got a half-mile of draft before he turned off.
The groups never really materialized. I did see a peleton of about 40 irdes going in the opposite directions outside of Berlin. And turning onto Assateague Road I was passed, then integrated, with a group of cyclists. They were a group from D.C. (or near D.C.). We only had three miles to the Assateague parks and they went into the state park and I went to the National Park.
I have a lifetime pass to U.S. National Parks. I thought my chance of spotting a wild horse on Assategaue Island was better in the National Park. I saw lots of horse poop but no horses. I don’t remember seeing a seagull either.
The line to enter the park was enourmous. Seemed to be at least one mile long. But there was a bike path so I rode on the path. As I approached the ranger station the path went away from the station and into the park. Although I have my pass there was not place to present it. Not sure if it’s intended but it looks like you can bike into the national park for free.
I wanted to do a six-hour century. I never checked my time but figured that I would get back to my car around 2:00 p.m. A six-hour century requires one to average 16.7 mph. I wasn’t sure if I could but needed only to look at my past rides here. In 2016 I averaged 17.1 mph. In 2018 I averaged 17.3 mph. In both of those I was pulling for some slower riders.
I was pretty excited to see that I averaged 17.9 mph today. While it was my best ever, it wasn’t appreciably better. But what was different was I was solo the entire ride today, except for a brief interlude behind a tractor and with a cycling group. So I am pretty happy with this ride. Very happy.
Distance: 105.4 miles Average: 17.9 mph Weight: 174
I have really mixed feelings about my performance on this ride. At first I was pretty happy with the average but upon review, it’s in the ballpark with other rides I’ve done here. It was only 0.2 faster than last year and I didn’t ride in any groups last year although sometimes just being around others and you pick up the speed.
The wind? In a loop course, if the wind remains steady all day then some is headwind and some is tailwind. Then just a little protection by riding with others is helpful. But does it even out? I suspect not, much like a flat ride over 50 miles will be faster than a mountainous ride of 5,000′ of gain and 5’000′ of descent. There is something about the energy used in climbing that you don’t get back with the descent. And maybe riding into the wind takes more out of you than riding with a tailwind gives back.
Losing 35 pounds has been very helpful on rolling or hilly courses. But maybe it makes not difference on the flats, especially when it’s windy. I felt at times I was getting shredded by the wind yesterday – maybe a bigger me wouldn’t have been as bad.
It wasn’t going to be a day of PRs because I rode the course backward. No baseline to measure me by. But I did PR on the one “climb” of the day – the Assateague Bridge Climb. So maybe shedding weight helped there. I could have gone faster – much faster – but would have to be a jerk and pass riders on that narrow bridge. Still, 4th all-time age group.
Total time was 6:14 with just 20 minutes stopped. There was a chat with the tri-guys in Newark and offloading trash in Salisbury. A few photo ops. A couple of stoplights. One break au natural. Last year I was stopped for 1:14. In 2018 it was one hour even. In 2017 it was a more reasonable 35 minutes (and also a 17.9 average). In 2016 it was a ridiculous 1:33 (I joined with three riders from Blair Cycling Club – one had a flat which we stopped and waited to repair).
My other decent time – 17.9 – was three years ago. On that day I did form up with some others and was in a group a lot. So today was a solo effort.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there was nutrition. Or lack thereof. The hotel did not offer breakfast as advertised. No rest stops meant no snacking on the ride. And no water. I rode with two water bottles and three gels. Surely a little more fuel would have helped.
In early 2008 Bicycling magazine published an article about the toughest climbs in each state. Maybe not the toughest but most iconic in each state. For Pennsylvania, Horseshoe Curve was listed with a description of a “Three lakes, a 200′ tunnel and an 18% wall, what could be better?”
It was then I knew I had to ride it. And it has become my go-to ride. My happy place. So let me tell you in my words what is so special here.
I first came here after I read the description. And I keep coming back.
I call the climb Horseshoe Curve. Technically, I suppose, Horseshoe Curve is really the engineering marvel completed in 1854 which got trains over the Allegheny Mountains. The New York Central could run a train from New York to Chicago in 16 hours but it took four days to travel between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh using canals, horses, train cars, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. One can read about the history anywhere, I will link to an article at Uncovering PA.
Typically, I park at the Logan Valley Mall to begin a ride. Although gradual, one begins climbing the minutes you push down on the first pedal. It’s about 2.5 miles up 58th Street to Kittanning Point Road. Make a left here and it’s an easy three more miles to the Curve.
If you are lucky, there will be a passing train or two and you can hear the clickety-clack clickety-clack of the train. If it is climbing you can race it although eventually, the sound will pull away.
You will pass three lakes – all reservoirs with the Altoona Water System. The first is Lake Altoona, the largest and prettiest of the three. The second is the Kittanning Reservoir. The third is at the Curve itself. It is smaller than the first two and I’m not sure that it is named.
The water in these lakes is pristine. But that is because of a unique water-diversion system. There is a lot of mine drainage in the area marked by the bright orange color of the acid water. There is a canal next to the lakes which carries this water safely past the lakes. I do not know where the orange water goes after bypassing Altoona’s water supply.
These three miles (3.2) are pretty easy. Yes, one is climbing but a lot of it is flat beside one of the three lakes. I calculate this portion to be 1.9% grade.
At the Curve itself are the attractions. The Curve itself is the main attraction. This is a pay-attraction area. As of 2020, admission was $8 but one would need to check to be certain. At the Curve, one can climb 194 steps or take a funicular (Inclined plane) to reach the viewing platform. I come here to ride a bike and not watch trains so I cannot comment any further about the Curve.
For years the Curve was covered in heavy forest. Around 2018 they cut down acres of trees which was both disappointing but also pretty cool. Now as you approach the Curve you can see the trains on the tracks. And the passengers on the Pennsylvanian (Amtrak, twice daily) surely must enjoy the view.
Traffic on Kittanning Point Road to the Curve is generally light and always courteous. In the three miles to the Curve one might get passed by 5-6 cars. Most of the traffic seems to be going to visit the Curve.
And then the fun begins. There is a 200-foot tunnel that goes under the Curve. Look carefully because there are two tunnels. One is for car traffic and the second is for water – that disgusting orange mine water that bypasses the drinking supply.
Go through the tunnel and everything changes. First, the road turns up. Second, one is in a deep forest. Nothing to see but trees and water of the Glenwhite Run. It is absolutely beautiful here. (And I typically do not have photos from this area as I don’t want to stop then have to restart.)
The legs may slow down as the body notices, even if the eyes do not, it is getting harder to pedal. By my calculation, it is 3.3 miles from the tunnel to Coupon-Gallitzin Road. And the grade works out to be 5.3% which doesn’t sound like much. But that also includes a downhill section near the top.
There is a half-mile section that averages more than 12%. The “Wall” is 18% or 19%. Two things always happen when I go up this road. First, I always battle myself and wonder if this will be the first time I have to get off and push my bike. And second, there is an immense feeling of satisfaction and pride from having made it.
I am almost always alone on this stretch. Traffic is light – often only 1-2 cars will come up the road. Today, there was a logging truck followed closely by a car. And that was it.
I’ve had my moments with others too. In 2009, I met Richard and Stacey Fiore riding up the road. Stacey had never made it before without walking and I sent her husband up the road while I rode with and encouraged her. I thought we had it but she dismounted only about 50′ from the top of the Wall.
For my first post-cancer ride in 2010, I brought some friends here from Northern Virginia. None was more special than my good friend, Scott Scudamore. I am sure glad he got to experience this climb and we had a blast twice bombing the descent on Sugar Run Road.
Kelley Vito said she understood why I find peace here because “you only think about dying while climbing that hill.” In 2017, I was with Chey Hillsgrove and Chelsea Johnson. Chelsea would see a curve ahead and then ask – “Oh my God, is that where it begins?!” I laughed and told her the truth – “Oh no, that’s not the Wall – the Wall is much worse.”
I would have bet against Chelsea that day but she found her inner strength and made it. I was so proud of her.
But Kelley was right. When I come to these mountains, all I can think about is the next pedal stroke. Pushing up that hill. Or descending at crazy fun speeds but 100% focus on the descent. There is no time for cancer in my life when I am in these mountains and on this climb.
I was feeling quite down this morning. And I looked on my bike and the stem cap says “I am a Survivor – 10 Years.” And my bad feelings went away. Let’s enjoy this day!
I didn’t have any segments starred in Strava so none displayed as I was riding. But at the end of the ride, I saw I was averaging more than a 15 mph pace. And I don’t think I ever did a ride with this climb that I averaged 15 mph.
I looked at Strava. I averaged 15.4 mph. And I had PRs on all the segments. Most of those I am #1 in my age group as well. Although my times are nowhere near the best times – I can’t compete with the young guns. But in competing against myself (PRs) and in my age group, I did pretty well.
My earliest rides were not recorded. The first record ride I can find of Horseshoe Curve was August 2, 2009. I had lost a lot of weight prior to my cancer diagnosis. In addition, I was “training” for the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb. And on the same route as today, I averaged 14.2 mph. Of course I was 11 years YOUNGER!
For one day, I felt strong(er) in the mountains. My times pale in comparison to the young riders but I was better today than 11 years ago. And only in the last five years have my rides been uploaded to Strava for those comparisons – and I broke every personal record there too. On a heavy gravel bile.
This mountain is where I come to get away. And this is where I find peace on a bike.
Distance: 20.4 miles Average: 15.4 mph Max Speed: 41.8 mph Weight: 179
I read about this “destination” trail in Pennsylvania called the Pine Creek Trail. It is a 62-mile rail trail that runs between Wellsboro and Jersey Shore.
I love the open road. I don’t like traffic. There must be a happy balance between the two. Rail trails are especially nice if they are paved. Most are not. And this trail had a crushed limestone surface.
Most riders choose a hybrid bike to ride this trail. I chose my Trek Checkpoint, a gravel bike. I used road tires, 32 cc width. I think 25 cc would be ok too although 28 cc would be better. I do have 40 cc gravel tires with small knobby tread but decided that would be overkill for this trail. The 32s were fine.
And I was right. Especially near the Wellsboro and Jersey Shore trailheads, the path is packed down pretty solid. In the middle, I found a bit more loose gravel but it was no problem for my road tires.
The literature often suggests that the trail runs downhill from Wellsboro to Jersey Shore. I’ve seen estimates as much as a 2% grade. I call nonsense. Let’s resort for a minute to facts.
The elevation change over 62 miles is only 702 feet. That computes to 0.2% grade. Or for those who claim it’s one percent downhill, they have overstated the grade by fivefold. For this cyclist this trail is flat. But I didn’t know that before riding.
I wanted to ride the entire trail. Ideally, I could ride 62 miles and meet my ride. That wasn’t an option because I was riding solo. Actually, it could have been an option had I researched this because there is an outfitter in Wellsboro that will drive your car to Jersey Shore for $120.
My options for riding the entire length would be: (1) ride 128 miles in one day; (2) Ride from one city to the other, overnight, then ride back the next day; or (3) ride out and back on two days to cover the distance.
I thought I might not have enough daylight or energy for the first option. In retrospect, I would have. I did not like the lodging choices for the second option plus I did not want to carry extra gear with me to overnight. So that left me with the third option.
I decided on staying in Williamsport as they had many good lodging options. I left home early yesterday morning and arrived in Jersey Shore at 1:00 p.m. I would ride half the trail today and half tomorrow.
Based on the erroneous claims that the trail is uphill to Wellsboro, I wanted to start in Jersey Shore and ride uphill so I would have the downhill on my return. Of course, I would soon learn that the trail is flat.
I decided to ride for two hours then turn around. I would return around 5:00 p.m. which was a good day.
I parked next to a trailhead in Jersey Shore although I don’t think this is part of the trail. I think it is a one-mile access trail to reach the actual trailhead.
Once on the gravel trail, I had gone seven miles just south of Waterville. I came upon a woman on her bike and her adult son running. Except they were stopped and pointing in the woods. And there was a black bear. My day was made. My ride was made.
There are a lot of at grade road crossings. Although most are small roads that lead to cottages the trail does cross Pa. Rte 44 and 414 a few times as well. At each of these crossings, there were usually two gates to navigate. I soon discovered that rather than try to see how to get around the gates it was easier to see where the worn trail led. I thought that getting through these gates would slow my average more than riding on gravel.
There were three trestles in this section and I rode to the Black Walnut Bottom parking area (MP 37). I chose to ride for two hours then find the next or closest parking area where I would start today. So this was perfect. It looked like I had ridden 25 miles and averaged 12.5 mph – which is what I planned for a gravel trail.
I had stopped a lot for photos. And bears. So my moving average was certainly faster. When I turned around I felt dirty. Grit all over. The bike was dirty. I was dirty. And I saw the road beside the trail. I hadn’t studied the route ahead of time but felt the road would take me back to Jersey Shore.
I could not check my phone for a map. The Pine Creek Trail is in the Pine Creek Gorge which is more commonly known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. There is no cell service deep in this canyon. So I jumped on the road to see where it would take me.
Some of the time the road was pancake flat and stayed next to the trail. Other times it climbed high. It gave me views high above the trail that I would not otherwise see. But I was still in the canyon. I did not climb out of the canyon. To see the canyon from the top I would have to leave and go to one of the vantage points. That would not happen on this trip.
My return trip went much faster. Part of it was because I didn’t stop as much for photos. But part was because I was on the road. When I checked my data at the end of the ride I had averaged 15.5 mph. I was shocked because I expected 12-13 mph since I was on a gravel trail, at least for half the time.
Today’s ride would be a little more complicated. I did not want to simply do an out and back starting at MP 37 (Black Walnut Bottom) which is where I stopped yesterday. I had studied one alternative route back by road.
It was 50° when I rolled out at 9:30 a.m. Deep in the canyon the sunshine doesn’t reach some of the deeper parts until later. It would be one hour until I saw anyone on the trail. They were all keeping warm.
I just rode. At Blackwell,a group of eight cyclists was just ahead. I recognized the 2016 Ride the Rockies jersey on one of them. Another referred to me as a serious cyclist. I guess I was because I would pass them and they would be out of sight 30 seconds later.
I’ve read other accounts about this trail and how to get to the nearby waterfalls. I just rode. My road cycling shoes are not that good for hiking and I don’t really see me switching pedals and shoes for this bike. It’s a gravel bike but it’s primarily my second road bike. I’ll probably never have cycling/hiking shoes unless I put platform pedals on this bike.
I reached the end of the trail near Wellsboro (three miles away) and decided to execute my road plan of returning. I knew I would be riding more than 70 miles and only had two bottles with me, one banana, and one pack of Skratch energy chews. I should have stopped in Wellsboro for something to eat.
One reason I did not was because of restrictions in place due to COVID-19. I didn’t go for a bike ride with a mask. Maybe a store or restaurant would have had a mask for me or wouldn’t care, but I just didn’t want the hassle.
And I really wanted to keep riding. And so I did. This little city is quite beautiful. I had a 2.5-mile climb leaving Wellsboro and then a sweet 10-mile descent to Morris. There I picked up Rte 414 and had another five miles before meeting up with the Pine Creek Trail again. Although when I did I would stay on the road.
I arrived back to the car having ridden 71 miles (the road loop was shorter). My average, like yesterday, was 15.5 mph. The surface is generally pretty hard. Having ridden it once I now know I could have averaged 15 mph and done an out and back for the entire length in 9-10 hours. But for that, I would stop for lunch.
Distance: 123.7 miles Average Speed: 15.5 mph Weight: 178
This one was a complete surprise. It was only early last month I started going out to Remington (Fauquier Co.) and Culpeper County for nice riding on country roads. Today I just wanted a nice ride.
I drove to Remington and after surveying the local school for parking, M.M. Pierce, I decided not to park in a school lot during school hours. I don’t know if only teachers were in the school or students, but it was easy enough to find a residential area to park.
It was 70° and a bit breezy. Windy at times. Cloudy for the first hour and sunny for the second hour.
My route would normally be all country roads except the bridge over the Rappahannock River in Remington on Business U.S. 15 is closed. As my detour, I rode on the actual U.S. 15 for about 1/2 mile before connecting to my route.
I had synched my Wahoo with starred segments although I’m not sure all came across. But I knew the first one was after crossing U.S. 15. It was called Fleewtood Heights. My PR was 5:17 and I wanted to beat it. I had no idea where I was on the leader board. I went hard but was fighting cross-headwinds. As I watched my progress I wanted not only a PR but to beat 5:00. And I came in at 4:46. And that is good for 24th all-time, but third this year and number one in my age group. This getting old is pretty cool stuff.
It seemed I had only traveled only a couple hundred meters before a second segment popped up. This was Auburn to Inlet, a 2.6-mile segment. Same direction and same vicious winds. I had done this in 10:00 twice and 9:00 (8:57) once. I just wanted a PR. Again, with no idea where I stood overall. From 8:57 I wanted to beat 8:00 then it was to take 1:00 off the old one. I did that finishing in 7:51. And that’s good for 12th all-time. Just two seconds from 9th place. And 2nd age group but a big leap to 7:17 for first in age group. But that’s OK. I battled strong winds today.
I was riding well as I made my way to Moo-Thru and contemplated stopping for a treat or just to keep going then stopping on my way home. I stopped – but only for a photo, then kept going.
I crossed U.S. 15 and was on Va. Rte 28 for about 50 meters before turning on Lucky Stone Road. And this was a Strava segment. Like the other two, I wanted a PR. I had not studied the segment and did not where I stood. A PR was fine. My best was 3:13 so I wanted to beat 3:00.
As I rode I saw my Time Ahead counter creeping up. I knew I was on a good run and I just kept plugging away. I came to the end and I knew a PR would display on screen. Except it didn’t. It was a KOM. I was shocked. I even yelled out to nobody “Holy Crap! A KOM!”
And it wasn’t just a KOM. It sort of destroyed the old one – lowered it from 2:45 to 2:31. And I hadn’t even been in the Top Ten.
What a surprise. I had no idea. I’ll take it.
Distance: 32.3 miles Elevation Gain: 1613′ (Moderate) Average Speed: 17.2 mph Weight: 179*
*When I got home I stepped on the scales and weighed 179. Due to daily fluctuations, I take a moving average over seven days do determine my weight. My 7-day weight was 181 so I am still in the 180-199 weight group. When my 7-day average reaches 179 I will change my Strave weight accordingly. And it will be my third Strava weight group in three months.