A beautiful day with temperatures in the 80s brought out thousands of bikers, as in motorcyclists, to the annual Thunder in the Valley event in Johnstown and the surrounding mountain communities including Somerset and Ligonier. I don’t ride a single kilometer without a helmet and my lasting impression of these bikers will be of the hundreds I saw riding care-free without their helmets. That’s not for me.
I started in the village of Waterford and took Nature Run Road to Laughlingtown. One mile on U.S. Rte 30 and three miles on Pa. Rte 381 was the only flat riding of the day. The three miles from Rte 30 to Rector hasn’t changed much in the 42 years since we first drove it when we moved from Ohio to Rector. It is lined alternatively by a canopy of trees and post and rail fence or borders the Loyalhanna Creek. This is “Mellon Country” having been the home of financier Richard King Mellon and the Rolling Rock Farms. There has been one improvement — the road surface is in excellent condition making this a wonderful ride on a bike.
When we were kids each spring we helped dam up a portion of Linn Run, a very cold mountain stream, so we could swim in Devil’s Hole. A natural pool was 3′ deep and we could get the water level up from half-way to 2/3 of the way on the large rock pictured above. Yes, the cold water was over our heads. Sadly, it is now marked No Trespassing.
Coming out of Rector I climbed the one-mile Darlington Road hill up to Rte 711. In the lower sections it has 15% grade and by the top has leveled off to 11-12%. My route took me on Darlington Road where perhaps I could have hit 50 mph on a descent except I didn’t trust the road surface at this point. It was rough with some loose gravel.
I went behind Idlewild Park and found myself on another great road headed to Bolivar. All roads were climbing or descending. When I reached the end of my loop I decided I would continue on Rte 271 towards Johnstown. Well, not all the way to Johnstown although that would have been a fun destination. But to the top of Laurel Hill Summit.
When I drove the climb it seemed to be a 5-6 mile climb and I wanted to see how my legs would respond on a long climb with a fairly steep grade – consistently 8% but at times 10%. I went three miles and emptied my second water bottle of two. I decided not to continue without water. It was a daunting climb and I have been battling but getting over a three-week illness. Unless… …Unless I saw a woman sitting on a porch. Which I did.
This is a climb on a mountain road. There are very few houses on this road. To find a house and had a woman on the porch was close to a small miracle.
I pulled over and pulled out an empty water bottle and pointed to it. I did talk too but the pointing simply illustrated I was friendly and the reason I was approaching her. I asked for and she willingly filled my water bottle. When I asked how far to the summit she told me it takes her more than an hour to walk it. Great. But on I went. The water was just right even though I could taste the iron in the well water.
Two miles up, and when I thought I was nearing the summit, a car waited for me to pass the entrance to his driveway then the driver yelled out some encouragement. “You’re doing an excellent job.” Maybe he’s a cyclist because most people don’t understand how an almost-defeated cyclist magically gets wings to fly when hearing words like those.
It was another mile to the summit and I rode to the Somerset-Westmoreland County border then turned around. On the descent, I wanted to fly. But I was passed by 12 bikers on six bikes just as I started my descent. Probably 2/3 of all bikers had two people on them. (To be certain, these were motorcycles.)
But as I picked up speed, and I was pedaling, I caught them and then had a dilemma. I wanted to hit 50 mph but to do that I needed to pass them. But I touched my brakes instead. I hit 48 mph but there was no way I was going to integrate with this group. They were taking pictures of one another and almost daring me to pull side by side with them. But I was rolling along on wheels that were 3/4″ wide on a bike made of carbon fiber. There was no way I would try anything stupid at this speed.
They certainly didn’t mean any harm. They were having fun too. But it was too dangerous to ride too close to them. I wasn’t happy that I didn’t hit 50 mph but it was a wonderful day with 50 miles in the mountain.