Just Hanging On


Potomac Pedalers Backroads Century

It was just 48 degrees when I arrived at Clarke Co., H.S. I stayed overnight in Charles Town and didn’t have everything with me that I would have preferred. I knew that I would be cold and I was. My only cold-weather gear was a light riding jacket (windbreaker). The toes, fingers, and legs would have to warm up on their own on this day.

The start time was supposed to be 7:30 a.m. but there wasn’t a mass start. Whenever riders wanted to get on the course they were free to leave. Some, I’m sure, were headed out at 7:00 a.m.

I waited until 7:30 to roll out. There were a number of other riders starting and it was a matter of sorting out who I would ride with. Never in a previous century have I started with one group and stayed with them the entire way. These things have their own dynamics. I just hoped to find one or two riders who rode about the same pace as me and we could work together until the first rest stop. At that point, I might leave in my own and form up with other riders. Or none at all.

I soon found a group of six riders and most of them wore the kits of Evolution Cycling — a racing team I trained with in January and February. They slowed when they realized they dropped a couple of their riders and I slowed with them. It’s better to stay with a group.

We soon formed up and picked up a couple more riders along the way. Despite a missed turn when I was at the front, we organized and averaged 20 mph to our first rest stop at Mile 29. I have never averaged more than 17+ on anything longer than 25 miles. Today I averaged 20 mph for 29 miles.

I was excited. I thought about riding the remaining 71 miles at my pace content with the 20 mph pace which left me drained. But when we rolled out I jumped in with them again. At times I thought I might have to drop out but I matched every acceleration.

I carried a camera with me hoping to capture some nice photos. Shortly after we left the rest area in West Virginia we were treated with a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains enveloped in the low clouds. It was postcard quality and will remain that way in my mind.

On any other ride I would have pulled over and took some pictures but I knew the pace I was on was special. And I knew that if I pulled over I could never rejoin the group. So no pictures of the ride.

Here in Jefferson County is the only place in West Virginia where the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River come together. Of course those are mentioned in Country Roads, John Denver’s famous 1971 hit, and the theme song of West Virginia University.

With one exception, there were no hairy-legged monsters in our group. All the guys had shaved legs which indicates that they are serious cyclists.* And they are to average 20 mph on a ride. But it also makes one secure in following closely. That is, until one rider lost his attention for one second.

He lost his attention span and saw that he was 1/2 inch from ramming the rider in front of him. He both braked and steered to avoid him which almost caused all of us to go down in a heap. But we didn’t dwell on it. One rider chastised him briefly and soon we were back hanging on each others’ wheels.

We got back to the parking lot at the school which marked our halfway rest stop. It had warmed up to 65 degrees so I could remove my jacket and put it back in the van. Heck, I was soaked with sweat at that point.

I checked my bike computer and we averaged 19.5 for the first 50 miles. I was at my van and thought 50 miles at 19+ was great and worth calling it a day.

The route was designed as a north 50 mile loop into West Virginia to the edge of Charles Town. The southern 50 mile loop went to Boyce, Millwood, and south of US 50, all in Virginia.

We rolled out and I was with them again. Before our next rest stop our group split. And I made the split. I kept wondering why the heck I was with the front five riders while seven others dropped off the pace. We reorganized at the rest stop and a dozen of us rolled out together.

We had some climbs and here I dropped back with three other riders. I can climb and finish the steep hills but when the young racers hit the 3-4% half-mile grades I can’t always keep their 20 mph pace especially after having ridden 70 miles.

But the key is to remain calm and ignore that little guy, Kazoo, who sits on your shoulder and tells you to let them go and finish by yourself. So three of us rode together although we dropped Mike, a rider who started cramping.

We ignored the temptation on the next flat just to hammer it and catch the lead group quickly. We could have caught them but we would have been toast. Instead, we lifted our pace slightly until we were able to integrate with our main group.

We stopped at a rest area at Mile 75. After five minutes Mike arrived. We waited for him to refuel then took off. Our group had grown to 16 as other riders were talking about our group that was smokin’ it. They wanted in for some fun.

The last 25 miles was really a lot of holding on and getting dropped twice but each time catching the back of our group. The last time I was aided by a train. That is to say that everybody got stopped at a railroad crossing. But Mike was dropped for good. In our run-in to the finish we picked up other riders along the way but ultimately shed them. In the home stretch, we were still standing at a dozen riders.

We pulled back into the parking lot five and a quarter hours after we departed. This was riding time only; it does not include the time sitting at picnic tables at rest areas or standing in line at the porta-johns.

George Muschamp
I ran into George Muschamp, a co-worker, at the finish line. One hundred and two miles. 5:15 of riding time. The average speed was an incredible (for this ancient rider) 19.3 mph. This was two mph faster than any previous ride at any distance. This was the first time I rode a century with the same group from start to finish.

Hey, I can ride with these guys (as long as I hang on and they do most of the pulling).

This was a bittersweet day and ride. I am incredibly excited about my speed for the day but also realize this is probably my last ride for quite some time. Whether I can regain this level of fitness I don’t know.**

*Well, I shave my legs so I don’t know if that alone qualifies me as a serious cyclist.
**Impending cancer treatment

Last Day in the Mountains

My early season riding began with a climb to the top of Blue Knob Ski Resort and included back-to-back weekends in August climbing Horseshoe Curve’s 18% “wall.” It is simply one of my favorite places to ride. But my cancer diagnosis made these mountains even more special. It was here where I could get away from cancer and find peace on my bike.
With Fall approaching and my season hitting the “wall” quicker than when climbing it, I took the opportunity to go to East Freedom, Pa. for one last ride in the mountains as I fully fight this cancer battle.

Statue of Liberty at Blue Knob

My ride took me up Pa. Rte 164 to the crossroads at Blue Knob. This was a seven-mile climb with long sections of 8% grade. It is a two-lane road with no shoulder but not heavily traveled either. And every single car gave me a wide berth when passing.
At the summit, I found a taste of New York. Their very own Statue of Liberty. Who knew?

14% Grade

I spotted a sign — “14% grade (next) 7 miles.” It was heaven! Nowhere can I find an equivalent grade to Mount Washington — 7.6 miles at 12% average. But this held promise. At last, a training ground for Mount Washington.

I braced for my descent because 14% can be quite dangerous on a bike. But it wasn’t to be. By my calculation, there may have been a section that was 10% but it didn’t last long. And it soon flattened out. Who makes these road signs anyhow? It was just a tease.

Also by my calculation, and my gut feel on the bike, from Blue Knob to Puzzletown was 4.5 miles at a 5% grade.

Allegheny Portage Railroad

From Puzzletown (can anyone figure out what they do there?) I traveled Valley Forge Road and found a sign for a 12% downgrade was close to an actual 12% which led to a 12% climb. Or more. But only for a mile down and a mile back up.

On Valley Forge Road

Reaching Old U.S. 22 I had a 5½ mile climb to the summit. For much of the climb, there were two lanes upward, divided, which meant that cars could easily move to the left lane to avoid getting too close to me. I rode on the right side of the white line but for a long stretch, there was very little shoulder. Yet more often than not cars gave me no berth and two idiots honked their horns at me like there was somewhere I could go. Into the woods, perhaps.
For about 30 minutes my mind was playing games trying to analyze why most drivers on a two-lane road would give me wide berth and cross into the oncoming lane and these drivers wouldn’t move over to the empty lane that was going in the same direction. Old US 22 would be used mostly by locals — locals who may believe it was faster and should remain faster than getting on the new US 22. Locals who believe the road belongs just to them. I just don’t know. Maybe people are jerks. A revelation.

Allegheny Portage Railroad

I never visited the Allegheny Portage Railroad Historic Site and always wanted to. And today I could. I am always intrigued by old-time engineering marvels and this was one of them.

Allegheny Portage Railroad – Lemon House

Operating from 1834 to 1854 it was built to carry barges from Johnstown to Hollidaysburg which connected river traffic between the Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers. It consisted of 10 inclined planes (think of the Inclined Plane in Johnstown or the Duquesne or Monongahela inclines in Pittsburgh).

Allegheny Portage Railroad – Incline Number 6

At the summit I was looking for a road over to Gallitzin but never found one. I saw a truck with U.S. Government Plates and stopped it and asked for directions to Tunnelhill. When I balked at the park ranger’s first suggestion, riding on U.S. 22, she told me to cut through the Allegheny Portage Railroad Park. Even though it was gated, she assured me that I could and I was surprised at the site and delighted in that it did take me to Tunnelhill Street.

I was glad I did. I would have never seen the Lemon house, other than from the road, or the tracks of Incline Number 6.

In Gallitzin, I met a local who encouraged me to go to the Gallitzin tunnels. He didn’t tell me the road to them was straight down. But it was. One can stand on a bridge and see the trains coming through the mountain. I wonder what’s it’s like to live above the tunnel?

Imagine living above a train tunnel

The climb back up to Tunnelhill Street was a neat 14-16% grade. But at 27 miles, that would be the last real climbing of the day.
From Gallitzin, it was a straight shot down Horseshoe Curve Road (Glenwhite Road) past the famous landmark and three reservoirs.

Horseshoe Curve

I’m not complaining because every ride up Horseshoe Curve is a good ride but who the heck thought of a process called chip and tar? The descent down to Horseshoe Curve can be screaming, especially when coming down off The Wall but the upper portion of this road had recently been chipped. Or tarred. Maybe just chipped. Without tar.

A 4-mile climb to the summit, sections of 18% grade and a 200′ tunnel. Life doesn’t get any better than this.

There were no line markings. Descending was tricky because with the loose gravel, er, I mean “chips,” one could easily slide out. Once I got to the good pavement I could let it roll.

Because of mine drainage, there are channels to keep the acid water out of the reservoirs

The rest of the ride was simple exploring as was all but the Gallitzin to Horseshoe Curve portion. I wrote down some simple directions and followed those but was unsure when I was in Hollidaysburg where I should travel to next. There was a service station with a store and I needed to replenish my water.
I walked into the convenience store and it reeked of cigarette smoke. All I could see was shelves of cigarettes and chewing tobacco. I turned to the sales clerk and asked “do you sell anything healthy in here?” I’m a jerk.
When she asked what I meant I simply asked for water. Outside was a visibly pregnant mother smoking, waiting with the dog while her husband bought more cigarettes. I wanted to scream at her “GIVE YOUR CHILD A CHANCE!” But would good would have it done? I am reminded that this is still Appalachia and a cyclist with shaved legs wearing Lycra is the stranger here.

Actually a very steep portion of Glenwhite Road

I will miss riding in Altoona. Each of my trips involved meeting special people. On the first, I met John Griffin who lives in a house where I lived 50 years ago. He invited me in. On the second and third I met and rode with riders from Spokes and SkisJoel, Richard, Bryan, and Stacey. Also there was Stephanie from Panera. And today I had a park employee let me cut through the park, a local send me to the tunnels, and two others point me in the right direction when I was unsure. Really unsure.
I’m afraid this is the end for a while. I have hit the wall.