I Can Move, Move, Move Any Mountain
Normally I wouldn’t consider doing a long-distance ride like the Pittsburgh Randonneurs’ McConnell’s Mill 200k brevet this early in the season. April is way too cold for long rides, and there’s no way I could have completed the training required to be prepared for 130 miles.
On the other hand, this winter has been so mild that I’ve ridden more than usual this year. Although none of that riding was anything near century-length rides, I figured I had enough miles under my belt to consider undertaking the hilly 130-mile challenge.
That desire was reinforced when Pittsburgh suddenly found itself in the middle of an unprecedented week of cloudless sun and temperatures in the 70s. With sunny days at a premium here, there was no doubt I’d spend the weekend in the saddle, and the 200k seemed perfectly timed.
On the other hand, there was reason for trepidation. This wasn’t just any hilly ride. Out of all the rides I’ve done since getting a GPS, the Mt. Washington Century, which traverses three mountain passes and claims to be the most challenging century in New England, contains the most climbing: around 5,900 feet by my records. The brevet route climbs 8,800 feet, the equivalent of one and a half Mt. Washingtons! Not a ride for someone who hasn’t trained for it.
But wait; there’s more. I couldn’t do the ride on my current bike (R2-Di2) because a week earlier I’d discovered cracks in the wheel rim and was waiting for a brand new rear wheel to arrive at the bike shop.
In the meantime I’d been riding my old bike (the Plastic Bullet), but two days before the brevet, its rear wheel also started acting up, making a horrible screeching noise anytime I coasted at speed, which I eventually traced to the freehub. In theory it was rideable, so long as you constantly pedaled and didn’t ever coast…
So that was the decision I had to make the day before the event. 130 miles, ten hours in the saddle, far more climbing than I’ve ever done, on very limited training, without coasting, on a broken bike? Yeah, sign me up for that!
So Saturday morning I found myself riding 8 miles to the start in Shaler, pedaling all the way. It was a pretty cold 52 degrees at 6am, but the forecast expected it to warm up a lot.
There were a mere eight starters, and I knew several of them from a ride down to Monongahela back in February. After photos and a briefing, we left the organizer’s house at 7am and immediately dove down a very steep 125-foot hill to the banks of the Allegheny. After having to brake and spin the pedals all the way down, I found myself off the back, but I caught up again easily.
The first segment was a flat 16 miles along the river on Freeport Street to Tarentum. The group mostly stayed together. My hands and feet (in my cycling sandals) went numb, but with the sun rising, warmer temps were coming. Thankfully, it was going to be a rare windless day.
From there, the route turned away from the river and up Bull Creek Road, one of many routes that follow stream beds up to the high plateau that surround the three rivers. But we soon left the stream valley and began the first serious climb of the day up Sun Mine Road.
That splintered our happy little group into shards, with myself and two experienced cyclists—Monica & Stef—leaving the rest of the group strewn along the climb in our wake. 23 miles into the ride, we now faced 100 miles of interval training: constantly rolling steep hills with zero flat to provide any respite.
Just after 10:30am we reached the West Sunbury country store that was the 53-mile checkpoint. The three of us refueled, and I jumped into the bathroom to quickly strip off my arm warmers, base layer, and cycling cap since the day had warmed substantially. The last one out of the store, I had to run to catch up to the girls as they left. It was then that I realized that after taking off my base layer, I hadn’t pulled the shoulder straps of my bib shorts up before putting my jersey back on! I stopped and quickly executed the reverse of the women’s “remove my bra straps without taking off my shirt” maneuver and set off to catch back up.
After passing through more hilly farmland, at noon we traversed Cooper’s Lake Campground. This is the site of the Society For Creative Anachronism medieval recreationist group’s huge Pennsic War, which my ex-wife and I attended three times, our first time being our honeymoon trip. Passing through the area brought back lots of memories, but it was hard to correlate 30-year old memories of a crowded campground with the open fields I saw as I rode past.
An hour later the temperatures were climbing toward 80 degrees, and with no shade in sight I was starting to fall behind Stef and Monica. I caught up with them at the 83-mile checkpoint at a 7-Eleven in Ellwood City. Stef left soon after I arrived, and that was the last we saw of her that day. Monica and I rode off after a rest, staying within shouting distance for the remaining 40 miles.
By half past two we hit the century mark while passing through the town of Cranberry. 7.5 hours, which is no record, but it’s pretty good, given the endless climbing we’d endured.
Half an hour later we stopped at another convenience store to refuel and rest. We’d take a couple more short stops for breathers over the remaining route, because I was flagging and Monica was having difficulty with her exercise-induced asthma. Another half hour had us passing through North Park and over the last major climbs of the ride.
Eventually we came out on Wible Run Road, a sustained stream-bed descent that led us finally back down into the valley of the Allegheny near the start.
A mile from the finish my GPS finally conked out. Losing the last mile of data isn’t a big deal, except that it included the vicious 12-percent grade climb back up to the organizer’s house, which reminded me a lot of the brutal finishing climb to the Mt. Washington Century, except shorter. Only later did the organizer reveal that he had chosen not to have us take an easier route to his home!
Monica and I pulled in at 4:56pm, just shy of 10 hours in the saddle. Stef, the only rider who finished ahead of us, had already checked in and gone home. The others drifted in and out over time while I waited for Inna to pick me up and munched on some well-earned pizza and soda.
Normally at this point I’d be all hyped up about getting my randonneur’s 200k finishing medal, but the organizing body and I had a parting of ways back in 2007, so I won’t be giving them the membership fee necessary to get the medal I earned.
So let’s do some context-setting here, because this was a milestone ride in many ways. My longest ride in Pittsburgh, longest ride and first century or double metric this year, first brevet in ten years, earliest in the year that I’ve ever done a century or 200k, exceeded my previous max climbing on any ride by 50 percent, probably only my sixth ride with more than a mile of climbing, and it also put me well over 50,000 feet of climbing (nearly 11 miles of vertical) so far this year.
Between the distance, the heat, the hills, and the broken bike, I’m pretty proud to have completed what will be one of the longest rides of the year, and notched my first century amongst the hills of western Pennsylvania.
Before I close, a quick review of how March went.
March was without question an excellent month: 400 miles of riding, with a stoopid 26,000 feet of climbing.
The month included exploration rides around McKeesport, Days Run up near Tarentum, Lowries Run into Emsworth, the GAP trail up to Boston (PA) and back, Dorseyville and Indianola, Munhall and the South Hills.
There were several particular highlights. One was finding and setting my first Tag-o-Rama locations, as described in an earlier post. I conquered four more of Pittsburgh’s brutal Dirty Dozen hills on the way to my first-ever Strava Climbing Challenge victory, although the worst of the hills— Barry/Holt/Eleanor—required a dab near the top after I pulled my shoe out of the pedal cleat. That same ride took me down the Montour Trail to the town of McMurray in memory of my mentor and hero Bobby Mac, where I stopped and had a memorial ice cream at a roadside stand that offered—appropriately enough—a “Dino Sundae”. My longest (now superseded, of course) was a 72-mile expedition out to Bakertown and over to Ambridge, where I came across a massive cheez ball spill in the middle of the woods in Sewickley.
So things seem to be going really well so far this year, aside from both bikes currently having broken rear wheels, of course.