Originally Posted May, 2015
“If it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” Hunter Thompson’s advice can easily be applied to Tom’s decision-making process when encouraging us to do something that is the most challenging thing we have ever done. For me, I am a bit of a skeptic. I ask questions like, “Is it worth it? What do I stand to gain from it all? Why even do it?” This is the debate Tom and I had when we considered participating in a ride called Crush the Commonwealth, a 385 mile informal race across the state of Pennsylvania. The ride would be the longest distance we would have ever ridden, in the shortest amount of time. The ride would require two days off work, travel, food, and lodging expenses, but most importantly, time away from our normal day-to-day, comfortable life. So why would we do it? Well, as pioneers in search of new and meaningful experiences on and off of our bikes, the reward always outweighs the costs. Doing things that are hard is good because we learn from new experiences, it makes daily life seem easier, and it can alter our perception of what is possible. There is no substitute for a genuine experience. I could have read other people’s accounts, but I would never really know what it would be like to ride 385 miles across the state of Pennsylvania unless I did it myself.
We are cyclists, but we are also the only employees of the bike shop we opened 4-years ago. As business owners, to say we don’t have time for most of the stuff we subject ourselves to would be an understatement. Training isn’t structured other than trying to ride our bikes as much as possible, whether that’s to and from work, or a weekend ride. When planning trips, we plan as much as we can, but embrace the unknown. We enjoy the emotion of seeing a new road for the first time in person, not on Google Earth. Crush the Commonwealth was right up our alley. With a statement posted to the internet of the ride date (Friday, April 23), route (385 miles and 15,746 ft of elevation gain from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia), and start time (5 a.m.), we committed, mentally, to do the ride. This wasn’t the first time we had heard about Crush the Commonwealth nor was it the first long-distance ride we would do overnight, it would be the longest, so we did what we could do to prepare. We had three weekends to ride 12-14 hour days of 120 – 140 road and gravel miles. Believe it, or not, this was the easy part. The more difficult part was dealing with the logistical puzzle of doing a point-to-point ride. Again, not the first time we have done this, but every time is different. Rental car rates and hours of operation are different. Finding a place to park your car for three days is stressful and confusing, and lastly, hotels. Selecting hotels that aren’t going to break the bank, but also don’t force you to loose hope in all humanity. We chose the wrong hotels on this trip. This is the hard part. Another hard part was when we were cold and tired and it was three in the morning and we were 245 miles in. With a forecast of low 40’s, the high 20 degree temperatures through the night caught us by surprise. The temps also had an affect on how tired I felt. I noticed this when, while riding, I started breathing very slow, and calmly. I was pedaling slower, and slower, then, “Hey! Are you falling asleep!? Get up here!” Tom would say. I had the choice to pull off to the side of the road and sleep in the current temperature, or, move faster, ride 15 more miles, and get to an establishment that was open. By the time we found it, we were so cold, it took us 10 minutes of watching the tv show COPS to actually stop shaking, relax, and doze off to sleep. Then, waking up an hour later, putting a second pair of shorts on, and getting back on our bikes, in the same cold, and dark, and feeling the stinging burn in our legs as we started pedaling again. We had ridden 260 miles. This was hard. I submit. At this point, 125 more miles sounded like a very long ride. It was, but when it was over, it was done. We had made it. We would never feel that same pain again, or at least for a long while. This is also a feeling we get when we return home, to our comfortable life. The problems we left before the ride don’t seem as big. Those bills aren’t that bad, that ride was not that hard, the dog pooped in the house… Well, yeah, that’s still kind of bad. The people and things familiar to our daily life seem to have a silver lining. Life, well, it just seems easier.
We are students of the school of life. That came from somewhere, but I don’t know where. When you do hard things, you learn stuff. All sorts of stuff, like if your saddle is uncomfortable, there are some 50 different combo moves to seat angle, forward and back, up and down, left to right that one can do to actually make that uncomfortable saddle more comfortable. This, I always knew, but never genuinely experienced it. Here is another example. Did you know that Pennsylvania has pizza burgers? It also has mountains, rushing clear rivers, waterfalls, large rock formations, and huge expanses of farmland between mountains. I knew this, but I never witnessed it firsthand from the saddle. We learned that State and U.S. Bicycle Routes are not as bicycle friendly as one should expect, that spicy breakfast burritos don’t digest well, but perfectly toasted, plain, butter covered, bagels do. We met a fellow Ohioan on the ride and ended up sharing a van with him from Philadelphia, back to our cars in Pittsburgh. His name was Paul. From Paul, we learned many things and that an individual can come from 270 pounds and not riding, to riding Crush the Commonwealth 4 times within 6 years. We know this and by now you get the idea.
When you do something that is hard, like ride 385 miles all at once, you realize how far you have traveled in such little time. At 12 a.m. we reached a town called Chambersburg. We only had 160 miles left to go and the last 226 miles went by with a breeze (literally). At some gas station in a town outside of Philadelphia, I told the lady at the counter that I had started in Pittsburgh the morning before, and have been riding ever since. Now, I was across the state, almost in Philadelphia. I did this by pedaling a simple bicycle, with two wheels, a chain, you know, very little. I was able to cross a state, just me, and a human powered machine. Doing this ride has altered my perception of what is possible. If I can ride 385 miles with very little sleep, what else can I do? What else would I want to do? Thus, perpetuating a cycle of seeking challenge to gain experience and to grow as a human being.
Crush the Commonwealth is an informal race across the state of Pennsylvania, meaning some people race it, and some people don’t. There is no prize for first place, and the ride is free to do. The route traverses 385 miles with 15,746 feet of elevation gain, following the crushed limestone of the Great Allegheny Passage, and the smooth paved roads of PA Bicycle Route S. Every year, the route switches direction from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh giving the ride veterans two routes to test their time upon, despite the unpredictable yearly course conditions and weather. The ride started at 5:15 a.m. on a Friday. With a focus on having fun, and enjoying ourselves as much as possible, we rode our pace, sometimes steadily, and sometimes with frequent stops, through the night and temperatures reaching down to the twenties. We slept for 60 minutes. We made it to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia just after 3 p.m., just in time for a Philly Cheese Steak.