Scrabble Scramble

Eli and I pick our way through the crowds at Point State Park. It’s hot. Really hot. Really, really hot. A group of people surrounded by bicycles have congregated under a stand of trees near the fountain, and we swing around to join them. Five dollars later I have my manifest, and we standing around with a group of friends plotting the course. The rules are simple — there are five neighborhoods listed, each with three checkpoints. You’ve got to go to four neighborhoods. The rub? Only one checkpoint in each neighborhood is manned. It’s up to us to figure that out on our own.

We quickly decide that Lawrenceville would be pared from our journey. The first two checkpoints were close enough to 40th Street that if, if, one of those were the One True Checkpoint we would be in good shape for Bloomfield, but the third checkpoint was on beyond Stanton Avenue, and that would mean an excruciating climb. No thanks. So we plotted our course:

1. Oakland
2. Shadyside
3. Bloomfield
4. East Liberty

There was a contingency plan for Shadyside and Bloomfield. If the Shadyside checkpoint ended up being the Ellis School, we’d break over to Bloomfield and then get Ellis on the way to East Liberty.

Soon enough the organizers gathered us ’round, and instructed us to leave our bikes at the top of stairs by the fountain and walk down to the fountain. Hands on the fountain wall, we awaited the signal. The cool mist felt good. I wish we could stay here.


Click-clack, click-clack as we ran toward the steps (I was happy I had made the swtich to clips and straps and could wear tennis shoes). I found my bike in the mess, took off running and mounted cyclocross style, bouncing along with the pack through the grass, over the old foundation of Fort Pitt. Yelling and screaming cleared the sidewalks for us, and the pack of 50 or so riders surged into the roads downtown, halting traffic.

The pack quickly splinters as we leave the park. We stick to our plan, and make it over to Forbes Avenue. I haven’t ridden Forbes in a long time, and I can’t quite remember the road from uptown to Oakland. I brace myself for the worst, expecting a large hill. Traffic lights split our little pack even further. Apparently, at some point, I lost my nerve to cut through an intersection and nearly got hit by Joshua, who was expecting me to continue on. Oh well. Once past Duquesne University, I settle into my pace, watching someone roughly half a block ahead of me. Forbes rolls through uptown, gently. I’ve caught the rhythm of the traffic signals, and I rarely have to alter my cadence. The stretch of road into Oakland is the hardest. The hill isn’t steep, and even that long really, but on such a hot day, with the pace as it in such situation (faster than the usual commute), dealing with traffic of several other roads funneling into Forbes, it’s not something to look forward to.

Traffic is light, and I enjoy the last bit of flat as I work my way over to the right-most lane. The hill is short (relatively), so I don’t let up much, alternating between sitting and standing. Traffic is backed up at the traffic signal at the crest of hill, so I stand and accelerate through the maze of stopped cars. Soon enough I’m through the intersection and on the flats of Oakland. First checkpoint — the Frick School on Thackery and Fifth. I weave up and across Forbes, cut across Bouquet, and ride the bus lane on Fifth for a block. Turning up Thackery, I’m happy to see a girl standing on the sidewalk, bike at her side, handing out scrabble pieces. Up to O’Hara Street, and I’m on my way to Shadyside.

This was the easy part of the ride, and I tried to take advantage of it by pushing my pace a bit. I was riding alone at this point, though I saw at least two people a few blocks ahead. The checkpoint at Winchester Thurston was empty, so it was time to make a decision — cut across Morewood to Bloomfield now, or continue to the Liberty School on Ellsworth. I was already headed toward Ellsworth, so on to Liberty I went.

Good choice.

I picked up my scrabble piece (why can’t all the checkpoint voluteers stand in the street so I don’t have to get off my bike!), and backtracked a bit to South Aiken. On to Bloomfield.

I couldn’t decide what checkpoint to hit first. I finally decided to stop at the Immaculate Conception school first, which was only a block off Liberty. Traffic was again light, so I pushed up the slight rise on Liberty, cut over just after the old movie theater and found myself in the mayhem of a fair and road construction. The checkpoint was empty, so I made my first mistake of the race — I confused South Matilda and South Graham. I cut across Friendship Avenue, through the park at West Penn hospital before I realized my gaffe. I ended up on Penn Avenue in Friendship, cursing my bad decision, and headed back toward Winbiddle. I spied two other racers (on track bikes) up ahead, so I accelerated a bit, and was happy to see a volunteer on the corner of Winbiddle and Coral.

I followed the two fellows back up to Penn, and while they pushed ahead of me (bigger gears, I told myself), I thought about what to do next. One more set of checkpoints in East Liberty, with the further from the finish being Reizenstein school. A portion of Penn Avenue was closed through Penn Circle, so the most direct line was out. I saw the pair in front turn left on Negley, and it looked like they were going to check out the checkpoint at Peabody high school (which was only blocks from the finish). I followed suit.

The Peabody checkpoint was visible from East Liberty Boulevard, and it was empty, so we continued along the Boulevard to Reizenstein. The third checkpoint was only a block or two away from Peabody, but it was far enough from Reizenstein that it wouldn’t be worth taking that risk. So on we went.

Up and down, up and down on East Liberty Boulevard, and soon enough we were picking up scrabble pieces in the school’s parking lot. One of the volunteers mentioned we were among the first to arrive, but with no set order, who knows if some folks had skipped the East Liberty stops entirely. The pair sped off ahead, and I was now riding with another fellow on a track bike, and we hogged the lane back across the Boulevard. He turned right on Highland, while I took my chances on Negley. Turns out it wouldn’t matter.

I cut across traffic on Negley and hopped on the sidewalk in front of the Union Project — the finish line. My track bike cohort hopped up about the same time, and we Alphonse and Gaston-ed it for a moment or two as to who would take 11th place. He finally obliged.

12th place. Not bad. I was the fifth track bike to finish, and the first track bike was actually third overall (quite a surprise, actually). The course favored geared bikes, with loads of mostly flat roads and only one climb. The good news? I took second place in the luck-of-draw Scrabble score contest. For my troubles I got a t-shirt and a water bottle, more than making up for the measly entry fee.

Did I mention it was hot? I didn’t notice it as much when I was riding (though sweat was pouring off my head), but when I finally stopped at the Union Project, I was fairly certain I was going to burst into flames. Total water consumption for the roughly 40 minute ride? 110 ounces (one large Camelback and several large glasses of water at the finish). And even after another 50 or 60 ounces later in the evening, I still had a headache that night.