The Belly of the Beast

It was made official just before Christmas–my employer would be moving to new offices, located in Sewickley, effective sometime in February. This was not a surprise, as intentions had been announced months before, but there was doubt that it would actually happen. This meant my 8 mile commute would suddenly become nearly 21 miles, one way. There was a silver lining, however, as I would be permitted to work from home several days a week. I could rationalize 80 miles a week, since that was actually 10 miles less than I accumulated on my current five-times-a-week schedule.

But still, 21 miles. On unfamiliar roads.

I took my last vacation day on the last Friday of 2006 and decided to recce my planned route. Thanks to recent bike path development by the city, I could ride the first 10 miles on the Heritage Trail, beginning in Etna (the trail officially begins in Millvale, but more on that later) and ending at the old jail in Manchester. From there, a quick loop through Brighton Heights brings me to the McKees Rocks Bridge, through Sto-Rox, across Neville Island, and then back across the Sewickley Bridge.

I opted to skip the initial part of the trail on the ride there, as the first few miles are not officially part of the trail, but rather a rough railroad access road. Instead of dealing with the unknown, I rode through Lawrenceville and the Strip District and into town, crossing the 9th Street Bridge and catching the trail at PNC Park. It was good to be on Butler Street and Penn Avenue again, my commute for nearly two years when I worked downtown. It was two old friends getting to know one another again.

The trail itself, once you pass Heinz Field and the Science Center, is paved and nearly pancake flat. Bordered by the river on one side, and miles of warehouses on the other, it passes quickly. Before long, I am riding behind the decaying facade of the old Western State Penitentiary. While most of the jail is hidden behind tall sandstone walls, the rear part of the compound, providing access into and out of the prison, is protected by little more than a wrought-iron fence. A cage, likely a conduit for transferring prisoners, gleans with still-sharp razor wire, while several pickup trucks sit rusting nearby. I slip between the poles that mark the end of the trail, and ride under Ohio River Boulevard into Manchester.

The part of the ride was the great unknown–the only real climb through a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Passing through the shadows of the overpass, the lone pedestrian bends at the waist and regurgitates his lunch. Fantastic. McClure Avenue isn’t terribly steep, and I make use of the gears on the Cannondale and spin, spin, spin my way up to Brighton Heights. The change at the top of the hill is startling. From the rundown tenements of Manchester, the landscapes morphs into old, well-kept houses. Geography delineates the classes in Pittsburgh, and here it is no different.

A short descent and I’m crossing the McKees Rocks Bridge. The deck is wide, so traffic isn’t a concern. It’s a long span, crossing the Ohio River and the low lying portions of the Rocks. Once across, I am on Route 51 through the heart of McKees Rocks. Passing between garages, warehouses, and strip clubs, I cross the Ohio River again and I am on Neville Island, an oasis of chemical plants, cement producers, and, oddly, a small town. The first half of the island is an industrial wasteland. The road is flat and straight, and trucks rumbled by my shoulder. Passing the chemical plant, I smell and taste the by-products of production, and I note that perhaps I’ll be missing a brain cell or two when this is all over. At this point, I fall into a bit of funk. After passing through the dilapidated outskirts of Pittsburgh, this is too much. The ride is hardly the idyllic river-side cruise I had envisioned. Suddenly, I hate my job, and hate the fact that this stretch of road will become part of my life.

But all is not lost.

Interstate 79 divides the island in half, and the change is startling. The industrial wasteland gives way to compact residential blocks, trees, playgrounds, and a church. The road is still very flat and very straight, and ahead I can see it swerve left to the bridge that would carry back across the Ohio River and into Coraopolis. The gentle rise to the bridge deck was a welcome opportunity to get out of the saddle and stretch my legs. Once across the span, I turn westward on Route 51, and pass through the township’s business district. The traffic lights keep the cars moving reasonably slow, and I can enjoy the scenery and spy what shops line the corridor.

After another mile or so, the business district peters out, and the road, which has been split by a block of businesses, comes back together. I’m happy to see a PA Bike Route A sign, and as Route 51 becomes highway again, the shoulder is wide and clean. I wave and nod at a fellow on a commuter bike who is obviously heading to work. After another mile or so, I slip across the highway and ride up to the Sewickley Bridge (unfortunately it is a left lane exit). Once across the bridge, which has a relatively wide deck, I am in Sewickley proper, and a few blocks later I see the new office building, right in the middle of the business district on Beaver Street. I spy a coffee shop just across the street, and decide some caffeine and a snack might be a good plan. Once my bike is leaning against the brick wall of the building, I pull off my gloves and look at my watch. 90 minutes. Essentially what I expected, given I got turned around a bit in Manchester and meandered through Brighton Heights as to not get lost. And I assume without the climb into Brighton Heights, I can get home in better time.

Five minutes later and I’m back on the road. Once I am back on Neville Island, the road seems shorter. I don’t even notice the chemical plant, and I spy the bridge back to McKees Rocks. Crossing the bridge is a bit disconcerting–the deck itself is probably close to a mile in length, and the (closed) sidewalk is a buckled, wavy ocean of concrete. Still the deck is wide enough that cars and trucks can pass easily, and before long I’m on the short cobbled rise to Brighton Heights again.

There’s a bit of headwind on the Heritage Trail, so my speed drops a bit, but I still manage to enjoy the scenery. Once I am on the North Shore, I decide to explore the northern reaches of the trail, which should, in theory, allow me to get to the 62nd Street Bridge. North of the Veterans’ Bridge, the trail turns to packed dirt covered with cinders, and it relatively fast, protected from the wind by trees on the riverbank. Once in Millvale, the official trail ends and joins a Suffolk Railroad access road. I had been warned that this road isn’t necessarily well-maintained, and may not be the best choice, but the 42mm tires on the Cannondale, I knew that unless there was deep mud, I would fare well. As I entered the road, a line worker drives toward me in his pickup. I move off the road a bit to allow him to pass. This would be a moment of Truth–whether the railroad tolerated bikes on their access road. The man nods and casually lifts his left hand in a wave. I return the gesture and continue on my way.

The road is mostly just bare dirt, with some sections of ballast. I am grateful for the wide tires, but I also knew the 28mm tires on the Steamroller could also handle the terrain, if I were inclined to commute on the fixed gear. The road is flat, but I am not maintaining a terribly fast pace. It would likely be faster to deal with traffic on Butler Street and take advantage of the smooth pavement. Soon enough, the 62nd Street Bridge looms in the distance. I bounce across four sets of tracks, wind my way through the Etna industrial park, and cross the now-familiar bridge deck. The final climb up Baker Street passes quickly, and I am dismounting the bike in the alley behind our house.

Three hours on the bike. I expect once I settle into the commute, I could do the legs in under 90 minutes, especially on the ride home without the climb on McClure Avenue. Still, the route is long, and the tail end of winter could mean snow, though I could likely work from home when the weather doesn’t cooperate.