Iron City Populaire

I argued with myself all week about the bicycle choice for this ride. I really wanted to ride the fixed gear, but a nagging voice in my head kept saying “you’ll regret it.” Add to that not having a proper set of handlebars for such a ride (the Promenade are quite comfortable for commuting, but I’m sure they would be limited over 20 miles), and I dusted off the Cannondale and coasted to the start at Beleza. At 9:10am, 26 hardy souls were ready to begin. It was certainly a diverse bunch, with the usual compliment of lycra-clad roadies on their sub 18 pound bikes, a few touring/BOB-ish bikes (including a full custom Rivendell), several old ten speeds, a fixed gear, and a recumbent. After a brief course review and a word of encouragement, I sent everyone on their way.

My group, composed of Josh, Eric, and a youngster named Wes, waited around a bit for any stragglers, then set out. I quietly wondered if I had a mistake with my choice of partners, given that the combined weight of their bikes (a Trek Madone, a titanium Mongoose, and a high-end Cannondale) was probably slightly less than that of my Cannondale. I’m sure I was a curious sight, with my cruiser bars, saddlebag, tennis shoes, and cut-offs, in a pace line with a group of roadies. Our pace through the city was brisk, but not unreasonable. Perhaps it would all work out.

Or not.

Once into the rollers above Fox Chapel, I was yo-yoing off the back of the group. They were kind enough to allow me to keep in touch, however, but I knew the pace would eventually become problematic. At this point, we had picked up, and then shortly thereafter, dropped several people that had started at least 10 minutes before us. Once on Saxonsburg, Eric and Wes gapped Josh and myself, and then slowly, Josh left me behind. I never lost sight of Josh, and we re-grouped at a food/drink/bathroom stop at a gas station just before the turn on Logan.

Here we picked up Dan, the lone fixed gear rider. He was pushing 47×17. Good grief. And to think I was worried about 42×16 when I was considering the Surly. The advantage of the fixed gear was obvious once we hit the rollers on Logan–he had no choice but to power through the hills, and the momentum carried him up and over with less effort. Soon enough we were off Logan and on the Red Belt, the longest single stretch on the ride. More shallow rollers, more slipping off the back. At this point, Wes and Eric were off the front, and gone for good (at least until the controle in Sewickley), and Josh was steadily moving ahead. Dan peeled off to re-connect with another group, but it was not the last we had seen of him.

As we approached the turnpike, Josh and I stopped at a 7-11 for a Gatorade break. I felt pretty OK. My back was a bit stiff, but otherwise no pain anywhere. The legs felt pretty good. Our pace, even without Eric and Wes, was still high (for me)–just a bit over 15mph. I still wondered how I might feel on the climb over Sewickley Heights. From this point, we would mostly be rolling in a valley, with no major climbs. The relief, once we started again, was welcome, but I knew what was ahead. As we crossed Route 19 and slipped under Route 79, we found ourselves on a pleasant false flat, truly the calm before the storm. We dawdled for a bit at the turn on Sewickley Creek Road (this, like most out in the “country” was unmarked. The local authorities must assume that if you’re this far out, you know where you are), and I wondered if some folks might miss this turn. The mileage on the Bikely cue sheet was dead-on, at least according to Josh’s computer. At least the Red Belt would drop anyone on the far end of Beaver Street, near Ambridge, a few extra miles added, but little damage done.

After making the turn on the Orange Belt, the climbing began again. It was at this point that I began to wish that I was home again. I wasn’t bonking, but I was merely tired, and my back was sore. We enjoyed a few brief rollers, then were presented with the ride’s single hardest obstacle–Barberry Road. As we started up, I slapped my forehead, wondering what I was thinking. Barberry is narrow, steep, and long–not what you want to see at this point. Josh and I decided to take a “bathroom” break about halfway up, with Josh scurrying off into the woods and I draped over my bike, trying to stay upright. We pushed our bikes a bit until the steepest part was complete, then remounted and continued the climb through a mile or so of horse stables. Once at the top, we re-connected with the Orange Belt, and our work was rewarded with the stellar descent into Sewickley.

At this point, we caught Dan and his friends, who had missed Barberry and simply followed the Orange Belt. Good for them. I took a corner a bit too hot, and thought I might go flying over the barrier, but the Cannondale, for all its bulk, handles fairly well. I slowed a bit, re-adjusted, and was on my way. There was already a bunch at the Crazy Mocha coffeehouse (the ride’s single controle). Eric and Wes were snacking, with Wes packing up to leave again, as he had somewhere to be. Josh and I both got lunch, and we enjoyed the weather and conversation for a bit. Several other riders came in, included Matt, one of the ten speed boys. He noted this was the farthest he had ever ridden. Impressive, especially given his jeans, basketball shoes, and backpack. Grant Peterson would be proud. We finished our food and drinks and remounted. The group for the final stretch consisted of Josh, Eric, Matt, Dan (the fixed gear fellow) and myself. My familiarity with the route from Sewickley to the city made the miles easier to swallow, and I led the pack across the river and through Coraoplis.

Once on Neville Island, I again slipped off the back, though at this point I wasn’t alone, flanked by Dan and Matt. We reconnected at the far end of the island, and Matt led us through McKees Rocks and paced us across the bridge (again, his pace was pretty darn impressive at this point). The final descent through Brighton Heights was an absolute joy, and we found ourselves back at Beleza at 2:42 PM. Not bad. I took the sign-in sheet from the counter and saw that we finished about 30 minutes behind the group the left Crazy Mocha as we got there. Considering our lazy lunch, and numerous other stops, I was impressed with the pace, and, really, the pace of the group as a whole. A few other riders trickled in as we drank coffee and chatted on the sidewalk. A group of 10 or so riders were still out on the course, but we were traveling to the New River Gorge to climb, so I had to be on my way (I later found that everyone made it back after some mechanical and navigational issues). The ride home was more like a limp, with the derailleur and chain deciding they were through. The chain skipped every tenth pedal stroke.

Two days later, I feel fine (even the next day I felt OK), and I think, maybe, I’ll organize another one this summer, when it’s too warm to climb. The ride was fun, and I was very happy to have organized it. Do I want to ride 60 mile ride every weekend? No, thanks. Would I like to do one a few times a year? Sure. Sign me up.