The sun dipped low on the horizon as we pedaled out of Huntingdon and down Rt. 22. It set as we crossed the Juniata River, tossing cotton candy hues into the sky and bathing the few puffy clouds in a pink glow. The world grew darker.
The first 40 or 50 miles flew by. Through Orbisonia and Shade Gap, and then we were passing under the Turnpike. That was fast.
I was feeling great. Still warm enough, strong legs, good pace. In Burnt Cabins, we got onto a beautiful, rolling back road, a gradual climb to Cowans Gap. The full moon was bright and cast shadows of the trees and our bike on the desolate pavement. This was one of my favorite parts of the ride.
This is one of the the coolest things I’ve ever done, I thought.
We came down the other side of the mountain after passing through Cowans Gap State Park, Evan staying on the brakes to control our speed. It’s fun to fly downhill, but it was too cold to go very fast. Also, black ice wasn’t entirely impossible. Halfway down, we wished for another gradual climb. At least it kept us warm.
In Fort Loudon, we veered off the main road onto a quiet side street. It seemed like a cute little town, with quaint, old homes.
Then we jumped on Rt. 30, and settled in to pedal straight for a while.
The road was nice for cycling, with a good shoulder, and the traffic wasn’t bad. It was farm country, and the smell of manure lingered in the air. Despite the darkness, I enjoyed looking around at the silhouettes of barns and silos on the horizon. I sometimes get frustrated that I can’t see what’s up ahead when we’re riding the tandem, but not right now. I was perfectly content to look from side to side.
We decided a warm drink was in order after a few hours of pedaling in the dark, so we stopped at Sheetz in Chambersburg. It became evident pretty quickly that this was a rough place.
Yo man, when’d you get outta jail? One man yelled across the parking lot to his buddy.
We grabbed a hot chocolate and a Tylenol for Evan’s aching neck, and Evan taught me the gas station bathroom hand-dryer warm-up trick. We became connoisseurs of these contraptions throughout the night as we stopped at different convenience stores to warm up. At one of the stops, I became quite intimate with the dryer, kneeling below it to fill my shirt with warm air and dry the buff around my neck. If anyone walked in on me, they would have been in for quite an interesting sight.
Someone walked in on Evan while he was partaking in a similar process.
We definitely elicited some stares, showing up in the middle of the freezing cold night on a tandem bicycle fully decked out in bags. We’d generally grab a coffee and sip it inside, spending a half hour or more at some stops during the coldest part of the night. We’d take multiple turns in the bathroom with the hand dryer until we felt like we were warm enough to get back on the bike. We took breaks for this routine about every 2 hours from 9pm to 6am.
A lot of people looked at us strangely, but a few applauded us as well. More power to you, that’s really cool.
And a group of guys outside a bar around 2am hollered at us. Is that a dually? You guys are awesome!
You’d think people had never seen a tandem bicycle before, Evan said.
After we left the Chambersburg Sheetz behind, we rode on through Michaux State Forest and past Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum. A long climb warmed us up. It’s funny, in the winter, I wish for climbs. Descents can be brutal.
Then it was on to Gettysburg, through the historic battlefields and monuments. A statue of a man atop a horse stood stoic in the field, covered in frost. Cannons lined the road. The visitor center boasted an “open” sign, despite the fact that it was nearing midnight. Someone must have spaced on that.
I don’t remember exactly when it became really cold, or, more accurately, when we began to feel really cold. I started out the ride thinking perhaps I’d overpacked. By midnight, I was wearing every article of clothing I had brought along. We underestimated the cold, the windchill from riding on the road, and the effects of being out for such an extended period of time. I’ve regularly ridden in the woods or on the lake in the single digits or even below zero, but the road is a different game. My knees hurt because they were so cold and stiff. Despite the pogies, Evan’s hands were freezing. He zip-tied the ends of the pogies shut, because they didn’t fit that well on the Jones bars, and that helped a lot. But it’s a lot harder to warm up than to just stay warm, and his fingers remained chilly for a while.
I distinctly recall getting back on the bike at some point and my teeth chattering uncontrollably.
We went through cycles of being warm and not. But as the night wore on, the periods of warmth grew shorter and less frequent.
We passed a lot of car dealerships. All the cars were frost-covered.
East of York, Rt. 30 became a freeway. We didn’t know this, and failed to find an alternate route. Evan was certain that the only way to cross the Susquehanna anywhere nearby was to follow Rt. 30. So we stuck with it. Luckily, the traffic was light due to the hour of night, and the shoulder was wide. But crossing exit ramps freaked me out, and as we continued, traffic got worse. We agreed that on the other side of the river, we would get off this road.
As we crossed the waterway, we saw another bridge to our right. The old Rt. 30 bridge, which was quiet and deserted and appealing, the route we should have taken once the new road became a super highway. Luckily, we made it without incident, and it was a lesson learned for next time.
I began to drift off for the first time while on the freeway, before the traffic got heavier. My eyes kept closing, and I wondered if there was a way to half-sleep while still pedaling. Maybe I was doing it. All I knew was that those hotel symbols on the signs that show what services are at an exit looked very appealing. A person laying on a bed. That’s what I wanted to be doing.
I put headphones in and turned the tunes on. I was awake again. My upper body danced as we headed toward Lancaster. I silently sang along. The sun would be coming up soon. We were over the hump. We would make it.
East of Lancaster is Amish country. We thought it would be flat. It wasn’t. The deceptively-gradual grades were a bear on tired legs. I was falling asleep for the second time and there was nowhere to get coffee. Handmade furniture? Sure. A resort where you could go to get a fake Amish experience? Of course. But no java, or water, which was Evan’s craving. His had frozen a while ago. I sensed his frustration. Not necessarily at me, but I knew I was fading and not putting in as much effort as usual, forcing him to do more work. Combine that with aching backs and no water, and it was one of the toughest parts of the ride, despite the fact that the sun was up.
We passed little Amish town after Amish town. Bird-In-Hand was my favorite, only because of the name. There were a lot of scooters out, kids going to school, adults going to work. Some waved at us, a fellow non-motorized vehicle out on the road.
I saw salvation up ahead, a Turkey Hill. Finally, we got what we needed. Evan was hydrated, I was caffeinated, we had downed a breakfast sandwich, and were ready to crank out the last 30 miles. I apologized to Evan for my tiredness. I know you’re doing the best you can, he said.
30 miles is usually nothing. This 30 miles seemed like 100 miles. My legs felt like jelly, like they could barely support my weight much less power a bicycle. My quads felt like someone was stabbing them with a knife. But I was awake again, and that helped immensely for the final push. As long as my mind was alert, I could trick my legs into working just a little harder, for a little longer.
The transition from Amish country to the suburbs of Chester County was a hilly one. Shut up, legs.
The sun finally began to heat things up, and I stripped off layers. The hat came off first, then the shell and extra sweater. We rode through Downingtown and Exton, and jumped on the Chester Valley Trail for a couple miles. I felt like we were moving forward at a snails pace. But it didn’t matter. We were almost there. We were warm.
Evan pointed out all the new development that had sprung up in recent years, the continuous suburban sprawl that plagues this part of the state. A neighborhood of condos surrounded an old barn. Evan knew the person who used to farm that land. It was sad, looking at what used to be farmland and forests, and seeing only way-too-expensive cookie-cutter homes. It made me glad that we live where we do, but upset at the world in general, for this seems to be the way of things. Build, build, build. Develop, develop, develop. Not enough people seem to see the value of natural, open spaces.
We found a Flat Road that was actually flat (there are multiple roads by that name in the vicinity of our house and none of them are even close to being a level grade), and we munched on apple slices. Two more small climbs, and we would be there.
I pulled my gloves off for the final climb. It wasn’t too bad. And then it was all downhill, a few hundred yards to the house.
Evan’s family came running out and we exchanged hugs and hellos. A beer, some food, and a nap were in order.
We did it. Evan’s mom told me that when we arrived, I looked a little shocked that I had done it. I could believe that. I distinctly remember small pieces of the ride, but for the most part, it’s a blur. She also asked me if I’d do it again. The answer is yes, definitely. Despite the struggles, despite being cold and tired, it has only whet my appetite for long, intense rides.
As we went for a walk last night, we talked about maybe doing the Dirty Kanza 200 on the tandem. That would be cool…