Wednesday, October 20, 2021

880 mile/8 day Crush the Commonwealth Gravel

 The bike shop I'm affiliated with, Sweetwater Bikes, had been working on a massive gravel tour of Pennsylvania for some time now. It had always been in the back of my mind, but it did not really seem realistic since I did not have any gear, and I did not really think anyone else would want to do it during race season.

Fast forward to early August, and Will Loevner calls me and starts talking bikepacking. Hmm. The thick plottens. Now it began to seem like the CTC Gravel route might be a possibility. After a few days, we decided to do the CTC Gravel route over Labor Day. This was all being planned before Breck Epic, so we knew we'd have time at Breck to keep planning and talk to Montana Miller (, and a veteran bikepacker) about bikepacking.

Now, I know full well that I could do this route solo. I mean, I'm physically capable anyways.  But to be honest, I wasn't too keen on a solo 880 mile gravel ride across PA. So having Will to do it with was really awesome, it made it seem much more fun rather than just a physical test over 8 days.

Breck Epic did not go as planned (more on that elsewhere), but I got back in Pittsburgh mostly healthy. Sorta. Will and I did a 3 day/2 night trip to prepare for this trip (read about it elsewhere soon), and then we were off.

Initially, we thought about doing this route in 6 days, but after some consideration, we thought 8 days would give us more time and would make it more enjoyable. Also, in Breck, Montana was saying how it's cool to either "race" or "tour" a route, and he made it seem like both are enjoyable but it's probably best not to mix them. Seeing as Will and I weren't racing this route, we figured doing it over 8 days would be best.

I got to Will's house Monday night and we got the bikes all ready. Next morning, wake up before 5am, have an early breakfast, and drive 1 1/2 hours north to Meadville. We rolled off just before 8am, and immediately the route had tons of gravel. It started off pretty mellow with small climbs and flat sections, but once we got closer to the Allegheny National Forest it got a little hillier. There were some steeper climbs, which were definitely a little bit of a struggle on a 45lb loaded bike. Especially since my easiest gear was 38x34, but I didn't complain about the gearing, I'm more of a slow grinder than a spinner anyways.

Later on in the first day, we got into the actual Allegheny National Forest and some other state forests. There was a really cool double track grassy climb, and some other amazing stuff. Around dinnertime, we descended into the town of Warren, PA. We got some food at a local pizza place, and then headed off on the route to find our camp spot. We planned to camp off the North Country Trail in the ANF, and after a little difficulty finding the right gravel access road, we found the trail. We rode about 1 mile into the woods on the trail and found a cool camp spot right along a creek. We unpacked the bikes and got the tent set up.

After the tents were set up, we got a little fire going (ok, so maybe Will got the fire going, but it was my lighter, so that has to count for something!) and just hung out in the woods until it got dark.

The next morning, we awoke to the sound of rain on the tent. Drat. I thought Hurricane Ida might miss us up in that part of PA. We packed up the tent and got ready in the rain, and started off on Day 2.

The first stop of Day 2 was only a few miles in. It was the town of Sheffield. It was a small town, without many amenities, but there was a grocery store. It was sorta a sad sight, sitting outside the grocery store in the rain eating muffins as "breakfast". Keep going.

We had a very exciting section of route this morning. We turned onto a road in the ANF that said "no outlet" and we both were intrigued and a little curious if we could get through. We made it to end of the road, and it just disappeared. No where to go. There was an old logging road to the right, where there route had us go, and I thought we could just walk over some logs and then have smooth sailing. I was wrong.

We ended up hiking through dense forest for about 30 minutes trying to find the route. Luckily, I had cell service so I could see on a satellite map where the other road began. We made it to a cleared gas well line, and we headed downhill.

 I mistakenly sent Will way past the trail, and made him turn around and hike back up the hill to me. Haha. Eventually we found the little deer trail (in the loosest sense of trail) that connected back to a doubletrack road. Back on course, with some added adventure.

The next stop was in a town called Wilcox, about 40 miles away. We rolled into the Wilcox and looked at a map to find a store. Only a general store. We rode to the general store and saw it was obviously closed. The owner was on the front porch, and told us he closed down a few years ago "when the steel mill shut down". Bummer. He said there might be a restaurant down the street, which got our hopes us, but his wife came outside and told us, "that place? It's been closed for years", or something like that. I guess we weren't getting supplies in Wilcox.

We kept on chugging until the next stop, which was Emporium. Along the way we hit some awesome gravel, including an absolutely incredible 1000 foot descent with perfect turns and views. It was muddy, and we almost wrecked, but it was worth it.

Another highlight of the day was a perfectly flat gravel road about 7 miles long. Why a highlight, you ask? 

Because it was a gas well road that was basically like riding through grey gravel slush for half an hour with gas trucks passing by every couple minutes and spraying us with gravely slushy goodness, yum. 

Eventually, we got to Emporium. We got some stuff at a Sheetz and prepared for the last push to the hotel. I made the mistake of getting an ice cream sandwich in 60 degree rain, and as we rode away from the Sheetz in the rain, I was shivering. Normally, Will is the one who is cold and shivering, but this time it was me. No matter, I warmed up on the next climb.

We were almost at Coudersport, the town where the hotel was, when we hit a monster climb. Vader Hill Road. It was just as terrible as the name would suggest. Almost 500 feet, sustained grade over 15%, on gravel. Will pulled away from me by a little as I struggled to turn over my 38x34 granny gear. Got to the top. Glad that was over. Now it was a fun paved descent into town, where we got some supplies and checked into the hotel.

It was definitely nice to check into a hotel and shower after riding in rain and gravely mess all day. The sign on the hotel door said, "no muddy boots". Since our room was right near the entrance, I asked the lady working there is we could take our bikes in, since I was afraid they might yell if we just paraded our bikes through the lobby

"As long as they're not muddy, you're fine", she said. Haha. I laughed to myself. Not muddy. Good one. They were filthy. But we played it cool and made it to the hotel room.

We tried to clean off the bikes in the shower, awkwardly propping them up in the bathtub and dumping bottles of water on them to rinse off grit. It worked well - at getting the entire bathroom muddy and disgusting - but not particularly well at cleaning off the bikes. Sorry to the maid who had to clean that bathroom and the whole hotel room. Yeesh. I got my security deposit back though, so it must not have been that bad.

Also, we had some trouble getting dinner in the hotel. No restaurant would deliver, and we didn't want to leave the room again. Eventually, I called some Italian place near the hotel and begged the owner to deliver to the hotel. Even though they normally don't deliver, the owner drove us our chicken alfredo right to the hotel, perfect.

Next morning, we started on our way to Tioga. It was a pretty hard day, well over 100 feet per mile and tons of punchy steep climbs. That day was actually very hard, now that I think back to it. Still fun though. We made it to Tioga around dinner time and stopped into a small restaurant for dinner. The special was chicken, biscuits, gravy, and mashed potatoes. Will and I both got it, and boy, was it a heavy dinner. Felt like riding back to camp with a lead ball in my stomach.


It was a 7 mile ride to the campsite along the shore of the Hammond Lake in Tioga. It was a cool campsite, people around us, but still a good view. I slept pretty well again that night thanks to my inflatable sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Waking up in the morning and putting on damp bibs in the dark still sort of sucks, but it gets better so quickly that you sort of just push through the misery.

The next morning was our big push. We knew from looking at the route it was going to be 120+ miles and nearly 14,000 feet of climbing. The route was hard from the start, with seemingly endless farm road climbs. There were plenty of cool sights to outweigh the suffering though, and it was still a good day.

We passed by an Amish schoolhouse where a group of Amish kids were playing baseball in the yard. They saw me and Will on our fancy plastic bikes and they all stopped to stare and wave. It really was like looking back into the past. Amish farms always give me a good feeling. That night we camped at a small pear orchard in Gibson, PA, that we found on some hippy camping website (all the other campsites were either too booked, too far away, or too weird, yes, very weird, don't ask).

The next day was also a hard day, with over 100 miles and well over 100 feet per mile. Once again, plenty of steep climbs in farm country. That day, day 5, started out with a pretty frightening scene.

We got to the bottom of a gravel climb, and there was an old, run-down farm along it. It was super foggy, like something in a horror movie, and all of a sudden we could see two cows in the middle of the road up ahead. Strange, but not scary. As we approached the cows, they ran, but a dark started barking and running  behind a fence along the road. Now that was scary, but it was behind a fence I thought, so fine.

We got a little further, still super foggy, and all of a sudden we see several more dogs on the porch of a crummy old farm house come barking and running out onto the road. And to make matters worse, the initial dog behind the fence was now not behind the fence anymore. They were all barking and chasing us through the fog. Shit. It was a steep climb. We hadn't eaten breakfast yet. Ouch. Luckily after maybe 30 seconds of all out pedaling, the dogs turned around and disappeared back into the dog. Crisis averted.

A couple hours later, we saw the biggest dog I've ever seen just standing on the road ahead of us. The dog expert, Will, said it was some kind of Mastiff. We didn't even try to outrun it, we just got off our bikes and walked up to it hoping that being on foot would calm it down. Will, also the dog-whisperer, was talking to it and it stayed calm. It just escorted us down the road for a hundred yards past it's property before its owner yelled for it. It had some scary name, too. Maybe Will remembers. Something like Brutus, or Killer, or, you get the gist.

That night we also got a hotel room, slightly off course this time, just north of Towanda, PA. The hotel was most welcome, once again, and we ordered some pizza so we didn't have to leave the room.

The next morning, we awoke to a surprise rainstorm. Fun. It looked pretty bad the whole day, but we had to ride, so we just started pedaling out into the rain. Eventually the rain stopped, and we got lunch at a Wendy's in some small town. While having lunch, we looked at the radar map and saw a strong storm coming in right around dinner time. Not fun. We called an audible and booked a motel in Galeton just off the route to avoid camping in a monsoon. There was some cool stuff on the route though, like seeing the PA Grand Canyon.

Sure enough, just as got into Galeton, an insanely heavy rain started. The road seemed to instantly flood. We stopped at a Dollar General, got some food, then rolled to the motel. At first, it seemed a little like a "murder motel", or something like in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The people sitting on plastic camp chairs outside the motel rooms just smoking cigarettes certainly didn't help matters. But once we got inside it was fine.

That night we ordered some Stromboli's, and boy oh boy, were they large. When I called I got the "large" Stromboli's for me and Will, since every Stromboli I've ever eaten is a perfect size for a big dinner.

Big mistake, these Stromboli's were like five pounds each. One of the funniest sights I've ever seen is seeing Will attempting to eat the Stromboli while also chugging a half gallon of chocolate milk, all while laying on a fold-up cot in the motel room. Classic.

Attempting to reconstruct some comforts of home, we put on a movie in the motel to recharge for the last two days. It was a stoner movie called "Pineapple Express", which Will seemed to think fit me quite well. I have no idea why he would think that.

Next morning, we set off westward again. It was day 7, and it had tons of amazing forest roads. Long climbs, long descents, and great scenery made for a great day. When you ride in the rain, sometimes it's hard to talk and get into a rhythm to pass the time. 

When its sunny, the time flies by. I'm a big talker, and Will doesn't seem to mind my talking too much, so the long stretches of mild gradient forest roads provided ample conversation time that passed the time quickly.

Eventually we got to the town of Ridgway, slightly off course, and loaded up on supplies at Sheetz. We had some good Chinese food that night at a restaurant in town, and the worker in the restaurant was super friendly and let us bring our bikes inside.

After dinner we rode into the ANF and found a campsite off a XC ski trail. We quickly set up the tents, talked for a little, and got an early bedtime to prepare for the final day.

The next morning, it was very cold (for September). It was in the low 40s, and we did not bring nearly enough cold weather gear. My hands were basically numb on the first downhill, and I pulled my arm warmers down to stretch them over my hands. That made it so I had no ability to brake or hold the handlebars, but it was warm, so it was worth it. Eventually it warmed up, and we got into a good rhythm that day. There was one bridge out that was a little tricky to get through, but it was fun. Soon enough we made it back to Route 27 near Meadville, and blasted the last couple miles to Glenn Peterson's Carpet Emporium (or something like that) where we parked our car. Mission success.

I learned some things on this trip. For one, sleeping in a tent is way more restful than I imagined. Also, bring warmer gloves and warmer clothes than you might anticipate. I'm very happy with how this turned out, and I'm already looking forward to doing some more bikepacking stuff in the near future. Maybe even some BIG bikepacking stuff. We'll see. At least I know Will is always up for some good adventures.

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