Pedaling in Pennsylvania includes the Commerce Bank Triple Crown of Cycling, family trails and extreme mountain biking.
Published in the Spring 2008 issue of Pursuits magazine.
I blame the wind.
By the time I arrive at the base of Levering Street in Philadelphia's Manayunk section, I'm panting from the long ride along Kelly Drive's pedestrian trail. The flat path that parallels the Schuylkill River provides glorious views, but the wind is tough this day.
It's not that I'm out of shape. Of course not.
So as I start up Levering, known to cycling enthusiasts around the world as the "Manayunk Wall," I feel the burn. I pedal over the cobblestone street, under the railroad tracks and up the narrow street that is - unbelievably - a two-way road despite being barely wider than an average Philly rowhome.
When I reach the first intersection about 100 yards up, I feel strong, like I've achieved something grand. And then I realize The Wall continues - a slight dogleg left, slightly obscured by trees. Up ahead is the steepest section of the 156-mile Philadelphia International Championship, the final leg of the Commerce Bank Triple Crown of Cycling. The annual June races will start in Allentown this year and run through Reading before the top international riders tackle the half-mile Manayunk Wall 10 times on Sunday, June 8.
I battle on. The grade is so intense, I feel like I'm barely moving. A pack of young children walk past me up the hill.
On the day of the actual race, revelers jam this strip, one of the grandest parties in Philadelphia. Around 350,000 people attend the event annually for the good times - live bands, barbecues and lots of beer - happening here in Manayunk.
"It's the biggest single-day international bike race in the country," says Dave Chauner, president and CEO of the Pro Cycling Tour, the race organizers.
The scenic course begins near the gleaming high-rises of Center City, rolls up tree-lined Kelly Drive, past Manayunk's boutiques and trendy eateries, up The Wall, and back toward Center City. The finish line sits on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the Greek Revival Philadelphia Museum of Art looming in the background.
The race began in the City of Brotherly Love in 1985 with organizers dreaming of international exposure for the city.
"The race just caught on," says Chauner. "It's been a major happening for the city. In one 14-mile circuit, you showcase what the city is all about from downtown to the neighborhoods."
Since the international riders arrived in Philadelphia, recreational biking has become wildly popular in the region as well as across the state. Nearly 1,000 miles of former railroad lines in Pennsylvania have been converted to open trails that are great for lazy-day biking with the kids in tow.
"There are more trails opening all the time," notes Karen Brooks, editor of the Pittsburgh-based international bicycling magazine Dirt Rag. "The trails make for a good experience because there's never more than a three percent grade and it's often very scenic."
The smooth, 37-mile, crushed limestone Allegheny Highlands Trail in the Laurel Highlands, for example, meanders through thick woods and over old steel train trestles and wooden bridges. The 60-mile Pine Creek Trail in Tioga County offers stunning views of the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania," the rolling green mountains that have an 800-foot drop in some areas. Many of the tourist-friendly trails have cafes, bathroom facilities, nearby bed and breakfasts and campgrounds.
There are also dozens of state parks and private grounds perfect for family-fun cruising.
"Within an hour's drive of Pittsburgh, you can find great family areas," Brooks says, "or you can go to the mountains where you can bomb down the side of the hill, hitting bumps and jumps."
Last September, Seven Springs Mountain Resort opened their high-speed ski lift to mountain bikers so they could shuttle their wheels to the peak and then fly down the mile-long stretch through dense forest and over tabletop jumps.
"You get out into some pretty wild terrain," Brooks says. "It's easy to get lost."
From Michaux State Forest an hour southwest of Harrisburg to Bald Eagle State Park in north central Pennsylvania, there are expert-level single-track trails that wind past waterfalls, over old logging roads and along the edge of steep-drop ridges. Some sections are so difficult that it's a challenge just to stay upright.
"My favorite is when you can't tell there's a trail there," says Harlan Price, a professional mountain bike racer from Philadelphia. "There are so many rocks and roots and stuff."
Price won the Wilderness 101 mountain bike race through Rothrock State Park near State College in 2006 (he came in second in 2007). For nearly seven hours, he battled the 101-mile loop that was so technically difficult more than one-quarter of the riders failed to finish.
"For a lot of the race, you're in the deep woods, isolated," Price says. "It's really cool."
No other bike race in the state, however, equals the prestige of the Philadelphia International Championship.
"It's the biggest goal for all of the American teams," Chauner says. "It's like the Indy 500 or the Kentucky Derby. This is the premier event for cycling in America."
Just as I start looking around to see if anyone will notice me taking abreak from riding up the Wall, I see Pechin Street, where the pros will turn right and begin their descent. It's taken me a grueling seven minutes to ride to the top of the Wall - the longest seven minutes of my life - and I bury the pain. I'm almost there.
Finally at the top, I see the children who walked past me on the hill. They're laughing and throwing a football across the street.
I consider celebrating my accomplishment, ripping off my shirt, raising my hands in the air and greeting the imaginary crowds cheering me on.
But it was only seven minutes. And it's much more fun to reward myself with the fastest downhill ride I could ever imagine.