2023 Covered Bridges 200k

Despite a weather forecast that threatened windy, chilly, and rainy weather, I headed to Philadelphia on my 54th birthday to participate in my second Covered Bridges 200k. This ride gathered a lot of riders last year (link), and the list of registered riders for this year's running appeared to be just as popular. The PA Rando organization has a few active volunteers who do a great job attracting people from everywhere, including a devoted group from NYC that arrives by train.

I drove down from Ithaca early Friday morning and spent my birthday working from a library with WiFi a few miles from the start. It's nice to have a job I can take on the road. After work, I drove to the Chamounix Youth Hostel Carriage House in Fairmount Park, where the club had rented the entire place for out-of-towners to gather, socialize, and get a night's sleep before and after the ride for a small fee on top of registration. Somebody recommended a nearby Peruvian chicken place for dinner, and a few of us dined on half chickens with sides of fried plantains and red beans and rice in preparation for the next day.

The hostel sleeping arrangements were basic but fine: bunk beds in group bedrooms. Perfect for the price. I emptied my car of valuables, heading the repeated warnings of petty theft in the park, then selected the chamois cream du jour, laid out my clothes on the table near my bed, and made a playlist on the phone. My bike was in the bedroom near the rest of my belongings, but my fellow randos had adorned the hostel hallways with beautiful bikes that would take off the following day. I always like seeing what bikes and gear riders choose. Eye candy galore!

The next morning, the local riders not staying overnight at the hostel began to arrive. Patrick and Cecilie Gaffney had pre-ridden the route on their tandem and volunteered to staff this event, serving coffee, bagels, oatmeal, and fruit. I remember something burning on the stove, but I forgot what it was. My mind had that nervous pre-ride energy and concerns about what I forgot to put on the bike or in my pockets. I tried to be social and say hi to riders I recognized to take my mind off it, an introvert in a crowd.

Morning crossing over the Falls Bridge at the start. Morning crossing over the Falls Bridge at the start.

Cecilie gave the pre-ride briefing and shoved us off promptly at 6:30 AM. I took it pretty easy down the damp hill out of Fairmont Park, down to the Falls Bridge across the Schuylkill River. I stuck with a small group, making good time flying through Philly intersections in the early morning while sharing last year's adventures and this year's plans with George Resnick. At some point, we had to brake for a light. When I reached for the brakes and didn't feel the familiar grab of the pads on the rim, I panicked and didn't swerve in time, and plowed into the rider in front of me. Luckily, I took more of the brunt of it and spilled some of the contents of my front bag into the intersection as I toppled to the ground. After collecting the debris and straightening the bars, I noticed that my front brake cable hanger's quick release had popped up. I reset the quick-release lever, tested the brakes, and resumed, a little shaken.

A few miles down the road, I noticed that the brake was gone again (this time without an attendant crash). Another inspection revealed that an elastic cord for my feed bag was poorly placed, interfering with the quick-release lever and popping it up. I was glad to have found the ghost in the machine, rerouted the elastic, tested the brake, and got rolling again.

I had heard that there was a great French pastry shop near the early control in New Hope and was eager to get something special for my front bag to hold as I cruised into the town. I checked in at the staffed control and started scanning the shops near the bridge to New Hope but had missed the sign. It's just before the bridge, but down an alley behind the ice cream shop. C'est la vie!

I stopped at the same Starbucks that I used last year and bought an egg wrap for later, then proceeded north along the Delaware River. For some reason, I thought the route was going to just follow the river to the next control. I had settled into an easy pedal, letting my eyes search the river's opposite bank for sights when my phone told me to head up Tohickon Hill Road, an almost mile-long climb at 8% with some very steep sections. My approach to these sections is always to slow down, throw it into the little gears, and relax as I watch more athletic riders zoom past. This too, will pass. Basically, there is no free ride in PA!

My favorite part of the ride is Hollow Horn Rd to the Frankenfield Bridge. My favorite part of the ride is Hollow Horn Rd to the Frankenfield Bridge.

The wooded Hollow Horn Rd is my favorite part of this ride, and I'm glad the RBA retained this section. It's an easy descent, with nice sweepy bends in the road, which pass through protected lands in a small valley containing a small tributary to Tinicum Creek and the Frankenfield Field Bridge that crosses it.

I arrived at the Tinicum Park control after a brief detour to see the Erwinna Covered Bridge, just a quarter mile off-route (after all, that's what I'm here for). The volunteers and the RBA had some food laid out in a pavilion. I scooped myself a bowl of bread pudding, filled my water bottles, and headed off for a climb that I was quite sure I wasn't able to do.

The Uhlertown Bridge before the Uhlerstown Hill Rd climb. The Uhlertown Bridge before the Uhlerstown Hill Rd climb.

I can grunt my way up most climbs without walking, but I remembered this Uhlerstown Hill climb from 2022. It contains a few hundred feet at 20% grade. On top of that, the road could be in better shape, and you must pick your line to avoid loose spots and potholes. My strategy was to start in the granny early to conserve my strength and to use that energy only when most needed. It didn't work, and I joined many others walking to the top of this somanabitch.

Buck's County is full of steep hills to delight or frustrate the randonneur, depending on your fitness, nutrition, and/or general mood. I was feeling good and weathering them well enough. One of these hills was Ealer Hill, which is another of these mile-long beauties that stays at 7% for far too long. I watched riders ahead of me slowly ascend and then did so myself. Feeling chuffed after conquering it, I once again dismounted less than a mile later as soon as turned onto Buckwampum Road. The effect of the one-two punch of these two climbs was had me asking myself, "Is this bike getting heavier or is a brake dragging? Surely I can't be this weak." At least no one was around to see me.

The only way I was consoling myself was the knowledge that we'd all been heading into a headwind as we headed north, and I hoped that the forecast for tailwinds on the return leg was still acurate. In the meantime, each crest over a hill was met by a blast in the face and even the thrill of the downhill run after the climb was stolen by the steady pressure of the unseen hand slowing the fall.

A few miles after the northernmost control at the Knecht Bridge, the route turned south and the wind effects instantly reversed. The welcome steady breeze at my back made the return trip a lot easier. I spent more time looking at the flocks of noise flocks of geese in the sky above me and the other sights of spring. A secret control on Richlandtown Rd. in Nockamixon State Park gave me an opportunity to help a rider out with a little chain lube I had stashed in the bag.

A group on the 202 Parkway Trail in Montgomeryville. The 202 Parkway Trail in Montgomeryville.

Tabora Farms is a PA rando favorite, but it was my first time there. It's a quaint bakery and country market where I grabbed some pastries before descending to the Peace Valley Reservoir and riding across the trail over the dam. A group of us flew back along the 202 bike path until we were stopped by a fire ahead. After a quick consult of the map and a phone call to the RBA to inform him of the situation, I found around away around the closed section of road and proceeded through the northern Philadelphia suburbs.

I must have been daydreaming in Ambler. I made the left turn off of Main to W. Butler Pike and somehow failed to notice that the railroad crossing lights were flashing and the gate arm was lowering. I stopped before the tracks and circled back around to behind the barrier. Moments later, the trail went by. Sheesh!

The Green Lane Bridge entering Manyunk near the finish. The Green Lane Bridge entering Manyunk near the finish.

A few miles later I turned onto the SRT, where the trees and riverbank blocked the tailwind. The pedestrians and traffic on Main St. in Manayunk. The Saturday evening activity on this busy road made for fun people watching before crossing back over the Falls Bridge and climbing back up to the hostel for a time a little under 11.5 hours.

There was pizza and drinks up on the second floor, with riders exchanging stories. A few of them shared that they were planning to go to PBP this year too. I made sure to acquire some of the PA Randonneurs pins that were for sale (I'm told that handing these out to people in France is a thing you do). As the time ticked by, more riders came upstairs for pizza and applause. When we were just minutes away, I went outside to see the last riders finish. It's fun to congratulate the lantern rouge, especially when it isn't me!

It's a long drive down to Philly for a brevet, but when I do, I'm always glad. They are great group who host some tough rides. I slept overnight at the hostel again and grabbed a scrapple breakfast on the way out of town.

randonneuring PA Randonneurs brevet Finger Lakes Randonneurs