After a great experience with the PA Randononneurs in March, I decided to ride another of their rides in April. This ride started and ended on a farm atop a hill near Coopersburg, a small town a few miles south of Allentown and Bethlehem. The rest of the SR series was to utilize the Flint Hill Farm Educational Center, which operates a bed and breakfast on the working farm. The website advertised that there would be many inexpensive rooms and free campsites available on the property, which suggested that the logistics would be simple and cheap.
My riding buddy, Jim, and I drove down together. He'd had some trouble on the Covered Bridges ride and was going to ride the 200k while I tackled the earlier start and longer distance of the 300k. We opted for an inexpensive room in the guest house for the nights before and after the ride.
The morning of the ride, I rolled out of bed, donned my clothes, and walked through the farm gate to the barn and my pre-packed bike. Breakfast with hot oatmeal and coffee, toasted bagels, fruits, and yogurts were available. In addition, a small pile of various energy bars was present to stuff bags and pockets. A few minutes before the start, the RBA briefed us on the route details, after which the 300k riders left the farm at 5am.
I'm a tourist
After the descent from the farm into Coopersburg, I took my time riding into Bethlehem rather than trying to keep pace with the faster riders. Last year's 400k taught me to ride at my own pace, regardless of where that put me in the pack. Recounting the previous ride, I was pleased to find myself in the middle of the group and extolled how cool it was to ride with others. On this day, I was looking forwards to exploring a state that (although I've passed through a bunch of times) I had yet to really spend much quality time with.
The ridge and valley region of the Appalachians in eastern PA was the star of this ride. The route summited the easternmost ridge of the Blue Mountain near Little Gap and the Blue Mountain Ski Resort area and followed the contour of the following valley towards the Delaware Water Gap. The dark green Skunk Cabbage stood out amongst last year's brown vegetation as I made my way along the Aquishicola, Cherry Creek, and the wet State Game Lands at the foot of Blue Mountain. The road twisted along through National Wildlife Refuge areas and past stone-walled homes. I caught up to a couple other riders and enjoyed a slice of pie at the charming bakery control at the end of this segment.
It was here that the 200k riders would start heading back through the Gap. However, the 300k route continued north through the Deleware Gap National Recreation area, a scenic corridor with great water views, a crossing at the Dingman's Ferry Bridge, a cute country store with more pastries, and a climb up Old Mine Road (a favorite of the PA rando crowd) near the Wallpack Bend of the Delaware. The scenery of this segment made me feel like I was covering some fascinating ground that I couldn't appreciate as much by any other method. Because I was riding solo at this point, I enjoyed it as if I was the only person outside on that sunny day. Emerging from the Worthington State Forest, the loud bike path on Route 80 and the steep-sided scenery of the Delaware Water Gap (often the highlight of a car trip through the area) was an anticlimax to what I'd ridden through in the previous hours.
The Delaware was crossed two more times via steel-grated bridges that required cyclists to walk across rather than ride. Hills along the river banks continued to be both scenic and challenging as afternoon hours passed until the final crossing in Frenchtown. It was here that a switch seemed to flip in my head, and I started to feel alone and nervous.
Night riding is one of the best parts of the rando experience. I have yet to meet a randonneur that doesn't have nice things to say about it. Whether slowly crawling through the night in silence or in conversation, alone or with other riders, it's part of the scene that we all seem to love. So, it was surprising that on this ride, the night brought on a very different feeling I had to deal with.
The constant up and down of the hills, the knowledge of being far from home, and a dash of exhaustion put my mind into a new state. Each new dark climb out of a valley felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, making no progress. Although another rider was with me, I felt alone and unable to stay with him. The GPS told me I was making good enough progress, I was on the route, and exactly how many miles were left, but it didn't matter much to some part of my brain. It was an odd feeling, and it stuck with me until the end of the ride. The takeaway was new knowledge that feelings like that also may be part of the rando experience and that they can be dealt with while steady progress is made.
The final climb back to the farm was a slow slog for me, and another rider passed me as if she was fresh as a daisy. The lights from the farm were a welcome sight as I rolled in around 12:30 am. After getting my card signed, I wearily made my way to the food table and ate some of the warm sausages stewing in their juices in a crock pot. Finally, I put the bike against the barn wall and headed back to my rented room, a shower, and a bed through the farm gate. I was out like a light.