Events: Bicycling Magazine’s Fall Classic
(2016) I look to unique corners of my mind for inspiration during cycling events. It’s a sport that brags about the regularity of entering a suffering condition; I have to go somewhere to keep me going when times are dark. Strangely I keep returning to the metaphor of a locomotive.
In the winter years of UK’s Top Gear (see: the good seasons), Jeremy Clarkson challenged James May and Richard Hammond to a race of modalities. Clarkson would help pilot a coal-powered steam locomotive, while Captain Slow would manipulate a Jaguar, and Richard Hammond would suffer through an eight-hour motorcycle ride to the north of the United Kingdom. I would like to focus on the locomotive if I may.
I argue trains have been relegated to the backyards and back road crossings in our communities. They see the backside of people's sheds. Those are the places homeowners feel no one will ever see, and they don't bother tidying up for the train commuters. Cycling, too, has been relegated to the back roads and small towns of our communities, though their impact hardly wakes people from their sleep at three in the morning with a heavy leaning on an air horn. The automobile continues to stand alone at the top of the transportation mountain, thinking, once like trains and bicycles, it will never be toppled.
I finally managed to get myself to the starting line of the 2016 Bicycling Magazine’s Fall Classic in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. The entire drive to the start was shrouded in mist and gentle precipitation. Cars along I-78 had bikes lashed to them in interesting puzzles. The destination is no run-of-the-mill group ride. This ride attracts participants from across the United States. With nearly 1500 participants pre-registered, it proves this festival is nothing to be taken lightly.
This year I found myself on the starting line of the fifty-mile route. With a light race season the ninety-mile distance was a bit too far; the twenty-five would leave me wanting more. So I was in my element at the start at 9:00 am under cloudy and foggy conditions. I had numerous friends riding to help with the comfort level. The train's tender was damp and cold.
The opening miles were a grind. The cooler temperature along with the struggle to get to the starting line left me flustered and without focus. This mindset showed itself in asking the legs to snap to attention with nominal cooperation. I worked through the five hundred-odd riders thinking the front had ridden off into the fog when only a few miles in, a sight gave me hope. There in the hollow was a freight train clicking through as a mass of bright colors and blinking red lights watched. Had I exploded off the front, this endless train would’ve immediately erased it. I satisfyingly rolled up just as the last car deactivated the crossing alarms.
The elation wouldn’t last. Immediately following the crossing was a relentless climb. It wasn’t steep. It wasn’t shallow either. But the length chiseled me down as riders around me bolted away into the tree-covered road. I was actually beginning to warm up, and I peeled my arm warmers down to prepare for full removal. If only the road would stop going up I would pull them off completely. Maybe the fires had been stoked finally.
Then suddenly we hit a rest stop. Thirteen miles in and the first stop sprung on us at the parking area of a farmhouse complex. The population swelled the longer I hung around. People were striking up conversations. So many participants knew other riders. It was like it had been a year since some last saw each other. What better way than to meet on a bike ride? With mist swirling through the air I decided to climb back atop my bike. I had been given beneficial information stating we had completed nearly half of the 2600 feet of climbing in the first thirteen miles. Don’t blame me for looking forward to the last 37.
I took off alone. The route became a rolling countryside sliver of pavement. I wanted to stop every twenty feet to capture the moment with a photograph. If I had done that, I’d still be out there. For this is beautiful land indeed with forests, farm fields, and masonic barns signifying just how long they’ve been there. I found myself descending precariously on a winding wet road with sharp turns. I had no interest in shooting off the road, so I took special care to negotiate what would have been a wild descent in the dry. Strangely enough at this time my legs caught up to me, as if they had been attempting to chase me for all these miles. I began to think of the Tornado locomotive on Top Gear as the countryside smoothed out.
With the fifty-mile route having the largest participation field, it was no surprise to constantly pick off riders. It was also dangling bait. I could imagine myself as a locomotive through the flatter parts. I rode alone mostly as I am wont to do considering my riding style. Eventually the rider of old joined the event. I could hear the puffing and hollering of a locomotive in my mind. After all, locomotives need water to power them, just like a cyclist.
I even successfully passed the graveyard and church that hosted the rest stop for the Emmaus spring classic, Monkey Knife Fight. When I saw Goat Hill Road I felt an overwhelming urge to start crying; the church gave me the epiphany as to why. I had been through here before. Passing the church we took the exit route of Monkey Knife Fight and I felt a purpose to hammer over the pavement as retribution for past transgressions.
I asked myself a couple of times if a tailwind was to blame for the wide-open pace. This was what I was looking for: that churning inspiration to power through discomfort. I even passed through a covered bridge that I managed to photograph prior to entering. The tire tracks of cars were now dry pavement. The tires on the bike were no longer shiny and wet. What else could possibly go my way? I hadn’t a single clue where I was, but I didn’t care at all.
At the second rest stop I was happily surprised with carafes of coffee. I again refilled the water bottle thinking how one bottle would suffice for a day out. Many of my friends who were riding showed up here and we discussed how the ride was going. There was rumor of another rest stop five miles farther down the road. Hearing this and thinking it was too good to be true I dismissed it. I’m happy to have done so because there was no rest stop beyond this one.
I rode away with Tyler (whom I rode the 2015 Donut Derby with) and we continued to clip away the miles. Roads became familiar again. The mind filled in the return route from Derby rides. I was elated to think there were no major climbs remaining. The census of riders picked up as the ten-mile ride - departing two hours after our ride - joined our course. How wonderful it is to see all these participants taking to the roads and enjoying themselves?
Strangely someone yelled something to me as we hammered down a slight descent. It turned out to be Josh (whom I rode this year’s Fleche Buffoon with). Impressively he had closed down a five-mile gap on his own. The landmarks all looked familiar as the three of us closed in on the parking lot of the velodrome, the unofficial finish line of the Fall Classic. I was hanging in there with increasing cramps plaguing my efforts. Still, by this point, fewer than thirty cars had passed us. We passed through the final intersections with ease, thanks to Flagger Force who was on hand to give us safe passage throughout the route.
I was hanging onto the back of Josh and Tyler’s wheel when I couldn’t hang in there anymore. Another rider rolled through and I managed to get his wheel. He pulled me back up to them in the final two miles. I thought to enjoy all this luck today. We made the turn to the Trexlertown Velodrome and were asked if we were going to go for a lap around the cobbled crater.
It was decided we would. I had prepared to clear out and head to the after party, but Josh and Tyler stated otherwise. Not being one to be odd-man-out, I decided to join them around the track. I fumbled trying to get a decent picture but decided the better option was to stop and photograph. We had arrived with exactly fifty miles on our electronics. Josh even enjoyed a bit of good luck when his tire went flat at exactly the finish line. It's funny how things work out sometimes.
One of the other attributes that attract cyclists to the Fall Classic is the after party. There were at least five food trucks present ready to accept rider’s meal tickets. The beer tent slung beers at a remarkable rate. There were four styles from which to choose concocted by Victory Brewing, Leinenkugel, and New Belgium Brewing. And then I had a seat under the tent outside the fourth turn of the track and enjoyed a cheeseburger pizza; it couldn’t get any better than this. My own father had even finished the twenty-five mile route and was enjoying the festivities along the concourse.
There’s something remarkable about the Lehigh and Berks Counties when it comes to the pastime of cycling. The fact so many people participated gives an indication that this is a cycling friendly affair. Riders from a majority of states came out to ride in the Valley as well as several Canadian participants. I find it coincidental that I thought of Top Gear as inspiration prior to the day’s outset only to catch luck on a freight train passing through. While I may not actually put down the power of a freight train, much less Fabian Cancellara, there’s something about Trexlertown and the surrounding area that inspires riders to dig a little deeper on each effort. After all, we did cross at least three train tracks on our outing.