Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Accidental Fourth

I started out yesterday on what was intended to be a relatively short jaunt around the countryside.  Well, as these things sometimes go...I wound up making a century out of it just by the simple fact that I don't know enough to quit.  I'm like that. 

One turn led to another and pretty soon I was 50 miles into it and a long way from home.  At least the weather was nice; warm and breezy again and this time I was on the outbound leg with the wind in my teeth.  I hoped that maybe once I turned for home it would be easier sailing, unlike the last go when the wind destroyed my legs 60 miles out.  I got as far south as I figured I should reasonably go and then hooked west on PA Rt. 6 out of Towanda to make a big circle out of it. Rt. 6 is advertised and marked as a designated bike route in PA but I think PennDOT better reconsider that until after the gas rush.  More on that in a minute.

Now being a rational, semi-intelligent person, I understand this was a working weekday for everybody in the real world.  My weekend is Tuesday and Wednesday so it's not like everyone else is drinking beer and hanging out around the Weber when I have my days off.   I may not be working, but it's not yet hump-day for 99% of the population.  This means that unlike a Saturday or Sunday when things might quiet down a bit, commerce was going full blast down the blacktop while I was trying to make my way from turn to turn.  The alarm bell was ringing again.

Once I crossed into Pennsylvania, truck traffic increased exponentially and I realized too late that I was now riding in the long, all consuming shadow of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.  As my kids say when texting...OMG!

This thing is a monster swathed from top to bottom in raw, undiluted money and the gas drillers are in overdrive.  These guys are poking strings of pipe in the ground so fast it's a wonder the world doesn't deflate from all the holes in it.  There's an unmistakable smell of cash burning through expense accounts that just hangs in the air no matter which way the wind is blowing.  The madness of the rush caught  me off guard since it hasn't hit in NY yet, all things still being hung up in litigation, legislation and legalization for the time being.  But PA is going at it like 49ers running full tilt west for California gold.  It's awesome and frightening to be at ground level on a fly-weight bike watching this insanity go roaring by in a solid string of 18 wheelers and leased white pickups with gas company logos.  I've never seen anything like it.  I thought I'd somehow gotten lost and ended up on an eight lane interstate with no speed limit.  I can only imagine the chatter among the truckers on the CB regarding the idiot on the bike where no reasonable idiot should be.

I was frankly scared witless.  A fair number of the trucks didn't even bother to move a foot to the left or lift a boot off the gas.  They just kept the hammer down and sailed by me so close I could smell the driver's aftershave and cigarettes in the windblast.  A couple got their yuks in by climbing up on my back wheel and letting me have it with the air horns. a Red Man long-cut kind of way I guess.  Let me think...there's been an uninterrupted line of rigs tearing by me at maximum speed for a solid hour...I should be surprised by another one?

I do have to give some credit where credit is due though.  Many of these guys were pros and it showed.  I know some of the drivers were trying to do what they could with what they had but there just wasn't enough room or time at 55.  When there was nothing coming at them, they tried to move over to give me some wiggle room.  Some even slowed down to give me time to find a wide spot between the lane-line and the ditch but mostly there was nowhere to go and circumstances made them cut it mighty fine.  Some of them were really good and I'm glad of it because the shoulder wasn't much in many places and there were a few passes were I could have stuck my elbow out and touched a fender.  Lesser men would have run me over with the trailer tires.

Roughly every three seconds for miles on end, another heavyweight ripped past and blew me about two feet to the right.  The dirt, grit, exhaust and wind was intense.  Before I got 10 miles along this nightmare, my eyes were dried out and I was covered in grit like I'd been caught in an Arabian Desert haboob.

I got a weird, metal taste with my Gatorade and knew every moving part on the bike was getting chewed by the emery-fine dust.  Talk about taking the wrong way home.

Obviously, this was no place for me but I had to soldier on to the next turn before I could get aimed back north.  I've ridden bikes all over the place and never dreamed I'd hear myself say it but bicycles should be banned from roads with this kind of traffic and conditions.  There was no sign or warning of any kind for an out-of-towner like me and no real way to get out of it except to keep going.  Maybe PA doesn't want to admit their 'scenic byway' is a deathtrap but I sort of think terrifying or killing visitors might be somewhat bad for the tourism business. I never thought I'd live long enough to see that 14N sign with an arrow pointing to Elmira but just outside of Troy, there it was.

My relief at leaving 6 was enormous.  As I suspected, the tailwind was fantastic and my average speed increased by leaps and bounds.  Traffic let up to almost nothing and the shoulders got wide and smooth.  It was like hitting the lottery.  My stress level dropped and I could enjoy cruising again.  The next 30 miles rolled easily even as I closed in on the 100 mark.  I just let the wind push me along and let my speed do what it wanted.

The last obstacle came along when I was within spitting distance of home.  The town highway dept. apparently decided to stone and oil about seven miles of road that I had to ride to get to my driveway.  It was freshly done so there were drifts and dunes of fine gravel piled up beside the four tire-worn tracks in the lanes. Those grooves were the only place I could remain upright on 23mm skins since loose stone and narrow tires don't get along too well.  Every car that went by stirred up a cloud of dust and I couldn't really move over much without risking a slide in the piles of dry stones.  That meant even more dust and grit stuck to my grimy self but with the end so close, it didn't seem to matter much.  I just slowed down some more and slogged my way through it until I finally hit real pavement again for the last push.

At the end of the day, it turned out to be a really nice ride except for the Rt. 6 section and I was pretty stoked to make another century without really thinking about it much.  100 miles at a crack is still not the easiest thing in the world but I'm getting better at it.  Winter will soon be here and I'll probably get fat and lazy with the snow but for now...I'm knocking off mileage at a pretty good clip.  When do I start working on a hundred-and-a-half?

No comments: