“Make sure you don’t die,” the woman bicyclist said as I shifted my bike’s gears in preparation for the seemingly soft bucolic incline laid out before me. She had pulled over to the opposite side of the road to observe ducks swimming in a pond. I giggled and gave a little wave, hoping she was joking. She wasn’t.
It was about a year ago when my interest in biking began to take shape. The Great Allegheny Passage was completed with significant fanfare, and I was in need of a physical activity that didn’t bring back memories of high-school gym class. For most of my rides, I’d stuck to the relatively flat trails that run along the rivers surrounding Pittsburgh.
Participating in the Bike Fresh Bike Local event on June 1 was the first time I felt confident enough in my biking abilities to actually pay to participate in an organized ride with a set route. As an unabashed fan of food, local culture and communities with a master’s degree in food studies, I was drawn in by the idea that the proceeds funded an organization that supports local farmers — the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. The event seemed like a natural fit.
The morning of the ride, reality began outweighing the fantasy and I wondered if I had made the right decision. I knew nothing about the North Hills route and its terrain and 25 miles was nearly double the distance I had ever biked before. There was no doubt that I was going to be sore the next day. Oh, but farms and food and fun! I quickly got dressed and left reality watching me from the living-room window like an eager-to-join pup and headed north for my adventure.
That’s where I met this hill. Tucking the woman’s advice in the back of my mind, I continued up. It was more of a gentle slope that didn’t require much effort. If the route was going to be like this then I’m in for a treat, I thought to myself.
A mile up, I rounded a corner and embarked on a steep incline that rivaled the hills I avoid at all cost in the city. Even when I shifted into the easiest gears, my calves screamed from the strain. Sweat poured down my face. The woman I passed earlier was now passing me.
Unable to form any sound beyond a primal grunt, I simply nodded and stayed focused on the road. I didn’t feel like I was doing great. In fact, I stepped off my bike halfway up the hill and walked the rest of the way. I felt light-headed and my heart pounded. Stopping just as the incline began to level off, I gulped some water like a man on fire.
It was only 30 minutes into the ride and I already wanted to give up. But I would not go home defeated.
The route took me through a new subdivision with perfect lawns and three-car garages. The neighborhood felt a little too perfect, like a set in a movie. I eventually rode past Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus where I’d attended graduate school. The campus is under construction and is taking on a polished academic feel, different from the scrappiness I remember from when I attended class and worked in the gardens just two years ago. An amphitheater is carved into the side of the hill and modern-looking buildings with slanted roofs feel like they were placed in the middle of a field like children’s blocks. It has lost the summer-camp feeling.
I finally arrived at Dillner Family Farm in West Deer — the first and, I later discovered, the only rest stop on the 25-mile journey. My water bottle was empty and I was starving. A familiar face appeared from under the white tent. Jenalee, a classmate who attended the same campus I just passed, ran round the tables of apples, bananas, protein bars and Gatorade to give me a big hug.
“I give you guys major props for doing this ride. There are a ton of hills. And the heat is getting pretty intense,” she said.
I continued on. She was right, there were a ton of hills. Some were so steep, I felt like I was going to have a stroke. I needed to stop often and chugged water to hydrate. Around another landmark on the ride, Harvest Valley Farms, a moment of pure bliss came over me when the slope shifted downward and the trees enclosed the road like a tunnel. As I descended, the cool wind sent chills across my skin. The hum of my tires lulled me into a trance as my speed increased.
A pair of gentlemen in their late 50s said as we rode together that they felt the person who created the route never had actually biked it. I agreed as SUV after gigantic SUV sped past us, which made the last portion of the ride seem more tiresome. Another pair, while eating lunch at the end of the ride, said they thought the route was poorly marked, causing one of them to go 6 miles out of his way.
The route ended at the North Park Ice Rink, where it began. Whole Foods served bratwurst in tender buns with grilled peppers and onions and tiny potatoes tossed in grainy mustard vinaigrette that reminded me of the roadside pebbles that pelted my shins for the last three hours. There also was a concoction of quinoa, kale and cauliflower florets, plus a slice of watermelon. North Country Brewing served up cans of ice-cold beer, and I snagged a Smiley Cookie, donated by Eat’n Park, before sitting down with the other riders. I devoured every bit of my meal as my heartbeat slowly returned to its normal pace.
The ride took me nearly three hours to complete. I was exhausted, sweaty and a little sunburned. But most of all, I was thrilled that I didn’t give up. I never did see the lady who gave me the valuable advice early in the ride. Someday, I hope to run into her again – just so she knows I didn’t die.
This story was originally published in the June 12, 2014 print edition of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.