Thursday, October 24, 2013

Snow is a Four Letter Word

The last couple of coffeeneuring trips have been in pleasantly unseasonal weather.  Last Friday I toyed with having a cold drink instead of the hot beverage that coffeeneuring was founded on because it was just a beautiful, sunny, warm day.  Waking up with temperatures in the 30's this morning, the ground wet and covered with leaves, and an anticipated high in the mid 40's felt much more in tune with the spirit of this adventure.

Once again I've skipped writing up the last few rides because there really wasn't much out of the norm on them.  We came, we rode, we went home.  I suppose some of the folks that attended the October bike party of "Flock Of Cycles" last week would qualify as unusual. We've seen some of these outfits before, but it's hard not to smile when they appear again.

Then again, seeing the Flock moving through the city at night with blinkies-a-plenty is unusual all by itself I suppose.  We certainly had a lot of inquiries from pedestrians on who we were and what we were doing.  I think we should print up flyers to hand out when someone asks, giving them the information so they can join us the next time.

We also witnessed the Duck Death March last Monday, as our beloved giant, rubber ducky departed Point State Park and headed down the Ohio River.

The city looks empty somehow without him.  In a few, short weeks I became very accustomed to seeing him floating by the Point with a constant stream of admirers photographing him from every possible angle.  Yeah, me included.  It was nice to see so many Pittsburghers willing to let their inner child out and enjoy something so simple as an oversized bathtub toy.

The replacement duck isn't quite cutting it.

Back to the Flock ride... I used the night ride opportunity to test out a new lighting option.  I think I like it.  Yes, it's a bit clunky and takes some figuring out to attach it to the bike, but I like the idea of a wider back light on the bike.  

There are different color lenses that I can use and the next time out I think I'll experiment with that.  The yellow lens at least offered a larger, more visible flag announcing my presence on the street.  I'm for anything that helps drivers see me.

So getting back to today, we ventured out in more seasonal weather for coffeeneuring event #5.  I set out on my own a little bit earlier in order to make a run to REI, then circled back to the trailhead to meet the others.  It was a might brisk, but I warmed up on the ride and thought it wouldn't be too bad.  That worked until I returned to the trailhead and stopped riding while I waited for the guys to arrive and unload their bikes.  Brrrr.  I started to cool off fast.  Happy once I got riding again, the only thing really suffering were my toes.  I had resisted the idea of using the toe warmers so early in the year, but that was foolish.  They would have felt so very good when it started to SNOW on the way to Highland Park!  Rats.  I could have been very happy to not see that stuff for another month.  As my one friend reminded me today though: two months to Christmas Eve.  At least it was just a light snow and didn't last long.
We rode out to Taza D'Oro in Highland Park.  I'd never been there before, but it's a very popular coffee shop.  They're very well known for their coffee, and their web site doesn't address non-coffee drinks so I wasn't expecting much choice in tea.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they actually had a decent selection of tea, plus hot chocolate and apple cider available for those of us that don't get coffee's appeal.  I went for the organic citrus green tea and asked for some lemon for it.  Couldn't resist getting an apple dumpling to go with it too.

The guys had come prepared to show me how to use my new chain repair tool.  I replaced my bike multi-tool recently with one that's a little more comprehensive than the simple one that I had started with.  RC brought along an old chain and we proceeded to remove links and reconnect chain until I felt comfortable with the process. Very glad to learn this inside a warm coffee shop and not on the side of the trail in the rain.

We departed Taza D'Oro with a little early Christmas shopping in mind and worked our way first to Pro Bikes in Squirrel Hill (because they carry Specialized) and then to Thick Bikes on the Southside (because they had some very cool looking new socks and because we really like this shop).  

We arrived back at the trailhead just as the sun was setting over the Ohio River and the temperatures were dropping.  Loaded the bikes and started for home and within 5-10 minutes I was in a moderate rain.  For once I was pleased to be off the bike.  That could have been pretty miserable.  Timing is everything.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can You Hear That Whistle Blow? A RORO Kind of Ride!

An unusual opportunity this morning put me on an Amtrak train for the first time.  I've ridden plenty of trains in Europe, but have never had any reason to try out Amtrak.  This was a great experience.

Amtrak was testing out the possibility of providing Roll On Roll Off (RORO) service for bicycles on the Capitol Limited between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.  The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) hiking and biking trail connects with the C&O Canal Towpath to offer a 335 mile continuous trail between those same two cities.  Each year this trail ride becomes more and more popular, attracting riders and hikers nationally and internationally.  All along the trail businesses supporting these cyclists and hikers are popping up and growing.  The trail towns are experiencing a much needed shot in the arm economically, and with each new growth spurt and trail improvement, even more people are drawn to the region.  There has been one drawback to this wonderful ride though: the logistics of starting at one end, finishing at the other and then trying to find a way to get yourself and your bike back to the start point.  As it currently stands, you can partially disassemble your bike, box it and ship it via Amtrak, Greyhound or an airline for various fees. Besides being inconvenient (and providing the opportunity for those of us less mechanically inclined to break something on the bike while taking it apart and reassembling it), you cannot remove the bike at an Amtrak station that doesn't have checked baggage service.  So, if you only wanted to ride the GAP - which starts in Cumberland, MD and ends in Pittsburgh, PA - you're out of luck because there is no checked baggage service in Cumberland.  Your other options include pre-positioning a vehicle or renting a car with a one-way drop off fee - both of which cost you significant time and/or money.

Having the RORO service on this line would open up all sorts of possibilities for cyclists.  It would not only be the people visiting the area just to ride this trail that would use and benefit from the service.  Local residents all along the trail could take advantage of it.  Although we may love riding the entire trail length, it's not always feasible and we don't always have enough time.  BUT - if we can board the train somewhere with our bikes and jump off at any station along the way, we can do day trips or weekend trips easily.

This test run offered those of us lucky enough to participate a chance to do one of those day trips.  It.was.a.blast!

Early in the morning, myself plus five other volunteers boarded the Capitol Limited in downtown Pittsburgh with our bikes.  The bikes varied from a large, full touring bike to a small, step through hybrid.  Some had racks and fenders, some were pretty clean.

We had received a diagram showing how the bike racks on the baggage car worked, so we knew that we would have to lift our bike and hook it in vertically ourselves.  I'm a whopping 5'  3.5" (around 112lbs) and I was able to do this.  I did, however, think ahead to remove the water bottles and handlebar bag and store them in a pannier that I took as carry-on luggage.

It took the six of us a bit over three minutes to load all six bikes and head for our seats.  We settled into the observation car, but since it was still before sunrise we didn't get to observe a lot on this ride.

We rode only to the first stop at Connellsville, Pa where we unloaded our bikes and watched six new volunteers board with their bikes.  That entire process - both unloading and loading - also took just over three minutes.  Now that I know how to do it, I'm very sure I could do it faster too.  My friend (that did this with me) suggested to the Amtrak representative that they install a rack in each of the stations so that potential passengers can stop by and learn how to use it ahead of time.  The PAT buses have done this around Pittsburgh - setting up the racks used on the front of the buses in various locations so people can figure it out before they try to board a bus.

The train ride itself was very enjoyable.  A relatively quiet, smooth, quick ride.  They had breakfast service available and several in our group took advantage of it.

Once off the train in Connellsville we began our bike ride back to the 'Burgh.  One of the other volunteers (Stu) was a friend from the Bike-Pgh message board that we've ridden around town on short rides with before.  He had never been on the GAP beyond the Riverton Bridge at McKeesport, so this was a new experience for him.  He rode back with us while the other three volunteers set out on their own.

We made a stop in Connellsville for some breakfast and snacks and then backtracked to the trailhead in order to show Stu the cool piece of public art positioned there.

"From Coke to Spokes" by Jody Best with help from Scott Hostetler, was placed here in 2012.  It connects the past with the present showing how the local economy has transitioned from the old coke ovens (which can still be seen along the GAP) to the new bike trail.  What would be smoke from the old coke ovens is transformed into bike wheels.  Very clever.

On our way out of Connellsville we stopped to admire one of my favorite things along the GAP - the stained glass arch you pass under as you enter the town from the west.

Connellsville has long been big in the stained glass industry.  I've come down here to buy glass for my own stained glass projects in the past.  This archway was done by artist Steve Fiscus in 2008, as part of the "Trail Town Public Art Program" that brought 14 pieces of art to 6 trail towns along the GAP.

We rode along for a while on an absolutely gorgeous, fall day.  It was hard not to love being out there riding along a section of trail that we would normally not see unless we were riding the entire trail to DC.  Sometimes we'll drive down to Connellsville and ride east through Ohiopyle State Park to Confluence and back for the day, but we usually don't ride between Connellsville and West Newton or Boston.

What a magnificent day!  Not much in the way of nice fall foliage, but since we haven't had a hard frost yet I wasn't really expecting a nice year for that.  That's OK.  I'll take riding in 60-70 degrees well into October and enjoy whatever the leaves are doing.

As most know, the GAP is a rails-to-trails project, replacing out-of-use railroad right of ways with recreational trails.  The old railroad lines often ran along industrial routes.  Near the old Pittsburgh & Lake Erie RR Station at Van Meter was the Darr coal mine - the site of one of the worst mining disasters in the world.  This memorial sits beside the trail near that location, remembering the men who died there.

We noticed that two lumps of coal had been left on top of the marker in accordance with a Jewish tradition of leaving a stone on a grave marker to show someone has visited to honor the memory of the dead.

In West Newton - site of THE best trail rest stop BTW - we passed "Rusty" or "Spike" - as this sculpture of a Pioneer made out of old railroad spikes is known - by artist Bill Secunda.  This was another one of the original 14 pieces in the "Trail Town Public Art Project".

After a stop at a nearby store, we went to the West Newton Station trailhead and sat on the front steps with our snacks enjoying the brilliant afternoon.  Temptation to buy another GAP bike jersey was placed in front of me at the gift/information shop there, but since I had not been able to do the "Point Made" ride last June I didn't think I should have the shirt from it.  I was interested in looking through the relatively new "Trail Photography Unlimited" in the old rail car, but unfortunately it was closed.  On such a beautiful day I have to guess that photographer Betsy Haag Mandarino was out taking some new and fabulous trail pictures.  Sorry we missed her.

Well rested and fed, we pressed on toward Pittsburgh.  We passed one of these markers and once again wondered out loud what they meant.

This time we had someone riding with us that actually knew!  Stu informed us that those markers told the engineers when to start blowing the whistle for an upcoming crossing.  TIL (Today I Learned) what the stone W markers were for.

We often encounter dogs on the trail.  Some on leashes, some running loose, some riding in baskets or trailers.  Only one other time have I encountered a cat riding along though.  Today we passed Al and Debbie out riding with their two cats, Lucy and Tommy.

We stopped to talk and they told us that the cats did this often with them.  Sometimes Tommy will ride in the basket, and they've taken them to the beach, to Presque Isle, and to ride in their boat along the Allegheny River.

They get a lot of disbelieving looks, but the cats seemed quite calm and happy to be out getting some fresh air.

We made it back to Pittsburgh to find that since we'd left in the morning, the Rivers Casino had installed their October Breast Cancer Awareness decorations again.

Thousands of brasiers strung together along the fences to call attention to Breast Cancer Awareness month.  We couldn't help but notice that the quality of the merchandise was not as high as it was last year.  Last year I saw a lot of expensive, lace covered, high end bras flapping in the breeze.  This year we looked and thought: "Granny Gear!".  Hmmm.  Maybe 70 miles on the bike was too much?

If you'd like to see this Roll On Roll Off service between Pittsburgh and DC become a reality, start writing letters to your congressmen, senators and Amtrak.  The more interest is expressed in having this service, the more likely we are to get it.  Send your snail mail to:

Amtrak Customer Relations
40 Mass. Ave., NE
Washington, DC 20002

Also, if you would put two additional copies of the letter in that same envelope - for the attention of Harris Cohen and the other for Derrick James - it would be very helpful.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What a nice day to Coffeeneur!

Starting out on the cool side, the weather slowly warmed up and we were shedding layers as we climbed up into Oakland on our way to Regent Square.

We stopped by the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill to see a sculpture out front by artist Daniel Kafri titled "The Menorah".  Inside we stumbled onto a bake sale and couldn't resist a pre-coffeeneuring treat.  The temptation was too great with all the fresh, kosher baked goods calling to us.

From there we continued on to our objective for the day: our second Coffeeneuring event of the season.  Our destination was the 61B Cafe in Regent Square.  The link actually takes you to the 61C's website.  61B is their new spin off coffee shop located along (you guessed it) the 61B bus route.  They opened this just one month ago and we'd been looking forward to checking it out.

Same type atmosphere as the 61C (where we coffeeneured last year), and same great quality.  They didn't have the apple cider I was hoping for when we stopped.  (Rats! I was looking forward to that.)  Even though the day was starting to warm up, I opted to try their steamed hot chocolate.  It looked like they used two different types of chocolate, ringing the inside of the glass with one of them.  I was afraid it was going to be overwhelmingly chocolatey, but it was perfect!  I believe this was the best hot chocolate I've had outside of my own kitchen.  Hmmm.  Maybe the best period.

Our only complaint was the absence of bike racks, which the barista seemed very interested in obtaining when we mentioned it. We suggested he start by contacting Bike Pittsburgh for that.

No, that's not whipped cream on top (I declined that), that's just the foam and it was so smooth and creamy you would have thought this barista had poured a perfect Guinness.

After coffeeneuring we road the obstacle course cut down into Frick Park to join the Nine Mile Run trail to the Duck Hollow Trail.  We were almost very unpleasantly surprised when we came up on a metal barrier gate that had swung down across the trail from an adjacent access road.  Wide, high and painted black - the gate was positioned perfectly to blend into the background and give a cyclist a concussion.  We stopped to try to move the gate, but it just swung back across the trail so we rummaged in our panniers until someone found something to flag this with.

Then we found a branch down across the Duck Hollow Trail, followed by the trail being blocked with utility poles at the six mile marker.

OK, the trail effectively ends at this point anyway right now, but it sure made it inconvenient.  It's bad enough to need to lift the bike over four railroad tracks in order to get to Second Ave.  Adding a couple of more obstacles is just annoying.

Back in the downtown area I split off from the guys to check out Market Square.  Next door I noticed that PPG Plaza was already setting up for the ice skating rink.  Considering it was another day in the 70's - sunny and beautiful - this looked very out of place to me.

Market Square, on the other hand, looked very seasonal with the Farmer's Market in full swing.

Everyone out having lunch in the square had entertainment provided by the Pittsburgh Opera too.

They've done a nice job of turning Market Square into a lively, attractive spot to meet friends, have lunch or just sit and enjoy a nice day.  It's come a long way from when it was better known as "Pigeon Square" when the birds were the only ones enjoying an outdoor meal.

Around the corner from the Farmer's Market I found the "Creped Crusaiders" food cart and decided on a savory snack of a chicken crepe with spinach and cheese.  From there it was a leisurely ride back to the car.

I still can't believe how fantastic the weather has been.  More than a week into October and we're riding in picture perfect conditions. I hope we don't pay for this next month.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Duck, Duck, Coffeeneuring

When I started this I planned to only write when I saw something interesting enough to warrant a post.  Thus the stretch of silence recently.  Last Friday we did ride into town to observe the arrival of the Giant Rubber Duck Project.  I opted to not write about it at the time because it seemed that everyone in the city had turned out to see it or write about it themselves.

Today it gets mentioned here only because today our interface with the duck had an interesting twist.  Today was the start of the Third Annual Coffeeneuring  Challenge, and the new set of rules allow for one instance of "Coffeeneuring without walls".  We just couldn't resist the idea of executing this with the Giant Rubber Duck.

For those of you who have never coffeeneured, I would invite you to check out the rules at the link above and consider trying it.  It's a fun way to spice up your rides and to motivate you to ride when the weather is starting to lure you into hibernation mode.

Today's weather was way too nice to require an extra push to get us on our bikes, but we still enjoyed doing something a little bit different.  We took a camp stove heater, extra water, tea and instant coffee and brewed our hot beverage at the Point while we watched the beginnings of the daily duck fan club forming.  After a week of floating in the Allegheny River, the duck's popularity remains strong.

The rest of our ride was pretty uneventful.  We departed the duck and headed out to the Waterfront in Homestead for lunch. About 31.5 miles worth of biking with gorgeous, unbelievingly beautiful, fall weather and great company.  Made it home before any of the showers started too.

If you haven't seen the duck (or too many pictures of it already) and want to see more, here're some photos taken last Friday when it arrived in the 'Burg.  Enjoy.