The Covered Bridge Metric Century
By the time it started raining, I didn’t care anymore. Nothing was going to ruin this day. We had biked through five or six covered bridges, the Amish farms were spectacular and the Amish themselves were plentiful on the rural roads as they turned out for church in their traditional conservative attire in their horses and carriages. Their conservative approach to life a marked contrast to the 2,000 brightly clad cyclists riding past them in skin-tight lycra on exotic carbon fiber bicycles. It made for a beautiful and thought provoking 62 miles.
This in a nutshell is the Covered Bridge Metric Century.
Now in its 39th year (2016) the ride is well established and well known throughout the U.S. and I’m sure, beyond. But it wasn’t well known to me until I saw a fellow rider wearing the jersey at the Chocolate Tour — another ride that capitalizes on the rolling bucolic countryside in and around Lancaster, Pa. I asked him about the ride and when he told me there were a half dozen covered bridges, I signed up.
So a couple of weeks later, it was back to Pennsylvania, about four and a half hours from our home in Virginia. It seemed strange that Mary and I had traveled so often to marathons and half marathons when running was our primary fitness focus, yet had done very few trips since we turned primarily to cycling. This was an easy weekend trip, and as empty nesters I hoped it would be the beginning of a new trend. The weekend did not disappoint and I’m cautiously optimistic that many more such trips are in our future.
As it turned out the Covered Bridge Metric would be the largest ride in which we had participated to date. A member of the Lancaster Bicycle Club told me the event was capped at 2,000 this year but had reached a high of 4,000 participants in the past. “There were just too many cyclists on the road,” she told me as I crunched on an excellent locally made Hammonds pretzel at a rest stop.
I could see her point. This was the first ride we had done where there were other cyclists around us for the entire distance. The roads were not clogged by any stretch of the imagination, but if the riders doubled in number it could have been troublesome for drivers.
Riding the Ride
I knew the event was popular when we pulled into the parking lot and there were volunteers with orange flags pointing the parade of bike-carrying cars into the various parking lots of the HACC Lancaster Campus that served as the starting point. It’s not like there was a single flag person. There were at least half a dozen — pointing us into the various parking lots, all of which seemed to be nearing capacity.
I have to admit that I was a bit panicked when I saw all the people because I really wanted to purchase one of the official ride jerseys. We signed up too late to order ahead, but the website said there would be some available for purchase on site. Mary and I scrambled to put on our bike gear, then rode over to the check in area. The merch table was in the same tent and they still had some jerseys left in our sizes. My worry that all the people in the parking lot also wanted one was for naught. Whew.
The thing about Amish country is that it’s like someone created a little world within the big one the rest of us live in. Oh sure, there are cars and roads, and amenities that are not Amish, but when you look at how the dairy farms are flourishing in a time when farmers are calling it quits across the country, you have to admire not just the tenacity, but the success.
Click here to view my Strava from the ride including an interactive map:
On a bicycle, it’s a joy to be in this world. The course is a big loop and honestly after a while it all begins to look the same, one beautiful home or farm after another with gorgeous flowers in the garden and huge fields of corn and soybeans. Many of the pastures held mules. One had a sheep and several lambs. Others had beautiful horses. The road undulates with true rolling terrain, but I can tell you there was not a single memorable hill anywhere in the 62 miles. Just mile after mile of those beautiful farms, and minimal strain between you and the pedals.
The Amish were on display big time on this morning. I’m guessing because it was Sunday, and they were headed to church at the same time we were there to tour their world. I would guess we saw no fewer than 50 families out in their horse drawn vehicles. Many of them were pulling out of driveways during the early portion of the ride, and I remember one man leading a horse across the road, presumably to hitch it up to the buggy.
Most interesting to me, however, was the number of Amish riding bicycles. Boys and girls and younger men and women could be seen riding bikes behind the horse and carriage which presumably carried their parents. I wondered if this was the Amish version of other American kids not wanting to be seen in the mini-van with their parents. At any rate there was certainly a marked contrast between our brand of cyclists in spandex, and the Amish riders wearing their traditional clothing.
They were using drab colored greenway style bikes bikes for transportation — as a way to get to church and enjoy community and fellowship. And here we were — our own sort of community, riding bikes that cost thousands of dollars in pursuit of recreation or fitness. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered how they could ride in not just street clothes, but their Sunday best. Many of them must have wondered why we felt the need to don skin tight clothes and elaborate jerseys, just to go for a ride in the country. Somebody looked silly on a bicycle that day, but I’m not sure who.
(I wanted to take photos of this, but I had been cautioned that the Amish prefer not to have their photos taken. I opted for being respectful of the rule, but at some point, with proper permissions — I’d like to do a whole photo essay on this.)
The Covered Bridges
I was fortunate to grow up in Salisbury Center, NY, which has it’s own covered bridge. It’s a point of pride for my little hometown, and so these bridges have always held a special place in my heart. It’s no surprise, then that I was thrilled every time this ride passed through one of these treasures. I lost track, but we crossed through five or six of them. I stopped at the the first couple to take pictures, but for the remaining ones, I wanted the thrill of just riding up and passing through. I wanted to experience the opportunity in the moment. Stopping to take pictures has a way of ruining those “moments.”
The lore of covered bridges is much more interesting than the truth about why they were built. For most of my life I believed it was a place for travelers to take refuge from the weather. Other popular theories were that the structures looked like barns to keep animals from spooking, or to keep the snow off. But according to the website Pennsylvania Covered Bridges, the real reason was to protect the timbers from the weather so they would last longer. Not as romantic, but it works.
According to the website, Pennsylvania was the last state to stop building the bridges and therefore still has more than any other. At one point Pennsylvania had as many as 1500 covered bridges and today, according to the website it has 212. We of course were thrilled to see the handful encountered by this ride.
After a while I began to get a sixth sense about when we were about to find a covered bridge. Ok, duh, riding along beside a small creek or river was a pretty serious clue. But many of the roads followed creeks for great distances without crossing them. Typically when the road got narrower you would get the feel that another bridge was just around the corner. Usually it was. They were all single lane, so you had to watch out for cars on the other side. Only once was that an issue for Mary and me.
Bikes and Weather
The best ride in the world can be ruined by weather. Since I work in TV news, I have access to perhaps too much information. The ride was on Sunday morning and we were leaving on Saturday. So on Friday night I asked the station’s chief meteorologist what he thought about our chances for a rain free ride. He pulled up some maps that only those people understand, and started making funny faces. “What time are you riding?,” he asked. I told he we would be done by about noon. “Ride fast.” he said.
Sure enough the day dawned overcast and the talk at the start was about the weather and “riding fast.” For most of the ride, the clouds were welcome as they kept the temperature down. The humidity was through the roof, however and the sweat started pouring pretty quickly, despite temps in the 70’s.
I had hoped to roll off the line at the earliest allowed start time of 7 am — but thanks to my need for the new jersey and other various procrastinations, it was 7:35 before we began pedaling. I should not have been surprised when at exactly noon, it started raining. We only had five miles to go. But the finish might as well have been on Mars. There was no way to complete the course anything but soaked.
By then it didn’t matter much. We’d been sweating all morning and wet is wet. The course, the bridges and the Amish has all been very entertaining and for once I was nearing the end of a longer ride without suffering. (See Cycling in Vermont.) Given my issues with cramping and dehydration during other rides this summer, I’ll take five miles of rain any time.
Back in the parking lot the circus tent that served as home base was full of people enjoying the complimentary lunch, and perusing a small expo. Mary and I enjoyed a sandwich before riding back across campus to our car and heading home. An empty nest adventure in the books.