The Thrill of the Mountain: Bicycling Down Chestnut Ridge - Doug Barnes

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Thrill of the Mountain: Bicycling Down Chestnut Ridge

Sign along roadside on top of mountain
Truck Warning Sign Atop Chestnut Ridge near Uniontown, Pa
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
In the 1970s my friend Dave and I were both new to road cycling. During one summer, several times a week we “pumped the mountain” on our new bikes. The mountain in question is what locals call "Three-Mile Hill." It’s hardly a hill.

At the top of Chestnut Ridge, Dave and I are sitting on the deck of the Summit Inn and resting from our climb up the mountain. The Summit Inn is a historic “porch” hotel that dates back to 1907. It sits atop the most western edge of the Allegheny Mountains near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. It sometimes is covered in clouds, but this day the weather is clear. Dave and I have a great view of the foothills below.

Summit Inn Hotel on top of Mountain
Historic Summit Inn at Chestnut Ridge near Uniontown, Pa
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
The resort hotel originally was built to accommodate newfangled machines called cars traveling on the National Pike or historic Route 40. This road actually was constructed in the early 1800s to unify a new nation. It was a toll road for charging horses, carriages, and wagons making the passage from the East to the Midwest. Today Route 40 has no tolls as that honor has been given to its successor, the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Interstate 70). Route 40 still carries quite a bit of local traffic.

Preparing for the Descent

Dave and I are quite relaxed, peering down towards Hopwood and Uniontown. The foothills below are becoming covered in a warm evening summer light, looking like God's country described by an 1816 traveler on the National Pike. Not far to the west is the Ohio Valley. Riding in the dark down the mountain would be quite dangerous, so our respite at the Summit Inn doesn't last long.
Rocking Chairs with Mountain View
Summit Inn Porch Overlooking Uniontown, PA
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
After about a ten-minute rest, we stretch our stiff muscles and carry our bicycles down from the deck. I follow behind Dave. I always look forward to riding down the mountain. It's my nightly reward for the day's hard work as a day laborer at my family’s lumber business (Cluss Lumber).

To ride down the mountain, Dave and I have to cross Route 40, a busy and fast 4-lane highway. To make the crossing even more difficult, the entrance to the hotel is just below the mountain crest. Cars zoom over this blind summit at 60 miles per hour. Since our first try months ago, we'd honed the technique for crossing Route 40 to perfection.

Dave counts down, “3, 2, 1. Go!” Seeing it's all clear, on "go," Dave and I in unison scamper across Route 40. Just as we reach the other side, two cars speed over the crest and whiz by paying no attention to us by the side of the road. By then, Dave and I have safely reached the other side and are happy to have survived another tense Route 40 crossing.

Now on the right side of the road, I straddle my bike and look back one more time at the Summit Inn. Its white exterior is bathed in soft amber light. We’d better hurry. Sunset is not far behind.

I clear my mind and enter a high level of concentration. I'm preparing for the precarious high speeds I'll reach on the 3 mile downhill as I race towards the foothills below. I know one slight mistake will lead to broken bones and twisted steel. This's serious business and not a time to relax.

Beginning the Mountain Descent

I look over at Dave and say, "Are you ready for--the thrill of the mountain?" This is what we call our nightly ride down to Hopwood from the Summit Inn. Without a word, Dave pushes off on his bike and starts the drop as if to say "Of course I'm ready."

I shout after him, "Hey, wait for me."

This descent is quite different from the curvy road down the backside of the mountain by Jumonville Glen and The Cross. The height of the descent is the same, but this four-lane highway is quite smooth with gradual turns allowing faster speeds.

The road is cut into a hillside. During the descent, the steep mountain is on the right-hand side. On the left, I have an open view of the rolling foothills below. I will cover the three miles from the top to the bottom of the mountain in less than 5 minutes and reach speeds of about 40 miles per hour.

The winds are very calm and the air is cooling down after a hot summer day--ideal conditions for bicycling. Traffic also is light. I know that at this time of night cars won't be moving much faster than us. Being pulled downward by the force of gravity all I see ahead of me is smooth pavement and a setting sun.

Sunset from top of Mountain in Western Pennsylvania
Sunset Viewed from Chestnut Ridge near Uniontown, Pa
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
At first, I take in the beautiful views. As I pick up speed this changes quickly. My wheels are spinning and running true. The road is a grey blur as it sweeps by under my feet. My tense hands grip the handlebars with fingers on the brakes with a kind of loose tightness. My feet are leveled on the pedals absorbing vibration from the bike frame. The speed-induced wind buffets my flapping clothes. My tee-shirt sounds like a snapping Tibetan prayer flag I'd heard and seen the previous year in Nepal. Fleeting downwards I roll around the gradual curves, ignoring the 10 mph truck and bus signs. As my speed builds up my senses are taking in images, sounds, and vibrations faster than my mind can process them.
Truck Speed Waring on Mountain Highway
Bus and Truck Speed Sign, Route 40
(Photo: Google Maps)

Riding Techniques

As my bicycle accelerates to about 40 mph, I fully focus on the road and the surrounding environment. I don't want to lean too far forward or too far back. This is because the slightest bump might send me sprawling to the ground. Therefore, I level my pedals and take some, but not all my weight, off my bicycle saddle. This evenly distributes my weight on the bicycle through my legs and arms. That way they can act as shock absorbers dampening the fast-moving road vibration.

For stability, I clamp the nose of the seat between my thighs. When speed gets too high for my nerves I don't squeeze my brakes. Instead, I rise up from my crouch position to expose my chest to the 40 mph wind. The wind pushes on my chest (at rates that increase exponentially with speed) creating a braking effect, reducing my speed.

I keep my hands poised on the brakes for an emergency stop. I scan the road ahead for even the slightest pavement defects so I can put my bike on a track to avoid them. Having ridden up and down the mountains many times, I know the road well. Still, I'm on alert looking for new cracks or potholes in the pavement.

Dave and I keep our distance from one another going down the mountain. Any change in speed caused by swerving or braking will mean an instant collision. This isn't the time for drafting like professional bicycle racers. Clipping wheels at 35 or 40 miles per hour would send both of us flying through the air.

The experience of riding a lightweight bicycle at 30 to 40 miles per hour with nothing but skinny tires between you and the road is intense, mind emptying. It puts me in touch with the basic forces in the universe--gravity, wind, kinetic energy. Plummeting down a mountain on a bicycle is nothing like being strapped in a roller coaster ride with people whooping and screaming. The intense concentration means enjoyment has to wait for afterward.

Up ahead the runaway truck ramp comes into view. I resist the urge to take it. The runaway truck stop climbs right up the side of the mountain. The road levels off a bit at the entrance of the escape route. After slowing down, the last mile is a steady straight decline. Without touching my brakes I speed onwards toward the bottom of the mountain. I begin to feel as if I am again in India, where the previous year I flew in a glider, smoothly floating down the warm currents of air from lofty heights, anticipating coming in for a landing.

Runaway Truck Ramp
Runaway Truck Ramp
(Photo: Google Maps)

Reaching the bottom

Arriving at the bottom, my momentum carries me swiftly into Hopwood. I actually feel like a runaway truck. As we slow down, Dave and I draw closer together and then begin riding in tandem, front tire to back tire. Dave and I start pedaling in unison in our highest gear to keep up our momentum. I can hear our chains rhythmically chattering at a high rate of speed over the front and rear gear teeth. Steel reverberates against steel, opposing forces uniting. I'm now cranking my pedals with a smooth, quick light force. In a blur of houses and cars, we sail through Hopwood towards Uniontown. Entering Uniontown, I'm back to reality.

View of 2 lane highway and mountians
View of Summit Inn from Hopwood near Uniontown, Pa.
(Photo: Doug Barnes)
I ride back home and shower. Afterward, Dave comes over and we visit our favorite restaurant for a bonus plate of spaghetti. Over the spaghetti, Dave and I reflect on our experience. I'm not sure I fully comprehend the somehow unifying force, the actual thrill, of the ride down the mountain. As much as I enjoy riding on open, flat roads, riding in the mystical mountains is on a more spiritual plane. I think about state forests with lush thick dark green trees creating deep shadows along with misty, swirling whitewater river rapids and waterfalls.

In my mind, I mull over the many sights Dave and I have seen from the seats of our bicycles during a magical summer. I see images of ghosts of fallen soldiers at Jumonville Glenn, which occurred in 1754 during a historic battle between the French and the English just before the French and India war. I remember riding by mysterious, dark bat caves that I had explored as a teenager (previously Delaney's Cave and now called Laurel Caverns). I remember the mind-emptying thrill of descending the mountains just before sunset, feeling a boundless sense of joy.

Compared to the more everyday treks in the foothills, my exploration of the mountains seems more like a sacred journey. During that long, endless summer Dave and I had experienced something extraordinary. We'd experienced glimpses of the soul of the Allegheny Mountains.

As a footnote, even after 45 years, Dave still rides up and down this mountain during the summer months. He also rests at what is now called the historic Summit Inn Resort. Dave no longer reaches 40 miles per hour on the mountain descent, preferring to use his brakes to check his speed. Even at a slower pace, he still enjoys the challenge of riding up, and the timeless thrill of riding down, the mountain.

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