Sur La Plaque!

Bicycles, beer and other self-indulgent ruminations.

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Digits: By the Numbers

Transit Data:

Total Miles: 4,826 (From Yorktown, Virginia, to Astoria, Oregon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Astoria, Oregon: 5,187 )
Total Days Out: 71
Days Riding For Forward Progress: 61
Average Daily Miles: 76
Days Over 100 Miles: 8
Fewest Miles/Day: 24 (Fairplay to Breckenridge (Colorado))
Most Miles/Day: 137 (Prineville to Eugene (Oregon))
Average Day: 6:10
Shortest Day: 2:50 (Charlottesville to Afton (Virginia))
Longest Day: 9:33 (Prineville to Eugene (Oregon))
Average Speed: 12.7 m.p.h.
Slowest Day: 9.8 m.p.h. (Council Grove to Newton (Kansas))
Fastest Day: 16 m.p.h. (Eads to Pueblo (Colorado))


Flats: 1 (4 miles outside Eugene, Oregon)
Tires Consumed: 1 (worn down to cords outside Eugene, Oregon, after nearly 5,000 loaded miles)
Chains Consumed: 1 (replaced in Boulder, Colorado)
Brake Pads: Used one set of Kool-Stop Salmons all the way across.
Broken Spokes: 0
Helmets Worn: 3 (traded in broken Scattante helmet for a Giro in Boulder, forgot Giro in Boulder when headed back on the trail, bought Specialized helmet in Breckenridge. Woof.)


Weight Lost: 4.5 pounds (154.5>150)
Jars of Peanut Butter: 7
Pop-Tarts: Close to 200 toaster pastries
Sour Patch Kids: 3.5 pounds
Gallons of Chocolate Milk: Dozens
Ice Cream: Not nearly enough
Hills Walked: 0
Ferries Ridden: 2
Motel Stays: 0
Dog Chases: Many
Dog Bites: 0
Truly Terrifying Motorist Interactions: 0
States Traversed: 10 (13, including GAP and C&O)
Continental Divide Crossings: 7 (The TransAm has you cross 9 times, but I skipped a pair in Yellowstone)
Birthdays: 1 (26 in La Crosse, Kansas)

Encore: Getting Home (Astoria to Portland)

One thing’s for sure: I’m not pedaling back.

This morning, I bought an $18 bus ticket to Portland. The ride’s about two hours, and you can depart at 8:30 a.m. or 6 p.m. I’d prefer to take the early bus and have all day to bum around Portland, but the ticket agent said she couldn’t guarantee room for my bike, so I decided to ship it home out of Astoria. Unfortunately, with Bikes and Beyond opening at 10 a.m., my 6 p.m. fate’s sealed.

After a leisurely breakfast and coffee (what do you mean I don’t need to ride today?), I headed over to the bike shop. They’ll break down and box your bicycle for $50, or give you a box and loan you a pedal wrench for free. I elected for the latter and promptly blocked a large portion of the sidewalk dismantling my Cross-Check. Besides my tire irons and pump, this is the first occasion I’ve had to break out my tools. I’m very pleased with its performance since leaving Pittsburgh about 5,200 miles earlier. Off came the pedals, racks, wheels, fenders, sideways went the handlebars as I carefully packed everything in the roomy box. Bikes and Beyond provided a bunch of bubble wrap and foam to protect components, as well as a plastic fork brace and axle covers to keep the wheels from punching holes in the cardboard. The shop charges 15% of the UPS shipping rate as its fee — very reasonable. Scott, the owner, said it’d probably be between $100 and $150 to send the bike to Pittsburgh.

With the bike squared away, I spent the next hour or so hoofing it up the Astoria Column, a 125′, 164 spiral-step structure that grants great views of the Columbia River, Oregon, Washington and the Fort Clatsop area. You can buy a balsa-wood airplane and watch it glide for a seeming eternity. Then, back to the waterfront, where I picked up a load of postcards and a lunch tip: fish and chips at the Bowpicker. The converted fishing ship offers fried Albacore tuna and fries. I waited in line for just over an hour, and I’m glad I did.

It’s strange, and not a little nauseating, to be on a bus traveling 70 m.p.h. to Portland. We retraced some of the ground I’d pedaled through over the previous two days. Once in Portland, I took another bus to meet my Esther and Timo, my Warmshowers hosts for the night at a local brewery. I really wish I had my bike with me: Portland’s really bike friendly, and hauling around a duffel that has room for a body (probably two with a little dismantling) was less than pleasant. The beer was fresh and the conversation nice. Two of their friends joined us for beers. Paul and Caroline pedaled across on the Northern Tier a couple of years ago as their honeymoon. Paul and I made plans for an early breakfast at Pine Street Biscuit before the brunch crush descends. With conversation turning to favorite brunch locales, I felt big-city home.


Thirty-Nine: Hypoxia (Fairplay to Breckenridge)

Miles: 25

It was in the forties this morning when I struck out from Fairplay. Forty-four degrees in July. I broke out my long-sleeve wool t-shirt for the first time and layered it under my rain jacket, though it was most definitely not precipitating.

There’s a nice six-mile bike path between Fairplay and Alma. I felt stiff and slow, from the temperature (the first time I’ve been cold on the trip), and the 1,000′ gain didn’t help. But I’m in no rush. Alma’s America’s highest incorporated town (10,578′). All kinds of superlatives: highest saloon, highest coffee shop, highest bar (Alma’s Only), highest dispensary (“Get your rec before Breck”) I was excited about a cuppa, and heard from a shower-goer this morning in Fairplay that the coffee was good. I pulled in about 7:10 a.m., 10 minutes after opening and they just tapped the second urn. A good sign.

I lingered over coffee and waited for the mercury to rise before the final 1,000′ climb to the top of Hoosier Pass. It’s a four-mile climb, and the southern face is an easy ascent, with good sight lines, limited switchbacks and little traffic early on Sunday. While tall, it’s not nearly as tough as some of the climbs in Virginia or Kentucky, or even Currant Creek Pass just outside Guffey. Still, it’s the highest point on the TransAm (11,540′), and a milestone.

The descent was a treat. Looking at the back of the map, it’s downhill from Hoosier Pass all the way to Kremmling, more than 100 miles. It’s not a straight shot down the north face — there are tight turns and switchbacks to negotiate. I had a blast, and with few cars on the road, bombed down taking the lane for miles at a time.

I met my sister in Breckenridge at the public library (closed, but with great outdoor seating, wifi and electricity). These perks drew Jason, a Chrysler-Concorde-piloting vagabond from just outside Richmond, Virginia. He drives to an area of national forest, parks and hikes for a few days before coming back and picking a new place to explore.

Time for an intermission in Boulder, land of granola eaters and soft cotton towels. Back to the trail in a week or so.

One: Zero Mile (Yorktown to Glendale)

Miles: 62
Total: 62

A note on mileage: I round to the nearest mile, and I’ve reset the trip meter, so my GAP/C&O mileage is not reflected. Add 360 miles if you’re curious about distance since I left Pittsburgh on May 27, 2014.

French toast’s my send-off breakfast bread of choice. Actually, it’s my breakfast bread of choice regardless of the situation. The perfect fuel for running around last minute and definitely not something I can cook on a Jetboil in camp, it holds a special place in my heart. I packed last night, so after breakfast the panniers went in the trunk, the bike on the roof and me in the front seat. Yorktown ended up being just under three hours away on the interstate, something I won’t travel on again till Wyoming when my Adventure Cycling maps take me on I-80 for about 15 miles between Sinclair and Walcott.

The TransAmerica Trail starts in Yorktown, Virginia, at Yorktown’s Victory Monument and heads across 10 states before finishing at the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Oregon. But that’s a ways off. The Continental Congress authorized creation of the monument in October 1781 upon news of the British surrender, though construction wasn’t completed till 1884 (Begun in 1881. How’s that for government efficiency?). The monument’s 98′ tall, 14′ attributed to Lady Liberty II perched atop the pillar. The First Lady was severely disfigured by a lightening strike in 1956.

My Mom ran today’s shuttle service to the coast (thanks again!), and while we contended with a dark sky, the storm passed without incident. Phew. We said goodbye, and I took off for Glendale, stopping for a photo with my wheel in the York River. No, it’s not strictly the sea, but it’s salty, it’s tidal and pretty darn close. It’s a cross-country cycling tradition to dip your wheel in the water on either coast to bookend the trip. Say a little prayer for my bearings.

With an afternoon start and 60 miles to go, I pretty much just turned the cranks — not a whole lot of sightseeing. Along the Colonial Parkway I exchanged stiff, salt-tinged winds for quieter, sun-dappled shade. In Williamsburg the road passes through a tunnel that doesn’t allow bicycles, so I detoured through Colonial Williamsburg, which was really neat. Lots of families and school/summer groups wandering the period-correct streets. Conversely, cars aren’t permitted in the village, so I was the fastest thing on the road.

In addition to colonial and revolutionary history, the area saw considerable Civil War action — a parallel from my GAP/C&O trip. In fact, the church I’m staying in tonight served as a hospital during the war and there’s a battlefield cemetery just down the road.

Adventure Cycling maps tend to take you along scenic, low-traffic roads deliberately, often in a way that absolutely bamboozles the natives. You just have to give in and submit to the map. You’re usually on road, though, playing in traffic, which is why the Capital Trail, which parallels Route 5 was an unexpected, if incomplete, joy. Patchy in places — it sends you out to the road before welcoming you back with big, strong, paved arms a couple miles down the line, repeatedly. Not sure about the battered-woman approach to trail building — maybe access is still in negotiation or the state’s working on the less challenging bits first.

Regardless, it it was a nice break from the road, though traffic was light and nearly all of the drivers extremely courteous.

Other than a chocolate milk stop, I wasn’t off the bike other than the occasional stretch, but my maps list points of interest. While I didn’t visit, I found this one interesting:

Sherwood Forest Plantation: Historic 1780 home of 9th U.S. President John Tyler. The only home to be owned by two presidents, the other being 10th U.S. President William Henry Harrison.

— Adventure Cycling Map 149, Section 12

Remember that for your next bar trivia session.

I’m stopped tonight at Willis United Methodist Church in Glendale, right on route. The church has a bicycle ministry program that includes hosting bicycle tourists and exceptional hospitality (a place to sleep inside, kitchen access, a shower, wifi, A/C, etc.). It’s just me tonight, but Mark Rooks, the pastor, told me they’ve had more than 100 folks through already. I’m getting a late start! Westbound, the TransAm’s passable starting in early/mid May, so I have some catching up to do. But that can wait till tomorrow.

Bike specs, and a first-draft answer to “why?”

Strange things happen when you tell people you’re planning for a tour. Probably it’s partly my fault for saying, “I’m going on a long bike ride,” but what else do you say? When the conversation turns to where/how long/why, the inevitable drift toward the sentiment of how far I’m going/why am I doing this/don’t I have better things to do (read: responsibilities)/where will I sleep/won’t I be killed by bloodthirsty degenerates is a little odd. After all, I haven’t done anything yet. I’ve done a fair bit of plotting, planning and preparation, but haven’t turned a single mile on the TransAm route. It’s pretty much exactly like being congratulated for landing on the moon when you’re in Florida, strapped to a Saturn V on top of 2 million liters of fuel and oxidizer. Yeah, if all goes well it’s going to be a pretty nifty trip, but there’s still 240,000 miles between you and the Sea of Tranquility.  I’ve got the Pacific Ocean in my sights, but there’s 4,300-plus miles and a handful of loose dogs separating us. So, feel free to call me Neil.

It’s tough when folks ask “why?” The easy, smart-ass retort is “why not?” Snappy and superficial, while imbuing me an undeserved vagabond aura of spontaneity, this is not wrong —  just incomplete. The answer — as best I’ve puzzled it out — is that the whys outweigh the why-nots right now.


To others of you reading who have thought of adventure, just go. Don’t say “someday”. Set a date, make your plans and go. There will always be reasons not to go, but don’t let those reasons rule you. You can overcome them. Everyone should have adventure in their life.

John Meiners in “Going Across” (An excellent journal on the most excellent CGOAB site)


I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t have a car payment. I don’t have children (AFAIK). I do have a fabulously understanding girlfriend and my health. I left a solid job on good terms in November, and that was the big catalyst. When you read about folks’ extended tours, it’s a fairly bimodal distribution. You have the young (college students, high school/college grads, etc.) and your old (retirees, empty-nesters). Life happens in the middle, and other obligations can pull you away — if you don’t push back.

Here’s the obligatory build-out of the bicycle, for my records and those who are into specs and gear. Packing and equipment lists to come.

Frame and fork: 2010 Surly Cross-Check.

Wheels and tires: 36-hole Velocity Dyads/Tiagra hubs (machine built; stress-relieved), 700x32c Schwalbe Marathon.

Drivetrain: Suntour MTB crank (46/36/24), Ultegra FD, Deore XT RD, SRAM 12-34 cassette, KMC chain, Shimano M520 pedals.

Components: 42 cm FSA Gossamer Ergo bars, Soma brake levers, Dura Ace bar-end shifters, Fizik tape, Chris King headset, adjustable Ritchey stem (Yeah, I know. Shameful.) Thompson seatpost, Selle Anatomica TransAm saddle, Paul Cantilever brakes (front: Neo-Retro, rear: Touring) Kool-Stop Salmon pads.

As I discussed earlier, the bike was an eBay score. It’s sure looks different now.


Reunited, and it feels so good

Katharine dialing in my newly coated CC at Kindred Cycles in the Strip.

Katharine dialing in my newly coated CC at Kindred Cycles in the Strip.

As I readied myself to leave the house yesterday morning for work, a quick look at the sky told me I’d stay dry as long as I hustled. Well, I must not have hustled hard enough (sorry, Ace Hood), because I got drenched as soon as I turned off of Negley onto East Liberty Boulevard. For the rest of my commute, I was soaked. And starting your day with soaked clothes and shoes is kind of the worst (no one ever tells you just how heavy wet denim is). And I know, cotton kills. Still standing. Luckily, I work at a brewery with, shall we say, a flexible dress code. My lovely girlfriend delivered dry socks and pants on her way into work, which was a godsend, but I would have done truly heinous things for a bicycle with full fenders. I was on my CAAD5 track bike, which is good — stiff — fun, but not a great rain ride. I’ve been on it for the past week or so as I have my Cross-Check (with fenders!) powder coated and overhauled in preparation for my TransAm trek. Well, I got it back yesterday, and I couldn’t be happier.

During planning for my move to Pittsburgh, I decided I wanted a better city bike. Something that could haul a few groceries, accept fenders and serve as a little bit of an urban-assault machine. At the time, I owned a 2011 CAAD 10-3 and a 2003 CAAD 5 track bike, which, while bitchin’ in their own right, didn’t quite fit the bill. I test rode a Cross-Check at Thick Bikes in Pittsburgh, and enjoyed it. After prowling eBay and Craigslist for a bit, I landed on an older (no low-rider rack fork mounts) black 56 cm Cross-Check that’d been tuned up and turned into a bit of a gravel grinder. It seemed like a great deal, so I put a bid in. It’s been a fun ride around town, but set up a little funky and not quite an ideal touring rig (inasmuch as a Cross-Check can be an ideal touring rig — you can look forward to a post on my existential touring bike crisis before traveling a single loaded mile). I knew I needed to replace the crank with something a little more suitable. It came with an Octalink FSA carbon triple (53/39/30) and my Dad had a NOS Suntour 46/36/24 square taper on hand, which he offered up. So, since I don’t have the tools for those BB standards, and I wanted to change the bike’s color anyway, I jumped on the opportunity to get tuned up. The bike went to Kindred Cycles (complete with CC photo!), a new bike shop in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, opened by Katharine Jordan and Aaron Stein. They did a great job stress relieving and touching up my new machine built wheels, as well as a complete bicycle overhaul/crankset installation. I took the frame and fork to Dylan’s Coatings in Plum, and couldn’t be happier with the work. With extremely competitive pricing and a two-day turnaround, I couldn’t go wrong. Aaron and Katharine said this was one of the cleanest powder coatings they’d seen. Mark at Dylan’s protected all the threads, bosses and faces, so the frame required minimal facing and chasing. I picked it up yesterday, after the rain’d passed, but can’t wait to get some miles on it at this weekend’s NYC Five Boro tour. I’ll put together a future post with the obligatory build out, but for now, I’m happy to be able to put the hammer down in my new 46-tooth big ring. Watch out.




Pipes and coke: Getting in the swing of things

Homestead's Waterfront.

A vestige of U.S. Steel’s Homestead plant.

Today was the first nice weekend Pittsburgh’s seen in quite some time. Spring has sprung; they’re calling for snow Tuesday. Whatever. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. At any rate, I got a great ride in — one of the first longer treks of the season — a little more than 40 miles out and back from Lawrenceville to just past McKeesport, Pa., where the GAP turns from fabulous asphalt into crushed limestone (acres better than the C&O, especially toward Cumberland). I should be riding my Cross-Check to get some miles on my TransAm bike, but with a day this warm, I couldn’t help myself: I grabbed my CAAD10 and hit the road. I’d been down the GAP before, but never quite this far. Usually my destination is Homestead’s excellent Taqueria, Smoke. Usually with a substantially slower return leg.

The other reason for this trek was to capture enough pictures to put a gallery up here on Sur La Plaque!. So, here’s the first edition. Still working on some formatting, but very happy with PUPS‘ ability to batch upload photos from my iPhone 5S to WP’s servers.

While making an effort to take photographs, I was reminded over and over again about this part of Pennsylvania’s past. Growing up in an anonymously and pleasantly generic Northern Virginia suburb — Fairfax County — I’m still getting used to the heavy industry in Pittsburgh and its surroundings. The photoset reflects that. A favorite shot is the image of smoke stacks juxtaposed with an advertisement for The Waterfront, Homestead’s answer to U.S. Steel’s 1986 closure of the plant (the site of a rather dramatic 1892 labor strike and the source of more than one-third of America’s Steel during WWII). This area is home to a host of big-box stores, a multiplex and restaurants, but, barring the backdrop of the Monongahela River and a few fossilized heavy-metal behemoths, it could be Anywhere, U.S.A.

Usually, rail trails are built on abandoned rail beds, and while that may be the case along portions of the GAP trail, lots of rail line is still currently in use. I saw hundreds of coal and tanker cars along the path, including entertainingly named “Coke Express” units, perhaps bound for Clairton Coke Works, America’s largest coke-producing facility. I didn’t make it quite that far today, but I did spy a U.S. Steel United Tube Company building, which hopefully explains all the pipe stacked along the GAP from Homestead clear into McKeesport.

Inspiration, and the stigma of .net

Sur La Plaque! What the heck is that? A Sur La Table dental spin-off? Boo-hiss. No. Actually, according to the self-proclaimed “keepers of the cog,” the Velominati:


SUR LA PLAQUE // French for “Put that thing in the big ring, fucktard.”

(Literally, to move Sur La Plaque means to move onto the plate, or the BIG RING.)

I always found the sadomasochistic aspect of pleasure-is-pain intriguing. Read into that however you will. I’m planning to ride my bike across the country, starting in roughly a month’s time, and decided that I would do the world a great disservice by keeping the experience to myself. Hi, Mom! That means finding a suitable podium on which to stand. WordPress seems to be that upturned fruit box. Because (a) I want to spare you from display ads, dear reader, and (b) ego precludes me from settling for a subdomain, here we be, with a basic membership.

Surlaplaque dot COM would have been perfect: just the right amount of foreign intrigue, topicality and sarcasm, considering I’ll probably be weaving up hills in a 24×34 granny gear, pushing a whopping 19 gear inches.

Alas, try out for yourself. An elegant redirect. We’ll settle for .net. It’s like eating at Qdoba when you know there’s a Chipotle around the corner. Let me be your fast-casual Mexican restaurant of last resort.