On Sunday, June 1, I was signed up to volunteer at Velothon Philadelphia, the amateur ride that preceded the Philly Cycling Classic pro race. I needed to be there a little before 6am (the Velothon was scheduled to kick off at 6:30am, and riders had to be off the pro-race portion of the course by 8:30am). I really didn’t want to drive down to Philadelphia — I knew getting down there that early and finding parking would be no problem, but getting home in the afternoon would be a lot less fun, with roads closed for the race into the early evening. Another way to get into the city, for me, has been to drive over to Conshohocken and park near the Schuylkill River Trail, then ride my bike down the trail into Philadelphia.
However, lately I’ve been looking at the miles between home and the trail, and paying close attention to traffic on the local roads with an eye to figuring out which ones I feel safest riding. The planets aligned for me when one of my club rides circled right past my house and out one of the roads I had pegged as my best bet for riding — so I got to pre-ride my tentative route with friends, and that made it feel more do-able.
Of course, everything feels more doable when you’re riding in a group in the middle of the day. To get to Boathouse Row in Philadelphia in time for the Velothon, I left my house at 4:45 in the morning! It was still mostly dark, so I had a headlight on my handlebars, one on my helmet, and a bright, blinking red light on my rear. I had a small backpack with some snacks and a pair of comfy sandals so that I could hang out on Lemon Hill to watch the pros race after marshaling on the Velothon course. The ride down was a breeze — a chilly one, in fact! I found myself wishing I’d worn my full-finger gloves. My mind was taken off the chill, however, when my headlamp started showing me what’s in my usually-busy area that early on a Sunday morning: I saw foxes, deer, bunnies and, I’m almost positive, a coyote. (It was either a coyote or the biggest darn fox I’ve ever seen. However, after living in Arizona for 10 years and seeing my fair share of coyotes, I feel pretty confident calling it a ‘yote.)
I had no trouble getting over to the SRT and down to Manayunk, where I left the trail for roads. Riding through Manayunk prior to the race was really fun — the streets were full of workers setting up the barricades, and the flatbeds carrying the barriers and tow trucks hauling away the cars of people who had ignored the “no parking” signs and left their vehicles parked along the street. From Manayunk, I swept up Kelly Drive — again, had the whole thing to myself, aside from a few police vehicles and work trucks — and met up with my friends Kurt and Denise, who were coordinating course volunteers, near Lloyd Hall. I checked in, got my neon green volunteer t-shirt, a traffic flag and a map, and was sent out on the course.
The best part of volunteering was getting to pre-ride most of the course before the Velothon officially started. Yes, that means I got to ride the infamous Manayunk Wall! I almost made it all the way up without stopping — until I dropped the %$@! traffic flag! I had to stop, put a foot down and lean over to pick it up. I had started out the ride with the flag tucked into my backpack — but pulled it out because it was banging on my helmet, making it hard to turn my head to the left. I rode with it gripped in my right hand against the handlebar, and lost it when I shifted that one last time into granny gear. On the plus side, the spot where I stopped was midway up the Wall, where the grade eases out just a bit, so once I picked up the flag (and caught my breath), I was able to get myself started again. This is the first time I’ve ridden the wall without having to walk a portion of it!
A few minutes later, after the lovely “fall from The Wall” descent through Manayunk, I came to a right turn followed immediately by a split that was missing signage. I took the upper side of the split, my attention caught by police lined up across the top. Turned out they were there to prevent cars coming down from the busier road above, and I should have taken the lower side of the split. Shortly after that, I got a call asking me to stay at that split with my flag to direct Velothon riders down the right side of the split. And shortly after THAT, I got a message from a friend telling me that she’d seen me riding up the Wall — on the Channel 10 news! I actually said, “Aaaaaack!” out loud. She attached a picture of her TV screen with me in my neon volunteer finery, my bright blue backpack and traffic flag visible over my shoulder as I came up the crest of the Wall:
Aaaaack. I look so dorky! But I made it up the Wall, and that’s all that matters.
For the Velothon, riders could do as many laps of the course as they wanted — but had to be off the section of course used for the pro race by 8:30. Once I saw the sweep vehicle go past, I left the split and headed over to the portion of the course on the far side of the Schuylkill river. This portion wouldn’t be used for the pro riders at all, and I tooled around about 10 miles of the course before heading back over to Lemon Hill, where both of my cycling clubs (Suburban Cyclists Unlimited and the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia) had tents set up to hang out, watch the race, and publicize.
I spent the next several hours watching the pro women race, and being amazed (again and again, every year) at how easy they made it look. They surged up Lemon Hill like it was nothing! Friends, I have ridden that hill a few times myself and while it isn’t as long as the Manayunk Wall, I do not mind telling you that IT FELT LIKE A THING. I think it’s the combination of the steepness and the tightness of the curve, and if you’re not lucky enough to have a good amount of speed coming into it, you can really struggle on it.
After the men started racing, I started thinking about how long it was going to take me to get home — and just how I was going to get home, since I had ridden in on roads that were now closed. I knew it would be easy enough to ride up the multi-use path alongside Kelly Drive, just being careful to watch out for spectators along the way; but I had a feeling Manayunk would be more challenging, with heavier crowds. A couple other members of SCU were having the same thoughts, and three of us set out together. Getting up Kelly Drive was, indeed, pretty easy. We stopped and edged off the path when the pro men came around on their next lap, cheering for their impressive effort — they were hauling! It was so amazing, the ROAR that is made by all those skinny tires of a tightly-packed peloton at high speed.
Before too long, we made it up to Manayunk, where we hopped into the empty street and rode up until we were hollered off the course by police. We caught up to another rider doing the same thing; the crowds were thin enough in that area that our little three-person line continued riding up the sidewalk instead of dismounting. As the crowds got gradually thicker, however, I started getting more and more nervous about riding on the sidewalks. I hopped off the sidewalk to avoid one group of pedestrians, then saw the driveway for the Manayunk Brewery just ahead, and thought that would be a good spot to pull in, get off the course and out of the way of spectators to dismount and continue walking.
Unfortunately, I did a couple things wrong: I was going to slow, I had too much weight on my handlebars, and I hit the lip of the driveway at a far too shallow angle. Next thing I knew, my wheels were going sideways out from under me, and I was on the sidewalk. Bam! I was suddenly surrounded by cops and spectators asking me if I was okay. I was fine — more embarrassed than anything else! I got up and checked myself over — I had landed on my left side, and my hip took the brunt of the abuse. Luckily, I was going slowly enough that there was no ‘road rash’ — my shorts were intact, I had a mild scrape on my left elbow, and a quickly-forming bruise on my left hip and one on the heel of my right hand, where it must have slipped up and hit my brake hood.
After that, we wisely decided to walk the rest of the way, just a couple blocks until we could pick up the canal towpath that runs through Manayunk. We didn’t go far before I realized that my front tire was flat, and I was saved by the folks I was riding and walking with — while I’m perfectly capable of changing a tube, I realized I didn’t have anything to patch the tire where the lip of the driveway had rubbed right through it. With their help, we patched the tire, put in a new tube, and got it inflated so that I could ride home.
After that, the rest of the trip home was blessedly uneventful. In fact, I was having such a nice time riding up the SRT and chatting with my ride buddies, that I missed the road I needed in Conshohocken, and had to turn back! I got home a little after 4pm, making a full day indeed — and all of it either on or about the bike! Volunteering for the Velothon was great fun, and watching the pro racers was awe-inspiring.