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Biking in Pennsylvania is an experience as varied as the state is large

Selene Yeager

Crossing the Susquehanna River

Riding across PA

Going off-road across PA

Biking across PA

In 2005, I biked across Pennsylvania and it almost killed me. All. Those. Hills. That said, I was also treated to rugged, beautiful small towns, verdant vistas and an incredible sense of accomplishment. This is a big state: We rode south across the border from New York to Carbondale, and then continued west through Towanda, Wellsboro, Coudersport and Smethport. And when we hit the Ohio border, it felt like a big deal.

Now that breadth means that there is a lot on offer for riders in PA -- whether they want those deceptively grueling and irresistible hills or urban adventure on the state's growing number of bike lanes and dedicated greenways. You can see mountains or you can stare out over the expanse of Lake Erie. You can ride on old rail trails or you can visit colonial battlefields. You can cruise up to a microbrewery or explore city neighborhoods.

Despite my explorations of the state's northern stretch and a half-decade spent tooling around Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore on my single-speed, to talk more broadly about bicycling in PA, I knew I needed reinforcements, so I reached out to a couple of the state's more avid riders. What follows are some tips for off-road riding, planning your trips and indulging in some two-wheeled adventure.

Off the beaten path

Many people still balk at road riding, and who can blame them -- navigating car-clogged routes requires a bit more patience and a watchful eye. Fortunately, as the greenway and rails-to-trails movements gather steam, there are an increasing number of options for the automobile averse. Thanks to increased awareness and federal funding through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program, you can travel great distances on reclaimed trails. 

West Philadelphia resident Miles Davidson recently rode across the state in an effort to clear the cobwebs after graduate school. 

"The idea of riding across Pennsylvania was something that was always at the back of my mind," says Davidson. "I've been in Pennsylvania six years. I went to college in Allentown at Muhlenburg."

Since the goal was low-stress riding, Davidson and his companion found alternative means of transport out of the city: one took SEPTA's regional rail to its terminus while the other got a ride to a parking lot in Lancaster. They convened in Gettysburg after a day of riding. From there, it was mostly off-road cruising, thanks to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) and the Great Allegheny Passage. The C&O, which actually runs just south of the PA/Maryland border, features 184.5 miles of towpath running west. At Cumberland, Maryland, you can pick up the Passage running north to Pittsburgh. (It is now possible to ride from Washington, D.C. to the Steel City completely off-road). There is free camping all along the route. 

The 150-mile Passage is seeded with crushed limestone. "It's the baby skin of rail trails," enthuses Davidson. "It was an old railroad grate, so it's totally flat. It feels like pavement." With the addition of the 52-mile Montour Trail, there is now a direct connection to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Of course, there are other places in the state to stay off-road, like on Philadelphia's Schuylkill River Trail (Davidson recommended a day ride out past Valley Forge to French Creek State Park). TrailLink.com has a map of the state's 127 rail trails, including several in central PA.

Best laid plans

There are a ton of resources for planning your next two-wheeled excursion, whether it's an afternoon ride or a multi-day affair. In southeast PA, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia offers a trove of online information in addition to organized rides and events. They provide maps and tips, and even run classes and workshops to teach responsible riding. And visit ConnecttheCircuit.org for information on the 750 miles of bicycle and pedestrian trails throughout Greater Philadelphia.

In the southwest part of the state, check out Bike PHG, an advocacy organization looking to modernize and green Pittsburgh's transportation infrastructure. They also provide maps and host events around local riding.

And fortunately, beyond the urban centers, more and more of this information is available online, consolidated at sites like the PA Cycling AssociationPA Rails to Trails, Explore PA Trails, PA Commutes, Pennsylvania Mountain Bike Trails (on singletracks.com) and PA Bike Highways.

If there's another locus of riding in the state, it's probably in the charming Lehigh Valley town of Emmaus, home to Rodale Inc., a global publishing giant, and that company's Bicycling magazine. (My stepbrother Greg Kaplan, an avid rider, works at Bicycling and directed me to some great resources). They have published stories about riding in nearby Reading (starting point of the publication's yearly 90-mile Fall Classic) and mountain biking in Huntingdon; in 2007, advocates started construction on 32-miles of singletrack trails on the shores of Raystown Lake. It is now one of the country's best mountain biking spots. 

Group outing

Bicycling columnist Selene Yeager, aka "The Fit Chick," has ridden pretty much all over the state.

"I grew up on the edge of the Poconos and pretty much just always rode my bike everywhere because I loved it," says Yeager. "Much later, as an adult in my 20s, I met some of the editors from Bicycling and started riding with them. Then I started racing. Now I'm on a team, Rare Disease Cycling that raises awareness of rare genetic diseases like Cystic Fibrosis. I've raced my mountain bike all over the world."

All it takes is a toe dipped into the riding world. If you've only ever been someone who rides around your town or neighborhood, one of the best ways to try out longer trips is through an organized outing. The routes are laid out for you, cars are at a minimum, and often there are snacks. 

In addition to the aforementioned Bicycling magazine Fall Classic, there are other amazing rides. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's Bike Fresh Bike Local ride started in Chester County, but the organization now hosts three rides -- the other two are in Allegheny and Centre counties. Registration opens on March 20. PASA teams up with local food purveyors and breweries to provide end-of-ride refreshments; the original route starts and ends at Victory Brewing

PedalPGH -- organized by Bike PGH -- celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, drawing 3,000 riders and raising $50,000 to make the city safer and more welcoming for cyclists. Like many of these rides, they offer a variety of distances; from five miles for families to a metric century (62 miles) for more ambitious participants. 

If you're looking for a bigger challenge, The Pennsylvania Perimeter Ride Against Cancer (PPRAC) is a six-day ride that starts in a far flung place -- last year it was Portland, Maine -- and finishes in Palmerton, Pa.

But maybe the best thing about riding in Pennsylvania is that you never know what's going to happen. Davidson's best memory from his trip was an afternoon spent with a six-pack and a pizza on a levy overlooking a river. Yeager has seen her own serendipitous moments.

"I did this crazy ride called the Lu Lacka Wyco Hundo [in the Wyoming Valley] which was amazing because it was on all these remote roads where no one ever rides," she recalls. "It was brutally hard...lots of guys were just getting shattered. At some point, a pickup truck with some guys in it pulls up to a group that is obviously dying up a huge dirt road climb to the sky and offers them beer. They stopped and took some. It was a good day."

"Pennsylvania is rolling and beautiful," Yeager continues. "Whenever someone comes here from the West or Mountain states, they're shocked how challenging it is. We don't have 10 mile climbs, but we climb all day long, just up and down and up and down. The mountain biking is technical and rocky and fun. The state's biggest asset is the sheer number of roads. I still haven't ridden every road in my neck of the woods."

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Keystone Edge and Flying Kite Media, she pretends that she hates hills.
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