Wednesday, September 06, 2006

BBB Archive 1/23/06: Benepe's Bike Goes to Philly

Benepe's Bike Goes to Philly
January 23, 2006
If you thought New York City was the best and last place to ride, think again. In fact, think Philadelphia. I traveled to Philly on Friday night with my trusted steed, the Benepe bike on the top of my Subaru, stayed overnight with a friend, and the next morning rushed over to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, located on 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for a 9 a.m. ride start. As custom has it, at the front of the steps facing south, you can meet up with a fast, challenging ride, and in the parking lot at the back of the museum (facing north), you can find a slower ride group.
On Saturday, we met up with a group being led by Team Amorosa President, Ron Ruggiero. As Mike Dee, who heads up the Elite Bicycles racing team of Philadelphia said, the ride is called "The Front," and is a race-oriented group that typically has eight to 20 riders, and "does longer, more intense rides." The main sponsor of Team Amorosa is a large bakery based in Philadelphia, and the team boasts almost 200 members around the region, including some as far away as Trexlertown. Said Dee, "they are super successful and have had many nationally and internationally ranked riders come from their group."
Fortunately for us, Saturday was unusually warm, later hitting a balmy 60 degrees. The group consisting of almost equal numbers of women as men started off at a fast 20-m.p.h. clip and didn't let up for three hours.
We traveled along Kelly Drive on the Schuykill River, riding up through Manyunk, a pedestrian and bike-friendly, high-end shopping area, and crossed over the river to our first few miles of climbing. Most of the roads were small and winding, and took us through the suburbs to the west of Philadelphia, past large, wealthy homes, shaded tree areas, and through abundant twists and turns. A few riders dropped off as we took a turn up what was purportedly a long series of climbs up towards Villanova University and Radnor, PA. Although I have not been riding many hills in the past three weeks, the hills were not very steep, and in fact quite enjoyable. Car traffic was at a minimum, and most motorists passed with care and discretion, a welcome change from the roads of New York and New Jersey.
Most of the group however, was in much better shape than I was, and much of that can be attributed to the slightly better weather, but mostly to the cycling environment in Philadelphia. Not only are there several group rides leaving from the Museum both weekend days, there are also two weekday rides (held at night) that keep riders in shape. A very competitive bike culture is also flourishing here, and roadways are accessible and easy to reach from the city center. A well-marked and groomed bike path that stretches from the city center along the Schuykill River, all the way up to Trenton, N.J., about 22 miles in each direction, makes the city extremely bike friendly. I would estimate that motorists are at least 50 percent more friendly and respectful, a huge improvement from the attitudes of motorists we often experience in the New York region.
Needless to say, for my New York-winterized legs, the ride wore me out, and the pace made it dificult to stop either to eat or drink. One rider, DJ (his whole name) rode with me most of the way, and Dee as well as a couple of other riders stayed back at the turns to make sure I got back to the city in one piece.
The next day we rode with a much bigger group led by the Quaker City Wheelman, one of the oldest bike clubs in United States, dating back to the 1800's. Eighty people were gathered at the back of the museum for the legendary Vino-Velo ride, and took off almost precisely at 9 a.m. headed for Doylestown, Bucks County, about 35 miles way. The name of the ride comes from the days when riders would bring wine to the start and reportedly hung around after the ride as well to indulge, but none of the riders I spoke to were willing to admit they had actually done this.
After being wiped the day before, my legs couldn't handle the climbs, but fortunately, within the first 10 miles, the group slowed down to take a bathroom break along the Schuykill path. A dog-walker clearly not accustomed to this type of public display could not help registering the displeasure on her face.
Again, although this group was considered a slower group, after the bathroom break, the several embedded fast groups inlcuding members of Elite Bicycles, Tri-State Velo, Guy's Bicycles, Human Zoom, and Cadence among others, never let up the pace. There is a 40-mile group that breaks off part way to Doylestown but myself and two others, Victor Gatta and Tony Pedula, broke off at Ambler.
We took a route along very enjoyable, but once again, endless roads splattered with McMansions, (and real mansions most made of old stone), many of them way too large for a normal family, and requiriing many staff to keep clean. Gatta explained that the burbs were host to many old-monied families, and that many of the stone houses dated back to the revolutionary period. We even passed a real, working sheep farm that transported me temporarily into an English countryside fantasy.
Nine members of the top 400 richest people in America live in the Philadelphia area. Add to that the Wyeth family (Andrew Wyeth, the painter), the DuPonts, and many others in banking, pharmaceuticals, and the media, who grace the back hills that we quietly cycled through. Since Sunday was substantially colder, and I was only equipped for warmer weather, the return home was sweetened by an after-ride visit to a heavily frequented breakfast joint called Little Pete's a half block northeast of the museum. Our bikes were safe outside as we feasted on eggs, hot chocolate, and tuna melts, and dicussed the geographics of cycling fitness. After some discussion we concluded that cycling becomes more competitive the further south you go (at least from New York to Washington, D.C.) because of more favorable winter weather training.
Whether true or not, you owe yourself a visit to Philadelphia to check out the cycling scene. Drive, take Amtrak (your bike goes in a box), or fly. But get there, and you won't be sorry you did.

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