2021 Pan-Mass Challenge Ride Report

If you haven’t sponsored my 2021 ride and would like to, please CLICK HERE.

In mid-July a box of goodies arrived in Pittsburgh with my official 2021 PMC jersey!

Friday night's inspirational 30-minute PMC opening ceremonies video.

Thai food has always been my traditional, preferred dinner the evening before the ride.

Downtown Pittsburgh at sunrise on Saturday as I crossed the Hot Metal Bridge.

Downtown Pittsburgh from the Grandview overlook Saturday morning. Note the fountain isn't on yet!

Crossing the McKeesport railroad bridge on the Great Allegheny Passage.

A Monongahela River tug pushing six loaded coal barges upstream... on a weekend!

Coal stored in an open field at Clairton coke works: the third-most toxic air polluter in Allegheny County.

Mon City from Bunola Road, with the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium on the riverfront at far left.

Enjoying two-day-old asphalt on the resurfaced Southside Trail.

This notification popped up on my Garmin bike GPS upon completing my 100th century+ ride!

Day 1 complete! Trying to get my fingers to sign '100' for my 100th century+.

Cutting through downtown on the Smithfield Bridge on my way to Sewickley Sunday morning.

8am Sunday at the Point State Park fountain at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela.

A typically quiet, wooded road in the Sewickley Hills.

Downtown Pittsburgh framed by the former railroad bridge at Herr's Island on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Day 2 complete! Closed another wonderful PMC with a photo of rider, trusty steed, and 16 years of PMC jerseys.

Inspiring 4-minute video recap of the 2021 Pan-Mass Challenge, focusing on the in-person event.

My current PMC fundraising total, broken down by year.

If you need it short & sweet, skip down to the Epilogue, below. But don’t miss the photos & videos in the sidebar!

Prologue

Change Log:
21 Aug: Initial version

When I lived in Boston, I rode the Pan-Mass Challenge charity ride from 2001 to 2014. Then I moved to Pittsburgh and left the event behind.

But in 2020, the PMC canceled the ride due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and replaced it with a roll-your-own “Reimagined” ride to continue their support of the lifesaving research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Even though I hadn’t participated in five years, when the call for remote/virtual riders went out, I registered. In August, when PMC Weekend came, I simulated the 192-mile traditional PMC route on my indoor trainer. You can read about that year’s ride here.

In 2021 Covid-19 was still an issue, despite the availability of vaccines. Reflecting that, the PMC offered a limited in-person event, forgoing large gatherings, meals, lodging, and luggage transportation, although they added a new century route starting and ending in Wellesley. To limit crowd sizes, they still encouraged riders to do their own, separate “Reimagined” rides.

 

When I lived in Boston, there was never any question about whether I would ride again; but now as a remote rider, registering and committing to do the fundraising is no longer automatic.

This year, there were four things that brought me back as a remote rider.

The first is the obvious one: the mission. Since joining the PMC more than 20 years ago, I’ve seen dramatic improvements in cancer treatments and survival rates. My sponsors’ generosity demonstrates their eagerness for future breakthroughs. The PMC represents two-thirds of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue, and I’ve watched Dana-Farber use that money to develop 25% of all new cancer treatments approved by the FDA. And I’ve seen the impact Dana-Farber’s work has on cancer patients and their families, who line the route for hours just to thank riders for the hope that we’ve provided.

The second thing that brought me back this year was learning of two friends’ diagnoses. We all have a personal connection to cancer, and it’s hard not to do something in response to the raw feelings when you learn that it threatens someone you care for. It may not be much, but I can ride and fundraise, and dedicate this year’s effort to my two friends.

Also on the topic of social connections: I might never have returned to the PMC if it weren’t for the tight-knit community of PMC riders on the weekly online group rides on Zwift, including the PMC’s charismatic Chief Operating Officer, Jarrett Collins, who took an interest and befriended me. There’s irresistible power in a group of people sharing the same purpose and experiences, and it’s been a blessing being a valued part of that group, even though I’m far from Boston and unlikely to travel for the in-person ride. But the Zwift rides kept me connected with the event and the community throughout the winter.

And finally: I’m a jersey whore. Despite everything else, I might not ride if I couldn’t earn an official PMC ride jersey. For me, they’re the best physical symbol I have of the rides and what I’ve accomplished. My collection is a source of pride, as you’ll see in my photos and toward the end of my ride report.

Training and Planning

It was a strange cycling year. I began 2021 putting more miles on the indoor trainer, culminating with an indoor century at the end of March.

April was interrupted by some heart palpitations and my first Covid shot. Then despite springlike weather I stayed indoors to take advantage of the Tour of Watopia to reach Level 50, the (current) highest experience level in Zwift. That brought me to a new record level of fitness…

Which was to be short-lived, because I was sidelined for most of May by achilles tendonitis as well as my second Covid shot. While my ankle recovered, all the fitness I’d built up evaporated.

June and July were superb, though. Fully vaccinated, I rejoined Pittsburgh’s weekly in-person Team Decaf group rides. And I felt comfortable enough to refuel at convenience stores, allowing for long solo rides, including my first outdoor century in two years!

As it happened, having one indoor and another outdoor century under my belt was auspicious. Those were my 98th and 99th rides of greater than 100 miles since I took up cycling as an adult back around 2000. That teed me up for Saturday’s PMC ride to be my milestone 100th century!

But this spring wasn’t all good. Most major rides were either cancelled or shortened. And since everyone was training outdoors, those weekly PMC group rides on Zwift were suspended for the summer, leaving a big hole in my sense of connection to the event.

And it was a spring filled with persistent mechanical woes, including a rash of flat tires. The pandemic’s impact on bike shops’ supply chains was troublesome, making it impossible to replace my worn wheels and crankset. I could limp along, but couldn’t put much power through the pedals without my chain dropping off the worn chainrings.

 

In thinking about my “Reimagined” PMC ride (and 100th century), I only had a vague plan: on PMC Weekend I wanted to mimic the distance and climbing of the traditional two-day, 190-mile route from Sturbridge to Provincetown. If possible, I’d do that outdoors, on the roads around Pittsburgh, rather than indoors on my stationary trainer. Although I kicked around some creative ideas, it took a long time to settle on specific routes.

One complication was that my partner Inna was going to be out of town that weekend, leaving me without a car and narrowing my options to rides that began and ended at our apartment. And there aren’t many roads in hilly Pittsburgh that can simulate the flat roads of Massachusetts.

In the end, I mapped out a 110-mile route for Saturday, followed by an 80-mile ride for Sunday, leveraging a half-dozen gentle roads and rail trails that parallel the region’s four major rivers: the Allegheny, Monongahela, Youghiogheny, and Ohio.

Friday, 6 August 2021

The build-up to PMC Weekend didn’t start well. Thursday night I only got 2-3 hours of sleep, plagued by concerns about my tendonitis, my partner’s upcoming travel, and our long-delayed plan to move away. I dragged myself out of bed before 2am and stared at my computer until morning.

When Inna got up, I finished cleaning, lubing, and prepping my bike, and headed out for a quick shakedown ride around Schenley Park. Along the way, thoughts about my 16th PMC brought back the refrain to a song I remembered from one of my first albums: “The Six Teens” off Sweet’s “Desolation Boulevard” album.

But life goes on
You know, you know it ain’t easy.
You’ve just gotta be strong
If you’re one of the six teens.

I returned home and saw Inna off for her week in West Virginia. That meant I wouldn’t have her to support me during my ride, or to fall back on if anything went wrong. But with her gone, I napped for an hour before kicking off my PMC Weekend.

 

When I used to ride out of Sturbridge, my Friday afternoon ritual was checking in to the event, a pre-ride dinner at “Thai Place”, and watching the Opening Ceremonies program produced by the PMC and their media sponsor. As a remote rider, there was no need for me to check in, but I could still do the other things.

I placed a delivery order from nearby Thai and Noodle Outlet for cashew chicken and spicy chicken fried rice, and they were delicious: a perfect pre-ride indulgence. Annoyed that they’d sent white rice instead of brown, I received a surprise notification that the restaurant had noticed and discounted my order.

Then I took in the 7pm Opening Ceremonies, featuring inspiring stories about Dana-Farber’s patients and research. I learned that the PMC had surpassed $800 million in fundraising in the 42 years since its 1980 founding. It was a wonderful program, but due to Covid it was a studio presentation, rather than coming from Sturbridge with a live audience, and I missed the energy of the usual gathering of riders.

This video was the only contact I’d have with the PMC community during the event. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, remote riders had benefited from lots of online offerings: in addition to the Opening Ceremonies, there was a Thursday group ride on Zwift, a Saturday Zwift kick-off ride with a celebrity video feed and a Discord channel for rider audio chat, a Pedal Partners video, a virtual finish line experience, the Living Proof ceremony, and a rider photo montage. With an in-person event happening, less of that was offered in 2021. When the half-hour program was over, I returned to prep for my solo weekend.

Always the last variable to consider, the weather report promised warm temperatures and clearing skies, with a possible shower late Saturday afternoon.

Still short on sleep and planning on getting up early, I climbed into bed at 9pm.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

I wasn’t awake at 2:53am for the astronomical observance of the Lugnasadh cross-quarter day, but it was close! My alarm triggered at 4am.

I planned to roughly follow my traditional PMC agenda, starting out before daybreak and catching the sunrise from the Mt. Washington overlooks. Sunrise was at 6:23am and civil twilight began at 5:53am, so I had time to get ready. After my weekly weigh-in, I ate a banana and half a bagel, braided my hair, stretched, and got into my kit. While bagels are good fuel, they always go down hard before a ride!

While the PMC normally hits the roads at 5:30am, I left home at 6am. The weather was a mild 67°, hazy and overcast. I was hoping to avoid any afternoon rain that might pop up.

 

For my non-local readers, I apologize for all the Pittsburgh placenames that are about to come up. I’ll try to limit them, and explain the important ones.

My Saturday plan had four sections. First, a 30-mile scenic loop around the city of Pittsburgh, including sunrise on Mt. Washington, the high bluff overlooking the city. Then 42 miles up the Monongahela River, taking the Great Allegheny Passage bike path to McKeesport, across the Youghiogheny River, then up Bunola Road to Monongahela (city) and back to McKeesport. The third section was a quick 10-mile round trip up the Yough to Boston (PA) and back. And finally 20 miles back to the city on the GAP trail and a tiring 400-foot climb from the river up to our apartment in Squirrel Hill.

 

Leaving home, I coasted down an unpopulated Greenfield Ave to the Jail Trail trailhead, where I recognized a lone cyclist sitting in the dark. It was none other than my friend Jim Logan, longtime leader of the Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen as well as the Pittsburgh Randonneurs. Although he lives on the opposite side of town, he was in Greenfield at 6am to join a Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club ride. It was a random (and perhaps auspicious?) encounter.

I crossed the Mon on the Hot Metal Bridge, went straight up the 500-foot ascent of Mt. Washington on Josephine Street, and made my way to the scenic overlooks on Grandview Ave. I designed my initial loop around the city with several photo stops in mind, and this was the first. Unfortunately, the hazy conditions made for a disappointing sunrise, but I took a selfie beneath the characteristically overcast Pittsburgh sky.

I bombed the terrifying descent of Sycamore Street, which – taken in the uphill direction – is one of the leg-wrecking hills in Pittsburgh’s infamous Dirty Dozen ride. Then back across the Smithfield Bridge and down the Mon Wharf path to The Point, a park at the tip of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny merge to form the Ohio River. Unfortunately, at 7am they hadn’t turned the huge fountain on, so I skipped that planned photo!

I crossed the Allegheny on the Fort Duquesne Bridge, and three miles up River Ave crossed a back channel onto Herr’s Island, aka Washington’s Landing. I took a snapshot of the view of downtown Pittsburgh and rode on.

After completing most of my scenic stops, I came back across the Allegheny on the 31st Street Bridge and struck off inland to cut back over to the Mon. Up the narrow commercial corridor of Butler Street, over the 400-foot hill in Stanton Heights, followed by both inner and outer loops of Highland Park, which featured an encounter with a sizable deer.

Through Larimer and East Liberty and up yet another climb: Beechwood Blvd. That brought me back within a mile of home, but I decided not to stop. Down through Summerset to Duck Hollow, a bizarre tiny neighborhood of about a dozen homes on the Mon riverfront that are isolated from the rest of the city, with only one street in or out. It wasn’t attractive enough to warrant a photo, so I climbed back out of the hollow and crossed the Mon on the Homestead Grays Bridge.

That brought me into the suburban shopping mall development hell that is “The Waterfront”. Fortunately, I was only passing through, making my way to my first planned refueling stop: at a GetGo convenience store.

I pulled in at 8:45am with 31 miles on the odometer. I’d spent more energy on the city loop than I’d planned, but there was no more climbing for the next 70 miles, until the very end of the ride! It was turning sticky and sweaty, and I was happy to find the GetGo had a machine producing crushed ice, which I stuffed into my water bottle along with some Gatorade. The ice was a big win, because I planned to stop at this GetGo three or four times over the weekend!

 

From there, it was a quiet 10-mile run on the GAP trail to McKeesport, pausing on the old railroad bridge to get a selfie with tug pushing six barges of coal upriver toward the infamous Clairton coke works. The weather report had included an unhealthy air quality advisory for the Mon River valley, and the air became more acrid the farther I rode upstream.

At 9:37am I crossed over the Yough on the Jerome Street Bridge, but recognized another cyclist coming back in the other direction. It was another regular Pittsburgh cyclist: Jason McCullough. I had no idea why he was on the wrong side of McKeesport that early, but it reinforced the “Old Home Week” feeling.

Continuing to follow the Monongahela, I made steady progress through the run-down commercial downtowns and industrial outskirts of Glassport, Clairton (featuring the aforementioned coke works), and Elizabeth. Then the long stretch of Bunola Road, which is a delight to ride: flattish, wooded, along the river, and lightly traveled, if you don’t mind the places where half the road has subsided away toward the river! Another river crossing brought me to into Mon City, my planned halfway rest stop, at 10:45am with 56 miles in my legs.

The first thing I did at the Monongahela Sheetz convenience store was dump my water bottle out onto the ground. As soon as I’d left the GetGo back at the Waterfront, I’d realized that the GetGo ice wasn’t really “crushed”; it was more like the consistency of slush. And if you fill your bottle with unflavored slush, there’s no room left for sport drink! So I eagerly dumped that out and replaced it with crushed ice and Gatorade. I also grabbed a package of Funyuns (a good source of sodium) and pedaled a couple blocks over to the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium to eat.

Although there was a gate up, I walked around it and found a convenient picnic table overlooking the aquatorium stage and the river behind it, while a tug pushed an empty set of barges by. My calves were aching, and the temperature had broken 80°. I wasn’t suffering, but I’d been riding for five hours, and was only halfway done!

But my day was made when I checked my phone and received a notification that my old friend Amy – whom I hadn’t even contacted! – had made a large donation to the PMC in support of my ride. And beyond that, her donation had also put me over $118,000 in lifetime fundraising for cancer research and treatment through the PMC. It was a delightful surprise, and reminded me of the cause that underlies the ride.

 

The next segment was to return back the way I’d come: across the Mon, down Bunola Road, through Elizabeth, Clairton, and Glassport. After crossing back into McKeesport on the Jerome Street Bridge, I did a quick loop up the Youghiogheny and back. I followed the rough Loop Trail up the east bank of the river to Versailles, crossed over on the Boston Bridge, and picked up the GAP trail at the Boston trailhead. After a brief stop, I followed the GAP back down the west bank of the Yough and crossed the 15th Street Bridge into McKeesport.

Having completed my two upriver legs, I followed the GAP trail back toward Pittsburgh, crossing the Mon and arriving at the Waterfront and my second GetGo stop of the day at 1:40pm with 90 miles completed. By this point I had tired legs and irritation in the saddle area. With more sun, a temperature of 83°, and no need to hurry, I eased off my exertion.

This being my last stop, I switched from Gatorade to cola, and put only a little slushy ice into my water bottle. Although they hadn’t done so that morning, during the afternoon visit the GetGo staff required customers to put on facemasks when entering the store, due to the alarming spread of the new “delta variant” of the Covid-19 virus.

While refueling, I debated two alternate plans. I could do what the PMC does: 110 miles on Saturday, and 80 on Sunday; or I split it the way I used to do, which was 125 and 65 miles, accounting for the usual 15-mile ride to my hotel Saturday night. The latter was a more familiar experience, and breaks the ride into a Saturday 200k and a Sunday 100k, plus it would mean a much shorter second day! But I’d planned out a 110-mile route, so that’s what I decided to stick with.

 

I crossed the Waterfront and followed the GAP the rest of the way back to downtown Pittsburgh. This included my first passage of the Southside Trail, which had received a lovely fresh coat of asphalt on Thursday! One final crossing of the Mon on the Smithfield Bridge before returning to Point Park, which at 2:30pm was crowded with people enjoying the view and the (now running) fountain.

Turning homeward, I moseyed along the Mon Wharf, where my odometer ticked over 100 miles on the ramp up to the Jail Trail. Although I was still 10 miles from finishing, this was the moment I was most looking forward to: completing my 100th bike ride of 100 miles or more. It’s an achievement that’s been nearly twenty years in the making, and one I’m deeply proud of; so much so, that I’ll dedicate a separate section to it below. But continuing with the ride, a quick jaunt down the Jail Trail brought be back to the trailhead where I’d run into Jim Logan at sunrise.

All that remained was the 400-foot climb back to Squirrel Hill. There are several routes to choose from, but I used a longer but less steep one: up the Junction Hollow Trail, the tiny spiker of Yarrow Way and the cobblestone climb of Joncaire Street, past the Phipps Conservatory, up and over familiar Overlook Drive, and the final “fun-ish” switchbacked climb of Serpentine Drive.

As usual, I used the wooded circle of Prospect Drive as a cool-down and to round off my final mile. I pulled into my driveway and stepped off at 3:27pm after an even 110 miles. Although I’d targeted 4,450 feet of climbing to simulate the PMC route, Pittsburgh’s hilly roads somehow added up to an even 5,000 feet.

 

After climbing back into our apartment, I worked on my long list of post-ride tasks: stretch, hydrate, download photos and ride data, update Facebook and Strava, shower away all the sweat and road crud, treat the saddle sore that had caused my discomfort, feed the cat, rinse out the ride jersey, review my planned Sunday route, and recharge my phone, GPS, taillight, and portable battery. Then cook dinner, which featured a slab of pork that I named “The Mother Chop”.

Amidst all that, I also read updates from numerous PMC riding buddies from their Strava and Facebook feeds. That was inspiring and one of the few things that made me feel connected to the event and the community. But it also made me jealous of those who got to share their experience with others, either in the IRL event or on their own multi-person “Reimagined” rides!

Sunday, 8 August 2021

With better weather and a shorter ride planned, I didn’t need to be on the road before sunrise. So after seven hours of sleep, I got up at 5:45am and did all the usual “make ready” chores.

Less than a week before my PMC ride, I’d learned that the annual Monongahela Valley Century was going to take place on Sunday. It’s a pretty ride, but has unreliable support. If I’d known about it earlier, I might have worked it into my Reimagined PMC ride, but once I’d planned out my own Saturday century, I wasn’t inclined to try to shoehorn Sunday’s MVC into my program.

The overview of my route was to go west, down the Ohio River, ride around the Sewickley Hills, return through the suburbs on the north side of the river, then use the city’s bike paths and a section of the GAP trail to fill out my 80-mile goal.

 

I departed at 7:30am and began with some familiar roads: Greenfield down to the bike path, crossing the Mon on the Hot Metal Bridge, up the Southside Trail, back across the Smithfield Bridge to the Point (at 8am the fountain was on!), then over the Allegheny on the Fort Duq Bridge.

The next hour was industrial wasteland: out California Ave with its worthless new “bike lane”, across the Ohio on the dangerous McKees Rocks Bridge (which wasn’t too bad at this early hour), then up a short section of Route 51, one of the deadliest roads in the city. My legs felt okay except for my chronic calf pain, but the saddle was painful. And it felt much hotter than the 72° air temperature.

A bridge takes you over the Ohio River back channel onto Neville Island, which is a surreal place to ride. It’s a nice, flat, straight, four mile two-lane road with no traffic and plenty of room. But it’s heavy industry from end to end, and what traffic it sees is huge cargo trucks.

And then there’s the despair-inducing “bike lane”: an unmaintained gutter filled with gravel, roadkill, trucks and truck parts, and the bodies of dead orcs. What would have been the most rideable zone – the line separating the bike and travel lanes – had a foot-wide rumble strip, which pushes cyclists out into the travel lane. And every 750 feet there’s a recessed manhole cover, which forces cyclists into the middle of the travel lane. It’s a perfect example of what not to do when installing a bike lane.

At the end of Neville Island you cross over the back channel onto Route 51 through the Coraopolis commercial district. Then when you leave Coraopolis Route 51 turns into a high-speed divided highway. But as a state highway, Route 51 lacks any of the safety features required on a federal highway, except the continuing rumble strips that pose an ever-present danger to cyclists.

Fortunately, it’s little more than a half-mile of white-knuckle riding before the left-hand exit to the Sewickley Bridge. Yes, a left-hand exit, which meant I had to jump the rumble strip to get from the debris-filled breakdown lane onto the roadway, then cross two lanes of 70 MPH traffic and sprint onto a narrow exit ramp. Then turn right and go back over the Ohio on the narrow Sewickley Bridge before I could breathe again!

It says something about how nice Sewickley is that it’s worth that ugly ride to get there. It’s a beautiful, wooded, wealthy suburb. Under normal circumstances, it’d be a quick pedal up Beaver Street before taking Little Sewickley Creek Road into the sparsely-populated hills above the river. But I was surprised to find that a mile of Beaver Street had been milled, making for a painful escape from town.

And then there’s Little Sewickley Creek. Riding it six weeks earlier, the road had been closed, forcing me to take a steep detour, and the construction signs were still up when I got there at 9:15am. While munching a Rice Krispies Treat I debated riding down to the work area to see if I could sneak through, but figured that would be a waste of time. Besides, I’d planned the detour’s climb into my route, so I saddled up and mentally prepared myself for the 400-foot climb up Camp Meeting Road and the sketchy descent of Sevin Road back to Little Sewickley Creek.

15 minutes later, as I turned from Sevin onto LSC, I met a couple riders coming out of the work area. I asked them whether it had been passable, and they said it was. Oh well…

That obstacle out of the way, I was free to resume the quiet, rustic, wooded roads of the Sewickley Hills, which are always a delight (if you have the legs). Turning onto aptly-named Audubon Road, I stopped to admire a blue heron silhouetted against a mill pond, but he fled when I tried to bring my camera out. I carried on, amusing myself by mangling Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” by singing “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Audubon”, which is doubly funny because “fahren” (to drive) is in fact the correct verb to use in German for riding a bicycle!

Coming down out of the hills, I came across a woman cyclist stopped at the side of the road and offered assistance, but she was only resting at the top of a hard climb. Then I crossed over I-79 and pulled into the Mt. Nebo Sheetz convenience store for my first rest stop of the day. It was 10am and I’d covered 33 miles.

 

Despite moderate temps, on a day with more sun I was sweating a lot and not drinking enough, so I downed some Gatorade and Funyuns before crawling up the stupid last kicker of Mt. Nebo Road. Then the rolling hills on Roosevelt Road and rocketing down the descent into Emsworth.

The next five miles were a straight shot along the main commercial strip of small suburban towns along the north shore of the Ohio River: Emsworth, Ben Avon, Avalon, Bellevue, and Brighton. Then a delicious final descent to Woods Run and under the railroad overpass – where new asphalt was a wonderful surprise! – to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail access at the former Western Penitentiary.

This made for a relaxing 5-mile ride along the banks of the Ohio and Allegheny, passing lots of noteworthy sites: the Rivers Casino complex, the Carnegie Science Center, the USS Requin submarine, Heinz Field, PNC Park, and back up to Herr’s Island for a quick photo and rest. It was so pleasant I considered hanging out there for a while, but needed to keep rolling.

Across the 31st Street Bridge and through the Strip – Pittsburgh’s old warehouse and commercial district – into downtown and up the Mon on the Jail Trail. Over the Hot Metal Bridge and down the GAP trail to our old friend GetGo in the Waterfront to replenish with chips, cola, and slush!

 

I left the Waterfront at 12:40pm with about 20 miles left in my ride, planning a quick roll down the GAP trail and back to reach my mileage goal. In my mind, I envisioned the outbound leg as the part of the PMC ride that goes through the town of Wellfleet. The return trip would represent my passage through Truro, and that stupid climb up to Squirrel Hill would, of course, equate to my arrival at the finish in Provincetown.

After a short roll I reached my turnaround point at the Port Perry railroad bridge, then debated whether to stop at GetGo on the way back. I decided to grab another cola to see me through the final climb. Back through the Waterfront, up the GAP trail, and one final crossing of the Mon on the Hot Metal Bridge placed me at the trailhead, with six miles and a 400-foot climb left of my 2021 Reimagined PMC ride.

At the trailhead, a rider asked me for directions on how to get to Oakland. She was towing a golden retriever puppy in a trailer, which reminded me of my friends Jay and Kelly, who completed their own Reimagined PMC ride on a tandem bike, towing two 35-pound goldens in a trailer for 70 miles!

I repeated Saturday’s circuitous route up to Squirrel Hill and did a couple cooldown laps of Prospect Drive to finish 80 miles at 2:15pm, for a weekend total of 190 miles. This time my climbing was closer to my target: 3,186 feet, after planning for 3,010.

 

After climbing off, I went inside and took a commemorative finishing photo wearing my 2021 kit, with my previous 15 PMC jerseys hanging behind me. In the past – both at the IRL event and last year after riding indoors – I’ve always felt awkward at the end of the event, lacking any ceremony to give the event a sense of closure. Finishing all alone this year, with even Inna out of town, I had brainstormed how I could close the event in a meaningful way, and this photograph served well in that sense.

Having let that photo (and subsequent social media updates) bring my PMC Weekend to a close, I was free to turn to the mundane post-ride tasks of showering and demolishing that spicy chicken fried rice I’d set aside from Friday’s Thai food order.

My 100th Century+

Although I didn’t track such things well in my early years as a cyclist, I’m pretty sure that this was at least my 100th ride of 100 miles or more.

In August 2002, my first century was, appropriately, Day 1 of my second Pan-Mass Challenge. That means my accomplishment took 19 years, and I averaged 5¼ centuries per year.

I rode 15 of those as part of the PMC, plus one more as a PMC “Day 0” ride in 2014. Other most repeated events include 6 years in the Boston to Provincetown Outriders rides, and 4 appearances each in the CRW Climb to the Clouds up Mt. Wachusett, the NBW’s Flattest Century in the East, and here in Western Pennsylvania the Escape to the Lake MS Ride that finishes on the shore of Lake Erie.

In total, 50 of these rides started in Massachusetts, 29 in Pennsylvania, 3 in Ohio, 3 in New Hampshire, 1 in Maine, and 1 in Michigan. The other 13 were virtual rides on Zwift. 20 of the IRL rides were solo or not associated with a particular event.

Of the IRL rides, the three earliest in the year were all randonneuring events: Pittsburgh 200ks on 4/13/2019, 4/17/2016, and a Boston 200k on 5/6/2006. The latest were two that took place on October 1st: the Pittsburgh 3-2-1 charity ride in 2017, and a Massachusetts ride in 2011 with riding buddies Paul and Noah that touched the edges of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

My career as a centurion started modestly, so I only did one century in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. The most I ever rode in a single year was 13 in 2019, only one of which was on Zwift.

I would break it into three eras. From 2002-2008 I averaged 1.4 centuries per year. Then from 2009 until 2015 I averaged 6.3 per year. Then I moved to Pittsburgh, where I’ve averaged 8.6 per year, if you include virtual rides on Zwift.

There’s several events I’d go back and repeat. Of course, the PMC is an irreplaceable experience, and I’d enjoy repeating the unofficial “Day 0” century, as well. The 130-mile Outriders ride from Boston to Provincetown is also a favorite. My least favorites would be the 3-2-1 Ride (too much crushed limestone), PedalPGH (a terrible organization), and the poorly supported events of the CRW Climb to the Clouds and Mon Valley Century.

It’s been a very long road (literally) getting to 100 centuries. As for what the future holds, I’ll be a little less goal-oriented and take things a little easier, at least until my cardiac and leg issues are better diagnosed and addressed. Centuries are strenuous, after all! But I’ll always have this achievement, as well as the wonderful memories of each ride and the people I shared them with.

Fundraising

My sponsors surprised me this year. Despite beginning my campaign with social media posts rather than sending out any individual emails, within 24 hours I was halfway to meeting my $2,000 fundraising minimum! And I reached that threshold only 2½ weeks later.

At the time of the ride, I’d raised over $3,500, which surpassed my 2020 fundraising total, and my lifetime fundraising exceeded $118,000. More people sponsored me this year than last, and more of them did so using my Facebook Fundraiser.

This section will be updated later with my final fundraising total and the PMC’s annual check presentation to the Jimmy Fund.

Epilogue

Here’s the “executive summary” of my 2021 “Reimagined” Pan-Mass Challenge ride, plus a few final observations.

 

Back in 2020, returning to ride a virtual/indoors Pan-Mass Challenge after five years off had been an emergency response to help the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute continue to pursue their mission when the IRL PMC ride was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, four things brought me back for another year: the mission of eradicating cancer; wanting to help after learning of two friends’ diagnoses; the warmth of the PMC community I’d experienced on the Zwift indoor training platform; and, of course, my desire to add to my collection of official PMC event jerseys.

My training was good and bad, reaching a record fitness level before having to work around the pandemic, some mechanical problems and the unavailability of replacement parts, and health issues that kept me off the bike for most of May. But June and July went well, and I was ready for PMC when the calendar turned to August.

Although nowhere near as successful as my prime years, my fundraising did increase over last year, with over 40 people contributing nearly $4,000, allowing me to surpass a lifetime fundraising total of $118,000 for Dana-Farber.

Although I returned as a remote, “Reimagined” rider, I did this year’s PMC ride outdoors on the roads around Pittsburgh, rather than on the indoor trainer, as I had in 2020.

I planned my route to mimic the same distance and amount of climbing that riders experience on the traditional 190-mile ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown. On Saturday I rode 110-miles, beginning with a scenic loop around Pittsburgh, followed by legs up the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, before returning to the city and finishing up back home. It was also my 100th ride of 100 miles or more, which was a memorable milestone and well worth celebrating.

Sunday’s 80-mile ride took me down the Ohio River, around the Sewickley Hills, and back home after a little wandering around to complete my mileage goal.

Of course, neither of these could live up to the familiar scenic route that the PMC offers; but riding the roads around Pittsburgh this year was a lot better than last year’s 190 miles pedaling around a virtual world on my indoor trainer!

 

Out of the 16 years I’ve ridden the Pan-Mass Challenge, what made this year’s event unique was doing it as a remote rider.

That might sound odd, since that was also the case last year, in 2020. But there’s a key difference. In 2020, with the pandemic at its height, there was no IRL event; everyone was in the same situation, riding remotely in individual and socially distanced “events”.

Because of that, the whole PMC organization geared itself toward supporting remote riders and producing media and events that riders could view during their own individual events. So even though I spent my entire 2020 PMC alone, at home, on my indoor trainer, I still felt included and connected to the PMC organization and community.

This year — with the pandemic at a low point and a large percentage of the population vaccinated — the PMC was able to hold a live ride, albeit with a few modifications. While that was great news, there was less outreach to support and connect with remote riders, even though over 1,600 people registered as “Reimagineers”.

That left me feeling less connection with the PMC organization and community. Off the bike, there were fewer videos and communications from PMC HQ. On the bike, as a remote rider it felt odd pedaling along with no spectators thanking you for riding, no other riders to swap stories with, no event photographers capturing scenic moments, and no celebrations waiting for you following a dramatic and emotional finish line crossing. While that was also the case last year when I rode indoors, it was much more poignant this year, riding outdoors where you knew that no one knew, cared, or realized what you were doing.

The only place where I got that kind of connection was on Strava, the primary social media site for cyclists. It was there that my friends and fellow PMC riders could send kudos and chat about my ride, and where I could see their PMC rides and photos. Of course, I was jealous of those folks who had done the official PMC in-person rides, too.

While a remote “Reimagined” PMC ride falls far short of the in-person event, it’s put in perspective by the mission of raising money for cancer research, treatment, and prevention. Ultimately, the ride is a nice reward, but it’s trivial in comparison to what we have accomplished – and continue to accomplish – together. It's been a long road, but a ton of progress has been made in cancer treatments since I first rode in 2001, and I'm encouraged by recent advances in tumor gene sequencing, targeted gene therapies, and personalized medicine.

Supporting that work is one of the most important – and most rewarding – things I have ever done.

 

Which brings me to the unavoidable question that lingers after every PMC ride I do: will I ride again next year?

Although I always ask myself that question, the list of factors doesn’t change from year to year. Is the money needed in the fight against cancer, and is it effective in helping people in need? Has cancer impacted people I care about? Do I feel connected and a part of the PMC community? Can I devote the time and effort that’s needed to meet the challenging fundraising requirement? And on a selfish level: how much do I want the new event jersey?

While those were compelling factors back when I did the in-person ride, I find that the nature of being a remote rider changes the equation, such that the perpetual question of “riding next year” is a little more open-ended, less of the old “absolutely, of course” and more of a “we’ll see”.

But the PMC has been one of the best ways I can give back to society for the benefits and kindness I have received. Plus it’s a wonderful prompt to reach out and stay in touch with people who would otherwise have gone their own separate ways and our friendships been lost over time.

So perhaps I’ll see you again next year.

All PMC Ride Reports:
   2001   2002   2003   2004
   2005   2006   2007   2008
   2009   2010   2011   2012
   2013   2014   2020   2021

 

So concludes my 16th Pan-Mass Challenge ride. Thanks to Covid and being a remote rider, these past couple years have been very different from my usual PMC experience. While riding remotely can never live up to the in-person ride, I’ve enjoyed them, and continue to take immense pride in what we’ve accomplished and the lifesaving work it supports.


If you haven’t sponsored my 2021 ride and would like to, please CLICK HERE.


datetowntime intime outhourstempmilesavgmaxnotesaudio reports
SatSquirrel Hill  6:00 am 0:0069   Setting out on a mild but cloudy morning 
SatHomestead 8:43 am 9:00 am 2:437231.613.031.6Completed a scenic loop around Pittsburgh 
SatMonongahela10:46 am11:15 am 4:467756.414.233.8Long run upriver to Mon City 
SatHomestead 1:39 pm 1:50 pm 7:398390.014.633.8Side spur to Boston, then back to the GAP trail 
SatSquirrel Hill 3:27 pm  9:2784110.014.533.8Climb back home to finish my 100th century+ ride! 
SunSquirrel Hill  7:30 am 9:2769110.014.533.8Nice morning to hit the road... 
SunOhio Township10:02 am10:25 am11:5974142.914.534.3Down the Ohio and over the Sewickley hills 
SunHomestead12:19 pm12:40 pm14:1681169.314.634.3Back across the city & lots of bike path 
SunSquirrel Hill 2:16 pm 16:1384190.014.634.3Up the horrible hill to bring my 16th PMC home!