Climate Ride: Day 2, Princeton to Valley Forge

Author’s Note: There are so many great things going on and cool people on this ride that blogging has often been put on the back-burner. Updates will be late, but I’ll eventually chronicle the whole thing, so visit often!

Today started with the sounds of birdsong. Unfortunately, it was less romantic than it seems in the movies. Instead of getting up with joy in my heart, I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tried to sneak in a few more minutes with my eyes closed.

Finally getting up, I packed up most of my stuff, took a shower under a fine mist at best (the showers at our Y at home were much better), and broke down my tent. After a breakfast of eggs, a bagel, some fruit, and thank goodness, strong, black tea, I headed off for the first 60 mile day.

The route started much easier than it had the day before, rambling through downtown Princeton. Like its namesake, it was both as stately/pretentious as one would imagine. I did spot one house right out of a storybook, with eaves and gables at charming angles, and purple flowered-vines hanging off the roof just so. The landscape soon grew rural, and right after hearing a rooster crow, I got passed by a tractor. It was moving pretty slowly, but as we were just starting to hit the hills, so was I.

The hills only became more intimidating as we went along. There was one hill that had several steep, short uphills separated by slightly flatter uphills with no respite. Thankfully, there was also a downhill that had to be at least a 1/2 mile long. There’s nothing better in biking than a long, slow downhill that you just cruise along on without using your brakes. Those hills remind me of the blue squares in skiing – relaxing and fun.

As the hills continued, I decided on an energy conservation strategy for myself. I may be (mostly) carbon-free, but needless to say, still have an exhaustible supply of energy. I decided to adapt a slightly more conservative philosophy on downhills. If a downhill requires that I go into my hardest gear to get any work done (so I’m not just spinning), I’ll stop pedaling and just coast. Pedaling down hills is fun, but wastes energy that I desperately need to go up them.

Our first break was at mile 17, at the Inn at Lambertsville Station in Lambertville, NJ. Lambertsville is an adorable little town across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania. I biked past kids on the corner collecting money for marching band, and the whole town appeared to have that “everyone knows each other” feel. It had all of these older, slightly worn row houses that somehow reminded me of Harpers’ Ferry in West Virginia. I was actually surprised at how many charming small towns we passed through in New Jersey. We biked through Elizabethtown yesterday (setting for the movie by Cameron Crowe) and Princeton and Pennington today. But while the others were ritzy, Lambertsville was a little more blue collar. The Inn at Lambertsville looked like quite a nice place, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the inside. The whole stop was outside, and we had to use a port-a-potty for the bathroom! Bah. The kid futzing on his guitar near the sign for the Inn was rather charming though.

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The Inn at Lambertsville

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From there, we walked our bikes across the bridge over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. It was a bit surreal knowing that we were biking into our third state.

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The town on the other side, New Hope, was absolutely even more adorable than Lambertsville. It definitely gave off an “arty” feel and a fellow rider that lives nearby said that sometimes its seems a little too cute. They appeared to be celebrating a Gay Pride Day, because there were rainbow flags all over the place. A rider who was wearing bright rainbow calf-high socks remarked that they were very appropriate!
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Getting back on our bikes, two very punked out girls with neon clothes and hair cheered us up our first little hill. Their enthusiasm garnered a smile from me.

Somehow, I lost the folks I was with as I started onto the main road out of town. Considering what happened next, it was definitely for the best. The road took a sharp downward slope, with a stop sign at the bottom. Unfortunately, where I stopped, my two feet supporting me were at vastly different angles on the ground. The geometry not being in my favor, I lost my balance and completely toppled over. From a stop. Standing still. Not even using clips! It was totally undignified. I even did that hand windmill thing they do in cartoons where you know you’re falling, but maybe you can stop it somehow but it’s too damn late. To add injury to insult, my bike whacked hard me in the calf. Immediately, a big, raised bruise began to form and turn a lovely shade of purple.

Picking myself up, I made my way through more rural backcountry, that had unfortunately busy, narrow roads. The hills put in quite a performance as well, forcing me into lots of slow, low-gear, spinning. The most problematic hill started right after a stop sign. I slowed down for the stop, saw this incredibly steep hill, tried to change gears – and then, ca-Chunk – and spinning without movement. My chain jumped the gears. Crud. But I managed to put it back on easily, and even more impressively, got back on my bike and made it all the way up the hill. In fact, it was the first hill I had to use my absolute easiest gear for – it was that steep.

After the highest point in the day and an incredibly steep downhill, we stopped for lunch in Darnestown, Pennsylvania, yet another adorable town. The snack cart was out, and even though I planned on grabbing lunch, I couldn’t resist getting a bagel with Nutella. Glorious. I grabbed lunch at a place called Lilly’s with a couple of other riders – one who lived right in the area and was going to call his wife and kids to meet him briefly, one who is an intern for the NYC DOT in transit, and another guy who grew up in Montgomery County. We had a really transit-nerdy conversation about the upcoming revisions to Rockville Pike and the possibility of the Purple Line.

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These guys were hanging around just outside our lunch stop. I have no idea what they were about.

After lunch, I set off on my own again. The most traumatic part of the day – besides the hill-induced stress – was getting chased by a dog. This has never happened to me, but I vaguely remembered something I had read about what to do. I didn’t make eye contact and pedaled away very slowly. Eventually, the dog’s owner called him back and for the benefit of others following me, I told him, “There are a lot more bicyclists coming – please put hold on to him or put him inside.”

The last water stop was very close to the end, so I took my own short break in-between to stretch and shove some trail mix in my mouth. As I was finishing up, two of the lovely ladies from Eileen Fischer pedaled by and I joined them. Although we pedaled quietly for most of the trip, we talked when we hopped on the Schuykill River bikepath. (Apparently Schuykill is pronounced Scookle – I would have never guessed.) Shona and Amy are respectively the head of sustainability and social responsibility at Eileen Fischer, which I knew only as “that clothing company in the mall that Tim Gunn mentions as the opposite of Forever 21.” Knowing that these two folks, along with 3 other employees, were committed enough to do this ride makes me respect the company a lot more! A company can write anything on the social responsibility section of its website, but it means so much more when you talk to and work with actual people.

From the bike path, we ascended up a steep incline to get to the walkway above the river. It looked like they took a beach or wetland wooden boardwalk and stuck it on the side of a highway, hundreds of feet above the river. There were fences on both sides, protecting us from both the highway and the drop-off, but it still felt like the entire thing might collapse at any minute. It reminded me of the scene in Pirates of the Carribean (and every cliched action movie), where Jack Sparrow is walking across the rickety wooden bridge, which just so happens to fall right before he’s across.

Having survived the bridge, we made our way into Valley Forge, where Washington and his army famously camped in the winter with massive casualties. I thought this would be a lovely walk through history, and recalled the many times I enjoyed biking through the Saratoga Battlefield with my parents. Although it was only a 10 mile loop, as a kid I begged to stop every mile so I could read the historical explanations. To my disappointment, there was really only one or two historical spots we passed by in Valley Forge. More importantly, the main road was very busy, with a lot of fast moving cars. It was nothing like the leisurely ride we always had with Saratoga. However, at one point, we did have a great view of the battlefield.

Once through Valley Forge, we had two killer hills, and then spotted the sign for the Freedom Foundation (our stop for the night) just as we rounded the last one.

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I was so happy to see that sign. Instead of tents, we got real(ish) beds to sleep in and good bathrooms with quality showers. Dinner was chicken marsala with mashed potatoes and overcooked vegetables. I opted for a bit of chicken, a lot of potatoes, and a lot of salad. I sat with a really interesting couple – one works for the Green Mountain Club, who runs the Long Trail and the other for a renewable energy company in Vermont. They were fundraising for 350.org and had these nifty t-shirts from Clean Currents, the renewable energy company from which I buy my electricity.

Coincidentally, one of the speakers that night was Kristin from Clean Currents. She said that anyone who signed up because of the Climate Ride could get the same shirt for free, and told me afterwards that she’d hook me up with one as a current customer. Wooo – free swag! Colin from Natural Resources Defense Council was one of the other speakers, and talked about their vehicle miles travelled reduction program, which focuses mainly on biking and public transportation. I’d spoken to his boss at the Society of Automotive Engineers conference a few years ago, but I’m sure he no longer remembers me. I’ll have to contact Colin for work because they’re doing a big vehicle electrification push (like everyone else) and we should all be working together on it. The main speaker was from B Lab, a non-profit that works to change the corporate paradigm so that companies can and do take stakeholders into account, not just shareholders. As corporate restrictions on action that doesn’t immediately benefit shareholders are difficult to break and social entrepreneurism is becoming big, it seems like a great organization. But they certainly have a lot to tackle to be more than just another label. As such, a lot of the Climate Riders were pretty skeptical. As Geraldine, the Climate Ride founder, said, “We clearly didn’t tire you out enough – you’re all still really sharp!”

Afterwards, I talked with a member of the support team who recently put solar panels on his house and has a strong interest in efficient vehicles. We talked extensively about the efficiency of his 1993 Civic and why vehicles these days actually get worse gas mileage than it (air quality standards, power valued over efficiency, safety standards, bells and whistles). Finally heading back to the residential building, I tried to write but instead got involved in a conversation with the Rails to Trails Florida policy director. Plus, one of the other folks in the common area received a care package from their friends that had red wine and chocolate! So we toasted our success so far. Good conversation and wine are always a good way to end a day.

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3 Responses to Climate Ride: Day 2, Princeton to Valley Forge

  1. Richard says:

    Next week, I expect to ride much of the same route that you are following, but in reverse. Enjoying your blogging as it gives me clues on what to expect. Keep writing!

  2. Steve says:

    I saw you camped out in Princeton last Friday, and finally posted something about it at http://www.princetonprimer.org. There are some sustainability initiatives in the town of Princeton, but in terms of energy use, life pretty much goes on as usual, despite all the clear calls for urgency coming out of university research just across the street. The university reported they had reduced greenhouse gas emissions 2.5% over two years, despite having added several new buildings. It’s a start, at least. I just succeeded in obtaining electric and natural gas energy use data for the town of Princeton, so as to have a baseline. People are changing, but it needs to happen much faster. Thanks for your inspiring visit!

  3. Richard, I’m glad that my blogging is helping. If you want to email me, I can provide you with some elevation profiles for the routes we did. Steve, it’s wonderful that you’re doing that work at Princeton. As a Ivy League graduate, I think it’s important that both the universities and the local towns get competitive about their sustainability. I’d love to see Princeton trying to get ahead of Ithaca!

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