Many in the dreary spring days eagerly anticipate this sport of summer. Serious cyclists crowd around Euro-feeds in April and May to witness some of the toughest riders power over northern Europe's meanest cobbles. As the 2014 season progressed, many riders raced and rode thousands of miles from nighttime criterium race to fund-raising group rides. Somewhere in between all those miles, riders got a chance to sit down and discuss the drama of road cycling. Kermesse Sport's Oktoberfest Ride in Collegeville, Pennsylvania provided riders with the chance to gather for one last great ride of the season, for the introduction of a fall classic.
There's something alluring about spring classics riders: they're tall, they're heavy, and they're fierce. Having these qualities makes the everyman rider believe he or she can become a cobble slayer. If hills keep the average speed down, then surely destroying a classic route will boost confidence.
To chase one of those legends (and in America) is not a regular experience. Gone is the Univest Grand Prix that snaked its way through the hollows and farmlands of Montgomery County from 1998 until its conclusion in 2010. With its demise, so too followed the Univest Cyclosportif; no longer could the club rider trace legends through Montgomery County. It was this international race that saw the start of Tom Boonen's career, having finished second in 1999, as an amateur.
Factor in Kermesse Sports' attention to detail, along with a 100 km route that paid tribute to that old course, and one could follow Tom Boonen's shadow again. Portions of the Grand Prix course flickered back to life to give riders that one last crack at some of the most beautiful roads in southeast Pennsylvania.
The ride began in a slight fog; it had rained heavily the day prior, but Oktoberfest was to be held under the deepest blue skies. This certainly wasn't the blustery, gray, cold spring classic ride offered six months earlier. As over 130 riders pushed off from the start/finish line at Appalachian Brewing Company escorted by the Collegeville Police Department, many were eager to test the upcoming climbs.
A small lead group of about 12 quickly formed. Materializing through the fog, the group took turns pushing a manageable pace. Memories of that cyclosportif came back from the recesses of some dormant memory. The long steep descent through the lingering fog on Bergey's Mill Road onto the steel trestle bridge was a notable portion of the ride of old; Tom Boonen crossed that bridge. The group stayed together through Salford. At several intersections, riders waited for those who had fallen off the back; this was clearly not the cutthroat ride of April.
After passing under an old archway bridge, the first KOM started up Old Church Rd; the group fractured. Kermesse Sport announced a KOM/QOM challenge for the participants utilizing the cycling social networking site, STRAVA. Yet again, though, we regrouped at the top to push our way into Green Lane Park. It is here that one of the more feared climbs hides on a one-lane meandering road just outside the park limits. The pace of the twelve-or-so riders slowed at the approach to the climb; many knew what was coming. A faint mark on the right-hand side of the road partially covered by fallen leaves read '1km.' Just over half a mile to the top is all that stood in the group's way.
But this was Eichele Hill. Riders never seem to agree on its true grade. Some have said its' gradient is around 25%, some say 27%, and others have said it is as high as 30%. Whatever the true statistic is, it can't be argued that it is a notable precipitous ramp. Pros have walked this hill during the Grand Prix when it backed up. Walking up it at times has been faster than pedaling.
Staring at the front wheel and its lurching strain, visions of whether the Flandrian had flown up this hill came to mind. Was this climb even difficult for him? Throw in some stubborn banks of clouds, fractures of penetrating sunlight, and climbing through the fall foliage made for a surreal experience. Nobody talked. Nobody could talk. As per the rotation, the group reformed at the top happy to have stayed clipped into the pedals. Rest assured, there would be walkers behind us.
We pedaled through the northeast portion of Green Lane Park observing morning fishermen on the reservoir. Did 'Tornado Tom' enjoy this portion of the course? Thoughts of the rest stop began coming to mind as the group progressively gapped the front wheel. Slight ascents became difficult. Perhaps the Brewery could have been moved to the middle of the ride? Perhaps a motorbike with a sticky bottle could have pulled up alongside.
As it is customary for Kermesse Sport, the rest stop did not disappoint. Volunteers were excited to see some of the first riders roll in. Cola, water, sports drink, chips, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fig bars and assortment of Clifbar products greeted those who were on the front. The real star of the rest stop was the homemade pumpkin muffin with maple syrup and cream cheese frosting. It was delicious; two would have been greedy. Plus, a longer-than-normal rest stop would lead to heavy legs. It was time to return to the route. The lead group had been decimated in the true definition of the word: it shelled its tenth rider off the back.
For the rest of the ride, the remainders of the group got farther away. The fog burnt off to reveal a sunny day with temperatures barely reaching the sixties. This was October and the foliage was working toward its peak. Yellows exploded in dark hillside areas. Orange-topped trees stood out amongst pine groves. The smell of fallen leaves on the damp forest floor greeted riders as pushing down one of the most beautiful roads, Swamp Creek Road. To a rider's left ran the lazy Unami Creek; to the right lay a blanket of trees on a sloping hillside pocked with glacial detritus. It was peaceful to ride alone down this rolling road. No cars passed by, no pedestrians marched on. This road was the epitome of a late-season ride. Immediately following this section was the final KOM of the day, Knockel Rd, a long riser that felt a bit easier than in the grand prix days. Perhaps Tom Boonen would come back to take the KOM up this climb.
Further on, Ruth Rd, added diversity to the ride, as cyclists sliced through open farmland, which yielded remarkable distant views. The ride passed untold numbers of historically preserved farms and farm stands; there were too many stone farmhouses with large barns and fields out back to count. This was the proper way to end the season. Indian Creek Rd gave the riders one last consideration of farm country before housing developments and traffic began to creep back into the course. It was near this area where the course deviated from the mighty grand prix route of old and took a turn for home.
The ride passed through the tiny hamlets of Harleysville, Skippack, and Creamery. The route paralleled Skippack Creek in Evansburg State Park before approaching Collegeville. Appalachian Brewing Company was almost in sight. Following the UCI style course arrows and seeing the Bavarian Flags prompted a sense of relief. Perhaps it was the relief of finishing. Perhaps it was the relief of riding a course that started a cycling career. Perhaps it was the relief that this ride will suffice as a small token of saving a frustrating season. Better yet, perhaps it was the relief to know that every part of a perfect ride could be found on this day. And it was about to get even better.
Stowing the gear and bike, riders wobbled their way into the Appalachian Brewing Company's restaurant where riders had access to their notable libations and remarkable post-ride brats. Participants were given a genuine Oktoberfest Mug and received two beer vouchers to enjoy with the Bavarian style gastronomy. This was also where riders found out if they won any number of prizes for the ride provided by the sponsors. Fellow cyclists could be overheard in the private party room lamenting about participating in possibly the greatest post-ride party. Others could be heard stating it was one of the greatest organized rides in some time. Naturally participants asked each other if they set a foot down on the steep parts of Eichele Hill. And how steep is it really?
Talking with many relieved finishers gave the aura that each rider had felt like a professional for a day. Because of Kermesse Sport's dedication to providing a European atmosphere, it's natural thought to conclude, "Tom Boonen would have enjoyed this ride."