Bell-to-Bell means from Philadelphia's Liberty Bell to the Justice Bell in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge. It's about 50 miles, round-trip. I had talked about planning this as a group expedition that included tawdryjones and Simon, but I never got around to it and I felt like 9 hours notice wasn't quite enough. Sorry guys!
I discovered that the 30-inch waist on the cycling shorts I bought back in 2004 seems to have, ahem, shrunk. I squeezed my way in anyhow. I loaded up my bike with 2 water bottles and 4 packets of Kar's Sweet 'n Salty Mix and hit the road. My first navigation error was immediate: I headed toward the Schuylkill River Trail before heading the 7 blocks east to start at the Liberty Bell! No problem, I'll stop by there on my way back, I thought.
I took Benjamin Franklin Parkway to MLK, and crossed the East Falls Bridge to connect to the Schuylkill River Trail. The connection to Main Street in Manayunk is a little confusing, and the only part of the trail I found that is shared by automobile traffic. But drivers in Manayunk are used to cyclists, and are pretty considerate. A left onto Lock Street, a short half-block that connects to the Manayunk Canal tow path. The tow path is largely unpaved, but well-graded and easy to manage on my Bianchi Volpe, even with road slicks. Portions are also a wooden boardwalk, which is a little bumpy but not bad.
I saw a lot of cyclists once I was past Manayunk. A lot of serious cyclists zipping past me at 20+ miles an hour, and a lot of recreational cyclists out for a Saturday morning spin. A couple pelotons zipping by. Most very courteous with an "on your left" when passing, although often the warning was a little later than it might have been.
The shaded, park-like portions of the trail were lovely. The rest were nice trails, but bordered by train tracks, a scuzzy-looking canal, parking lots, and light industry. And in full sun. Today I am well aware of the little spots where I did not apply sunscreen as thoroughly as I should have. Past the canal the trail is paved. I passed by Conshohocken, and later Norristown. Near Norristown some of the asphalt had buckled -- maybe due to tree trunks, more likely due to weather -- that had me wishing for the well-graded unpaved trails.
Due to construction, there was a detour on the trail just before Valley Forge. That's right, construction signs and detours on a bike path! But after the detour, there it was: Valley Forge! I sat down at a picnic table in the shade and devoured an envelope of trail mix. I listened to fellow cyclists, talking about how nice a day it was, how often they'd been here ("oh, first time? you'll love it!"), and comparing ages ("he's older than we are, he's 78!"). Definitely an older crowd, which may have been because I was at the parking lot for the Betzwood Trailhead. Certainly I'd seen some younger cyclists earlier on the trail.
Now there was one thing I really wanted: coffee! I needed to figure out how to get to the Visitors Center. Looking at a map, the Visitors Center was right nearby -- but on the other side of the Schuylkill. There was a highway bridge, but it looked like I could get across on the far side of the park. And this, as it turned out, was a mistake.
The ride to the far side of the park was nice, but it dumped me out on Pawlings Road. It looked familiar to me from when well_lahdidah and I visited Valley Forge with my parents a few months ago. I rode a ways and then stopped to check Google Maps--remember all the rides I managed without Google Maps! My navigating skills have grown weak with disuse--and found that Pawlings Road would take me over the river, I could turn left on Ferry Lane, and another left on Valley Forge Road to get back to the park.
Did I mention that the ride out had been amazingly flat? The elevation changes were minimal. It's a great route in that regard. But Valley Forge is, in fact, in a river valley. And as I coasted down a long hill on Pawlings Road, I knew that I would pay for that free ride, sooner or later. And sure enough, the next few miles were feast-or-famine. Down one hill I hit 37 mph without even trying, but a slow climb up the next hill in a low gear and my leg muscles started cramping.
On Valley Forge Road I stopped at a gas station and picked up some Gatorade, the really disturbing yellow-green colored one, and a banana. The folks in the shop were all very nice, but it was plain to see that business moves a little slower 25 miles outside of Philly. It was all I could do not to chug the Gatorade before paying for it, but I managed. Gatorade and a banana--electrolytes! A little sodium, a little potassium, back in action. Of course I still didn't know exactly where I was.
A grueling hill later and I recognized the park and got back onto a trail. And another grueling hill. At one point my leg muscles starting cramping up again and I stopped and cussed at the hill--right as a cyclist zipped right past me. I have no idea where he came from. I had seen no cyclists since I'd hit Pawlings Road, and saw no others for a good 10 minutes. I think he was there to make me feel weak.
Hey! There's George Washington's house! Now I knew where I was. Or, to be more precise, I knew that I was someplace that I'd been before. I continued on. The statue of von Steuben! I knew that the Washington Memorial Chapel was nearby, that it housed the Justice Bell, that they have gift shop, and that the gift shop likely had coffee. Coffee!
I know what you're saying: if you wanted coffee so badly, why didn't you get some at the gas station? I'd thought about it. But I wanted someplace I could rest and relax with a coffee. I chugged my Gatorade and ate my banana in a gas station parking lot, standing next to a cage of Blue Rhino propane tanks. I thought I could do better.
The cabin gift shop was a charming shop of knick-knacks and was fully air-conditioned. They provided me with a coffee and a ham-salad sandwich and a bag of chips. I enjoyed it thoroughly, every crumb, as I watched all sorts of tourists ooh-and-aah over the most ridiculous crap. There was a postcard of Philadelphia's City Hall, looking down from the flag-lined parkway, and I thought: that skyline hasn't existed in over 30 years. Or maybe not: upon closer inspection, the Bell Atlantic Tower was in the edge of the shot. Perhaps there are still angles from which most of the modern skyscrapers are absent.
Back on the bike! Oh, I could tell the ride home was going to be much, much longer than the ride out. I took Valley Forge Road to Trooper Road, following signs for the Schuylkill River Trail. More trail detours, but they led me to a narrow wooden catwalk over the river, adjacent to the highway. Yes, if I'd found this catwalk 90 minutes earlier, I could have procured my coffee with very little effort! A bike-and-pedestrian-friendly bridge is currently under construction a few hundred feet away.
The return trip was long and required more stops to rest. By the end I had finished both bottles of water and had eaten another packet of trail mix. I got home, carried my bike upstairs, and drank a liter of water. I did it! Bell-to-...oh, dammit.
I showered, changed clothes, and walked to Independence Mall. Through the glass walls I saw people crowded around the Liberty Bell. Did you know that the Justice Bell has no security? You can walk right up to it and touch it. You can see where many hands before you have touched it, where the metal is worn. Take that, Liberty Bell!
I took a ridiculous photo through the glass, evidence of my completed journey.