The Front Row (USA Day 19)

Back on the road, with a set of four hilly rides that will deposit us in Columbus, Ohio. Today, we tumbled west out of Pittsburgh, bidding each of its yellow bridges farewell as we passed. Being back on paved road felt great: the miles went by quicker, the hills felt like slower flats and the traffic was no bother at all.

“I’m so glad we have all those trails behind us,” I grinned, just as we followed our route map left off the road and crackled onto the gravel of the Panhandle trail. Geez.

It wasn’t so bad. With the sun shining and our energy replenished, we tottered up the long, calm ascent knowing that north and south of us were demonically steep Appalachians that we’d be avoiding by staying off-road. Even better, within a few miles the track became paved, so we had all the benefits of tarmac without the ten-ton giants whooshing past our elbows.

For a few miles we rode with Raymond, a rubbery-faced chap who we’d overtaken on a hill and who spent the next ten minutes trying to catch us up. When he’d managed, he engaged us in conversation, a well-known tactic used by professional cyclists to ensure you’re not dropped again. In fact, he was pretty fascinating, having used cycling as a means to escape from a particularly tough spell of drinking and depression, and who now rode the Panhandle Trail as often as he could.

Eventually we jutted south into the country roads of West Virginia, filled with sharp bends and rusted cars. I took five wrong turnings (yes, we kept count) but still ended up exactly where we wanted to be: the local Wendy’s Drive-Thru, where we played car, pulling up to the different windows to make our order and pay the money, utterly confusing the (very courteous) servers. We sat in the parking lot eating our mushroom burgers, watching the circling vultures. As we were about to leave, however, an employee jutted her head out of the serving window and yelled for us to stop. The manager was coming, she said. Moments later, a small man walked out from the door towards us.

“Ah,” I said. “You must be Wendy.”

He was. Or at least he stood for her in this situation. After a few questions about our trip, he presented us with a fistful of vouchers for free meals at their stores and a hearty handshake, and made us swear to give him a ring when we’d safely set wheel in LA. What a sweet man. Also, and I get that this is me falling hook, line and sinker for brand loyalty here, but we’ll be eating our fill of Wendy’s for the next few months. At least until the vouchers run out, anyway.

The final miles of the day took us south, between the Ohio river and a steep wooded cliff that must have contained a bunch of bald eagles if the signs were anything to go by. We saw plenty of vultures, a couple of vultures and a few very exciting distant birds (vultures), and then as we approached Wheeling a weird quantity of cuddly little muskrats doing their podgy thing beside the path.

Every church has a bike dungeon, right?

Every church has a bike dungeon, right?

Wheeling itself is practically empty, very run down and not the sort of place you’d like to get caught on a dark night. So we decided to stay here. John, who runs a bike ministry underneath a large German church, welcomed us in with open arms. His work in this town is nothing short of miraculous: he builds bikes to give for free to locals, he works with the disabled to aid their mobility, he builds benches for public spaces, he preaches in the church, he randomly tugs on the church bell when he feels the urge. He speaks in breathless starts-of-sentences, never finishing them, always moving on, coming out with peaches of inspirational quotes before burrowing off through narrow semantic tunnels into which we can’t squeeze.


“Ah, you know,” he began, “One thing I, So I was always a shy kid but, When I come to this Church I always see people milling about the back seats. There’s always space in the front row. Always space in the front row in life, ya know? Gotta go to the, That’s what you guys’re doing.”

I guess we are.