As bikemates 20 years his junior bowed out with sore legs and stiff muscles, Gus Rivera was proudly the last man standing. A year and a half earlier, and 75 pounds heavier, Rivera, 57, didn't even own a bike.
At the time, he had begun a weight loss journey, shedding his first few pounds by walking. But progress was slow. "It just wasn't working as much as I wanted it to," he says.
Eager to try something new, and unable to run because of joint pain, he hopped on his first bike since childhood last July. "I was able to enjoy it enough to stay with it," says Rivera. "Little by little, I started seeing more and more weight drop off."
Since then, the Mount Carmel, Pa., native has taken advantage of a bevy of trails within driving distance, gradually ramping up his ride lengths. With pounds quickly vanishing, Rivera set his sights on a new goal: completing a two-day, 140-mile round-trip ride between Jersey Shore and Wellsboro Junction, Pa., via the Pine Creek Rail Trail, a 62-mile bed of crushed stone that cuts through century-old hardwood forest.
The Pine Creek Rail Trail once carried lumber, coal and cargo, but now delivers cyclists, walkers and the occasional equestrian into the mouth of Pine Creek Gorge. Steep tree-lined mountainsides, carved by melting glaciers during the last ice age, rise up nearly 1,000 feet along the edge of the trail, which runs creekside for all but seven miles.
Gathering a few friends to join him for this journey through the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania," Rivera planned his test of endurance as a belated celebration of National Trails Day.
Rivera and his group set out on a Saturday morning, June 9, reaching their destination in Wellsboro, Pa., that evening for a hard-earned shower and steak dinner, after traveling nearly 70 miles with the ride into town.
The next day, at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, Rivera was ready to saddle up for the ride back--but his partners weren't so sure.
After a spin around the block to test their stiff legs, his aching friends agreed they'd reached the end of the road. Rivera realized he could go it alone or call it quits on a challenge five months in the making.
"[At first], I wasn't gonna do it myself. But after a lot of thinking, I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna go ahead and give it a try,' and I set out on my own," says Rivera. "I really wanted to accomplish it."
More than halfway back, the ride had been smooth sailing. But his luck turned, as Rivera's rear tire blew out--too badly for an easy change and fix, even though he had a repair kit. Feeling great physically, but worried about being stranded in the wilderness on shredded rubber, Rivera called his friends for a ride home.
"I knew I was gonna make it all the way," he says, confident he had the stamina to make it, if not the wheels.
The outcome was a disappointment, but Rivera came away reassured in his fitness and hungry for another shot. This October, he'll get it, returning to the Pine Creek Rail Trail for 50 miles out and back: his first attempt at a century ride.
Until then, Rivera's satisfied knowing he's on the right track--and outlasting a group of 30-somethings didn't hurt.
"No matter how far I made it, I made it farther than they did," he says with a laugh, "so that was something those guys will never live down."