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Physical Challenges (Great Allegheny Passage / C&O Towpath Bike Trip Log)
South Park Blue Suit
ohhim
With my recent 2 week trip up to Pittsburgh bookended and bisected by 3 Steeler games, I found myself in need of ways to fill my weekdays. The first week was filled with the usual culprets, including meeting with old friends for meals, sci-fi night, some biking around town, some former employer campus recruiting activities (as their token young retiree), and a trip to Ohio to see my cousin wrap up her senior volleyball season at a match vs. Oberlin.

Still, with my Monday-Saturday pretty open for week two between games against the Colts and Ravens, I decided to test my physical mettle with a long bike ride. Having riden around town and along the Great Allegheny Passage near town, and having seen the signs showing Washington DC being 330 miles away, I figured with my level of fitness, a trip to DC would be worth a shot.

After some quick research on lodging and return transportation, some consultation of the weather forecast (highs in the 70s most days - unusual for Halloween season), and a commitment from friends in DC to provide some housing after my arrival, I set out Monday morning at 11AM en route on the trail. With 7.5 hours of remaining daylight, a bed & breakfast lined up for the first night 100 miles away, I didn't need to average more than about 13.5mph for the first day to make it to my destination - well below the 16-17mph I was regularly doing on Florida roads during my 50 mile training rides. Still, the route was primarily over gravel (instead of the paved trail seen around the burgh), I was riding on a heavier/slower $180 wal-mart bike, the route was uphill, and required stops for lunch & water - ultimately leaving me about 5 miles short of my century mark by the time darkness overtook the wilderness. With some help from my headlight, I made it to my first stop - a quaint B&B in Rockwood PA ("Rockwood trail house") whose owners set up access for entry, not stopping by until the following morning to provide a hot cooked breakfast.

Although exhausted from a ride twice as long as my prior record for distance, I decided to call an audible on continuing the journey in the AM, grabbed a sandwich from a nearby gas station (as all dining options in Rockwood were closed), reseached lodging another 105 miles down the road (Hancock, MD), and decided a long nights sleep was in order to recharge. In the morning, feeling refreshed, I managed to line up a B&B room in Hancock and continued onward and upward (literally) towards DC. After a 20 mile climb up to the eastern continental divide at 2500 feet, and a rewarding 25 mile downhill to the end of the Great Allegheny Passage in Cumberland MD through some of the most picturesque peak foliage hills in the country, I stopped for lunch. By the time I resumed my ride, I still had 6 hours of remaining daylight, and only 60 more miles to reach my day 2 destination - giving me a bit more time for a leasurely ride down the much bumpier C&O canal towpath to Hancock Maryland.

Although averaging 10MPH on the C&O path wasn't as physically exhausting as doing 14 on the GAP, it was a bumpy ride, leaving my shounders, arms, and derrier nice and sore by the time I arrived at my second night's destination. The second B&B in Hancock MD (River Run B&B) was very nicely appointed charming house, but again, I was solo as it was mid-week and late in the season. I found a great spot for dinner nearby (the newly opened Buddy Lou's) and enjoyed a nice painini, and apple crisp to wrap up my second day of riding.

Knowing I was 125 miles from DC, separated by a very bumpy C&O Canal towpath, only 10.5 hours of daylight, and consistent rain in the forecast, I decided I was going to give the longer ride a shot with a contingency plan to bail mid-way at the picturesque Harpers Ferry WV, 65 miles down the road, or only do 105 miles to the Reston Metro stop and rail it in from the suburbs saving about 15 miles.

Gutting it out throughout the morning, and skipping lunch, I decided to push on past Harpers Ferry and go for the gusto, crossing the beltway by the time I needed my headlight for guidance down the last 10 miles of the towpath. I successfully arrived at my destination near mile marker 0 around 7PM, dark, cold, wet, and covered in mud I kicked up on the trail. My hosts were gracefully ready to hose me down, and the warm shower following that day's 125 mile voyage along with some tasty peruvian chicken hit the spot late Wednesday evening.

After some searching Thursday, I lined up a bike box and return train ticket for Saturday, and made plans with friends and family in the DC metro to keep me busy until train ride home. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were well appreciated rest days, filled with museum visits (Air & Space, American History, and Archives), family visits (uncle's birthday breakfast, lunch w. a cousin recovering from election season), fancy dinners, halloween parties, and even a run through the woods with some crazy nearby hashers.

In retrospect, although I was happy to see that I was able to knock out 330 miles in 3 days as a relatively new cyclist, I definitely made a few mistakes with the trip, but also managed to do a few things right:

Thing that worked well:

  • The new kenda 700c x 32mm tires on my $180 walmart road bike (a 30 pound GMC Denali/Kent cyle model) were perfect for doing this type of trip

  • I packed super light, just taking a camelback mule backpack bag (their smallest model) with 2 days change of bike shorts, long shirts, underwear, socks, snacks (energy bars & granola bars) and 100oz of liquid capacity. I also had a medium saddle bag filled with two spares, and a wrench and screwdriver needed to disassemble the bike for the bike box/amtrak ride home. Had my trip run longer, my 2nd night B&B had laundry facilities which would have been much easier than dragging along 2x as many clothes.

  • Layering with a north face outer shell, long sleeve shirt, and short sleeve shirt underneath worked well for managing the 45-70 degree rainy weather

  • Accomodations I found (late in the season as most places were closed) were outstanding with welcoming innkeepers, clean rooms, and reasonable prices ($115/night for a double at rockwood trail house and $85/night for the single at river run in Hancock)

  • Instead of buying the amtrak bike box, I managed to get one free from a local bike shop in DC as they were happy to shoot the breeze about the trip. Still, I bought a few accessories to repay their generosity.

  • Riding from Pittsburgh to DC (vs. going backwards) was definitly optimal as I got a few more tailwinds, the uphill was very gradual over the first 125 miles, and the downhill into Cumberland was a blast. Doing those 20 miles uphill to the continental divide wouldn't have been terribly fun.

Things I'd change on a future trip:

  • Although an athletic friend managed to do it in 2 days, I estimated that 3 days would have been more feasible than it really was. Despite being a reasonably competant marathoner and mediocre short distance triathlete, averaging over 13mph on the GAP, and 11mph on the C&O canal towpath for a full day wasn't fun. Planning to do it over 4 days vs. 3 would have avoided some night-riding stress, and given me more time to stop, admire the picturesque leaf changing fall scenery, visit some historical markers en route, and take more breaks.

  • Given the short amounts of night-riding and dark-tunnel-riding (in particular, the pow-pow tunnel near hancock) my $3 china-direct 5-LED front headlight didn't do a great job of lighting up the trail and a larger investment in lighting would have been a good idea

  • With the super-bumpy C&O canal towpath, a better gel seat, padded grip tape, and gel gloves would have saved my hands, arms, and shoulders lots of discomfort from the ride

  • With short 11 hour days this time of year, trying to average over 110 miles/day given necessary time to stop, recharge, etc... made the trip a bit of a challenge - doing the trip closer to the summer solstice would have helped

  • Although I had cadence/distance sensors on my bike, I forgot to bring the computer that attaches to them on the trip from Florida. Tracking distance covered with a computer vs. doing math with my watch and mile marker signs would have been an easier exercise.

  • Around Hancock MD, there is a 25 mile railpath that parallels the towpath and would have helped me speed up the trip and avoid lots of bumps. There are also some roads that seem to parallel the towpath further down that could have likely been navigated with more planning.

  • The Amtrak DC-Pittsburgh train is a bit unreliable and gets in after midnight. Reassembling the bike at the train station, then riding back to my lodging wasn't the best way to end the trip.

  • Although my camelback bag held plenty of liquids, swapping out my incessantly rattling Kryptonite lock for something a bit more lightweight that would let me keep a water bottle on my bike frame would have been a better use of space and weight.

Cumberland
Sunset DC

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