Saturday, October 8, 2016

Kevin Spacey Was a Good Lex Luthor

So, yeah, I've been away for a while. Think of it as when Superman Returned, but he wasn’t Christopher Reeves any more. It’s different because I am SO not Superman, but it’s similar because Christopher Reeves was dead.

Not that I died or anything. I just haven’t been randonneuring, really. This year, I rode one 200K. One. Back in January, because it’s still my birthday thing to do a 200K on (or near) my birthday. But I’ve been doing regular 100Ks, and filing them with RUSA, so I’m still a member.

I guess that still makes me RandoBoy, but a RandoBoy who doesn’t do much epic stuff.

And so now you’re asking: Why the blog now? Why waste my time if you’re not being epic?

Well, it’s because of a revelation that I had during this week’s tour of the Greater Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal Towpath.

RandoGirl and I drove up to Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 1, and checked into a hotel. Sunday morning, we drove to the parking garage next to the Amtrak station, loaded our gear onto our bikes, and went off in search of mile marker 0 of the GAP.

It took us a bit to find this, but after a few loops and u-turns we were on our way. And then the route disappeared again and we were lost. (There’s about six blocks of the route that they haven’t quite finished — make sure you get the most recent map.) Eventually, we found the route again, and then we lost it again, but somebody told us how to get back. From there, I think that we managed to stay on course … although I’m still not sure.

The day was kind of drizzly, and once the pavement disappeared about mile 20 we had some slippery moments and our bikes quickly got grungy. The drivetrains were squeaking and the disk brakes were whining as we started a fairly steady climb about 15 miles from our first overnight stop in Connellsville, PA. We ate lunch in McKeesport, where RandoGirl got a small stromboli and I got a large one that would have fed three people. I took half of it down to the bike shop there and gave it to the mechanic, and then bought a bottle of chain lube. I could already tell that the little bottle of cleaning chain lube that I was carrying was not going to be enough for the kind of stuff we were getting from this trail.

Just down the road, we came across a couple from Minnesota — Deb and Brian — who were in the first week of a long tour. They planned to take the GAP and C&O to Harpers Ferry, and then head over to the Blue Ridge Parkway. They would then work their way west to the Natchez Trace in Tupelo, and then go through Mississippi to pick up the Southern Tier route (as published by the Adventure Cycling Association). From California, they then planned to go to New Zealand to ride. Whew!

Our overnight was the Connellsville Bed and Breakfast. Another group of four cyclists was staying there, as well, and we chatted with them while we all washed the mud off our bikes in the B&B’s back yard. Then RandoGirl and I went out for a passable dinner in town before retiring to bed early. After a great night’s sleep, we had a fabulous breakfast of pumpkin pancakes before heading down the road.

The route today was a little shorter — 58 miles — but was almost all uphill. The hill was gradual, fortunately, but the road was still pretty sloppy. We had second breakfast in Ohiopyle (near Wright’s famous Falling Waters house), then ate lunch in Rockwood at the Opera House. We were very tired when we finally got to our overnight at the Levi Deal Mansion in Meyersdale.

The owner, Jan, brought out wine and snacks, and we decompressed on the front porch with a group of six ladies who were cycling from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, and Adam and Charlie from Rochester, NY, who were riding the GAP from Pittsburgh to Cumberland. Just before nightfall, we walked down to dinner at another so-so restaurant. We stayed up a little later doing some laundry, but slept great.

The next morning, after a superb breakfast at the Mansion, we set off for another few miles of climbing. Soon, we were crossing the Eastern Continental Divide.

Not far from this, we rode through the mile-long Big Savage Tunnel. Coming out, we were bathed in sunshine.

Then, we had about 20 miles of light descending into Cumberland — the end of the GAP. Along the way, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, and had excellent views of cute towns nestled into little Maryland hollows. When the road finally leveled out, we had a fabulous lunch in town.

Heading to mile 0 of the C&O, we found Adam and Charlie eating lunch outside a wine shop. I bought a bottle to have with dinner that night, and as RandoGirl and I packed this into our panniers up rode Deb and Brian. We quickly caught up, but had to roll on without them since we had a long way to go.

We quickly discovered that the C&O is the less well-tended portion of this route. Whereas the GAP was mostly gravel, some of which was almost as fine as sand and well-spread, the C&O is pretty much dirt. Since it had rained three days earlier, that meant it was about half mud.

It took us a while to adjust to having to dodge tree roots, large rocks, and some wheel-sucking muddy patches. Where we had been doing 12 mph on the GAP (16 on the descent into Cumberland), we were back to 10 mph for the last 30 miles to Paw Paw, WV.

We were staying at the Bikepath Lodging B&B, run by Dan and his dog, Moxie. He had a full house with us and two cycling sisters from West Virginia, and fixed us a fine dinner before we all retired early. After breakfast there the next day, we were on the road before 9 am.

We crossed through our final tunnel within a few miles, but whereas we could bike through the ones on the GAP we had to walk though this one due to its pot-holed surface and lack of lighting. We were lucky to have brought plenty of lights with us, so it was no problem, but I pity the fool who tries to ride his or her bike through that tunnel.

After getting a snack at Bill’s Place in Little Orleans, we soon left the C&O for the Western Maryland Rail Trail. This 22-mile section runs parallel to the canal, but is paved. Midway down this, we stopped in Hancock at Buddy Lou’s for lunch. We met a lot of other cyclists — some going south, and some going north — while we ate, and compared notes as usual. Then we did the last 10 miles of pavement before getting back on the C&O for the ride into Williamsport.

We had to go into town here to get to the Red Roof Inn. Although not as nice as some of our other accommodations this trip, they did have laundry facilities and the gas station next door let us wash our bikes for $3. Once we got cleaned up and had laundry going, we ran across the street to get cheap Chinese food for dinner and buy epsom salts for a nice bath. We also stopped at the liquor store there for pain-killers, running into another cyclist who was buying tonic water and was staying at the Red Roof Inn with friends.

The next morning, we stopped at the cafe in town for coffee and baked goods, running into the cyclist we had met the previous evening. It turns out that he is the General Counsel for Cliff Bars, and another of the riders is the head of development there. We had a great breakfast talking with them, and then headed to the trail.

Today was the “short” day, but we made a snap decision to lengthen it a bit by getting off the trail in Sharpsburg and riding to Antietam. The reason was that we stopped at the sign for that town to use a Port-A-John, and got to talking to a couple who was out for a walk. They recommended a good lunch spot, with an even better ice cream shop across the street, and said that you had to see Antietam. So we did what I call “the Griswold tour” at the battlefield in under an hour, and then went back into Sharpsburg for lunch. The lunch was so filling that we didn’t have room for the ice cream, unfortunately.

The trail had gotten better during the past couple of days, and we felt pretty fresh when we finally got to Harpers Ferry. Then we had to climb the stairs to the pedestrian bridge (taking multiple trips to portage bikes and bags) and then walk across to the town. From there, we climbed the steep hill to the bluff where our B&B was.

This night, we were at the Laurel Lodge. Another beautifully restored place with excellent views, the owner Chris helped us lock our bikes away and then gave us coffee and pastries. Our room was great, and we had a huge dinner in Bolivar (less than a mile’s walk) before retiring to the sleep of the just.

After a sumptuous breakfast the next morning, we began our last day of the trip. At Chris’s suggestion, we stopped at Beans in the Belfry in Brunswick for second breakfast and to get some sandwiches for lunch on the road later. Rolling up to the front, I saw three cyclists sitting there enjoying coffee. When I looked more closely at their bikes, I realized that they were randonneurs. We swapped stories for a while, discussing common acquaintances, and I introduced myself. They didn’t know me by my real name, so I said, “I’m RandoBoy.”

Him, they knew.

And that’s why this blog. I didn’t realize that there were that many people out there that read this thing, and I figure maybe they’ll enjoy this small (non-epic) adventure.

After eating and drinking and packing up our sandwiches, we headed on. About 30 miles from the end, we stopped and had a picnic. About 10 miles from the end, we started to get a lot of pedestrian traffic from Washington, DC, and a lot of it was not friendly. I got the feeling that they were all over that “oh look at the cute touring cyclists” thing.

Eventually, we got to Georgetown. Just like Pittsburgh, the trail came and went here. Fortunately, RandoGirl had looked at some YouTube videos of people hunting Mile Marker 0, and she had downloaded a navigation app, so after a few loop-de-loops and U-turns we finally found it. She had to walk around a building with a bunch of teenagers doing calisthenics, but she took a picture. I stayed with the bikes, not that interested in fighting a crowd just to be official.

From there, we went to a very expensive Holiday Inn for the night. We had another great dinner, and the next day went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum before cycling through the rain to Union Station and catching our train. We rolled the bikes on and I wrote this blog. Soon, we will roll the bikes off in Pittsburgh, load them into the car, and drive back to Tennessee.

As tours go, this is a fairly easy one to do. There are a lot of ways to do it — just a portion of it or the full 340 miles; full SAG support, credit-card camping, or loaded down and camping every night — it all depends on how much fitness, time, and/or money you have. There are plenty of places to stop and get food and drink, and there are even enough Port-A-Potties that you may never need to use the Green Door.

I would recommend fatter tires and a stout bike. We were using 32C tires and wheels with plenty of spokes. We passed one fellow on the first day who was walking his bike because he had blown out his tire. I stopped long enough to determine that my helping with a boot was almost impracticable, but noted that he was using low-spoke-count “racing” wheels with 23C tires. He also had most of his gear on the front of his bike, which made for an unbalanced load with a potential for calamity.

Both of our bikes had disk brakes, and although we didn’t need the “wet-stopping” abilities of disk brakes it was nice not to have to worry about mud clogging caliper brakes. Since the rear fender on my bike had broken about a month before, and to make it easier to get the bike in and out of the car that we used to get to Pittsburgh, I had removed all of the fenders. While they may have cut down on some spray in the wet puddles, they would have caught some of the rocks and sticks that we couldn’t dodge and might have made a mess.

Of course, bring at least one spare folding tire and at least three tubes per bike; although there are enough bike shops on the route that you should be able to get what you need, it may save you a long walk. Also bring lube, rags, and an old tooth brush so you can clean the drive train.

We used my Arkel panniers for this trip, and those always work great. I had the Schmidt DynaHub on the front to charge a USB battery and/or my GPS, so we had more electronics than we needed. As I mention above, bring lights for the tunnels.

As to clothing, we had to resort to knee- and arm-warmers for at least the first few hours of most days, often with a jacket over that. I brought a pair of glove liners, but never really needed them. You’ll also want something to wear out to dinner, of course.

We saw a number of folks doing light touring out of larger seat bags, such as the ones that Revelate Designs make. I think it’s possible to do credit-card camping using that set-up, depending upon the weather and if you can wash your bike clothes every night. Since we were not looking for a fast passage, I brought my laptop and other things for a greater degree of comfort.

I would also advise people planning to do this ride to be as flexible as they can. If you have the option to be flexible, be prepared to move the trip from one week to another if the weather is going to be very wet. Since the trail is close to water and very shady most of the year, it stays cooler there ... and it can stay wet for a few days after any rain ends. Reservations for lodging can be tricky to get, of course, so this is a balancing act; but if you can, make reservations that can be cancelled if the weather takes a turn for the horrible.

My final recommendation for doing this route is to make sure that you are in touring mode. RandoGirl and I met one fellow at lunch on the C&O who was going the other way — uphill at that point — and had 60 miles to his overnight stop. We warned him that the trail was a little tricky, and he might not want to ride it at night. “Oh, I’ll be there before dark,” he said. “I usually average 15 mph when I ride.”

And maybe he did. He didn’t look like a young mountain-bike racer, but looks can be deceiving. But this route is not one for Strava segments. It’s for touring — getting out in the country and stopping for the little towns and historical markers or to watch a blue heron fishing the shallows. It’s the kind of route that you need to stop and talk to the locals and find out where the good lunch places are … even if you don’t have room for the ice cream.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's All Good

Picture this:

You have a week off for a long bike tour vacation in April in Tennessee ... but it's April in Tennessee and that's when the weather can be tricky. And, sure enough, the weather for the week turns out to have a bunch of really crummy days -- enough that you're going to spend a few days either riding in the wet or sitting in a tent looking out at it.

And that's not anybody's idea of a vacation.

But then, right there in the middle of all the crummy stuff, it looks like you might have two days of good weather. So you go for it.

I spent most of Tuesday morning wrapping some things up and packing, so that it was lunchtime when I finally headed for the Natchez Trace. It was a blustery day, with a wind out of the south-southwest making me pedal even on the downhills and the sky regularly spitting stray raindrops. But it was the best weather that we'd had since Sunday, and I knew that things would get better.

Right after getting on the Trace, I ran into a couple from North Carolina who were just finishing up a 16-day tour. They had started from the Northern Terminus and ridden to the Natchez and back, and we chatted for about 15 minutes while we admired each other's rigs.

I should have a picture here, and the fact that I don't have one -- or one of the guy that I passed about 10 miles laster who seemed to be doing a walking tour of the Trace while pushing his things in a runner's trailer -- shows the downside of a short tour. It's something that my friend Bill Glass once pointed out to me, and which I've experienced enough times now myself to see it as Truth: It takes a few days of touring before you get into touring mode.

Touring mode is where you are willing to stop near the bottom of a long downhill to take a picture or talk to somebody, even when you see that there's a climb coming up that you might be able to coast at least some ways up using the speed from the descent. When you're in touring mode, you not only live in the moment, but you live in the moment in the place, so that you're not looking down the road so much as you're looking around where you're at.

But I wasn't in touring mode on Tuesday afternoon. I was mostly keeping my head down, riding hard into a stiff headwind, hoping that the spitting rain wouldn't turn into a deluge that would make me take shelter under one of the Trace bridges.

I got more into touring mode about Hwy 50, stopping at the Gordon House rest area to eat one of the sandwiches that I had brought with me. Some folks who were touring the Trace by car had stopped there, and I talked with them a bit before hitting the road again.

There's something about the "double-aught" mile markers on the Trace ... like rites of passage. And, yes, that red and white thing on the back of my bike is a spinning reflector. It takes about 20 mph of apparent wind to spin it, however. Between the headwind and my 12 mph average, it only got whizzing about half of the day.

I stopped again at the overlook rest area just before my exit, eating my other sandwich and enjoying the view. Although it was early spring, the trees had filled in enough that you couldn't see much of Hohenwald -- which is about eight miles north of here -- except the water tower.

My first overnight campsite was at Fall Hollow Campground, which is right at the exit from the Trace on Hwy 412. The owners there are super-nice, and they told me that I could set up under the cover of their picnic pavilion, and thus stay more dry should the rain ever come in. This site was pretty close to the bathrooms, too, which are nice and clean. They only charge $5 for tent campers, which anybody that regularly camps will tell you is incredibly cheap. Right after I fixed and ate dinner, they even came by to offer to drive me into town to eat. If you're bike touring anywhere near this campground, I highly recommend that you stay there.

I slept okay the first night, although I regretted not going further into the campground when the rain never came and the traffic sounds of Hwy 412 kept up through the wee hours. At first light I fixed an excellent breakfast of bagels and corned beef hash, then broke camp and loaded up. I spent another half hour tweaking the mounts of my panniers, trying to get them as close to the center of gravity as possible without hitting them with my shoes while pedaling, and then headed out.

My route for this day had me going east through Mt. Pleasant -- at first on some of the roads that the Tennessee ultra-cyclists use for a 300K route. I'd done this route at least three times, but on this lovely spring morning going opposite our usual direction, I was stunned at just how pretty the countryside was. I took it as an affirmation of my decision last year to randonneur less and tour more, since brevet speed just doesn't offer the opportunities to see what you're riding though.

The winds held true, but on this day the strength and direction worked to my advantage. After a tough climb over Mount Joy Road (the climb was not a joy, but wasn't that bad, either) I cruised along a series of roads and into Mt. Pleasant. Since it was just after 10 am, the Mt. Pleasant Grille -- which we regularly stop at on the Cathey's Creek Permanent -- wasn't open, so I continued on east.

Now backtracking the Cathey's Creek route, I rolled over a series of small lumps on excellent roads. The day was just warm enough to make for perfect cycling, and I had a good comfortable bike beneath me.

In Culleoka, I stopped at the Glendale Market for a fried apple pie and a root beer. It was lunchtime, and a steady stream of locals came in to get sandwiches and gas. Most of them gave me friendly nods, and some asked about where I'd been and where I was headed, reinforcing my belief that even people in cars that don't always behave nicely around bicycles are more likely to be nice to touring bicyclists. We are just so quaint and non-threatening.

The roads turned a little more bumpy past my brief stop, but soon I was east of I-65 and entering Marshall County. At the county line on this route, a creek runs across the road. It was very full from the rains earlier in the week, and walking my bike across got my shoes and socks thoroughly soaked. Although the bottom bracket was briefly immersed, the water was not high enough to get to the wheel hubs -- which was good, since the loaded bike was too heavy to carry.

I turned onto Wiles Road east of Hwy 431. This road was new to me, but looked like most of the quiet little lanes down that way: Flat, winding, and lots of exposed rock. Since I grew up in a land of rock and moss, however, I've always considered it pretty.

Turning north on Verona Caney Road, I was on the US Bike Route 23. I wanted to get a picture of my bike with one of the USBR signs, so I skipped the direct route to the campground via River Road and continued north to Hwy 99. I never saw one of the signs, however, as I went further north, and eventually headed on east to "downtown" Chapel Hill.

Just after 2 pm, I stopped at Sonic for a hamburger and caramel milkshake. Then, after a brief stop for supplies at the Food Giant next door, I headed back south two miles to Henry Horton State Park. Those two miles to my campsite were the hardest riding of the day, and I realized just how lucky that I had been to be going with the wind instead of fighting it all day.

By the time that I pitched my tent by the river and got cleaned up, it was only 3:30. I tried to find the campground manager to pay the posted $11-fee, but he was out. This left me with about four hours of daylight to just hang out.

The day was still perfect -- particularly if you weren't trying to ride a bike into the wind -- and it felt strange just sitting around. I've often said that I can do a number of things pretty well, but I can't do nothing good at all. So, Wednesday afternoon, I had a chance to work on my "doing nothing" skills. I read a mediocre book. I lay down on the picnic table and watched the trees moving in the wind against a clear cerulean sky. I watched a hawk hunt, and squirrels scamper, and a river flow.

By the time the sun was setting, I had managed to wind things down enough that I felt like I was just entering touring mode. But I had also come to the conclusion that optimal daily touring distance for me was probably between 60 and 80 miles, depending upon the terrain. I don't think that I will ever be good at doing nothing.

I slept great Wednesday night, thanks to my excellent campsite and the gentle evening breeze. Up with the sun on Thursday, I was packed and ready to roll at 7 am. Since I still needed to pay my campsite fees, however, I had to hunt down the resident manager -- which cost me another half-hour.

Using the section of River Road that I had skipped the day before, I went back to Verona Caney Road before going north and west. The wind was still blowing steadily out of the SSW, so I had a few sections on this day where I needed to work. But they were broken up nicely by long portions where I could turn northward.

I hit Marcy Jo's at 8:30, getting a short stack of pancakes and a side of bacon, but starting with -- of course -- a big cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee. My tank topped off, I then used my Marcy Jo's 100K route to head northwest.

In no time at all, I was passing Carter's Creek Station and cruising north on a series of gently rolling roads. It took less than two hours for me to get from Marcy Jo's back home -- not bad on a loaded 100-pound-plus bike whose bottom bracket was beginning to squeak from the previous day's creek crossing!

I'd been gone for less than 48 hours, but my batteries were fully charged again. It was a short tour, but it somehow managed to have enough stretches of hard cycling, good camping, new roads, and quiet reflective time that it felt like a longer tour.

And it was all good.