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.


  1. I found your blog circa 2008 when I lived and worked in Washington DC and was interested in moving to Nashville. Now I live in Nashville, and I'm glad to see this blog entry about your tour which concluded in DC.

  2. Welcome back, RB! I've missed you.

    I'm trying to make myself restart blogging my rides, epic or not.

    The best example I know of for blogging non-epic rides, but blogging every rando ride, was that done by Sag ( His pedalpal, Jayjay, told me late in most every ride, Sag would begin considering what one thing to blog about for each ride. Always one thing and only one thing. (Some of his early blog reports were longer, etc.; but once he settled in, it was one thing per post. That seemed to keep it fresh. At least that it what I thought.)

    One of Sag's posts contained advice he had gleaned from somewhere: (1) include photos, (2) include some humor, (3) keep it short.

    I almost always fail on all three counts.