Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Advice for Riding Pittsburgh to DC on the GAP and C&O Canal Towpath

If you're trying to plan your first bike trip along this awesome route there's a lot of information on the web and sometimes it gets overwhelming.  Lots and lots of blog posts are available to tell the tales of other adventurers gone before you.  Maybe what you really need is some practical advice and tips.  While not the most experienced rider out there, I have done this trip a couple of times and I regularly ride different segments of it for one or two day rides.

I recently rode along with a group that had booked their trip through a tour agency that made all the reservations and arrangements for them.  While it saved them a lot of time in the planning phase, I don't believe it served their needs especially well.  This particular tour company didn't take into account the experience level of the cyclists or what their interests really were.  As as result it ended up being a trip that most of the group just wanted to get over with rather than something that they actually enjoyed.

So my number one tidbit of advice is:


Don't try to ride everyone into the ground each day in an attempt to do the trip in three or four days.  That may be fun for some 20-something year old guys that are intent on proving something to someone (who probably isn't impressed with it anyway), but it's really not much fun for a family or group of retired friends. Several young women in their 20's on a recent trip didn't enjoy the long, demanding days they had been scheduled for at all. (If you're a randonneur and pretty much live to ride then this obviously does not pertain to you.)


I bike.  I love to bike.  It is not, however, the only thing I like to do.  Even if I do enjoy a good, long, all day ride once in a while, that doesn't mean you do, or that everyone you're riding with does. I don't like being required to ride long hours for several days in a row. Some days you might not feel up to that kind of schedule. I find the trip from Pittsburgh to DC (or visa-versa) much more enjoyable when I can stop to take photos of the beautiful scenery; enjoy a good meal instead of a rushed re-fueling stop; explore some of the historic or interesting stops along the trail; and most importantly - have the time for a long, hot shower and good night's sleep each day.  My best friend once told me it doesn't need to be a re-enactment of the Bataan Death March.  Schedule yourself wisely.

Taking a break to enjoy the view and take some pictures.

You might want to add in time to see Pittsburgh or DC at the start and end of the trip.  There are too many interesting things to do at both ends of this trail to go into here, and there's an abundance of information on line for both cities.  Something to consider.

Along the Great Allegheny Passage are plenty of artifacts from the Steel/Coke/Coal Mining industry. There's a history of glass and boat production to explore.  Plenty of early American history to learn about - starting at the Point in Pittsburgh where outlines from Ft Duquesne and Ft Pitt are preserved next to the oldest building in the city (the Ft Pitt Blockhouse). 

There's a very old cemetery in West Newton, and another that's right along the trail (Dravo Cemetery) that has a campsite behind it.  I know a lot of photographers that absolutely love to photograph old cemeteries.  Some people find it an adventure to camp out in a cemetery, and that's not an opportunity you find everywhere.

One of the waterfalls in Ohioplye State Park taken from a hiking trail.

Perhaps biking shorter days and using the extra time to kayak or white water raft in Ohiopyle State Park would be fun?  Even if you don't want to tackle the white water, there are great hiking trails and several waterfalls in Ohiopyle to see.  It's also where you can visit two of Frank Lloyd Wright's homes (Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob).  Getting to those houses is a significant climb, but if you've got a support vehicle (SAG Wagon) it's very easy.  I recommend making reservations for the tours though.

View from near Kentuck Knob overlooking Ohiopyle State Park in the fall.

Civil War buff?  How about spending part of a day at the Antietam National Battlefield?  They have tours that you can take on your bike or in a vehicle.

Do you enjoy great pie?  Then you want to plan a stop in Hancock where Weaver's Restaurant (about a block off the trail) serves some of the best you'll find along either trail.  

You get the idea.  If you spend the entire time just riding past everything, keeping your eye on the trail surface so you don't hit that rock, root or pothole (especially on the C&O) then you're going to miss a lot.  A slightly slower speed and a smattering of scheduled or unscheduled stops will give your seat a rest and make the trip more three dimensional and interesting.

-Camping, B&Bs or Hotels?

Maybe a mix is your best bet.  I think this all depends on what you like, how far you ride, and if you need to carry all the camping gear on your bike or if you have vehicle support.  Whichever you choose, be advised that much of the trail is near an active railroad line.  Bring ear plugs if the train noise is going to bother you.  Some B&Bs will provide them on the nightstand - that's how close the trains run to the towns.

-Support Vehicle

You may want to do the trip unsupported.  Plenty of people do.  I have to tell you that having a vehicle available sure takes a lot of the worry out of the equation though.  First of all, with a vehicle you won't need to carry all of your luggage and camping gear on the bike.  Lighter bike = easier riding.  Having a vehicle also makes life a lot easier if you have a major mechanical issue with the bike or if someone takes a fall or gets sick.  You may think your bike is in tip top shape.  You had it tuned up before you left and you're absolutely sure you won't have a problem.  Ha!  All it takes is one well placed stick on the trail that gets tossed up when you or your buddy runs over it and the next thing you know you have a broken derailleur or snapped spokes. 

Weather can completely throw your schedule off and if you made a reservation you're going to need to get there one way or another.

There are a lot of rocks and roots along the C&O Canal Towpath and pinch flats are prolific.  Get caught in a storm and expect to find trees and branches across your path.  Perhaps you're not interested in lifting your bike over multiple downed trees and ending up with poison ivy?  Having a vehicle with the option of extracting you from the trail is a very nice thing.

The National Park Service removed over 300 fallen trees after the storm that did this. The trail was closed the next day while they did the clean up.

-Don't count on Cell Phone coverage

You may or may not find a signal on the trail.  If you're near a population center you have a much better chance of having service.  There is only one place along the trail that has a signal amplifier and that's at the trail head in Rockwood.  So don't count on being able to get a call out.  You have a better chance of getting a text message through.  It only takes a fraction of the time for the message to send, but you still can't depend on it getting through.  

-You should have a plan.  

If you're riding with a group and you all stay together then you have some built in help.  If the group spreads out and no one knows who's where or who's at the back of the line it's going to get easy to lose track of people and not know if someone is injured or stuck with a mechanical issue.  Plan meeting points and do a head count.  If someone is way overdue you may need to send your best rider back to check on them.  If you have vehicle support and you plan the trail heads where the vehicle will be waiting you can more easily keep track of people.  Either they stopped at the vehicle to refill water bottles and grab a snack or they haven't arrived yet.  Don't leave anyone behind.

Plan for contingencies.  Sometimes a simple spill (no injuries) still leaves the bike out of commission.

-Pay attention to where you're at.

If you do have a problem and can get in touch with someone it's going to help to know where you are.  There are mile markers along both trails.  Keep aware of your position so you can tell your friends that you've broken down between such-and-such mile markers.


Vehicle or no vehicle, there are some things that you need to have with you --- ON YOUR PERSON (or on the bike).  

1) Medication
"Life is what happens when you're making other plans".  No matter how well prepared you think you are, you could get stuck for hours somewhere, so if you need a prescription, make sure you have it with you.  I always ride with some OTC meds like Ibuprofen, Excedrin, and Aleve.  If I start to get a headache or take a bad fall I want something now, not three hours later.  

2) Bike Light
"I don't need a light, I'm only riding during the day".  Yeah, right.  The best laid plans...  What about the tunnel you didn't know about?  What happens when you have that flat or mechanical or Murphy has reared his ugly head and anything that could go wrong went wrong and now you're trying to get to your hotel on a dark trail???  Carry the light.  They aren't that expensive and they attach to the handlebar and don't weigh that much.

3) Repair Kit, Spare Tube, Pump
Chances are that you or someone in your group is going to have a flat.  Know how to change a tire and make sure you have the tools you need to do it.  Make sure that you're carrying the correct size tube with the correct valve stem for your bike and that your pump will work with that type stem.

4) Small First Aid Kit
Take a few bandaids and maybe some gauze and tape.  A little antibiotic cream comes in handy and definitely take some wet-wipes.  If you fall and scrape your leg open, even if it isn't a big deal, clean it off and cover it.  You're riding on a dirt trail where dogs and horses do their business.  Look at your bike.  It's covered in trail dust at the end of the day.  Do you really want that in an open wound?

5) Bell or Horn
It's actually REQUIRED on some trails, including the C&O.  Again - doesn't weigh or cost much and it's easy to use.  If you aren't going to get one, then at least have the courtesy to use your voice to alert people that you're approaching from behind or passing.  Walkers and other cyclists can not always hear you approaching and it's just plain rude not to announce yourself.

6) Sunscreen
You know the drill.  Use it liberally and often.  I've seen people badly burned riding when they thought they had "a good base tan" already.  Depending on what time of year you do this ride, a lot of it may be in shade, but I'd still advise plenty of sunscreen.

7) Water and Electrolytes!
You absolutely need to have plenty of water with you and you need to DRINK IT.  Duh.  One water bottle is seldom sufficient.  Put some electrolyte additive in for this kind of trip.  Water is not always enough.  You can certainly replace electrolyte loss with the right foods, but there are lots of choices for making sure you're staying in balance that are easier to carry with you.  If you're riding hard or in hot weather you can find yourself getting sick if you don't replenish the electrolytes.  It could be muscle cramps and/or a lightheaded feeling, but it's easy to prevent.  Most bike shops carry an assortment of options.  You can find them other places too. 

8) U-Lock
Unless you really don't care if the bike gets stolen, you're going to want to secure it anytime you stop for lunch or leave it out of your sight.  A U-lock is reportedly the most difficult for the average thief to remove.  

9) Optional: cheap, plastic rain poncho
The forecast isn't calling for rain - we all know how reliable that can be.  If it's raining hard or thunder storming then find some shelter/get off the trail.  Thunderstorms are dangerous, and heavy rain on the crushed limestone trail generates a lot of mud and muck that will clog your derailleurs and chain.  You're better off sitting those events out somewhere dry.  If it's a light rain though -and no lightening- you might find that poncho will come in handy.  On a hot day I don't bother, but if it's chilly I don't enjoy getting wet to the bone.


1) Bike Shorts/Tights and maybe Shammy/Chamois Cream/Butter.
You might not normally ride with padded shorts or tights.  If you ride less than say 20 miles, it probably isn't a big deal.  Once you start peddling in excess of 30 miles a day I think you're going to appreciate having the padding though. On longer rides you may discover that Shammy Cream is beneficial.  When something is rubbing in places that you don't want it to rub and your skin is getting irritated you're going to want to try it.  You can find it in just about every bike shop and they even make some gender-specific versions that claim to be PH balanced.

2) Sunglasses or Protective Eye Wear
Even if the sun isn't bright and you don't think you need your shades, they do more than stop glare for you.  They also afford you some protection from bugs and from rocks or debris getting thrown up into your eyes.  Especially useful around dusk when the gnats and no-see-ems are out in force.

3) Bug Spray
Lime disease, West Nile Virus, Skeeter Syndrome - plenty of reasons to use some repellent.  Not a bad idea to bring along a good pair of tweezers also and check for ticks each evening.  You are riding through wooded areas with deer, so ticks are out there. You're also right next to the stagnant water of the old canal along a lot of the C&O.  An ounce of prevention...


If you're renting bikes, check out the reviews for the rental places you're considering and ask some questions.  I've seen the bikes and set ups from at least three different rental companies along this ride and one definitely stands out as superior.  Find out what's included in the rental.  Some of them will supply the essentials for you (light, repair kit, bike lock, bell, spare tube, pannier), take the time to help fit you to the bike (adjusting the seat and handlebars specifically for you), and deliver the bike in good condition.  Others not so much.  I've seen bikes delivered bare bones and with rusting chains.  What do you want to depend on for the next 300+ miles?

If you're bringing your own bike, take it to your favorite local bike shop and have them check it out.  If it needs a tune-up then invest the money - it'll be worth it in the long run.  Make sure you have good tires and everything else is serviceable.

View from the C&O Canal Towpath near Great Falls.

I hope you enjoy this adventure.  It really is a fantastic ride with some beautiful scenery.  If you have any questions, I'm happy to attempt to answer them or to point you in the right direction for assistance.

The Expansion of Cycling in the 'Burgh

The Pittsburgh bike community seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.  We used to be able to ride the trails with minimal traffic.  Especially when the weather was less than perfect.  That was OK with me.  Just like when I'm driving, I prefer less traffic when I'm biking.  My riding buddy, however,  wanted to see more cyclists out there using the resource.  He would often comment about it and now it would seem that he's getting his wish. A few months ago on a sunny, Sunday afternoon I saw more people on bikes than I saw at Pedal Pittsburgh the last two years.  It really is a transformation.

On the one hand, I will miss being able to ride in relatively low density traffic.  It can be very peaceful and relaxing to pedal with few other people around to deal with.  On the other hand, I kind of understand the excitement my friend and some others have expressed over the increase in bikers.

They say that safety improves for cyclists when they're more of us out there.  Of course we're talking about roads, not trails, but the more people out riding trails will eventually spill over into more people on the roads.  More demand for bike lanes and enforcement of the four foot passing law will lead to safer conditions.  Safer conditions will lead to more cyclists.  A very nice Catch 22 kind of cycle.

We're getting new, protected bike lanes in the city this year and Bike Pgh is doing great things.  We have a new mayor that's behind better, safer biking options.  Bike Share is on it's way.  Pittsburgh is growing in unexpected ways and I think it's a good sign - even if I have to now deal with more traffic on the trails.

I hope that the newest members of our biking community will really join it.  If you're thinking of commuting or if you're starting to do a lot of recreational riding, consider joining Bike Pgh.  They're more than just advocacy - they're a good resource.  Don't forget to make sure that the mayor knows you appreciate his support on safer biking issues.  There are lots of trail organizations that you can support.  If you can't afford memberships, maybe you can volunteer a few hours now and then to help with trail projects? Here are a few places you might start:  The Steel Valley Trail Council, The Montour Trail Council, Friends of the Riverfront, or The Allegheny Trail Alliance.

There are a lot of groups out there to ride with too.  Maybe you're not confident enough to ride on the roads with vehicle traffic but you want to.  You can join Flock Of Cycles for their monthly bike party rides.  It's a slow paced ride with music where the other cyclists will look out for you and teach you how to ride with traffic safely.

Maybe you're a seasoned cyclist new to the area.  Check out Pittsburgh's Major Taylor group, the Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen, or find information on Critical Mass, Team Decaf or other rides on the Bike-Pgh message board.

Several of the local bike shops organize group rides.  Check with Thick, Iron City, Kindred, Trek/Top Gear, Pro Bikes and others to see what they're offering.

Welcome to the Pittsburgh Bike Community.