Liz and Susan’s Adventure on the Great Allegheny Passage
Posted by Susan on October 4, 2010
320 miles in 4 days on 20 inch wheels.
Early Monday morning we folded the bikes and boarded a train headed for Pittsburgh. Bikes are not allowed on the Northeast Regional, but boarding with the folding bikes was easy and stress free. We stashed them in the overhead luggage bin. The train trip was long, but inexpensive and sooo much nicer than flying.
Day One: September 28. McKeesport to Rockwood. 90 miles. Liz’s longest ride ever!
The next morning we folded the bikes again and boarded bus 61c for McKeesport, the traffic and roads between there and Pittsburgh looked just nasty! But once in McKeesport, we were immediately on the clearly marked path and after just 2 or 3 miles through a rundown industrial town, we were on our way! It was grey, but warm, and peaceful. Initially we had to stop to make a number of adjustments, but after the first hour, we were pretty much riding without interruption. The trail was smooth here, the restrooms along the trail were plentiful, clean and stocked with hand sanitizer. We didn’t notice any climbing until nearing Ohiopyle. Even then, the “climb” was only noticeable because we were riding slower.
We ate lots of food.
We had an amazing late breakfast at Gary’s Chuckwagon in West Newton, big food that included homebaked bread. Later, we dined at the Sisters Cafe in Confluence. Dinner was delicious – green beans, mashed potatoes and roast beef with gravy for $8.25, but portions were smallish, and the roast beef was dry (the gravy helped with this), so I was a tiny bit disappointed. Liz ate a chickendilla (without the queso) and liked it enough, but also thought the portions were small. (We’ll try the Lucky Dog next time )
At Rockwood, the end of today’s ride, we ate another dinner – pizza. I think I was so hungry that I didn’t notice that the pizza was half unbaked dough, and all the veggies were raw. I thought it was delicious even so, but Liz immediately rejected it –having been reared in Italy, she has a more acute sense for how a pizza should be. We had arrived late, and were the only diners, so we think that maybe the oven had been turned off early. After pizza, and pastries for dessert, we headed around the corner to the Main Street Cafe bar. Inside “The Biggest Loser” played on two huge screen TV’s. Since we don’t ever watch TV, we gawked at the spectacle while we drank our incredibly cheap drinks — the entire bill came to $3.75! We hoped that the drinks would help us sleep better in our new strange surroundings, but sleep at the hostel didn’t come for long, as all night long, trains thundered through, blowing their whistles, must have been a train every hour! Liz and I were very tired the next morning, but the bottomless cup of coffee and the wonderful bagels and jam with good company the next morning more than made up for it.
The hostel was empty except for one other cycling couple from near Pittsburgh, the Gosselins, a friendly couple from somewhere north of Pittsburgh.
Day two: Rockwood to Hancock. 104 miles. An even longer ride than Liz’s longest ride yesterday.
Today’s ride was very sightful, and began in a chilly, thick fog. We crossed the Continental Divide, the Mason Dixon line, travelled over the amazing 1,908 ft long Salisbury Viaduct (once, the longest bridge on the railroad) and passed through 3 tunnels. One of these, the Paw Paw, is very dark and scary and 3,118 feet long. The passage through this tunnel was narrow and rough, and there was a precarious wooden handrail to keep us from falling over the ledge into the murky canal waters below. This is exactly how I imagined the home of the Gollum. Good thing we had lights!
I made this the long day of our trip, because it included a long screaming downhill into Cumberland and the paved WMRT (Western Maryland Rail Trail) into Hancock. These features of the trail did make the century easier on us, but I did underestimate how long the ride would take.
On our way up to the divide we were constantly leap frogging an older couple riding to Cumberland. We drank too much coffee, so we had to stop for numerous pee breaks, additionally, we stopped for breakfast, while they kept plodding along. They lived nearby and were riding fat tire cruiser bikes, it appeared that they had to push extra hard on those bikes, but they were having as good a time as we were.
This day, and only this day, we both experienced a lot of discomfort in the saddle. No rashes, just tender butts from sitting so much. After one long downhill of over 20 miles, we began to do a lot of standing, and that helped considerably. Also, our wrists started hurting from riding the straight bars. Straight bars are okay for a day, but I don’t recommend them for back to back long days. This was the only day that we experienced significant physical discomfort ( maybe after today we remembered to take the ibuprofen? ).
The C & O after Cumberland was rough with frequent muddy puddles from rain the day before. Here, we had to let some pressure out of our tires to smooth the ride out, but Liz and I were both equally impressed at how well our folders handled the rough trail. We didn’t feel in the least bit disadvantaged because of the small wheels. I would also like to point out that we were really glad that we had fenders. They kept mud off of our clothing and bodies, and I couldn’t believe that no one else was riding with them! I can’t imagine going into a restaurant or coffee shop all muddied up! Someone told me that another cyclist had told him that his fenders caught too much debris from the trail, but neither Liz nor I experienced that problem – not even once. Perhaps slick tires help? Or maybe we had ours set up with more clearance between the tire and fender? ( Ours are set up with a gap visible from the side. )
We arrived in Hancock after dark, just as Weaver’s was closing, so we had to dine on sandwiches from Sheetz, and at the Pizza Hut around the corner from our motel, America’s Best Inn. The food at Pizza Hut was surprisingly satisfying (as were the motel, and the sandwiches), we each ordered a medium pizza and a beer (Liz, who is not a beer drinker, thoroughly enjoyed hers), and we had leftovers for the next day’s ride.
Day Three. Hancock to Harper’s Ferry. 64 miles.
The next morning, Liz’s rear tire was flat. No problem! I had packed spare tubes and all necessary tools. However, our pump would only work on Schrader valves, and I had neglected to pack a valve adaptor for presta valves! It was 8 a.m., Liz suggested we call a bike shop, an idea I thought was a ridiculous, but Liz called anyway –just in case… and what do you know? Yes! They were open! Rescued! It wasn’t far and I rushed over for the valve adaptors. Riding to the shop in the cold rain, I realized that I needed leg warmers, so found an inexpensive fleecy pair there at the shop.
It was raining hard this day. An unexpected storm came in bringing torrential downpour, flood and tornado warnings. If we had known of an alternate way to get to Harpers Ferry, we would have gladly taken a train or shuttle. We didn’t know of any other way except to hitchhike, but after seeing the rain let up, we determined to keep on biking. At the start, the trail wasn’t so bad as we had expected, we did have to slow down for muddy sections, but 70% of the trail was quite firm and rideable, and after noon, the rain stopped and the weather got quite warm, we thought the storm had ended and the sun might be on its way. But another hour down the road, somewhere near Falling Waters, the skies opened again and the rain came down hard – over an inch an hour! Around here the ground was soft and very difficult to push through, and we were really getting frustrated with pushing so hard to go so slow. There’s an official official C&O detour here, and we were happy to take it, and didn’t find it to be bad at all, but after the detour, and back on the muddy trail, we decided make another detour to Shepherdstown for shelter, as Liz was getting cold, and I was hungry. I had to eat my Pop Tarts right there in the downpour! We followed the GPS to Shepherdstown, to see if there was some kind of shuttle or ride we could get to Harpers Ferry.
I think we expected some kind of respite in Shepherdstown, a shelter, a ride, warmth. But we arrived just as coffee shops were closing, and so it was difficult to really relax and get warmed up. We were both soaked through to the core, and dripping water in over the freshly mopped floor of the first coffee shop we came to. We were exhausted and having difficulty making sense of our situation. I had a coffee and Liz drank some hot tea and ate some candies, this revived us enough so that after not finding any ride or shuttle, and seeing the rain stop, we determined we could keep moving. For some reason, I didn’t eat at the coffee shop, and as nature would have it, I felt famished just 5 minutes after leaving, so as soon as we re-entered the trail, we stopped to eat our left-over pizzas. Our spirits lifted at this point, and we knew we could make the next 12 miles to Harpers Ferry.
The trail wasn’t too bad at this point. Not really muddy, and easily passable (we were amazed at how easy it was) but it was still slow going. Soon it was absolutely dark, and Liz’s light stopped working. Fortunately, my light was bright enough for both of us. We had to ride along slowly, dodging many downed branches, and often stopping to pull branches out of our wheels. The trail dropped off abruptly on each side to either a river or a canal, and we really needed to see where we were going. It was pitch black and my light began to dim, as the batteries were running low. I was perplexed at how I could do a battery swap in that darkness–I needed the batteries from Liz’s light, but it was so dark, there was no way I could perform the swap without being able to see what I was doing. Then, I suddenly noticed Liz’s rear light, I had forgotten that we had rear lights! Voila! I could use that light for doing the battery swap! So, a serious crisis was avoided. Before this revelation, I was seriously worried that we might not get off the trail before my light failed, and then we would have been stranded there all night. At this point, despite the slowness of traveling through the dark, I was really enjoying plodding along slowly with Liz. There had been some points in our ride before now, where I wanted to push much harder than what she was comfortable with, but here I realized that I wasn’t going to miss anything if I slowed down. Strangely, despite it’s being dark, our being wet and having only one light, we were rather euphoric and in good spirits. And what luck! I got a flat tire in just the last hundred feet before arriving at the hostel!
So, we arrived at the Harper’s Ferry Hostel with an hour to spare before check-in was closed for the night. It was a cozy place, and we met another trail cyclist, who was traveling with a great big backpack on his old mountain bike. What a pain! Liz and I each only carried maybe 6 or 7 pounds max (including the bag, a book each, and a U-lock!). That was enough for us, neither of us felt anything lacking. If we were fully loaded, there’s no way we could have done the kind of mileage we did. Perhaps he had intended to camp, but otherwise neither of us could see any reason to carry that size of a pack. It’s much more pleasurable to travel unencumbered. More freedom and less to worry about. As far as having only one change of clothing- it’s worth the expense of doing laundry every night-if it saves 5 lbs.
Day four: Harpers Ferry to Union Station DC! 70 miles.
The night before, we had decided that we had had enough of riding in the mud, and so we were planning on taking the train the rest of the way, but this morning turned out too beautiful! The first and only day of REAL sunshine! It was warm and dry, and we decided to try the trail anyways. We’re both so glad we did, because this turned out to be the nicest day of the whole trip! The trail just got prettier, and more interesting the whole way! It was hardly muddy at all, just a few puddles, but mostly hardpack. The leaves were turning color, the temps were low 70’s, it was a perfect sunny fall day. We ate a huge breakfast at Mommer’s Diner. After my orange juice, biscuits and gravy, homefries, and pancake, I had a piece of cake for breakfast–and this was the second breakfast of the morning, having already eaten a pancake breakfast at the hostel. This whole trip, Liz and I ate disgustingly huge breakfasts, I was amazed at how much food I could cram into my stomach!
We were glad that we were ending in DC. Georgetown is very pretty, and filled with lots and lots of cyclists, so we enjoyed re-entering modern civilization at this point. It would have been depressing to ride into rundown, industrial McKeesport at the end of the ride. In Washington, we came across a Critical Mass that we joined for a block, and that was a very fun way to end our ride.
We arrived at Union Station with a couple hours to spare before boarding the night train back to Boston. We were just blown away by all the bikes around us, and the bike parking at the Station! We ate a filling meal in the station, and then had celebratory drinks at Uno’s. We probably could have eaten better food somewhere else, but I hadn’t planned it, and I was a little overwhelmed upon arrival in the city. It was more comfortable to be near the station.
The night train back was fine, and I’d do it again. But, it might have been better to spend the night at a hostel, spend a day in Washington, then take the train back the next night.
Liz has found a number of reasons why we’ll have to do the ride again. We’re both really looking forward to the next trip. Better pics next time!
Now the lists:
- 330 miles in 4 days – next time we’ll do it in 5
- We used Amtrak for getting to/from, carried on the folding bikes
- Each of us carried about 6-7 lbs of “gear”
- We ate a lot of pancakes and potatoes
- Yes, it rained – we were saved by fenders and good rain gear
- Two flat tires
- West to East is the best way to go
- Yes, we’ll do it again!
- Lightweight polyester hoody
- Lightweight nylon/poly travel pants
- Leather toe straps for strapping stuff
- Cinnamon Frosted Pop Tarts (Susan)
- Baked Potato Chips
- Ibuprofen and Chamois Butt’r
- Fenders – riding without them would have left us covered in mud!
- Multi tool, tubes, pump, zip ties
- Dry socks, dry clothes!!!
- Bright lights
- U-lock split between the 2 of us – for DC
- Packed leg warmers or tights (Susan)
- Brought more detailed maps of area around the trail
- Carried hand sanitizer
- Stopped at convenience stores more often to load up with snacks/drinks
- Spread the mileage out over 5 days
- Mapped out paved detours in case of mud
- Planned an eating stop in DC appropriate to celebrating our journey
- Packed carry-on covers for the bikes (for containing and hiding the mud) for the return trip
- Gary’s Chuckwagon in West Newton
- Rockwood Hostel
- GI Dayroom in Meyersdale
- Harpers Ferry Hostel
- Ride from Rockwood to Mason Dixon Line
- WMRT – Western Maryland Rail Trail
- All the C&O after Brunswick – maybe because it was the first and only sunny day for us
- Day 2: Tender butts (no problem the other days)
- Sore wrists and numb fingers from riding straight bars
- Day 3: Serious rain (over 1″ an hour) and mud
- One malfunctioning light and low batteries on one very dark night
- Arriving too late in Hancock to experience Weaver’s Restaurant
- Nothing special
- Liz – cycle commutes about 80-100 miles a week, runs 18 miles a week
- Susan – cycle commutes 100-125 miles a week, usually rides one 60+ ride a month
Advice to the uninitiated:
- Ibuprofen and Chamois Butt’r !!
- Let the slow rider set the pace
- Get off and walk every now and then – we walked about 5 minutes every hour
- Pedal out of the saddle often (stand up every mile marker or every lockhouse)
- Expect longer/slower days riding on the dirt. We averaged, including stops, about 9mph on FAST days.
- Always have extra snacks and liquids on you.
- We only carried one water bottle for the moderate weather, but we’d carry 2 if it were warmer.
Equipment and Technical
- Dahon folding bikes: “Speed P8” and a “Mu P8”, both changed to 9spd gearing. These bikes were perfect for Liz and myself on this trip. They felt fast and nimble.
- Bags: Carradice SQR bag, Zimbale (Carradice knock-off) 18L bag with a carradice quick release bag support. Both bags are “waterproof” but water got in during the storm. Both worked well, the Zimbale was a little more convenient to carry off the bike
- Lights: Ixon IQ rechargeable lights: very bright, highly recommended! For $150, I don’t believe there is a brighter battery powered light on the market
- Tires: Schwalbe Marathon Racers 20 x 1.5. They feel fast, but were fat enough for the rough trail. On the road: 75-80psi; On the trail: 50-60psi
- Gear range for both of us: about 39 to 81 inches. This was enough for us, never felt the need for more. We used both the highest and lowest gears, but were usually in the middle. Spinning, is good for your knees.
- We used Time ATAC clipless pedals
- Liz rode on a Selle Italia Lady Trans Am, I rode on a Specialized Body Geometry Ruby – hers is softish, mine is hard, we both like our saddles.
- Our fairly new break pads were completely worn down after a day in the rain, we had to tighten up the cables A LOT so that the levers wouldn’t bottom out on the grips!
- GPS: Garmin Dakota 20. Love it! But Liz got annoyed that I asked the GPS rather than people for directions. People info was faster.