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Category: cycling (Page 2 of 44)

transitions (or trading shoes for boots)

This morning, I woke up and brewed coffee. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and toasted an English muffin. I then donned my cycling togs (longer layers, as it’s chilly outside, with wind in the forecast), packed a bag, topped off the bike’s tires, lubed the chain, loaded up the car, drove to Bowie to meet my friends.

In other words: it was a typical Saturday morning.

We rolled out from Allen Pond Park: Jonathan, Chris, Mark, Ed, and me. Our plan was to ride a smooth, off-season pace, no county line sprints, on a route that gently rolled down to Chesapeake Bay and back. The sky was streaked with cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, with a cool breeze from the northwest – it was a perfect day to ride.

As we rode, the conversation was fun, and everybody seemed to be in a fine mood. Our bikes all wheeled along quietly. We passed farms with horses, cattle, sheep, and weary farmers. One pasture had a girl flying a kite.

 Girl flying a kite

The halfway point was Sweet Sue’s, our usual break spot. The hot drinks were just so-so (the folks behind the counter just couldn’t pull a quality espresso shot), but the baked goods were up to their usual yummy standard.

Rolling north along the Chesapeake, we were spared the bad wind, and treated to myriad lovely views. The wind that was there was increasingly chilly, and the cloud cover became thicker the closer we got to our cars.

 

After we were done riding, I went by the local ski shop to pick up my new skis and old boots so I’ll be ready for my coaching duties, which should be starting in mid December (though I hope to ski next weekend while up north for the holiday). The excitement that coursed through my body and mind when I took hold of the new skis for the first time was infectious.

 Redsters

And tonight, there were snow flurries in DC. I went outside, giggled with glee, and danced a little dance of joy (not to worry, DC snow paranoids: it didn’t stick).

sprite in the snow
The transition from my summer sporting love to my winter sporting love is in motion – and today’s transition between the two worlds made it very clear to me. While the cycling shoes won’t be totally hung up for the winter – I’ll still ride a bit, and my bike commute won’t go away – my boots are going to be the go-to footwear for fun when the snow flies.

Winter is coming, and I’m prepared – and elated.

a question for the dc (and other) bicyclists

There has been a lot of discussion about bicycles and their place in the greater streetscape. I certainly have a lot to say about it, but don’t have a lot of time to write about it just now – gotta get a post up before midnight, y’know – so I ask for some discussion in the comments of this post (try and keep it there, as not all of my followers are on Facebook).

When I ride my bike in DC, I tend to take the lane, toward the center, and ride like a car should drive – i.e. I am a vehicular cyclist. I realize that not everybody can manage that pace, or is that confident on a bike where traffic abounds, much of it not entirely friendly toward cyclists.

Because of that, I’m not always a fan of bike lanes, cycletracks, and the like, as I feel most of these things don’t provide cyclists the exposure they need to develop their skills and to allow motorists to adapt to the presence of bicycles in the roadway. Yes, I will use some bike lanes and cycletracks, but just as often I’ll ride in the general traffic lanes, as I can make better time, ride faster, etc.

I realize this flies in the face of many of the bicycle advocates and activists in DC, who pine for more lanes, more sharrows, more cycletracks. I realize that these facilities provide a sense of safety to the hesitant, beginner, or ultra-casual cyclist, and that they can help build a vibrant cycling community.

But I seldom see them done correctly, as I’ve seen in Europe and other U.S. cities. Instead, things are done with compromised designs. For example, the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack is far too easily crossed by drivers, who make U-turns with little chance of penalty. The zebra barriers, installed on one block of this track, were installed so far out of spec that it’s comically easy for cars to U-turn over them without incident. Another example is the L Street cycletrack, with bollards that allow cars and delivery trucks to block it with ease.

Not to mention the 15th Street cycletrack that is seldom cleaned, or the multi-use path in Rock Creek Park that is so narrow and poorly paved that its safety is compromised to the point where there’s no safety advantage to using it along most of its length. These are bicycle facilities that are lacking in complete execution, compromised in many respects and doing a disservice to cyclists (and in the case of Rock Creek, pedestrians and equestrians).

And the bike lanes on narrower, one-way streets put the cyclist right in the “door zone” of parked cars. I recently found myself doored because of this – it’s not fun.

So I posit this: why build more of these half-baked facilities that send a mixed message to all road use communities? Isn’t it all just good money gone to waste?

My stance: either build bike facilities properly (e.g. install the zebra barriers on Penn to manufacturer’s specifications, build a curb to create a proper cycletrack on L Street), or concentrate on consistent enforcement of traffic laws for all road use groups.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification. I will explain more in the future – deadlines, y’know…

coffeeneuring 2013: will ride for coffee

For the third year in a row, Mary G. is hosting the “Coffeeneuring Challenge.” And for the first time, I’ve taken part.

And it was a ton of fun!

As my readers know, I participated in Mary’s “Errandonneuring Challenge” earlier this year (the posts are here. That was fun, but this was better. It was a good excuse to go bike riding with sprite, to explore areas both familiar and new, and to try some new-to-us coffee, tea, and chocolate shops.

Stop #1:
Date: 5 October
Destination: Orlean Store, Orlean, VA
Miles: 77.2 (Strava map)
Drink: hot coffee (with ice)

 

Notes: an impromptu ride with my usual riding buddies, leaving from Gainesville, VA, and rolling through Warrenton and Orleans, where our rest stop happened. They had fresh hot coffee, but it was toasty outside, and I wanted something cold. So I had the owners of the shop add some ice to my cup – all good! I love this little store, which seems to be finding its groove with the new owners.

Stop #2:
Date: 16 October
Destination: Ana Maria Chocolates, Peterborough, NH
Miles: 4.4 (Strava map)
Drink: hot chocolate w/whipped cream

 

Notes: sprite and I were on vacation in New Hampshire, so we decided to take our bikes from our campground at Monadnock State Park to the nearby town of Peterborough, a lovely little mill town with a vibrant arts scene. We rode on the Common Trail, one of over 60 miles of rail trails in southwestern New Hampshire. The trail was a tunnel of vibrant foliage. The cocoa was really decadent – exactly what you’d expect from a chocolatier. And as we were on vacation, we counted this as a weekday ride exception (per the rules of the challenge).

 

Stop #3:
Date: 19 October
Destination: Brewbakers Café, Keene, NH
Miles: 30.4 (Strava map)
Drink: pumpkin latté

 

Notes: rode from Gilson Pond Campground at Mt. Monadnock State Park to Keene, where I met up with sprite at the end of the Cheshire Rail Trail. We rode into town for the Pumpkin Festival, which was a treat: over 30,000 jack-o-lanterns were on display, all with real candles inside that were to be lit before 6pm, when the Guinness Book of World Records would officially certify this year’s display as the largest-ever display of lit pumpkins.

 

We stopped at two coffeehouses on Main Street: Prime Roast, where I bought some beans; and Brewbakers, where we both bought beverages. We both agreed that Prime Roast was probably the better place of the two. My pumpkin latté was just OK. Fortunately, we were able to drown our sorrows in hot cider, pumpkin soup, and other tasty treats from the Pumpkin Festival.

Stop #4:
Date: 20 October
Destination: Taste Budd’s at Dutchess County Fairgrounds, Rhinebeck, NY
Miles: 11.7 (Strava maps for leg 1 & leg 2)
Drink: latté and cocoa

 

Notes: after our time in New Hampshire, we visited old college friends, Erica and Eric, in the upper Hudson River Valley in New York. The four of us rode bikes from Red Hook to Rhinebeck to visit the New York Sheep and Wool Festival. We had a great time, with scenic riding both ways. I had two drinks from Taste Budd’s: a latté, and their sublime hot cocoa (made with their homemade chocolate ganache – mmmm).

Stop #5:
Date: 27 October
Destination: Bar di Bari, 14th and R Streets NW, Washington, DC
Miles: 3.2 (Strava map)
Drink: latté

Notes: a new-to-us local joint, not far from our home, so we wove in a stop by Walgreen’s in West End to extend the distance. We rode fairly late in the day, and it was a bit chilly, yet we insisted on sitting outside. Our server was friendly and affable, and we wondered if she was a bit miffed that we wanted to be outside, while she was in short sleeves – brr! But the coffee, tea, and munchies were tasty, and the sunset down R Street was most beautiful.

Stop #6:
Date: 3 November
Destination: The Coffee Bar, 12th and S Streets NW, Washington, DC
Miles: 2.6 (Strava map)
Drink: cardamom latté

Notes: sprite and I had both seen this place, yet we’d not paid a visit. The vibe here is relaxed and friendly, and the place is certainly popular with the neighborhood. Their cardamom latté is quite wonderful. Saw two Friday Coffee Club irregulars, Paul and Brook. I’d injured my left Achilles over the weekend, so this ride was extra mellow.

Stop #7:
Date: 9 November
Destination: Big Bear Café, 1st and R Streets NW, Washington, DC
Miles: 5.3 (Strava map)
Drink: latté

Notes: my ankle still in rest-and-recovery mode, this was an easygoing ride. We first stopped at BicycleSPACE to shop for bike bags (sprite bought a lovely little handlebar bag), and Phil shared his homemade banana bread with us (splendid). We then rode up to Big Bear Café, another new-to-us place that we’d seen many times driving back into DC from points north and east. The place is quite nice, though the service was extremely slow, the cashier seeming to forget some of our orders. We weren’t in a hurry, but still, it was noticed. We sat outside until it became too chilly to bear.

Stop #8:
Date: 10 November
Destination: Port City Java, 7th and North Carolina Ave SE, Washington, DC
Miles: 9.0 (Strava maps for leg 1 & leg 2)
Drink: drip coffee

Notes: I went to Eastern Market to gather ballot petition signatures for my good friend, Charles Allen. Given I was stationed outside of Port City, a coffee was a must.

Stop #9:
Date: 17 November
Destination: Qualia Coffee, 3917 Georgia Ave NW, Washington, DC
Miles: 6.0 (Strava map)
Drink: drip coffee (hand pour) and bean buying (two bags, one full caf, the other decaf)

 

Notes: one final stab at Coffeeneuring, and another new-to-us place (though I’d had Joel’s beans before). The hot drinks were great, the butternut & blue cheese quiche was awesome, and the view from the front deck was relaxing.

 

A more complete set of photos from my Coffeeneuring adventures can be seen here.
All-in-all, this was a fun exercise. Thank you, Mary, for issuing the challenge!

weekending (wait – are we living in seattle?)

It was a grey, damp weekend here in DC. The predicted sun and warmth was tempered by drizzle, fog, clouds – something closer to the Pacific Northwest than the Mid-Atlantic. Such is November, I reckon. However, it was enjoyable:

  • Trekked with sprite to see the UConn women take on the University of Maryland Terps. It was #1 versus #7. #1 UConn won.
  • Went out to shop and dine at Franklin’s afterward – yum!
  • Got to sleep in Saturday morning – ahhhh….
  • Watched the two FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup races from Levi, Finland – one live (today), one on-demand (yesterday). Seeing the top racers in the world dice up the slalom courses was awesome.
  • Rode my bike twice today: one 42 mile ride to test out the Achilles (all OK), and one 6 mile coffeeneuring ride.
  • The latter ride was the 9th and final coffeeneuring outing for the 2013 contest.
  • Watched the final episodes of the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) on Doctor Who.
  • Cooked soup with sweet potato greens we grew in our own garden (it was yummy).
  • Smiled a lot.

Tunnel of ginkgo foliage

How was your weekend?

so, about those more powerful bike lights…

One week ago, I talked about the problem of “bike ninjas.” And while I’m seeing more and more DC area cyclists starting to use lights, some of them could use something beyond the “bare minimum” lights: the low-power “be-seen” lights that are small and unobtrusive.

But it’s the same unobtrusiveness that makes them less capable for real utility. They have tiny beam patterns that don’t light up the tarmac – and, to be honest, they don’t make most cyclists truly visible to fellow road users.

Last year I graduated from a basic blinker to a more powerful bike light. That light (a CygoLite Pace 400, FYI) is small, self-contained, and has a powerful CREE LED to provide a maximum 400 lumens of light. It can blink, it has multiple brightness modes, has a long battery life, can be recharged via USB, and its electronics don’t interfere with my tiny Cateye Wireless bike computer.

This light has been quite good over the past year. Its battery life at maximum power is about 2 hours, but at lower intensity I’ve managed to get over 6 hours of constant burn. The lower power modes are good for urban cycling and areas where ambient light is somewhat plentiful. The high power lights up the road in an even pattern, showing all of the holes, debris, and other anomalies that could cause me trouble. The beam pattern also adheres to modern European standards – i.e. if set up properly, it won’t blind oncoming motorists.

It’s not without faults. The cover on the USB port isn’t easy to seat. The mount isn’t always stable without really wrenching down the thumbscrew. But that’s about it.

I like this light so much that I bought a CygoLite Urban 500 as a complementary light for my commutes. It is a simple light, with fewer modes and a non-changeable rechargeable battery, but it’s a little bit lighter in weight, has similar battery life, has a better USB port cover, and has a wonderful “steady-blink” setting that mixes a 400 lumen steady beam with an intermittent blink to make me more visible to motorists. I’ve only had this new light for a couple weeks, but I’m quite happy with it.

Note that I’ve tried neither of these lights as helmet-mounted units, though there is a helmet mount available for each. Right now, they mount on my handlebar. However, I’m exploring a helmet mount, as the increased utility of illuminating where you plan to ride is well worth consideration.

There are similar offerings from NiteRider, Light & Motion, Cateye, Lezyne, Serfas, and others. I love my CygoLites, but the others have their good points, too. The comprehensive comparison reviews from MTBR (2013 | 2014) are a good place to start, and the road.cc light guide has a wonderful side-by-side comparison tool.

So if you plan to ride a lot at night – especially where streetlights are scarce – invest in a high-quality headlight. And be sure to match it with a high-quality taillight, too. You can thank me later…

weekending (or how i didn’t ride long distance this week)

Two weekends ago, I went on two awesome bike rides – one in the Virginia hills, one closer to home. They were a ton of fun, but there was a pesky side effect: I strained my left Achilles tendon. My ankle was swollen, there was pain. Professionals advised me to curtail any high-intensity cycling. Commuting was fine, as were leisurely rides, but not anything close to my normal weekend riding.

But my weekend was chock full of good things:

  • Cooked a lovely Moraccan tagine for Friday dinner.
  • Watched an episode of Top Gear.
  • Discovered that Chuck is finally available on Netflix streaming (and added it to my instant queue).
  • Slept in on Saturday morning – it was luxurious!
  • Did a lovely coffeeneuring ride to Big Bear Café, a place new to sprite and me.
  • On that same ride, stopped by BicycleSpace, where sprite bought a lovely handlebar bag at a hefty discount, and I ogled cyclocross and cargo bikes.
  • Watched the CBS Sunday Morning reporters explain Twitter to the more senior audience that makes up a large percentage of said program’s viewership. (For the record, it was a good profile of Twitter and its founder, the weekend after the company’s IPO. But it still seemed like a “let’s explain the Tweetie to the old folk” story.)
  • Collected ballot qualification petition signatures for my good friend, Charles.
  • Went to the garden with sprite, where we picked all remaining tomato fruit, pulled the associated plants, and dug up quite a few potatoes (white and purple) and sweet potatoes.
  • Met the rest of the Liberty Mountain Race Team coaching staff at the first organizational meeting of the season. I’m coaching the U16 racers.
  • Watched an episode of Doctor Who (one of the last of the David Tennant episodes).
  • Followed that tense show with a more lighthearted episode of Psych.

For those counting: I only rode 14-or-so miles at a fairly mellow pace over the weekend, compared to my more typical 130-150 miles at a more intense pace. The ankle is healing, which is a wonderful thing.

Intrepid readers: how were your weekends? Post in the comments!

cycling log: 26 may 2013 (mountains of misery)

(Note: this is a post that has sat in draft mode since May. I’m finally finishing it as part of NaBloPoMo – enjoy!)

Activity: road cycling (special event)
Location: Newport, VA > New Castle, VA > Mountain Lake Resort, VA
Distance: 101.4 miles (two very steep climbs)
Duration: 5:44 (5:41 rolling time)
Weather: cool, crisp, sunny, breeze from south, 51-65 degrees
Climbing: 9,947′
Avg HR: 148 (max 181)
Type: aerobic

For me, Mountains of Misery is a rite of passage every Memorial Day. I participated in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2012, my adductor injury prevented me from riding.

But in 2013? I was back – and wanting to test myself.

Mountains of Misery isn’t a trifling ride. It starts out with a gradual, rolling uphill, one that is usually done at a fairly frenetic pace. A steep, technical descent at mile 25 leads to the town of New Castle, after which the road becomes more level, passing through a lovely, forested creek ravine.

From miles 45 to 57, there’s more valley riding, with more rollers and more pace pushing, because after a left turn, the road rises to Johns Creek pass, a climb that has ramps from 10 to 18 percent before its summit. A quick descent, and the riders are back on VA-42, rolling downhill toward the starting line in Newport.

Just before returning to the starting line, there is a hard right into Clover Hollow – the “lollipop loop,” shortened this year to avoid a particularly dangerous, shaded, pothole-filled descent. After this loop, there are more rollers (including a steep, 1.4 mile climb after a rail crossing) before the “main event” from miles 97 to 101: the climb to Mountain Lake on Doe Creek Road.

In past years, on the longer course, my best time was 6 hours, 17 minutes. Other years, I’d been in the 6:37 to 6:57 range. But last year, at Bridge-to-Bridge, I’d proven to myself that I could ride an event with minimal stoppage time and break the 6 hour barrier.

That was my goal going into Mountains of Misery this year, but there were doubts. I’d missed almost a month of training time due to family matters in Utah. Hilly training rides were quashed by rainy weather. My goal time for the ride was 6:05 (that’s what I submitted during my event registration), and deep down, I wanted to do a sub-six again.

Still, I wasn’t sure. Yes, I’d had a few good climbing rides heading into the event, but… well, I wasn’t really sure I’d pull it off.

At any rate, I was in the second starting wave – the one with the fastest century riders (wave one is the double metric riders – the guys going 126 miles) – so I knew it would be fast from the start.

But the pace wasn’t crazy from the beginning; rather, it rolled up to a nice, fast speed. While I wasn’t planning on being in the “pulling bunch,” I ended up toward the front for a long while, taking pulls with other speed demons, including my friends, Greg Gibson and Chris Ross, some racers from Leesburg, and a triathlete whose riding was vexing: fast on the flats and descents, dog slow on the ascents. He was a nice enough guy, but he was not consistent with the group.

I stayed with the lead group until the Johns Creek climb, where I fell about a minute behind the most lightweight climbers. Greg, Chris and I stopped at the summit to top off bottles and doff warm layers, then worked a tight, fast rotation along VA-42. We were soon joined by some of the Leesburg racers, and we flew toward the right turn that marks the start of the “lollipop loop.”

Our group kept motoring along, up to the high point of the loop, when Greg hit something in the road and flatted. He let out an audible expletive, but we kept rolling. We saw Jonathan ahead, falling off the back of his train (which also had Chris Zegal, another frequent riding friend, in its ranks), and lo – our “bogey” was spotted!

Chris, the Leesburg racers, and I all sped along the the rolling road along the “top” of the loop, then rocketed downhill. We caught Jonathan about a mile before the end of the loop, and he joined us for a short while before stopping for water at the aid station before the right turn back onto VA-42.

I was still feeling quite good, as was Chris, and Chris Zegal caught up to us (we must have passed him at the end-of-loop aid station), and together we rolled toward the base of the final climb to Mountain Lake. At the mile 96 aid station, Chris Ross stopped for water, while Zegal and I kept moving toward the big, final climb: a 4 mile long strain to Mountain Lake lodge, averaging over 12 percent grade for its duration.

We reached the final climb together, and Chris Z. slowly pulled away from me – he has worked on climbing this year, and it showed. I rode my own pace, and did well, neither falling too far behind Chris, nor being passed by many people along the way. At the mid-climb aid station, I asked for my usual refreshments – a glass of water dumped over my head, as well as a cup of Coke – and both were delivered with their usual, friendly, energetic gusto by the Virginia Tech cheerleading squad and some local Boy Scouts.

Still, the steepest part of the climb lay ahead.

And I kept going, pedal stroke after pedal stroke. I felt OK – not fresh, but not on the verge of cramp or wanting to stop. Left foot, right foot, keep breathing, smile, hum a peppy tune, focus ahead – all of it happened. I passed a couple folk who were having a tougher time with the hill, and Zegal’s advantage over me slowly dwindled.

As I entered the finish stretch, one of the fans along the side of the road yelled “stand and sprint!” I replied, “only if you want to see me crash and burn!” My legs were at the limit, close to cramp, but only 150 meters were left. I did increase my cadence, and upshifted as I spun out gears, and eventually crossed the finish line.

I looked at the clock: 5 hours, 44 minutes, well below my 6:05 goal time.

“Yesssss….”

The rest was a blur of activity, as the finish area usually is. The volunteers took my bike, handed me my duffel bag with clean clothes, and I quickly found my bottle of recovery drink – though the ice-cold bottle of water, handed to me by a veteran event volunteer, was like manna.

I cheered on my friends as they crossed the finish. Greg made up a ton of time and finished not long after me. Tim rode strong. Jonathan passed Chris Ross not long before the finish line. Nick and Mark also made their way up, up, up. For all, it was a hard ride, but a rewarding one in the end.

a safety tip for post-dst cycling in dc: no bike ninjas

Daylight Saving Time is over as of last weekend. For the majority of folks who are cycling commuters in the DC area, it’s dark by the time the office door closes at the end of the day.

And every year, the same thing occurs: a lot of cyclists hit the roads without lights, wearing the standard-DC-issue black jacket, on a bike that very likely has no reflectors on it.

These cyclists are bike ninjas.

Yehuda Moon bike ninja comic, copyright Rick Smith

Most of these folks ride as if it were daylight, and assume they can be seen. That isn’t the case. Dressed in black, and even with a few reflectors, they aren’t visible until too close for comfort – or for safety.

Last night, near Dupont Circle, I counted 40 commuter cyclists within a 15 minute period. Of these, only 17 had proper lighting in the front, as mandated by law. A few more than that had some sort of taillight. And most were dressed in dark, non-reflective, hard-to-see colors.

This is an easy problem to solve without spending a lot of money. Most people own some bright clothing, like a colorful shell or shirt. A basic reflective vest costs under $10. Reflective ankle straps that serve a dual purpose of keeping pants legs out of the bicycle drivetrain and create moving light points for drivers to see are cheap and come in myriad colors (including black, for those who want to keep their DC fashion cred).

And then there are lights. A basic set of front and rear blinking lights (i.e. “be seen” lights) runs around $15 dollars, weighs very little, and lets fellow road, trail, and sidewalk users know your presence as a cyclist. WABA and Bike Arlington even hand out free light sets that serve this basic purpose.

If you plan on riding on more poorly lit roads, trails, or paths, it’s worth investing in more heavy-duty “to see” lights – something I’ll discuss in a subsequent post. But a basic light set is simple, cheap, and effective, and takes care of the “bike ninja” issue.

Note: this “dressing brightly and carrying lights” argument can be transposed to folks who run at night, especially on multi-use paths (MUPs) like the W&OD and Capital Crescent Trails, where being tough to see can cause collisions between trail users.

cycling log: 2 november 2013 (edinburg gap)

Activity: road cycling (club ride)
Location: Front Royal, VA > Edinburg, VA > Middletown, VA > Front Royal
Distance: 101.4 miles (two very steep climbs)
Duration: 4:50 (4:00 rolling time)
Weather: cool, crisp, sunny to cloudy, wind from west, 55-68 degrees
Climbing: 5,217′
Avg HR: 143 (max 181)
Type: aerobic

A lovely club ride with the Potomac Pedalers gang, on an atypical day for November: one that was sunny and relatively mild. It was so mild that I wore shorts sans knee warmers (arm warmers were a must for most of the ride, however).

The group rode a mostly smooth pace. While fast, it wasn’t breakneck for most of the ride, and the group stayed together for far longer than is typical on this ride. The route went form Front Royal, down the Fort Valley, over Edinburg Gap (the only big climb of the day, though many rollers peppered the parcours), then back northeast in the Shenandoah Valley, before crossing back to Front Royal. There were three county lines (read: sprints), a town line (into Edinburg), and a KOM point (Edinburg Gap) – good for some spirited moments. We stopped twice to regroup and refresh.

Jonathan organized the ride, as he does every year on the first Saturday in November. The nice weather – as well as the prospect of peak fall foliage – attracted a big crowd. Luckily, we were a sympatico group, and rode well in a pack, each taking our pulls on the front. The first county line came about 10 miles into the ride, and I ended up being the lead-out into the line. I managed to hold off the crowd – zing! Having over 5,300 miles under my wheels this year, and still having good speed and strength, I recovered quickly and enjoyed the ride southwest through Fort Valley, down to the turn west to Edinburg Gap.

Jonathan and I weren’t into going full gas up the gap, nor was Greg. Al and Mike raced ahead, while the three of us “slackers” kept them in view. Toward the top, Jonathan and I started to reel in the others, and while we didn’t catch them, I managed to pass Jonathan about 100 meters from the summit. Mike waited for his wife, Susan, at the summit, so I raced down the hill to catch Al, pass him, and continue going hard to the town line sign (two “palmares” acquired).

The group gathered at the rest stop in Edinburg, at a convenience store where the proprietor was watching the cricket test between India (his home country) and Australia. An iced green tea and fig newtons consumed, we rode northwest toward Back Road – our main thoroughfare for the return leg. In the distance, dark clouds amassed over the Blue Ridge, a sign that the predicted cold front was on our doorstep.

It hit as we rode, without rain but with a stiff head/crosswind that made riding in a pack a matter of efficiency. The group splintered in this long stretch (over 20 miles), and a core group of Jonathan, Greg, Ed, Vince, Al and me ended up racing to the second county line, at the bottom of a hill, across a short bridge span. Jonathan tried to distract me via conversation, but I managed to out-sprint the group, taking the line (that’s three). We turned east to ride the handful of miles to our next rest stop in Middletown.

The rest of the group arrived in ones and twos, having been splintered by the wind and pace. The refreshments at the 7-11 were welcome, even if we were only 12 miles from our cars in Front Royal. At least we could look forward to a nice tailwind for the eastbound trek that lay ahead.

The final county line came a few miles after the 7-11. Greg and I were conversing on the front of the pack, and I mentioned the impending county line. He gave some chase, but I powered through the line (we have four “points” sprints there – yes!). The group quickly reconvened, but gradually split again, as those of us with some pep in our legs kept a higher pace. It wasn’t a big deal – the rest of the ride was enjoyable, and everybody made it back to Eastham Park without difficulty.

So it was a fun day, a fun ride, and a fun group – just about perfect!

This is another NaBloPoMo post – number two!

cycling log: 29 june 2013 (c&o canal end-to-end)

Activity: trail cycling (bucket list)
Location: Cumberland, MD > Washington, DC
Distance: 191.0 miles/ 307.5 kilometers (mostly flat with gradual descent, a few climbs here and there)
Duration: 18:47 (14:01 rolling time)
Weather: warm, humid, partly cloudy, some rain at dusk, 60-82 degrees
Climbing: 1,883′ (less than 10 feet of climbing per mile)
Avg HR: 131 (max 170)
Type: aerobic

In life, there are “bucket list” items: the things you want to do before you leave this mortal coil (and no, I’m in no hurry to do so). And riding the C&O Canal Towpath – the whole thing – in one day is one of those.

I hadn’t planned on doing this ride, in actuality. Yes, it’s bucket list material, but this year? Maybe, perhaps, but it wasn’t on the radar. And then my friend, Eric, said he had to scuttle plans to do the ride – all 184.5 miles, plus commutes to and from the start and end points – as our friend, Lane, was having knee problems. I expressed my interest, Eric asked, “how about next weekend?,” and the die was cast.

The ride is a bit of a logistical challenge. Being a one-way, point-to-point ride requires one-way transit to the ride start. Regrettably, Amtrak doesn’t handle bikes as baggage on the line that serves Cumberland (though I’ve heard that it’s not difficult to get a bike on the train on low-traffic weekdays), so we had to go with another route.

Luckily, Hertz offers one-way car rentals from DC to Cumberland, so that was the choice. Eric and I braved the Friday rush hour traffic out of DC (which cost us an hour of driving time), stopped at the wonderful 28 South restaurant in Hagerstown for dinner, and settled into our hotel room around 11:30pm – later than planned, but not too bad…

…except that our plan was to wake at 4:30 for a 5:30-something departure. We were well prepped: bikes packed with essentials (food, clothing, tools, tubes, toiletries), everything in order to roll in the morning. But waking at 4:30 was painful.

We rolled out of the Holiday Inn at 5:41am and made the short crossing to the start of the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail, the latter of which meanders to Pittsburgh (another time for that, I’m afraid). We snapped photos in the early morning light, mounted our bikes, and left.

I chose to ride my 16-plus year old Marin mountain bike (named “Skully” because of a foam skull sticker on its head tube) because it offered more rugged components, the ability to run wider tires (1.5″ slicks), and front suspension – all reasonable considerations when the rolling surface is a dirt trail, with mud holes, crushed stone, bumps, tree roots, and other things that make it a bit less smooth than my usual paved routes. Equipped with a seatpost rack and rack trunk, it was suitable for the task.

The C&O Canal Towpath is a curiosity, one that only had a short usable life as a commerce channel before the railroad made it obsolete. It only exists today because of the intervention of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose love of the towpath prevented it from being converted to a parkway, instead becoming the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath National Historic Park. The National Park Service provides upkeep over the full 184.5 mile run of the towpath, repairing flood damage and keeping it passable.

Eric and the towpath

The first 30 miles showed the side-effects of this area’s ongoing rain: a lot of mud. It wasn’t impassable, but it made the going a bit slower than we planned. Our “timetable” had us averaging 16 mph for the ride, and we were mired, as it were, at 14 mph. It wasn’t a big deal, but it did make a mess of things.

Muddy drivetrain

I was glad I brought the mountain bike, as its drivetrain was tolerant of a bit of mud and other muck from the trail.

We eventually arrived at one of many engineering marvels of the towpath: the Paw Paw Tunnel. This tunnel cut the journey on the canal by over six miles. It was also a dark, eerie place to ride a bike.

Paw Paw Tunnel - west portal

The path through the Paw Paw Tunnel is narrow and bumpy. Headlights are a must if you plan on riding in the tunnel, as it is extremely dark inside. We both made it to the other side without incident. Once there, you emerge onto a boardwalk and can see where a rockslide blocked the east portal back in May.

I made it through Paw Paw! Photo by Eric Pilsk.

From Paw Paw, we continued toward Little Orlean, where we stopped at Bill’s Place. Essentially the only hangout in the town, Bill’s Place is a bar, general store, restaurant, canoe rental, town meeting hall, etc. The owner is a nice, middle-aged guy, and the service comes with a smile. We spent some time on the porch here, enjoying cool beverages and salty snacks.

From Little Orlean, we rolled toward Hancock. As the towpath was still muddy, we made the decision to take the Western Maryland Rail Trail to make up some time (I’ve ridden the stretch we skipped today back in 2011). Our average speed tipped up to 19 mph once we were on the WMRT, which was a nice boost. We saw many other cyclists on the trail, including a couple who were riding the full GAP-C&O length from Pittsburgh, albeit over multiple days. They were far more sane than Eric and me.

Selfie in Hancock

A quick stop in Hancock allowed us to top off our bidons and grab some snacks at C&O Bicycle. I also bought a bottle of chain lube here, as the mud and grime had already washed away the lube I’d applied to the bike on Friday. A quiet drivetrain was a nice thing.

On the way back to the towpath, we took a wrong turn, adding a mile or so to our journey. However, we passed a house where the yard had been converted into a “field of dreams” baseball diamond, presumably for the family’s kids.

Field of dreams near Indian Spring.

We did find our way back to the towpath, which wasn’t quite as muddy by this point but had its rough spots. The lovely thing about staying on the path is that there was shade pretty much everywhere. On a day that promised high temperatures near 84°F/26°C with ample humidity, it was a nice perk. The thick foliage did block some scenery, but not too badly: Big Pool was, indeed, big, and tough to miss.

Milepost 100. Photo by Eric Pilsk.

So we kept rolling through the day. We had a lunch stop in Williamsport (a Sheetz MTO hasn’t tasted as good), where we saw a young woman catch her first fish in the lock pond, squeeing at it and shying away from removing it from the hook. We passed a tour boat on the canal. We saw more cyclists out on short trail excursions.

Outside of Sharpsburg and a little over 110 miles into our ride, we stopped at the quaint Barron’s Store & C&O Towpath Museum, a family-run outpost (literally run in what would be the living room of their house) that provided needed cold drinks and fresh fruit, as well as some indoor seating. Our legs still felt just fine (mine did, at least), but it was nice to sit back. A quartet of teenage boys rolled up to the store as we prepared to leave, each on a BMX or older mountain bike, reminding me of a hybrid of Stand By Me and Back to the Future in terms of “groups of kids on bikes, out having fun.”

Eric and the Potomac

By this point, we were well behind schedule, but enjoying ourselves, all the same. Soon after Barron’s Store, we approached a section that Eric believed to be closed: the Big Slackwater viaduct. This wonder of civil engineering replaced a portion of the towpath that settled into the Potomac, and it was a joy to behold – and to ride! It was one of the more exposed areas of the path, clinging to the side of a sheer rock wall, and as we passed a group of boaters taking a dip in the water, we were tempted to jump in….

Eric approaches Big Slackwater

Riding the Big Slackwater viaduct. Photo by Eric Pilsk.

We soldiered on with an increased tempo at this point, past Sherpherdstown and Harper’s Ferry, toward our dinner stop in Brunswick at the wonderful Beans in the Belfry coffeehouse. A Celtic group was playing there, I and recognized the lead singer and guitarist from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (he didn’t recognize me, which is all well and good). Eric and I noshed on spinach quiche, and also took advantage of the nice bathroom to wash our faces and brush our teeth. The cleanup had an amazing energizing effect, which was good, as we saw dark clouds approaching as the daylight grew long. As a nod to the weather gods, we donned our cycling caps under our helmets to ward off the rain.

Getting back onto the towpath, we increased our pace yet again, taking advantage of a smoother section of trail to try and make as much progress as possible before the sunset. We made it to Mouth of Monocacy rather quickly, stopping briefly to snap a picture from within the aquaduct, looking toward the setting sun.

At Mouth of Monocacy. Photo by Eric Pilsk.

A little further down the trail, we found an even better view of the sunset, near Dickerson:

Sunset over the Potomac in Dickerson

It’s at this point that our cycling caps ran out of good mojo, and we experienced our first rain of the day. We weren’t sure whether it would be heavy, as the clouds looked very black. We decided to carry on to White’s Ferry and make a decision whether to stay on the towpath and risk the mud, wind, and rain, or to take the well-known paved roads down to Riley’s Lock.

Luckily, the rain stopped about 1/2 mile before we pulled into White’s Ferry. At the ferry store, we bought some cold sodas and talked with the ferry operator, who deemed us crazy for wanting to carry on to DC along the towpath in the cover of darkness. We laughed, wished him well, and got back on the path.

Less than 1/4 mile from there, the battery on my Garmin Edge 500 died. It had sent out a warning beep a little while earlier, but as my unit has a blown-out screen, I had no way to verify that the beep was battery-related (though I suspected that it was). It did well for an older unit: 15.5 hours of runtime. Luckily, my phone had a decent amount of charge, so I swiftly started the Strava iOS app, missing only 0.1 miles of tracking (easily connected when I combined the two GPS tracks).

As we rolled along, there were frogs all along the towpath, their song growing louder as we rode deeper into the woods. The amphibians would jump out of the way just in time as we rolled. Our pace was slower, but our lights allowed us to find safe passage. The towpath started to have more muddy patches as we neared DC, so our lines had to be chosen more judiciously. When we passed one of the lockmaster’s houses, the group staying there was making s’mores over an open fire – and we were quite tempted to join them and crash there for the night.

We also weren’t sure where our next known landmark, Riley’s Lock, was. Yes, we had the mileposts to go by, but we weren’t sure where Riley’s was in the grand scheme of things. This added an eerie quality to this section of the ride, and while we weren’t necessarily physically fatigued, this added to our ever-growing mental fatigue. At least the frog song was there.

At this point, we made a decision: due to our growing mental weariness, we would exit the towpath at Great Falls. The stretch from Great Falls to Fletcher’s Lock features a good deal of technical trail: mud, ruts, damp boardwalk, things that require full mental faculties to navigate in the dark. It wasn’t that tough a decision: safety trumps stupidity. And both of us had tackled this stretch many times before, so it wouldn’t be big loss to skip.

So we stopped at the restrooms at Great Falls, let our significant others know that we would be getting onto MacArthur Boulevard to complete the trek into DC, and climbed our biggest hill of the day. My legs were quite spry here, and I climbed the road quite quickly. I waited for Eric at the top, and enjoyed the light show put on by thousands of fireflies in the trees over the Great Falls access road.

Once on MacArthur, we made decent time: nothing approaching my typical Wednesday night club ride, but still a good clip. We wound our way to Georgetown, took a left on 35th Street, wiggled to 34th Street, then made our way back down to the towpath for its final 3/4 mile to its origin.

Marker at the start of the C&O Canal Towpath

We stopped, took photos, congratulated ourselves on a bucket list task now complete. I was confused by a text I received from sprite, saying she had refreshments in the parking lot – I was unable to remember that there is a parking lot by the Watergate, only 1/4 mile from where we were. We turned toward The Burrow, up the Rock Creek MUP. I stopped my Strava app, sat down, and I was done.

So what would I do differently? I’d like to do this again – over a period of 2 or 3 days. I’d take a hydration pack to allow for easier drinking while on rougher surfaces. I’d use regular panniers that keep the center of mass low on the bike (read: better handling). I’d also setup a dynamo wheel to charge my lights, Garmin, and phone via USB (I have a dynamo hub that needs to be built into a wheel).

But I’m so glad I did this ride! Eric was a great riding partner, his experience with the DC Randonneurs giving him many bits of sage advice to help on such a long ride. We had a great time – what more can a guy want?

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