“We are gonna make it. We traveled all this way I just want to finish this dang thing,” my dad said as we peeled off layers of soaking wet clothing, covered in muck and grime, 35.5 miles from D.C.
The weather forecast for today had never looked good: 70% chance of rain at 7am and 70-80% rain for the rest of the day. So at 6am this morning just as the sun rose we departed from Harper’s Ferry, WV.
For the first 15 miles we were flying, but at 6:59am I felt the first few drops of rain. A few moments after it was pouring.
The trail turned to muck beneath us and my small, lightweight bike was skidding everywhere. My pants and gloves were soaked through, glasses foggy, and fingers frozen. Both my dad and Dave were wishing they had my shoes covers so water didn’t squelch out of their shoes with every pedal.
After a few more brutal miles we reached a road crossing and took shelter at the Historic White’s Ferry Grille. We had made it 25 miles to Leesburg, VA, just 35.5 miles from D.C.
I had no desire to continue riding in the pouring rain, mud, and cold. It looked like we were going to call the trip. But, after talking through the should of’s and the what if’s, we hatched a new plan.
We loaded our bikes onto the Historic White’s Ferry and headed to Comfort Suites in Leesburg for a fifth night stay with the promise of a break in the rain and a paved bike trail to D.C. (along the Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail) in the morning.
My day which started with drinking muddy tail spray from Dave’s bike as we fought to keep pedaling through the mud ended with a trip to the movie theater and bike shop in Leesburg. And tomorrow we will finish this dang thing.
Our bodies were feeling the 200 miles of our first 3 days when we woke up this morning. Breakfast was a game of mental preparation.
Luckily the trail had dried out so mud was no longer much of an issue. We seemed to make a few more photo stops today, mostly to get out of the saddle for our sore butts.
My dad also took advantage of Dave’s muscle strength at each stop. Dave rubbed out my dad’s sore shoulder every 10 miles or so with the reward of an open invitation to join any future bike trip.
Mid-ride today a falling rock detour that took us through a neighborhood for a few miles. The paved road was a nice break but it also added a few hundred feet to our max elevation for the day.
Around 3pm we had nearly made it to our destination for the night. Staying in Harper’s Ferry meant carrying our bikes up a large spiral staircase in Maryland, across a bridge, and into West Virginia. The historic town of Harper’s Ferry, WV sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and is nearly the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail.
Turns out everything in this historic town closes around 6pm. We had to order our dinner quickly because even the restaurants were closing shop. With no television or sports bar to watch the Penguin’s hockey game we opted for an evening stroll.
Tonight I will sleep at Town’s Inn which was built in 1840. Unfortunately, there are 3 flights of stairs to get to my room. I’m about to hobble to bed now.
Riding along the C&O Towpath took a significant amount of mental focus to avoid rocks, roots, and mud holes. Unlike the smooth, wide GAP trail from Pitt to Cumberland, the C&O Towpath features many surprises. Every so often one of use would let out an “arghhh” from an unavoidable mud hole that was deeper than expected giving a loud thud upon landing or a large, unnoticed branch that caught us at the wrong angle.
By far the best strategy for unavoidable mud is to charge through the puddles head on with significant speed. While this does splatter mud in all directions it also ensures that your bike stays upright.
What non-essential piece of gear am I very glad I packed? Shoe covers! Light-weight, waterproof booties to slide over my bike shoes with small holes in the bottom so my shoes can still clip onto my pedals but prevent my feet from getting wet. (You can easily unclip your shoe from the pedal by twisting your heel away from the bike.) My shoe covers took a beating, but my socks stayed dry.
Despite the rough terrain this segment may have been the most beautiful! Sunning turtles, turkeys, groundhogs, lilypads and beautiful flowers with. Today’s ride ran along a canal with a series of locks and even one canal tunnel.
While my dad and Dave de-mounted and walked through the Paw Paw tunnel which featured the water canal on our left with a narrow walkway on the right separated by a wood guardrail, I proceeded to bike behind them snapping pictures.
After surviving Paw Paw and several additional mud holes we took advantage of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved bikeway that paralleled our C&O trail. That smooth ground felt wonderful as we coasted our last 10 miles into Hancock around 3pm.
Both the River Run B&B and Buddy Lou’s restaurant are highly recommended for others passing this way.
Luckily I did not view our day’s elevation profile before we started the ride. I felt like we were cruising on a flat trail with fairly ideal conditions given our clear sunny skies. That is until we reached the summit and I saw this elevation map:
Today featured a 1,414 ft climb over 50 miles followed by a 20 mile 1,787 ft descent. My dad and cousin, weighed down by heavier saddle bags, did take notice, but we all made it up to the top. Then, flying down the final leg of our ride at 18-20 mph into Cumberland was our reward.
Throughout our day I made use of my adventure photography skills for some riding action shots.
Route 40 Bridge
We rode over the Salisbury Viaduct, which offered amazing views of the countryside, a passing train, and huge windmills. We also traveled through several tunnels including the Big Savage tunnel, which is the longest tunnel on the trip at 3,300 ft. Finally, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.
Babbling Brook lunch stop
I keep my iPhone handy while riding for playing pump up music and taking selfies from the saddle.
I’ve heard that more people die annually while taking selfies than from shark attacks. Luckily my riding selfie skills served me well today and our biggest scare was a partially fallen tree that literally made a loud crack as we passed underneath. We got out of there fast!
After 5 hrs and 22 mins in the saddle, we made it to Cumberland.
On Sunday morning May 7th, while over 14,000 runners laced up their shoes for the Pittsburgh Marathon, my dad, my cousin Dave and I pumped our tires and clipped on our helmets for an odyssey of our own: a 335-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington D.C. along The Great Allegheny Passage (www.GAPtrail.org) and The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath trails.
Day 1 of 5: Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle
At 10am this morning we gathered at The Waterfront (the trail starts from downtown Pittsburgh but we started slightly south due to marathon road closures). After a few warm up laps and pre-departure photos we started our journey.
A tail-wind carried us out of Pittsburgh over a paved trail at about 15-18mph before the trail switched to crushed limestone for speeds of 10-15mph. And that’s when my problems started.
As with any adventure there is always some unforeseen challenge. Mine were tire treads designed to give my road bike more traction but which fit so closely to the frame of my bike that this soft limestone sand would get stuck on the bike making it difficult for the wheels to spin. Psheee, psheee, psheee…we could hear my front tire make every turn. We also encountered a few fallen trees that meant carrying our bikes over and through.
Still we kept pedaling, past waterfalls, over bridges and old train stations. The newly budding forest was a beautiful bright green and the Monongahela river raged along the trail side. But after multiple stops to clear sand from my tire and the promise of muddier trails on our days to come we made a pit stop at Bikes Unlimited in Connellsville. (The photo below shows my road bike on the left where mud would get stuck and our pit stop switchover on the right.)
On my new trek hybrid we cruised the last few miles into Ohiopyle to stay overnight at the Yough Plaza Motel.
Daily mileage: 67 miles
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17