Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Loooong Ride Report of a Loooong Ride: The C & O Canal Towpath in One Day

For no reason other than because it is there, I have wanted to ride all 180 miles of the C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown for many years.  Riding buddies and I would talk about it, but it never fell together.  It is best to do it in late June, when there is maximum daylight, and because it is a one-way ride, you need to find someone to drive you the night before or do a one-way car rental.  The combination of logistics and narrow window of opportunity always seemed to keep the ride from happening.  This year I thought would be more of the same.  My friend Lane and I discussed doing it, and began planning, but he hurt his knee and could not do it.  My friend Nick also was interested, but could only do it on a weekend I could not.  Disappointed but resigned, I began to put it out of my mind as June ticked away.  One Friday at Friday Coffee Club (a weekly gathering of bike commuters), I mentioned the idea to Rudi.  Surprisingly he said he would love to.  Rudi is a very strong rider -- an A rider in our club's classification system -- who is always at the front of the fast group he rides with.  I am a strong rider, but not particularly fast, so I was a bit concerned that we would not be compatible on the trail.  As it turned out, that was not a problem at all, and Rudi was great company. I did not have to race to keep up and don't think he had to soft-pedal to keep from dropping me.  After confirming schedules and commitments at home, we both realized we could make it work on June 29.  A few minutes on the computer was all it took to book a hotel room and a rental car, and we were set.

The overall plan was simple.  Start the ride as close to daybreak as possible, keep breaks to a minimum, and try not to go too far from the trail to find stores.  The towpath itself is flat, trending downhill as we would be heading downstream.  So other than the times we left the towpath, there would be no climbing at all on the route.  You can see the map of our route here.

On paper, it looks easy.  Flat to downhill, no traffic, mostly shaded, with water and portalets located every 5-10 miles.  There were towns located immediately off the trail every 20-25 miles if we needed food or ice.   There are even a couple of bike shops along the way in case we had a serious mechanical.  The towpath itself is packed dirt or crushed stone, which makes for a good riding surface for bikes with wider tires.  With that in mind, I plotted out a schedule with rest stops that assumed a 16 mph moving pace and rest stops every 20-25 miles.  The stops were mostly shortish -- 15 or 20 minutes for a cold drink and snack -- with a couple of longer stops for second breakfast and a late lunch.  With this schedule I assumed we would roll out at first light at about 5:15 and get to Georgetown at about 8.  With the long days, it does not get dark until close to 9, so that schedule gave us almost an hour of daylight to play with to account for contingencies. 

In the days leading up the ride, Rudi and I got our bikes in order.  Rudi would ride his Marin mountain bike fitted with a suspension fork and slick tires instead of knobbies.  I would ride my VO Campeur touring bike, my regular commuting bike, with wide 35 mm tires. 

We both planned to carry plenty of food and repair gear so we could keep breaks short.  The plan was for me to pick up Rudi after work on Friday, head up to Cumberland, and be in the room early to get a good night's sleep before our early start.  However, DC experienced torrential rains right at rush hour so traffic leaving town was horrendous putting us behind schedule from the start.  We decided to stop for dinner in Hagarstown, about half-way, but we both agreed that the usual interstate fast food options were not acceptable so we drove into downtown Hagarstown to see what we could find.  After a bit of circling we found a nice section of downtown undergoing a bit of a revivial.  We parked and found a great looking place called 28 South.  They had a great beer list and fish tacos on the menu so we were sold.  Dinner was great, and we left feeling comfortably full and happy with our find.  By the time we drove on the Cumberland, checked in, found a grocery to get breakfast foods, and returned the car, we did not settle into the room until almost midnight.  Between pre-ride jitters (did I remember gloves?) and the steady rumble of trains on the tracks right behind our hotel we did not get much quality sleep.

Our cell phones chirped us awake right on cue at 4:30.  We were not moving fast.  Hotel room coffee helped some, but not enough.  We finally fumbled ourselves together and rolled a few blocks through foggy Cumberland to find the canal start.  By the time we finished with the obligatory pictures, social media check-ins, and texts home we were on the trail at about 6, about 45 minutes later than planned.  It quickly became apparent that we would not make that time up in the early going. 

Beefcake Rudi at Mile 0

 The trail in the upper end of the towpath was pretty muddy, and the rainstorms over the previous days left lots of puddles and muddy spots that were tricky to negotiate.  The trail itself consisted of two tracks with a grassy "median" so there was no way to avoid the puddles we had to concentrate on the path to stay upright.  It was not long before our legs and bikes were caked in mud.  But, the riding was great.  It was pleasantly cool in the early morning and we saw lots of rabbits and few deer, and heard lots of birds as we rode along.  It is hard to bird while biking, but I did catch a glimpse of bright blue birds that looked like Indigo Buntings.  It was fun negotiating the trail and finding the best (or least worst) line through the puddles and mud pits, but it took a lot of concentration so we could not look around too much.  Not that there was much to see because the dense tree cover obscured any views, and we only got occasional glimpses of the Potomac and farms.  

Cruising Along the Canal (Rudi)
The View for Much of the Day

We rolled along chatting, splashing, and slipping in the mud.  We quickly adjusted our mindset from our projected schedule to "it will be what it will be" and tried to concentrate on having fun.  After a few short breaks trailside we reached our first big landmark, the Paw Paw Tunnel.  The tunnel is about 2/3 of a mile long and pitch black.  The path through the tunnel is a narrow ledge about 10 feet above the water and the surface is rough stone.  Luckily there was a fence and we had good lights, but it was a somewhat stressful and eerie ride through the tunnel.  Rudi's light projected wild shadows of me onto the walls and roof of the tunnel.  Of course a few loud whoops generated the desired echoes and smiles.  

Through the Paw Paw Tunnel (Rudi)
Through the Paw Paw Tunnel

After the tunnel we continued to roll along, and the trail seemed drier and better drained, so we made better time.  The day was also warming up as it reached mid-morning and we approached our first store stop at Bill's Place in Little Orleans.  Bill's Place was great, if strange.  We walked in around 10 am into a large space with a long L shaped bar to the left with two guys eating breakfast at the bar, and one guy eating breakfast behind the bar.  They may or may not have been drinking a beer with breakfast.  The store manager was super friendly and helped us find our desired drinks and snacks, which we ate on the porch while assessing the amount of mud on our bikes, and our schedule.  We running close to 2 hours behind schedule at this point, so we decided to leave to the Towpath and ride on the paved, parallel Western Maryland Rail Trail to pick up the pace and make up some time.  

Cruising on the Western Maryland Rail Trail

Every long ride has a low point for me, sometimes due to physical problems but usually it is an attitude problem because I am not meeting an expected pace, hungry, or just not feeling great.  My low on this ride came during this stretch.  Lots of little things bothered me:  my legs felt like they might cramp, my shorts seemed to pinch my butt, I could not keep up with Rudi, we were never going to get to Georgetown, what is that creaking sound from my bike?  I am not sure what brought me out of my funk, but the feeling of progress as we reached Hancock, and the opportunity for a rest, cold drink and a snack at C&O Bikes, probably did it.  Rudi wisely bought some oil for his suffering chain and we had a quick snack while chatting with others and trying to get cell signal to see who won Stage 1 of the Tour.  Soon, though, it was back on the Trail for a longish run to Williamsport where we planned on eating a real meal (well, as real as a meal can be at a Sheetz convenience market).
Selfie at the Paw Paw Tunnel
Riding the towpath meant almost no turns to miss or worry about.  In fact, the only turns we planned were obvious turns to get into towns like Little Orleans and Williamsport that were all but impossible to miss.  Nonetheless, we managed to miss the only non-obvious turn on the route, as we missed the turn from the WMT back to the Towpath where the link to the towpath looked like a private drive instead of a public trail.  So, we got a bonus mile to ride and saw a big farm house where the owners had built a Field of Dreams baseball field in their yard.  Lucky kids!  The short mile on a normal road, including a couple of little ups and downs, felt good after the miles and miles of flat riding.  Riding the flat trail meant using the same muscles, and we felt more tired and stiff than the level of exertion would suggest.  We got into the habit of standing while pedaling every so often to stretch out a bit and use different muscles.  
Home Made Field of Dreams (Rudi)

Back on the trail we made good time and were thankful for the thick tree canopy that kept us sheltered from the sun and wind.  We took a few breaks for water from the potable pumps along the trail, and to take pictures at Dam No. 5.  We also caught glimpses of Summer on the river, as there were several RV campgrounds, and sections of summer homes along the river and canal.  Folks were sitting out enjoying afternoon snacks and beers, and some of these campsites looked very elaborate.  Shortly after leaving Dam No. 5 Rudi felt his bike get very squirrelly and realized he had a flat.  A bit frustrating, but the tire was not damaged and we got the tube replaced and were back on the trail pretty quickly.  We figured Rudi had had a slow leak for miles, which probably explains how I could keep up with him.  As it turned out, that was the only mechanical problem we had the whole day.

The Campeur Astride Dam No. 5
By the time we got to Williamsport we were both hungry and ready for lunch.  Sheetz delivered the goods with cold drinks and a decent turkey sandwich with salty/vinegary chips.  We enjoyed lunch in cycling glamour, while sitting on a pallet that served as the anti-freeze display out front.  Sitting there, caked in mud and sweat, we drew quite a few incredulous, and well deserved, stares.  We were now well off our schedule and began to plan for finishing up well after dark and thinking of contingency plans.  But we also knew we had good lights and were both comfortable riding at night so decided it would be what it would be and to take it as it came.  I really appreciated Rudi's attitude about the ride and our mutual lack of stress made the trip the blast that it was.
Rolling Along (Rudi)
We left Williamsport as the day reached its hottest, and were again thankful for the shade.  We continued to see a good number of other cyclists and it was fun exchanging greetings as passed each other.  Not too long after Williamsport we reached a section of the towpath that had been washed out in a storm several years ago (Irene maybe?).  For several years this section had been closed off while they replaced the towpath with a man-made concrete path built over the water.  Hats off to the NPS because the design was well done and it was a hoot to ride right along the water.  This section is also a wide slackwater section of the river behind Dam No. 4 and there were lots of boats on the water, and many people swimming.  We were sorely tempted to take a dip too, but pressed on.  

Modern Towpath Above Dam 4
Warnings (Rudi)
We stopped for more pictures at Dam No 4 and then rolled on to our next stop at Barron’s Store just off the trail a few miles upstream from Shepherdstown WV, very near the Antietam Battlefield.  The store was small but had the basic snacks we needed.  We also noted a pump and chain tool available, one of the frequent signs that stores along the Towpath are cyclist friendly.  A cold Coke and candy bar gave us the jolt we needed to press on into the late afternoon.

Passing Barron’s Store was a bit of a psychological boost because from now on we would be riding very near areas where we frequently ride, and we could recognize landmarks as we passed under roads and near towns.  We also were very much looking forward to our next rest stop at Beans in the Belfry in Brunswick, MD.  Located in an old Church, Beans in the Belfry features good coffee and food, friendly and helpful staff, and often has live music.  Originally scheduled as our late lunch stop, it would now be our dinner stop as it was after 6:00.  As we rolled up, we were thrilled to see that they had installed a hose just for washing bikes, which was something our bikes (and legs) very much needed.  Unfortunately they had not hooked up the water supply yet, so all four of us remained unwashed.
Canal Bike

Canal Legs

Beans in the Belfry delivered.  Yummy, salty quiche and a small salad, cold drinks and a real bathroom made for a most welcome break.  The place was filling up for the evening’s music – Celtic folk – and I am sure we were quite the sight.  We decided to eat at the outside tables to keep the grossness quotient down.  Rested and fed, we headed out with the hope of making good time before it got dark.

Long Day on the Towpath
As we left, we noticed gathering dark clouds to the west and hoped we could avoid any rain.  Neither of us had brought rain gear as such, so we decided to hope for the best.  This part of the ride was striking.  The gathering clouds brought an early dusk, and under the canopy it was quite dark.  We rolled through alternating sections of light and dark depending on the tree cover.  We saw quite a few deer on this stretch and Rudi saw a fox, and we dodged countless frogs that leapt suicidally across the trail.  The croaking (sound, not death) of frogs would be our soundtrack for the next few hours, which was great accompaniment to the steady rhythm of our wheels on the path.  We also saw lots of cyclists and hikers setting up camps next to the trail as their day were ending.  We reached the Monocacy Aqueduct near Dickerson and paused to take pictures of the sunset while a family fished off the bridge.  Shortly after that we glimpsed the Potomac turning deep golden red in the sunset.  

Bikes and Rudi on the Monocacy Aquedect

Sunset at Monocacy or
Prisoners of the Road

Sunset on the Potomac (Rudi)

Now it began to get dark as the sun set and we entered a section of thick canopy.  The path was very overgrown with plants infringing on the path.  More than once we were each wacked by nettles as we brushed past, which stung for quite a while.  Then we started to feel rain drops.  We were maybe 5 miles from our next stop at Whites Ferry and we quickly decided to push hard to get there and take shelter if needed, and then assess whether we should continue or call for a ride.  We pushed hard on this stretch and it took a lot of concentration to barrel along the narrow track while avoiding mud, the occasional branch and each other.  The rain picked up a bit, and then seemed to back off.  We pulled into Whites Ferry just as it as getting truly dark, and the last ferry rides of the day were ending as was the rain.  We got Cokes from the machine and checked the weather radar on our phones.  It looked clear to the west and there were no warnings, so we decided to push on.  The Ferry crew just stared at us and frankly could not believe that we were going to ride the remaining 35 miles in the dark.  I am sure they thought we were crazy, and to be honest they were probably right.

The next stretch was the eeriest part of the ride.  It was now night and pitch black.  The tree canopy was thick and all we could see was the patch of light in front of our bikes.  We had to concentrate on the path and really had no idea where we were.  We were also tired and it was hard to do basic math, like estimating how far to the next landmark at Riley’s Lock, and then to Great Falls.  Riley’s Lock was farther than we expected and I think we both had to fight a bit of nerves as we kept riding in our self-made tunnel of light with no apparent end in sight.  Somewhere on this stretch a caterpillar and an inchworm landed on my shorts.  I lost the inchworm at Great Falls, but the caterpillar stayed attached until I got home.  I hope he enjoyed the ride and his new home.
Rider on the Rider

This stretch I began to think that my existence had been reduced to pedaling; that was just what I did in life.  My legs actually felt fine and not particularly fatigued, so I felt that I could just keep pedaling, although I very much wanted to be home with a cold beer in my hand.  Finally, we reached Riley’s Lock, which was exactly where it should have been, and we felt reconnected to the world.  

As we rolled away from Riley's Lock we decided that it was too dark, and we were too tired, to ride the steepish and rutted descents on the towpath at Great Falls and Carderock.  We decided to leave the towpath at Great Falls and follow the paved path on MacArthur Blvd. into Georgetown, where we could pick up the Towpath for the last mile or so to Milepost 0.  That plan worked well, and the climb up from Great Falls to MacArthur actually felt great after all the flat miles.  The few aches I had in my shoulder melted away.  The descent down past Old Angler’s Inn also felt great, and we rolled along the familiar route through Glen Echo and into DC.  We cut down to the Towpath near 34th St in Georgetown. 

 It was now just past midnight and we experienced a bit of culture clash as we crossed streets teeming with dolled up, and likely drunk, folks out on the town while we tried to keep upright covered in mud and sweat.  We finally reached Milepost 0 a few minutes after midnight.  The end was physically anti-climactic, with just a simple sign and an historic marker in the pitch black darkness as the towpath ended and the Rock Creek path began.  We shook hands, took a few pictures, and now focused on the fact that the ride was not over because we had to get home!
The Bleary End

Rudi lives just off Dupont Circle, so we rode the couple of miles to his house, shook hands again and then I set off for my bonus 8 miles home.  By this point I was simply tired and made no effort to go fast; I just pedaled.  The contrast between my filthy tired self and the crowds of young, hormone and alcohol-infused crowds as I rolled through Dupont, 18th St and U St made me smile, and probably made them want to recoil in horror.  I finally made it home safe and sound at about 1:00 a.m. with 199.6 miles on the odometer.  You could not have paid me to ride another .4 miles to make it an even 200. 

It took me a while to cool down and calm down, but the beer and shower felt great, as did my bed.  Best of all, I was not overly sore even after almost 19 hours on the road!  There was a bit of soreness in the shoulders and a slight “hot foot” above the cleat, but nothing bad.  I took a couple of prophylactic Motrin and all but passed out.
Final Canal Legs
The next day I was surprised to find no stiffness or soreness in my legs, back or shoulder, and my butt felt fine.  Other than the fact that it took much longer than I had planned or expected, the ride was everything I had hoped for.  My bike handled the terrain with aplomb, and despite some close calls on the mud and gravel it stayed upright all day, and we had all the food, supplies, and food we needed.  The only “mistakes” we made were in the time estimating, by being overly optimistic on the pace we could maintain and not allowing for enough time to stop for photos and sightseeing.  In the end, however, the surprising duration of the ride added to the adventure and challenge, and the night riding was a lot of fun, so those were the kinds of mistakes that enhance the quality of everything else rather than ruin it all.  As Rudi said numerous times during the ride “It’s all good.”  Most of all, the ride was fun, Rudi was great company and it was well worth the effort.  I am not sure if I would do it again, but I would certainly recommend it to others.

You can see all of my photos of the trip here, and all of Rudi's photos here.  Rudi also did a nice, and much more concise blog post about the ride here.  And for those of you you want to do a really deep dive, my GPS track of the ride, at least until the battery died jut before the end, is here, and Rudi's GPS track is here


  1. You know, I'm planning on doing GAP/C&O in the fall, but I'm going to take my time doing it! Congrats on completing the C&O in one day!

    1. Thanks Lisa! Doing the full GAP/C&O over a few days would be much more enjoyable, for sure. This fell into the category of "Because it was there" rides for me. It was a lot of fun, but not the way to enjoy the Canal.