Last week I was in D.C. to visit a client, and to lead a workshop at the Smithsonian Institution. Having recently discovered and ridden a section of the Chesapeake and Ohio towpath and Great Allegheny Passage, I couldn’t resist the urge to bring my bike with me and set out on a weekend bikepacking adventure.
The plan was to ride the 320 mile trail in just over two days, self supported. This goal was pretty ambitious – that’s a lot of miles on tarmac, let alone dirt and gravel trails. That was part of the adventure – would I be able to do it?
Let’s review what I brought along for the ride…
Clothing: (not pictured: cycling cap, handkerchief), puffer, black technical t-shirt, non-bib bike shorts, and hiking shoes. The shoes are new to the mix, and are great for riding on flat pedals, protecting my toes on rocky sections, and being good for hike-a-bike sections (which the GAP usually doesn’t have, but there is currently a detour). I spent most of the days riding shirtless, but would don the shirt as evening came, and would wear the puffer around camp, and getting started on the bike in the morning.
My shelter was a Tarptent Moment DW, a lightweight one-person tent that I’ve been using for about a year now. My only complaint about the tent is that it has these small built-in rigid pieces that prevent you from packing it down to anything shorter than what you see pictured here. The sleeping pad and pillow are new as I’m trying to improve the quality of my sleep on the trail. They definitely help. The sleeping bag is a basic three season lightweight model – I packed it in a water proof compression sack.
For an high-milage ride like this I would not be stopping during the day for lunch. On the bike I would be eating standard endurance fare – various carb-heavy bars, the occasional gel when I really needed a boost, and two tubes of my home-made sweet potato paste.. Breakfast in the morning would be a hot cuppa coffee and a bar, and dinner for both nights would be dehydrated backpacker food (chicken stirfry!).
On the bike I carried three 26 ounce water bottles as well as two 64 ounce Kleen Kanteens for backup reserves. I also brought water purification tablets – I didn’t anticipate needing them, due to the clear marking of potable water sources on the trail maps, but better safe than sorry.
My kitchen consisted of a stove, French Press, and spork. All I really needed to cook was water for my coffee, and water to rehydrate my meals.
Although the trail occasionally passes near by and through towns, there are several long stretches the travel through backcountry and so I needed to be prepared for any typical malfunctions. I brought a spare tire, multitool, CO2 cartridges, tire irons, and spare tubes. I also brought along a very small lock just in case I needed to leave the bike somewhere unattended where there’re people around.
I relied heavily on printed maps from the GAP website – they’re a great at-a-glance source for campsites, towns, water sources, bike shops, etc. You could definitely do this ride without turn-by-turn directions, but since I would be using my Garmin for tracking speed, mileage, etc, I figured why not also throw a TCX file on there. I drew my own.
My phone was packed in a water proof case that also provides a bit of extra battery. I also carried two water dust and shock resistant battery backups rated at 6,000 mAh each. These could be used for the Garmin or phone. I didn’t intend on doing any riding at night but I brought a bike light and headlamp just in case.
Other odds and ends included: a first aid kit, soap, bug repellent, a flask, and toilet paper.
Everything described above was fit into two bags from Swift Industries: a size large Fabio’s Chest and a size medium Hinterland Ozette Randonneur Bag. Now, about the bike…
I rode my Specialized AWOL Comp. The wheelset, Group set, handle bars, and brakes are all stock. For tires I usually run Compass Snoqualmie Passes, but I wasn’t able to replace my worn out set in time for the ride, so I opted to experiment with Specialized Sawtooth tires. Anything cages were used on the fork for hauling my water reserves. The AWOL only has one mid-fork boss, but the I wrapped the straps around behind the fork and this worked out just fine throughout the ride. Next time I would prefer a strap with a buckle so that I total piece of mind about it loosening (even though it wasn’t an issue). The rando bag was supported by a Velo Orange Pass Hunter with integrated decaleur, and in the rear, I was using Ocean Air Cycles’s Erlen bag support.
To get my bike from NYC to D.C. I took Amtrak’s Vermonter line from Penn Station – this line has bike racks. Bike reservations are only an additional $20. This was relatively painless but Penn station and Amtrak staff weren’t very knowledgeable about how the process works – it almost seemed like the first time they had dealt with it. The guy checking tickets hassled me because my ticket didn’t say “BIYCYCLE” anywhere on it, so I showed him my receipt, which was the only thing that showed my bike reservation.
The conductors where also not very helpful – they shrugged when I asked them where the bike racks were. I eventually found one in the first passenger car. I removed the front wheel, hung the bike, and secured it down with some straps. I arrived in D.C., checked into my hotel, and proceeded to stare longingly at my rig for the next three days as I attended to the work I was in D.C. to do.
The adventure began at 5:55 AM on Saturday morning. My goal for the day was to ride around 130 or or 150 miles. As the sun rose and the street lights dimmed I checked out of my hotel and rode the mile and a half to the trailhead. It only took about an hour from the door my hotel to reach the first part of the trail with a gorgeous view.
Considering the fact that it had rained torrentially all the previous day and night travel conditions were not that bad at first – just some puddles here and there on the gravel surface, and the occasional downed tree.
You can really see the impact of the storm from the water levels of the canal to the right, which was at least an entire foot deeper than the last time I saw it only a few weeks ago.
I managed to get in about 75 miles by noon, so my goal of 130-150 miles was looking good for the day. I anticipated to make it about 140 miles by sunset, which would place me at the Indigo Neck campsite. The trail conditions had transitioned mainly from gravel double track, to mostly dirt doubletrack. The bike began to accumulate what would become quite the mud treatment.
I arrived at camp at 7 PM.
I unsaddled the bike, and began to set up camp for the evening. I had the site all to myself – alone in the peaceful forrest – there’s nothing like it. As evidenced by the extra 2lbs of mud I wound up carrying on my bags (and on my back), it is definitely time to add fenders to my rig.
After dinner, I called it a night just after sundown. I stashed my bags about 50 ft from my tent so that any curious critters wouldn’t bother me. In the morning I found out that bag bags hadn’t been disturbed by any large critters, but had attracted quite the fan club of smaller little fellas.
The forest was covered in a thick layer of morning mist. As I took in the view, I brewed up a french press of hot coffee, got camp all packed up, and topped off my water supplies.
Leave no trace!
Rolling away from camp that morning, with the goal of riding another 140 miles to the Roundbottom campsite, my body was in some serious pain. I still haven’t done a fitting on my AWOL, and 140 miles of trail riding really put some hurt on. As I made my way through the misty forrest however, I experienced that ever so elusive moment of cycling euphoria – the stoke. As the mist cleared away and the forrest awoke, I could feel my body doing the same – as I warmed up, my pain subsided. I was totally overwhelmed by the beauty of the forrest, and how lucky I was to be there alone to take in it’s perfection.
The Paw Paw tunnel was closed, which I knew from the last time I rode the trail, so I knew I had a long hike-a-bike with a few hundred feet of elevation gain ahead of me.
A pretty steep grade – especially loaded down with bags. The reward was the view…
After a ~45 mile slog through some incredibly muddy conditions, I eventually made it to the first civilization I’d seen in 30+ hours: Cumberland.
This is where the C&O trail ends, and the Great Allegheny Passage begins. The trail turns into a paved bike path and takes you right past a bike shop, cafe, and other such luxuries. I stopped to restock on bars, gels, etc, and was greeted by this furry fella at the bike shop
I chatted a bit with a nice guy who was also riding the trail, and in the utmost display of bike nerd-dom revealed to me that his directions were generated by a Perl script he wrote that converts Google Maps directions into a cue-sheet. Not sure why you’d need to go to such lengths considering the number of mapping tools out there, but more power to him!
From here, the paved path winds out of Cumberland, and eventually turns into hard packed gravel. The trail kicks up, and follows a rail line through the mountains, on an engineered 2% grade for 25 miles. The highlights of this section are the views, and the various tunnels that cut through the mountains – most of them are un-lit, and are at least 10-15°F cooler in the middle.
It was a hot day, and there were no water sources for the first 15 miles of the long climb, so I was glad to have my reserves.
The highest elevation point of the GAP is right around the Eastern Continental Divide. From there, the trail rolls back downhill -1-2% for about 25 miles, and eventually flattens back out.
I tucked in and time-trailed it hard for about 25 miles, more than making up the time I lost on the long climb. Before I knew it I was starting to see signs for Pittsburgh!
The sun was starting to sink low, and looking at my average speed, and the time left before sunset I knew that I wouldn’t make it to Roundbottom until after dark. I opted to camp in Connellsville instead, which was 10 miles closer. As I approached I realized, Connellsville wasn’t a primitive campsite – it was a bustling civilization!
That right there folks, is a pizza parlor. I threw my ambitions of rustic seclusion to the wind and threw a pizza party for one. After a hard two days of battle in the saddle, I kinda felt like I had earned it.
Don’t worry, I washed up before dinner. The camp site was in a park right off the trail – there were some leantos, a couple guys in bivvy sacks, one in a hamock, and me in my tent. I rose the next morning at 5 to make sure I had time for coffee, packing up, so that I would be back on the road the second it was light enough to ride. I spotted three early morning bunnies just hanging out on the grass…
Back on the trail… the light was so beautiful this last morning.
I really savored the final miles of the trail – it was so bittersweet. My body was finished, the ride had been hard, but the morning was so beautiful and the idea of having to return to the reality of deadlines, rules, and responsibilities just didn’t seem too appealing. I listened Neil Young’s Thrasher at one point in the morning while riding, and the words really resonated. On to Pittsburgh!
The trail terminates in Point Park.
I was incredibly pleased with how the bike and portage configuration held up – it really was ideal for this kind of ride. The only thing I would add are fenders. I rode on to Thick Bikes – a really phenomenal shop that let me borrow tools, a stand, and gave me a spare box so that I could disassemble my bike and have it shipped back home.
Thanks to Chris and his team for being so helpful! If you ride the trail, Thick is absolutely worth checking out – they have tons of bikepacking paraphernalia in stock that most shops don’t carry.