Day 1: Charles Town, WV (68.7 miles)
Today began my first long distance ride in a couple years and I will admit I was anxious about it. The distance was twice as long as anything I’d attempted before and it’d been a while since I’d done a ride like this. The last ride I did in 2011 was a six-day, 350 mile tour around the Virginias (that included a two-night stay in Berkeley Springs, WV in the middle of it). This trip would require ten days of biking about 75 miles a day. And while intellectually I knew it was doable, I will admit that it was daunting to consider.
And there was the usual pre-trip anxiety about making sure I got everything done that I’d need to get done before I left. And that nagging feeling that I’d forget something. Add to that the knowledge that I was using this trip to raise money for three charities, including my own campus ministry at AU made me feel like there was a lot riding on this and I didn’t want to let anyone down.
But I had a new bike from the good folks at The Bike Shop and had planned everything out, so everything should be ready to go. I knew that I’d feel better about the trip as soon as I got on the road.
And so I left this morning around 9:25 am. It was a little later than I’d hoped but I possess a gene, it appears, that prevents me from leaving on time for things like this. And so I headed out toward Georgetown and onto the Capital Crescent Trail. The CapCrescent is a good trail but I was only on it because it runs parallel to the C&O Canal Towpath Trail, which as a dirt trail is far bumpier. So I rode the CapCrescent as long as I could until I switched over to the C&O and went from there.
Mercifully, the weather was greatly improved from the recent heat wave. The skies were mostly overcast and although there was a headwind, I didn’t care. Anything was better than that unrelenting sun of the past weekend. The ride was going well when it suddenly occurred to me what it was I had forgotten: my new bike gloves, probably still sitting on the back of my couch. By the time I realized it, it was too late to go back. I was going to be traveling far enough as it was.
I had made some changes to my equipment that were already proving to be beneficial. I replaced my panniers and my trunk pack with larger panniers that clipped on easily and a smaller trunk pack that could slide right into place. Unlike the older set that required me to tie everything down with velcro straps that were complicated because the panniers and the rack pack needed to be attached to the same place, these are easily put on and taken off. In about 7 seconds, actually.
In addition, the panniers have a larger storage capacity which allowed me to ditch using the backpack that I’d used on the previous two trips. Not having that weight on your back as you travel makes all the difference. It’s a much cooler, more comfortable ride. The other equipment change is ditching the old iPod in favor of an iPod shuffle, that does not require a bulky strap around the arm, but just clips right on your sleeve. Perfect.
I was making decent time. I had passed the District line, gone under the Beltway, and was soon at Great Falls, Maryland. Having done this route a number of times before, this was the first major landmark that I was looking for. I paused briefly to take a picture and to take in the scene, but the reality was that I was making good time and there was no oppressive sun; I didn’t want to waste my momentum. So I pressed on.
The path turns from packed gravel to what is much more a dirt road, at times, just two tire tracks along the ground. As I got to about 30 miles into the trip, I began to encounter a lot of hikers. I believe they were all members of the same extended group. In any event, they were almost all of them walking two abreast, one in each tire track/rut of the trail. And almost to a person, none of them was looking forward. They were either talking to each other or looking down. I am used to having to call out or ring a bell when passing someone who is walking away from you. It was strange to have to do that for people who were walking right at you. But I kept having to do it.
Eventually, I reached White’s Ferry which lies around the 36 mile marker of the trail. I stopped there and grabbed lunch, remembering that on a long trip like this, the pacing of the ride is important. The first such trip I took like this, to Albany in 2010, I didn’t rest long enough on my first break and I was paying for it the rest of the day. So, I had my lunch, sat for a bit and rested up for just under an hour.
Now, this leg of the journey promised to be one of the easier legs. The C&O Towpath trail is nice and flat though it does have a gentle increase in elevation (see below). But it occurred to me on the ride that there are some definite tradeoffs on this route. It’s mostly shaded which makes a huge difference in terms of temperature. However, that means that there were a fair number of puddles and muddy patches that had not dried up. Biking a dirt path is already more difficult than pavement, the loose surface makes for less efficient pedaling, and mud is worse. In addition, it gets all over everything. Fortunately, my bike has fenders so the mud was confined to the lower portions of the bike. The path is nice and level which makes for easier pedaling, but it also makes for constant pedaling. Hills at least allow you to coast every once in a while.
In another 25 miles, I reached Harpers Ferry. The only way across the river is a rail bridge with a walkway. Unfortunately, you have to carry the bike up a couple of flights of stairs to get to the walkway. My new bike is lighter than my old one. But encumbered with 30 pounds of packs, that was a challenge.
When I got to the other side of the river, I sat on a shaded bench with a view of the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac. There I sat for about half an hour and enjoyed a rest and the handful of dates I’d brought with me. I wish I could have brought more, since they’re perfect for energy and snacking. However, my bike does not have adequate refrigeration to bring multiple days’ worth of dates with me. After hydrating and getting some nutrients, I headed out.
Now, up until this point, the trip had been entirely flat. I knew that was about to change. And quickly. So even though the 62 miles thus far had been relatively easy and was a good confidence booster and anxiety salve, I wondered whether those feelings had been the result of favorable circumstances in weather and elevation. As I came out of Harpers Ferry, I was immediately faced with sustained incline. And you know what? It wasn’t terrible. It was hard, and I definitely had to downshift to lower gears than I’d used all day, but in spite of having biked 60+ miles already and the extra weight on the bike, I got to the top of the hill and then…. coasted. That was nice. There were a few more hills but the nice thing about rolling hills is that you can get enough momentum coming down them that you can use on the way up the next one. And I found that I was going up the subsequent hills in a higher gear than I had the first one. That, in the last miles of a long day, was a reassuring and comforting sign.
In a few miles and after seven hours of being on the road, I got to Charles Town, WV where I found a place to stay for the night. I spent a fair amount of time getting the dust, dirt, and mud off my bike. I eventually got it to look like the new bike that it is. Then it was time to get the dust, dirt, and mud off of me.
My plan was to do 75 miles a day, but had to stop just shy of 69 miles, because, well, here’s where the hotels are. Funny how that works. So, I’ll have a few extra miles to bike tomorrow but am feeling good about it. My legs feel pretty good and I got here with enough time to have a restful and relaxing evening. And the temperatures for tomorrow look like they’ll be in the 70’s with partly sunny skies. So, one day down and nine to go. But aside from the mountains on day three, those days no longer seem as daunting.
The map of today’s trip, with elevation chart:
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