Biking on the C&O Canal

Trek 7200s

With winter coming to a close, it will soon be time to take the bikes to the local shop for a tune-up, all in hopes of getting into some kind of shape for this June’s Cumberland to Georgetown bike trip.  I’m excited, but I’m also a bit bummed out by the fact that Big Slackwater won’t be finished until later in the summer.  Hey, it only takes a half hour or so to get through the detour, so I’m not about to let it ruin the entire trip.  Maybe I can join a spin class and let somebody a whole lot younger and healthier than me whip me into shape for the ride.  We’ll see.  In the past I’ve found that 200 or so miles of preparation is more than enough to get ready for the three day trip, which is about 195 miles counting the various excursions away from the towpath.  My one piece of advice is to cross over the river and catch a ride home at Reagan International.  Meeting your driver and loading up the bikes in Georgetown can get pretty crazy, and I’m putting that mildly.

There are a number of bikes that are suitable for the trip, and Candee and I both chose the Trek 7200.  It’s a big, heavy hybrid that makes up for its lack of speed by being tough and durable.  In the picture above, the bikes are both relatively new and have the original Bontrager tires.  Since, I have switched to the Specialized Armadillo 700 x 38, while Candee rides a smoother Michelin City tire (700 x 35).  In 2009, we did the trip with a guy who rode a street bike with 700 x 23 road tires.  He didn’t have any problems, but the owner of the bike shop in Hancock thought it was a bit risky.  I’m inclined to agree and think our friend was very lucky!

There are a couple of options for completing the C&O bike trip.  Many riders pack tents and stay at the hiker/biker campsites along the way.  Candee and I split the trip into three relatively equal parts and stay in motels in Hancock (first night) and Harpers Ferry (second night).  After a long day on a bike, a bed tends to feel pretty good.  Besides, the continental breakfast at the Harpers Ferry Comfort Inn gets us off to a good start without stuffing a lot of extra food in the saddle bags.

A typical day on the trail!

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve left the towpath with a brown streak running up the back of my shirt.  After a hard rain, the mud puddles are numerous, and some of them can be pretty deep!  Last year, we encountered a muddy trail and literally dozens of fallen trees after a real humdinger of a storm, and we rolled into Hancock looking much the worse for wear.  That, however, was just the beginning of our problems.

Here’s the thing about mud: it gets onto the chain and into the gears, and the caked-on mess can make pedaling a bike feel like towing an elephant.  Even on a dry day, using a heavy chain oil can cause dust to collect on the moving parts of the bike, thus making the trip a lot more difficult than necessary.  Fortunately, there are a couple of car washes in Hancock, and for a few dollars everything comes out as good as new.  Please be sure to lube the chain after hosing it off–preferably with a wax lubricant.  Let’s just say that we’ve learned from our mistakes.

For a novice biker, like myself, up to sixty to seventy miles in a day on a bicycle can seem like a daunting task, but it’s important to remember one thing.  Getting off to an early start can give you a full ten hours to accomplish the task while still rolling into town in time for a good meal before checking into the motel.  I’m not a math major, but the last time I checked sixty-five divided by ten equals 6.5 miles per hour, and that allows for more than enough time to eat, drink, and soak up plenty of scenery along the way.


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