No Wrong Plan: Day 1 – Pittsburgh to Connellsville via the GAP Trail

You could ride from Pittsburgh to DC on roads. Since none of us is named Contador or Chiapucci or Lemond, we decided to do our tour on the car free trails of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Park.

Before we started we headed out for breakfast with Earl and Anne, my old Boston friends who relocated to the ‘Burg, Earl’s hometown. It being Mother’s Day the line at Pamela’s, our restaurant, was long so we didn’t get rolling until noon. We began at Point State Park directly across the street from our hotel. It’s the Point because the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers forms a point where the form the Ohio River. It has nothing to do with Harry Nillson or a dog named Arrow.

After some picture taking we headed out and immediately came to a disagreement about where the trail was. Ryan insisted it ran directly along the Monongahela River. Kevin and I recalled that Dave, our shuttle driver, said that it ran up the Boulevard of the Allies and then turned over the Hot Metal Bridge. Ryan insisted he was right but followed us up the Boulevard. We followed signs and soon cross the river, on the wrong bridge. What a way to start a tour!

Fortunately, we found a trail on the southside of the river, cleverly named Southside, and rode toward DC. After many bumps and a few odd detours we found the Hot Metal Bridge and signs for the GAP. Yay!

And we were on our way. Earl had given us a blow by blow of the ride out of town. Condos, a waterpark, big box stores paying minimum wage with no benefits now stood where steel mills with good paying steel worker jobs once lined the river. Soon we were clear of Pittsburgh and on our way to McKeesport about which I know next to nothing other than a goofy comedy routine by a comedienne named Donna Jean Young. (If you get that cultural reference you are hopelessly old.)

McKeesport featured abandoned mills and factories with weed filled parking lots lined by chain linked fences. So sad. In odd contrast, at one point on the trail we came upon a traffic light for bikes.

Once out of McKeesport, the paved trail gave way to an unpaved surface covered with a thing layer of finely crushed limestone. The ride began to take on the character it would have for the next several days. Trees and shade. Rivers. Train whistles. Mountains, often with rock faces and waterfalls. The crunch of our tires in the limestone grit on the trail. The chatter among us abated, replaced by reflection.

Pedal, pedal.

Breathe.

Feel the breeze on your face.

Hear it in your ears.

A bright orange songbird flits across the trail in front of me.

So relaxing. Later I write in my notebook: “Pure meditative bliss.”

We pull into West Newton hungry and eat at the Trailside Restaurant. It’s a good name because it’s right on the side of the trail. Clever.  It has a bike shop beneath it and a liquor store in back. We eat sandwiches and then head back out.

We roll with little effort up the gentle grade to Connellsville, about 200 feet above and 60 miles from Point State Park. We move with purpose to make sure we score a free camping spot near town.

Not only do we get the camping spot but it has Adirondack shelters, three sided wood structures. A pit toilet is also provided but no showers. I take the floor of a shelter with my sleeping bag and pad. Kevin hangs his hammock tent across the opening. Ryan sets up his new tent on the ground alongside.

A homeless looking man who coughs a lot occupies another shelter. A creepy guy riding with a backpack and a water bottle hanging off his side occupies yet another. He has a small thick cross on a chain hanging on his chest. Creepy guy comes over to chat. Asks us, “What’s the weather like tomorrow, brother.” We get an uncomfortable vibe. We decide he is a meth addict who will kill us in our sleep. He becomes “Meth Man”.

After he leaves Kevin and I head to the shopping center next door for pizza, ice, and several gallong jugs of water. We use the water and ice to fill our bottles with much needed cold water. Some of the water becomes bath water, much needed with so much limestone grit all over us. The pizza disappears without much effort.

We sleep an honest sleep despite noisy birds and trains clanging together into the night. Meth Man doesn’t kill us. All is well after our long day of riding.

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Lots more pictures in my Flickr album.

No Wrong Plan: Pittsburgh to DC – Day O

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I hadn’t done a bike tour in ten years so I was pretty stoked to do this ride. Ryan and Kevin were too. I rode the 12 1/2 miles from my house to Columbia Island Marina across the Potomac from the Jefferson Memorial. On the way I was passed a man riding a recumbent pulling a low, wide Burley Nomad trailer. He seemed to be on tour and headed to DC. I took this to be a good omen. A few miles later, Lane, a formerly local rando, passed by heading the opposite way. I took this as another good omen.

My bike, The Mule, was weighed down with four panniers – two small but heavy ones mounted on a Tubus lowrider rack on the front wheel and two large but lighter ones mounted on a Blackburn rack on the rear wheel – plus a two-person tent (I need my space) and a sleeping pad on top of the rear rack. The weight distribution was excellent with most of the weight between the two axles. Despite my careful packing, The Mule drove like a school bus. It was a good thing I recently put new brake pads on the back wheel because stopping this beast was going to be a challenge.

I arrived early. The shuttle van came next. The company is called Get Out and Play. Dave and Maria introduced themselves. As it turned out, Dave knew Ryan from Ryan’s previous job working for the state of Maryland. Small world. Kevin and Ryan showed up a few minutes late having been delayed by a breast cancer fundraising event on the National Mall.

Once we loaded up, Dave drove us west. He provided us with a guide book and map. These materials covered our entire route so they would come in handy. Dave advised us that a few of the towns have a meth problem and that we should be careful where we stayed overnight.

After several hours that seemed like no time at all, we arrived at our hotel, the Wyndham, located across the street from the start of our journey. We all agreed that the shuttle was well worth the money and that Dave and Maria had done a fine job getting us to the ‘Burg. If you do this trip, give them a call.

We checked in, rolled our bikes to our room, and headed out exploring downtown Pittsburgh. (The hotel had an automatic revolving door in front that was so big it fit our bikes.) I callled my friends Earl and Anne. Earl is a Pittsburgh native and gave us some ideas for food and drink in the downtown area. We explored the area near the hotel, had a light dinner, then headed across the Allegheny River on the Roberto Clemente Bridge (closed to cars on game days) to attend a Pirates game.

Our seats were located in the Bob Uecker section. We managed to get to them without supplemental oxygen because we are in great cardiovascular shape. (I kid. They weren’t bad at all.)  We soon were visited by fellow bike blogger Colleen. After we chatted, Colleen took our picture. Good to meet you Colleen.

The Pirates were kind enough to do three interesting things. First, they won the game, 7 – 5 over the Cardinals. Second, they had fireworks afterward. (The fireworks were set up on the Clemente bridge. I’d never seen so many.) One display during the performance looked like tall white grass swaying in the breeze. Bravo! Third, the Pirates turned a triple play. And the only triple play that went 4-5-4 (second baseman to third baseman to second baseman) in major league history. It was so unusual that third baseman’s teammates had to tell him to throw the ball to the second baseman for the final out. Weird.

PNC park is a beautiful ball park. They try hard to keep the fans happy. These efforts include captioning underneath the main scoreboard. This looks a bit like a work in progress (e.g., you don’t need to put the words to Take Me Out to the Ballgame on the captioning display when they are five times bigger on the scoreboard right above) but kudos to the Pirates for doing this.

So Day 0, the prologue to our bike trip, was a great success.

Beaucoup pix from the entire trip are on my Flickr page.

Bike to Work Day – Seven Day Version

On Saturday morning I head out on my first bike tour in a decade. I only have four tours to my credit. My first tour was ridden on The Mule about 16 years ago. It was not very successful. The plan was to ride to Cockeysville MD north of Baltimore, pick up the new North Central Rail Trail and ride it to York PA and then ride home. It was brutally hot and my saddle tore the bejesus out of my…er…flesh. To add to the disappointment, the NCRT was not yet complete resulting in me turning around at Hanover Junction PA. It was a learning exprience.

In 2003 with a new recumbent (Big Nellie) designed for touring I left my in-laws’ house in Indiana for a ride back to DC. This tour also crapped out but for different reasons. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to ride 113 miles on my second day. Also, carrying an spare tire is not the worst idea in the world.

In 2004 I rode from Niagara Falls to my Mom’s house in Albany. This four-day tour also on Big Nellie worked like a charm. No rain. Two hills. Beautiful scenery along the Erie Canal and Mohawk River.

In 2005 I rode from DC to my in-laws house, the 2003 tour in reverse. This time, despite a couple of equipment failures, I made it the entire way.

The 2005 tour included riding nearly the entire C&O Canal towpath. (A section far to the west was underconstruction.) From Cumberland MD to Meyersdale PA I rode the very hilly highways and byways of western Maryland and Pennsylvania. These hills were TOUGH!  I picked up the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail in Meyersdale and rode it to West Newton PA. It was bliss.

This year’s tour is planned to be six days entirely on the GAP trail and C&O Canal towpath. No hills to speak of, just some mild railroad grades. I am riding with @ryansigworth and @bicyclebug (a.k.a Kevin).  The plan is to take a shuttle to Pittsburgh from DC. This will entail riding from home to DC on Saturday morning. This is basically 85 percent of my bike commute. On Saturday night we are going to a baseball game. We head for home on the GAP – which now goes continuously from Pittsburgh to Cumberland) after breakfast on Sunday morning.

We are hoping to meet up with fellow blogger Red in Pittsburgh on Saturday night at the game. There is some talk about Red giving us a rolling escort out of town. Also, I have two friends from my Boston days who live in Pittsburgh. We may do breakfast with them if Mother’s Day doesn’t fill all the eateries up.

I am a little concerned about The Mule’s ability to make the entire trip. I’ve crashed The Mule a couple of times in recent years and the steering tube is probably not in the best of shape. The handlebars are also slightly bent. At least the saddle is in good shape. As for me, I am riding a bit slower these days but I actually feel very good on my bike. During my 2005 tour I got stronger with each passing day. It would be great if that happened again.

I don’t much know if we will do much off bike stuff along the way. What I really need and want are six days of nothing but shady trees and gurgling water and critters and the sound of bike tires rolling over the trail.

My only regret about this ride is the fact that so many of my #bikeDC friends have said, “I wish I was going with you.” So do I. Some of these folks are thinking about riding out the C&O on Friday to intercept us on our last day. It would be fun to roll into town with an escort and, perhaps, top off the tour with some cold liquid refreshment and a pile o’ grub.

Then I’ll get to ride the rest of my bike commute home. This seems fitting as this will be Bike to Work Day.