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Photo by Igor Djokovic, camping above San Juan river, Arizona USA

I haven't been everywhere...
but it's on my list!

Photo by Igor Djokovic,
camping above San Juan river,
Arizona USA

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  • 4 Post By mark manley

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Old 26 May 2023
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Join Date: Feb 2002
Location: Wessex, UK
Posts: 2,136
Cycling the Chesapeake and Ohio canal

Back in January when I was planning a trip to Baltimore to visit a friend and do some travelling around the northeastern United States, I thought it would be a good opportunity to include a bicycle tour. Looking at the area on a map, I found the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which turns into the Great Alleghany Passage (GAP) trail running between Washington, DC and Pittsburgh via Cumberland. They are 184 and 150 miles long respectively, relatively flat and traffic free. They also boast plenty of biker/hiker campsites along they way which are very basic but free to use and no reservations required.

When the day came my friend dropped me off at Baltimore Penn Station for the journey to Washington, about an hour away, with Amtrak bicycles needing to be booked in advance at a $20 additional cost. Washington Union Station is a beautiful building, almost worth a visit in itself if you have an interest, and centrally located if you have come to sightsee (as you come out of the front entrance you can see The Capitol Building).

The route to the start of the canal is very straightforward: along Constitution Avenue, keep going and you should come to it. My ride almost ended before it had begun however when going through a set of lights a very large black SUV turned left toward me, screeching to a halt about six feet away. When I am riding in another country and have an incident like that, I often presume that I have misunderstood the local rules and am in the wrong but I looked up and still had a green light - I'm fairly certain the driver was not paying attention. I found the trail and headed along it to find my first campsite just past mile 16.

After a good night’s sleep right next to the Potomac River, I set off around 8am. I am an early riser but one of my fellow cyclists had upped and left before I had even got up at 6. The first surprise was that the canal is no longer in use. I have cycled along many in the UK and the majority are still working and busier than ever with communities of people living along them and tourists taking trips along them, but the C&O went out of business in 1924, only having opened in 1831 so did not last 100 years.

The surface was nicely graded gravel for most of the way and I was able to ride along at a steady 8mph, my regular pace on tracks like this. I met one chap who had done 130 miles the previous day and was planning another 110 that day, distances I could only consider on tarmac with an unloaded bike. There were quite a few other cyclist coming the other way and later on in the morning the last rider in a group of three pulled out to overtake, despite the leader shouting “oncoming cyclist” and went straight into the front of me.

I flew off the bike into the bushes at the side of the track while the other rider landed on the gravel. She immediately got up and asked how I was and admitted it was her fault which the others agreed with and offered me her Go-Pro footage. I checked myself and my bike out and apart from a scratched finger seem to have suffered no adverse effects, so after a brief chat I could see nothing to be gained from making an issue of it, apologies had been given and accepted and we all headed off again.

The rest of the day was less eventful with sightings of some wildlife including deer, turtles, a multitude of birds (none of which I recognized) and a snake I gently persuaded to leave the track before someone ran it over, which I almost had.

I stopped for the night at a quiet campsite, again right next to the river, at mile 75. I initially had it to myself but heard other cyclists turn up and quietly set up their camp just as it was getting dark, by which time I was in my tent and dozing off. I was awoken around midnight when the cooking pan in the porch of my tent rattled. I initially thought it was something like a raccoon as I have had one in there before while camping in North America, but then someone right outside my tent turned on a torch and started looking around it which rather bothered me. I said, “Can I help you?” at which point the torch went out and I got no reply. I did not sleep particularly well after that and wondered if it was one of my fellow cyclists who seemed to be creeping around with ill intent - or should that be out of tent? Again I left early, avoiding the other campers not knowing what to say if for some reason something suggested that they were involved.

It was another sunny day despite the forecast and I was soon bowling along taking in the scenery and historic industrial landmarks along the way. I had another two near-misses with snakes; both times they were three feet long black snakes which apparently are harmless. The first one allowed me to persuade it off of the track but the second was more reluctant to move and coiled up in a threatening manner so I left it in peace.

Around 4pm the predicted storm clouds started to gather as I made it to the campsite at mile 126. I was just putting in the last of the pegs when the skies opened and I dove into the tent somewhat damp. It did stop a couple of hours later allowing me to cook dinner and I slept particularly well after the bad night previously.

The following day the sun was out again by the time I set off and while still enjoying the ride, I began to notice numbness in my left hand and by the time I reached the campsite on the outskirts of Cumberland at mile 180 it was completely numb. I thought this would be a good place to end my ride. The next morning I rode into town in time for a coffee and to catch the next shuttle bus back to Baltimore.

It was a good ride that I recommend despite a couple of incidents, with nice scenery, history and plenty of camping. Apparently the surface on the GAP trail is even better with tarmac most or all of the way. It can be done on just about any bike, the most important thing being that it is comfortable. I had an old Thorn which was a parts-bin special which I had put together with just a three speed hub which was fine as I was in second almost the whole way. Due to the cost of getting it back again I’d planned for the ride to be one way trip for the bike, and I ended up donating it in Cumberland. I do not think the trip would have been any better on a modern $$$$ gravel bike as it was with my three speed clunker. There is as much hype in the bicycle world as there is with motorcycles.

Three days later and my hand is regaining some feeling, and apparently the condition is called cyclists palsy. I have never suffered from it before and believe it was caused by having lower handlebars than usual, putting extra weight on my hands.
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