Surviving the Canal

Long story short, a buddy of mine invited a bunch of his friends on a merry adventure.

“Let’s take the train up to Cumberland and take three days to ride our bikes back via the 184.5 mile C&O Canal, eating and drinking and sightseeing along the way. We’ll even stay in hotels each night.”

This is basically an automatic yes. You always say yes. PROTIP: SAY YES.

I did not say yes.

Instead I made a joke about the trip being doable in one day. Then a friend pointed out that there was some random one day record on some random website and that if I was going to do it in one day, I should at least go for the record. Up to that point, I had no intention of going. I had a big mountain ride planned for the following weekend and it just didn’t seem prudent. But of course, I am a simpleton idiot and the thought of there being a record to chase combined with something not being prudent led to my bike and me riding a train to Cumberland on Thursday afternoon.

Amtrak Bike Car

My buddy Andy racking his bike. Mine is the one with the skinny tires whose owner hates fun.

By the way, it could not be easier to bring your bike on Amtrak. The cost for a seat to Cumberland was $27 plus a $20 bike fee. I rode to Union Station from my office and after getting my bike tagged at the Amtrak information desk, we were able to roll right on the train. To make up for the cost, Amtrak will sell you a can of IPA for $9, so I guess it all evens out.

We pulled into the Cumberland train station right before 8pm and rode to the decidedly fine (not fiiiiiine) Ramada where we were booked for the night. Cumberland is a beautiful town that’s about 75 years past it’s heyday (it was once the second largest city in Maryland), but is now one of the poorest metropolitan regions in the country. It feels like a lot of mountain towns, where there is a main street with old, charming architecture but not enough commercial activity to keep businesses at full occupancy.

Since we had arrived later than anticipated we were all starving, so we quickly headed down to Lincoln Street Grille for dinner. There were 10 of us in total, of which three (Pete, Bilsko, and me) were planning to do the full ride the next day. The three of us made SMART CHOICES like “ordering extra beer” and “trying the jambalaya” and “sharing some of these wings here”. At this point, the following day was going to probably suck, so who cares?

I was my typical pre-ride pensive, boring self so I mostly babbled incoherently and stuck to my DOCTOR RECOMMENDED meal of bacon cheeseburger and fries and large beer (just like all athletes!). My bill came to $11.50 by the way, so if you ever find yourself in Cumberland on $2 beer night, you know where to go. You’ve also most likely been abducted. Sorry.


That’s my alarm going off at 5:30am the next morning. Yes I use the iPhone robot alarm tone so I will be ready for the day the machines turn against us. Doesn’t everyone?

The plan was to head down and eat at 6am and get wheels rolling at 7am. I dressed quickly and headed down to the free breakfast which had obviously been designed with us in mind, because they had both a waffle maker AND an espresso machine.

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Any bike ride that starts with 4 slices of bacon, a bagel with cream cheese, one and a half waffles, and the equivalent of eight espressos is bound to be a success (according to the internet). I didn’t see what Pete and Bilsko ate, but they had survived the night despite beer/wings/jambalaya so I felt pretty good about our chances of at least starting. Even better, most of the normal (smart) dudes actually got up early to eat with us and/or see us off. My buddy Andy (who organized the whole trip) and Jon Burns (of WTFKits! and kitgrid fame) took some departure pics and vids. Then we departed and what seemed like months in the making became VERY REAL.

As mornings go, it could not have been more beautiful. Temperature was perfect, sky was clear and the scenery was fantastic. It was so good that I rode right past the beginning of the C&O and forgot to start my Garmin. Good start buddy! No official/unofficial records today! Fortunately we stopped at the first mile marker (184) to take some pre-nightmare pics and it occurred to me that okay, NOW might be a good time to hit start.

2017-05-19 07.20.04

Pete and Bilsko and Waffle at Mile 184.

So yeah I was a little anxious. I wanted to get to mile 0 in Georgetown in twelve hours and thirty-five minutes because that was one minute faster than the unofficial unsupported record set back in 1991. However, what I failed to mention to anyone was that I really wanted to beat the SUPPORTED record too – and that was eleven hours and forty-one minutes set in 1994. The former seemed possible, but the supported time seemed daunting, at best.

So like the selfish dick ride partner I am, I took off. Fortunately, Pete and Bilsko have attempted stupid shit like this before (they tried to ride the entire GAP-C&O in one shot on fixed gear bikes a few years ago), and had no problem hanging with me. When we hit the infamous PawPaw tunnel at around mile 20 we were cranking at about 18 miles per hour.

That would not last.

Something happens to you inside that tunnel. It is pitch black dark, so you have to run a front light. The canal and a shockingly low safety fence are about 3 feet to your left (heading south). The hardpack riding surface could be charitably called “wavy”. Basically, there was no way to tear through there and it just sucks all of the momentum you have built up. It’s also haunted and there are dead bodies floating in the canal. Most likely.

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The VERY DEFINITELY haunted PawPaw tunnel in the distance.

Right before the tunnel I barely stopped to attach my headlight and after I made it through I stopped to attend to nature, take a picture, and guzzle some water. All told maybe three minutes, tops. For me, this is what was going to make or break the ride. Stops. I simply could not afford to stop often or for long periods of time. On other long dumb rides I would find myself parked for up to 30 minutes to eat and recharge before carrying on, but if I did that here I might as well make a MUCH MORE fun three day trip out of it. I had no idea how many stops I would need and I wasn’t sure even how long those stops would be, but I had to imagine, again, that I was on the run and getting caught would be the end of me. P.S. Grow up, Chris.

As a sad, sad side note I was so surprised by the beauty of the canal. Having only ridden the 30 miles from White’s Ferry into DC, I did not appreciate how varied and beautiful it could be in total. So much of it carries along the Potomac River, which offers an incredibly memorable view. Other parts remind me of stately old country roads with grassy medians and hard packed track. You skirt along state forests and parks and wildlife management areas. As I have said in the past I would find myself opening my eyes as wide as possible and trying hard to commit the scenes to memory because I never wanted to forget what I was so lucky to see.

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Mile after glorious mile of this.

Okay, that’s it for the beauty. Because everything else was ugly. The terrible thing about riding along a canal for 184.5 miles is that you always have to pedal. Always. Okay, maybe for the 5 seconds after you crest a lock and coast down the other side you can take a break, but otherwise you are pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. And while the hardpacked country road sections of the trail were great, there was just so much more where it was loose gravel and puddles and random sticks or roots and lots of rolling resistance. I didn’t really notice it for the first 40 or 50 miles. Then all of a sudden I did. I also felt the temperature starting to creep up. 75..76..80. I had left Cumberland with two big bottles full of ice water and the plan was to ride 100 miles before I refilled them but there was no way that was going to happen.

2017-05-19 11.14.10

Here’s my one social media pic from the ride and it basically 100% summed up how I felt around 60 miles in. Silver lining is I snapped and posted it without stopping!

I finally stopped at a trailside water pump near Fort Frederick at mile post 109. At this point I was a few miles ahead of Pete and Bilsko but I knew they would be stopping at about the same time because they had dropped a few jugs of water in the area. I had never pumped water from a well on the C&O before so I wasn’t even sure there would be water. That would have been very bad. Fortunately, after about 30 seconds of pumping, out of the pump flowed cool, refreshing water. I filled up a bottle and promptly chugged it. It tasted pretty great all things considered and the sign affixed to the pump stated that the water was regularly treated with iodine. That was a relief (but I am clueless, so it could have said it was treated with lead and I wouldn’t have blinked).  I filled up my three bottles. The smaller (heretofore spare) bottle I stuck in my middle jersey pocket and put the two big bottles on the bike.  Then I pulled out a PBJ sandwich and ate my lunch as fast as I could. While I was eating, I unwrapped a clif bar and stuck it in the outside pocket of the feed bag that was affixed to my handlebars (so it would be easy to consume on the go). About halfway through my sandwich I got on the bike and started pedaling. I was stopped for just under 9 minutes. God only knows what that stop looked like to someone casually sitting at the campsite nearby.

You always feel better after you fuel up and this time was no different. I was motoring along, drinking water, eating a little more,  and playing mind games to help the time pass. The temperature was now in the 80s and the humidity was creeping up, too. I was definitely drinking faster but I didn’t want to stop, so I would try and space out the times I would reach for my bottle. That didn’t really work either because I would be so thirsty that I would just take an extra long drink. Even though I was wearing cycling gloves, my hands were starting to get sore from absorbing the bumps and grinds of the canal. I found myself standing up or sitting up and riding one handed to relieve pressure on my ass and back. I would ride with one arm around my back to relieve pressure on my shoulders. I never, ever take meds but I even popped two aleve because I was starting to get hotspots on my feet from the non-stop pedaling. YES, I WAS TOTALLY HAVING FUN, THANKS FOR ASKING!

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Three hours ago this would have been beautiful, but all I could see now were those shitty little rocks. SCREW YOU, GRAVEL!

I don’t know if I mentioned this, but I could not stop pedaling. My plan was to keep pace above 16.5 mph total time with stops, but that was a pipe dream as I sunk below 16 mph. If I hit 15mph then forget it, it might as well have been over. I had to get back over 16 and I was trying like hell to focus. Right now all I knew was it was hot, my body hated me, my heart rate was rising, and I was suddenly out of water.

The first pump to which I rode up was down a hill at a campsite off the trail, so I decided to pass and keep going until I found one right next to the canal. They were spaced 5-10 miles apart, so I was hoping the next one was more like 5 miles away.

10 miles later I rolled up to the next pump. As I parked my bike against a tree I was extremely aware of my elevated breathing even though I didn’t feel like I had been working that hard. A stone’s throw from Antietam, I was almost 110 miles and six and a half hours in. This pump took a lot longer to prime, but it finally did the job and I had cool water again. This stop was my longest – almost 13 minutes. I just needed time to compose myself, eat some food, and drink some water. Maybe consider, for a second, what the fuck is wrong with me (don’t answer that). Pete and Bilsko were still just a few miles back and were stopped at the same time. If they had waited a little longer to stop they would have rolled right up on me.

Every time I felt a little down I would tell myself that this was the low point and I had just had to power through it. Actually what I said, out loud, was STOP BEING SUCH A WHINING MAN BABY. So that was weird.

Then I hit a really cool section and it lifted my spirits. It was a concrete walkway that went on for a mile right on the river. It was kind of slow rolling and it wasn’t shaded, but it was not like much else that we have around here.

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This was one of the best sections.

So the memory of that kept me sane through Sheperdstown and Harper’s Ferry (which is breathtaking on its own). I was also looking forward to seeing some friends who said they were going to come out and intercept and ride back with us, so when I didn’t see them at Harper’s Ferry or Point of Rocks I figured it wasn’t going to happen. By Point of Rocks I was also borderline destroyed and almost 50 miles from the finish and deep into mind games trying to knock off one mile marker after another. I finally made what was my last stop at around mile 137, took about 8 minutes, and started rolling again at 4:00pm. At that stop I opened up a homemade bag of mixed nuts and plain m&ms and nestled it in the feed bag on my bike so I could just reach in and easily grab a handful as I rode. If I had to guess I would say it was around 800 calories of salt encapsulated simple carbs, fat, and protein. I immediately felt amazing. Why? Because I had finally dispensed with all of the engineered food and finally started in on the shitty convenience store style food that has been the primary building blocks of all my great rides. Plus I am white trash.

Handful after handful of chocolate and salt. All systems came back online immediately. Once I hit White’s Ferry I was standing and pedaling as hard as I could. I even passed my group of friends who had ridden out to meet us and in typical selfish fashion I didn’t even slow down. No time to chat! I have a pretend record I need to break! God what an asshole. My friend Ryan was at least nice enough to catch up with me and offer me food and drink but I didn’t want to impugn the sanctity of the unsupported record/not-record so I declined (politely!)

And…then the power surge was gone. As anyone who has done this stretch into DC knows, none of it is mellow. It is all gravelly. At 20 miles to go I was out of water and while I would like to say I gamely toughed it out, I would have given anything for one more well full of warmed-over iodine flavored water. Fortunately, I was in familiar territory and just ticked off the landmarks – the place where I had beers in the river, great falls, the place where I had canal coffee, chain bridge, and then…GEORGETOWN!

This is the only place on the whole canal where you have to get off your bike, carry it up steps, and then back down more steps to get to the other side of the canal. Thanks Georgetown! That really sucks after 183.5 miles. There was also construction closing a portion so I followed the detour down to Water Street, and took the path to Thompson’s boathouse. And then past Thompson’s Boathouse. And then back. Because I couldn’t find the 0 mile marker. WTF?! WHERE IS IT?

If you ever do this you have to cross IN FRONT of Thompson’s (on the river side) and go across a little bridge to get to it. There’s no other way. So after a mild panic and the help of Google Maps (you’re 200 feet away, idiot) I rolled up. The ride, and mercifully, this story, at an end.

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The ride took exactly 11 hours and 37 minutes, with a moving time of 11:05:54. Total stopping time, 31 minutes and 6 seconds. I’m sure someone has done this before and done it faster, but I’ll just pretend for a few weeks that I did it the fastest. Then hopefully someone really will do it faster. That will be totally fine, because I don’t want to ever do it again. For now.

After I was finished, I laid down on the ground and closed my eyes, just me and the geese, and the Potomac River. I was covered in grime. My body ached. I could have slept for hours right there (or at least until Pete and Bilsko rolled up a short while later). But holy shit was I happy.

Looking back, everything went right that day. I didn’t have a single mechanical. The temperature, while predicted to be 90, never got much above 80. It didn’t rain (and never that hard) until I got inside the beltway. Aside from puddles here and there, the trail was dry. I had enough food. The water pumps all worked. To make something like this happen, you need a lot of things to go right, and for me they did. So I was lucky.

The guys who took the three days to do this had a great time and if you are going to do it, then that’s how it should be done. Have fun, take your time. Eat all of the food, drink all of the beer, take all of the pictures. You’re still riding 60 miles per day on gravel – it’s no piece of cake. But you can savor everything the C&O has to offer.

Or you can be a fun-hating idiot and short circuit all of that. Tough choice.

10 thoughts on “Surviving the Canal

  1. This year was my 11 time to do Pittsburgh >DC ( and some DC>Pittsburgh )Your story is amazing. Thanks 🙏 for sharing.Next time stop and smell the roses a little if you have the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Aiy! I did this ride on a Kona, too! But I never would have found the 0 mile marker if Rob hadn’t been there. I’m telling you man, team time trial all the way from the Pitt. Get planning. I have summers off.

    Liked by 1 person

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