Pittsburgh Express

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is an absolutely flawless 150 mile rail trail that runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, where it connects to the C&O Towpath trail. The C&O, in turn, travels 184.5 miles, tracing the Potomac River all the way to the Georgetown Waterfront in Washington, DC. The combined GAP/C&O is an incredible outdoor resource in our region and offers a wealth of touring opportunities for folks who want to experience it by bike. There are an untold number of charming towns and cool bridges and tunnels and locks and windmills and wildlife. Cyclists from this area will often take their gear-loaded bikes on the train to Pittsburgh and spend 5-10 days riding back, either camping or staying in hostels or hotels. The best stories about this trip start with getting together with a group of friends, eating and drinking like royalty, and burning off the calories between meals while riding through nature’s splendorous majesty.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those stories.

SOME STUPID HISTORY

Back in late 2014 Pete Beers and Christopher Niebylski (aka Bilsko) tried the entire GAP/C&O on fixed gear bikes. They flamed out spectacularly, but the idea was so incredibly audacious that it became an instant legend. In early 2017 when I was doing research for my attempt at the whole C&O unsupported, I noticed that at the time no rider had done the full GAP/C&O in under 24 hours, supported or otherwise. Some had tried. In 2013 a couple on a tandem rode supported and were 19 minutes short of breaking 24 hours. In 2015 a guy took his shot solo and unsupported and missed by 37 minutes. Eventually,  I stumbled upon the news that someone DID do the route in under 24 hours and it had happened, coincidentally, not long after I had completed the C&O Towpath FKT (which, thankfully, has since been eclipsed by Doug Pepelko).

On June 30th, 2017, a rider named Sean Crandell rode from Pittsburgh to DC in 23:51. His ride was supported and he used pacers (but didn’t draft). He started about 10 minutes east of the GAP’s terminus, but that was evened out by the fact that Paw Paw tunnel was closed and he had to take the detour trail OVER it, adding climbing and miles and time. It was a singularly incredible achievement.

YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY GOING TO TRY THIS ARE YOU?

So many times in the last five years I would see rides on Strava titled something akin to GAP/C&O Day 7 (of 9). That kind of captured my imagination, but really I thought it would be funny if someone did the whole thing at once and titled it GAP/C&O Day One, Fuck It, I’m Done. Just completely immature and against the wonderful spirit and ethos that is the GAP/C&O. So while doing a dumbass challenge to satisfy a brilliant(?) Strava ride title is probably not the best approach to creating potential rides, you have to find your motivation wherever you can. Either way, my mind was made up. I was going to attempt to ride the GAP/C&O solo and unsupported and do it in under 24 hours.

Once I understood that, the next few months were me doing COMPLETELY NORMAL things like continually watching Sean Crandell’s ride on Strava Flyby while eating lunch at my desk and simultaneously filling up untold sticky notes with start, stop, and rest times. Constantly scrolling through the GAP/C&O Enthusiasts Facebook group (yes, it exists) so I could stay up to date on the latest closures and detours. Doing hard core INTERNET RESEARCH to plan my trip, committing every water and food stop to memory, often drilling down using Google Maps because I needed to make sure I stopped at the correct Sheetz in Cumberland and not the incorrect one.

Completely sane note taking

HERE WE GO!

Skip through millions of boring details, and I was all set to do this in late July 2019. That was, until one biblical flood put the kibosh on my original plan (R.I.P. my entire basement). The original plan was to take the train up to Pittsburgh alone, which would have been terrible, so hey – THANKS FLOOD.

Finally, on a Wednesday in late September I found myself in a pickup truck with Pete, Bilsko, and Cyndi, headed to Pittsburgh.  The one way rental was a great option because we made it to Pittsburgh much sooner than the train, which meant more sleep before we rolled out the next morning. I had a free Marriott night, so I used it at one of their hotels downtown, not even a mile from the start. And to answer your question, yes, all the best husbands use their free hotel nights for their extremely selfless solo bike adventures.

Photo Sep 25, 3 15 15 PM

Many good adventures start at Bikenetic!

Because I am a massive tool, I wore my bike clothes, down to my shoes, on the trip up. I did not bring any other clothes. Can’t carry too much extra weight! This basically confined me to my hotel room because I wasn’t excited about wandering around Pittsburgh in my bibs and cleats looking for food. After ordering in, I did what every other normal adult did that evening: I ate my food, showered, and was in bed by 8:30.

Photo Sep 25, 8 17 15 PM

Free hotel nights in cities are always best spent on solo bike adventures!

The next morning I was up and surprisingly chipper, so much so that I was already doing on-brand things like getting lost on my way to our meetup .4 miles from my hotel (everyone else was not wasting free nights at the Marriott and were at another hotel a few blocks away). I was so flummoxed (already!) that I stopped to look at the map on my phone, looked up again to get my bearings, and realized I was 100 feet away from our meetup spot. SOLO ADVENTURE LOOKING GOOD!

After breakfast we rolled over to Point State Park and found the terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage. The plan was to get started at 7am but we were ahead of schedule, so we took our time snapping pics and rolling around looking for a chalk message that one of our friends had left for us a day or so prior (thanks Dread!). Eventually we rolled out, together.

Photo Sep 26, 6 52 00 AM

I’m With Stupid

Of course, this was supposed to be a solo and unsupported effort from me, but I wasn’t going to be a dick and leave my friends in the dust because I was chasing some non-existent “record”. Kidding of course, that’s exactly what I did. As the sun came up and the drizzle intensified, I crossed the Hot Metal Bridge alone and bid a silent farewell to Pete, Bilsko, and Cyndi who were, let’s be honest, probably glad to be rid of me.

The trail out of town was pretty solid, and I only took one or two wrong turns (you know, for the culture), but in general was able to keep my bearings. The GAP traces the Monongahela River all the way down until McKeesport where it splits and connects to the Youghiogheni (I’ll never be able to spell that without looking it up). I rolled through McKeesport before 8am, with 18 miles down and massive optimism that this was going to be a piece of cake.

Photo Sep 26, 7 56 33 AM

Rolling through McKeesport before the heavy stuff

RIDING BIKES IS SO MUCH FUN!

Eventually, it started raining, and not a little. THE GAP DID NOT CARE. It is such a perfect, maintained surface (crushed limestone) that it holds up remarkably well. I even passed a dude riding around on a huge drum roller, smoothing out and maintaining the trail surface, something I had never seen happen on the C&O (which, not coincidentally, was in much worse shape).

The views during this stretch were incredible, riding high above the Youghiogheny (I looked it up) in the trees in many spots, passing from town (West Newton) to town (Connellsville) to town (Ohiopyle).  Still, the rain would not cooperate and I was getting soaked to the bone. I kept thinking “bad weather is my specialty” but that’s not really true, it’s just a way to get me to think positively about how miserable I was. At one point I thought that there was no way I was going to be able to complete this if the rain never stops. A particularly dark thought which I pushed out of my mind by thinking of buttercream donuts. Everyone does that, right? I mean, it works.

When I hit Confluence it was noon and I was about 90 miles in. I reached for my third bottle but it was gone and I realized it must have fallen off my bike a long time ago. This was bad. I had planned to try and ride all the way to Cumberland without stopping, but I was almost completely out of water. I reached into my Revelate feed bag and grabbed some food and contemplated how long I could go without drinking.

Photo Sep 26, 12 48 40 PM

Brief respite from the rain and a quick pic

The answer was about an hour. As I rolled into Rockwood Station, I noticed a little (like TINY) Visitor’s Center on the side of the trail along with some water fountains, making my first stop about six and a half hours after our initial roll out. I can only imagine what I looked like to the woman outside the visitor center, as both my bike and me were completely covered in gray trail grit. I loaded up my two bottles and then poured them over my bike’s drive train, and then filled them again. I made absent-minded small talk with the woman (who it turns out works at the visitor’s center/shed). I don’t remember a ton, other than I was weary and somehow she convinced me to sign a guest book, which I completely slimed. I’m sorry.

She was a good example of every single person I came upon on the trail. Kind, happy, mellow. I passed many more touring cyclists than I anticipated (based on the weather) and after calling my pass got a friendly wave or greeting from almost all of them. I felt the worst when I would pass people parked on the side of the trail looking to sell refreshments, and made a mental note to stop for everyone next time (I’m probably not going to do that).

As I continued my climb up to the Eastern Continental Divide, the weather cleared and presented some magnificent skies. The breeze dried me out and I kept saying “oh wow” over and over again. I rode right by the massive windmills on Savage Mountain – which I’ve seen on so many rides in this area but never up this close.

Photo Sep 26, 2 08 36 PM

Bike gods are happy

I made it through the tunnel right before 3pm, and from there is was a glorious 22 mile, 1,600 ft descent into Cumberland. I was flying, barely pedaling, making up all of the time I felt like I lost in the rain. It took me barely an hour, and I rolled into Cumberland at 3:59pm, just slightly more than 9 hours from when we had started that morning. The GAP was done, 150 miles, one stop, and I was kinda wrecked.

Photo Sep 26, 3 18 59 PM

That glorious descent!

CUMBERLAND

I had no plan. I had a plan. Wait, what was the plan? I wanted to fill up my water bottles and get going, but I couldn’t get the water fountains to work. I wasted time doing that. Then I rode over to the visitor center to use the bathroom and get water. It was closed. Tick tock. Tick tock. All the good time I made was ticking away. The answer to every bad situation, of course, is Sheetz. So I rolled towards the good Sheetz, about a half mile away. I made it over at about 4:15pm and decided I needed to get rolling again by 5pm. That would give me 14 hours to finish, way more time than I needed (cue ominous music).

Photo Sep 26, 4 01 54 PM

Pointed the wrong way, as usual

I ate a delicious no bake cookie, fought off a gang of tweekers trying to steal my bike (maybe), and talked to a guy that was riding his bike across the United States but thought I was the crazy one for riding from Pittsburgh to DC (hah, who’s crazy now, buddy?)

Photo Sep 26, 4 22 04 PM

Sugar, caffeine. #standard

I checked my phone a little, sent updates, and was off. It was the perfect rest stop – I didn’t linger, I didn’t loathe getting back on the bike. I was actually excited to finish part two, a foregone conclusion at this point, really. The weather was perfect, I was in short sleeves, my jacket packed away. I had already done this before, THIS WAS NOT MY FIRST RODEO.

20 minutes later, panic.

THE CHESAPEAKE & OHIO TOWPATH

Bounce, BOUNCE, BOUNCE. My tire pressure was a problem, almost immediately. At 60 PSI it was smooth sailing along the GAP, but that setting was crushing my delicate undercarriage once I hit the rocky towpath. Also, why isn’t my Garmin doing anything? OH MY GOD IT FROZE I AM GOING TO LOSE EVERYTHING.

Photo Sep 26, 4 45 42 PM

TOWPATH SZN

I stopped, let air out of my tires, and reset my Garmin. Thankfully my ride came back, but it looked like I had lost the part of the ride where I was in Cumberland. Whatever. I was burning daylight and I wanted to get a solid three hours in before I had to use my lights. Which would be impossible since the sun was going to set at 7pm, but we are here to ride bikes, not do maths, so..you know.

My tire pressure fixed (I feel like I let out A LOT of air) and my Garmin necromanced, I decided it would be a good time to continue caffeinating. I reached into my frame bag for the first of three energy coffees that I had packed and realized that the beans and rice I had made at home and packed away was leaking all over the inside of my bag. Gross.

Photo Sep 26, 5 23 14 PM

We are at the portion of the ride where we think we have a ton of time so we are leaning our bike against shit for beauty shots.

At some point I had the genius idea that I would bring Real Food™ instead of relying on convenience store garbage and that doing so might help me get through the ride.

Please. Once a trash panda, always a trash panda, and there is no way I was going to be able to eat leaky, lukewarm beans and rice that hadn’t been refrigerated and/or chemically preserved. So I dumped it out (you’re welcome raccoons aka my people) and intensely wished they had pop-tart vending machines on the C&O (that idea is free to use, National Park Service).

I hit Paw Paw tunnel at 6:30pm. It had been closed for over a year and the thought of climbing straight up over it was too much to bear. Fortunately it was open now. I pretended to be grateful, turned on my front light, and tried not to look in the canal at the floating dead bodies as I rode through (this part is haunted, just a friendly heads up).

The sun went down at 6:59pm. I had 150 miles and 12 hours to make it to DC. It was flat. Nothing was going to stop me.

NIGHT TIME IS THE WRONG TIME

Thank god for the light I was running. Pete had set me up with the Light and Motion Vis Trail light – a battery-pack powered light that threw a wide, bright beam and completely lit up the trail. If I had been using any of my own lights, which loved to pretend they were charging only to die 30 minutes into a ride, I would be dead.

My plan was to make Hancock my last stop as there was a Sheetz just 5 minutes off the trail, but somehow I blew right by the exit for it. I made one of my few right calls by not doubling back. I had plenty of snacks, two more coffee drinks, and enough water for a while. I just had to pedal, pedal, pedal and I would be there in no time.

SHIT!

I just dozed off. I CAN’T BELIEVE I DOZED OFF. It was only 10pm and I had reached Big Pool and still had over 100 miles to ride. This was bad. I pulled out a coffee drink (I have no idea what the brand name is, I bought it on sale at Giant, it tastes like death, would not buy again), chugged it, and continued on, focused on staying alert.

So many times I felt like I was 5 feet from turning the wrong way and rolling off a 15 foot high lock onto the hard ground below (aka dying). It was terrifying, because it was such a distinct possibility. Silver lining is that the adrenaline from being so close to that kind of catastrophe had me occasionally WIDE awake.

Everything was taking forever, especially the water stations. Anyone who has ridden the C&O knows that there are manual pumps every 7-10 miles. They do not all work equally well and at this point it was super dark. Every wild animal watching me attempt to direct a stream of gushing water into my plastic water bottles while pumping and simultaneously shining my light so I could see was in for a fucking COMEDY TREAT.

Also, there will not be any more pictures of this ride, because I could not bring myself to take any.

Eventually, as the clock moved past midnight, sleep got the best of me. No matter what I did, I could not stop dozing off. Every 15 minutes I would wake up as I was rolling off the trail. To make matters worse, I started to hallucinate. I was talking out loud trying to convince myself who I was and that I was there in the present, not somewhere else, far away. If it sounds ridiculous, it was.

My average speed plummeted. I started entertaining ideas of laying down on the side of the trail. It looked so warm and inviting. I wasn’t there, I was at home in bed, I was dreaming so peacefully, so deeply.

SHIIIT!

I stopped my bike right before it went into a ditch. I set my alarm for 5 minutes and laid my head down on my handlebars. I slept that way, standing up for probably 2 minutes.

When I woke up, I felt incredible.

THE BIG FINALE

I hit Point of Rocks at 3am. I had 4 hours to go 40 miles, with stops. It was not a sure thing by any means, particularly as I hit sections of the C&O that can be charitably described as “completely shitty”. My bib pad had turned into sheetmetal and my skin in that region was failing at an alarming rate. I felt the circumference of every large chunk of gravel. All of this slowed me down to a crawl. At some point I realized my satellite tracker (the Garmin InReach Mini) had crapped out, and a bunch of people following my progress (including my wife), thought I was curled up dead where my  tracker had died hours ago (thanks again, Garmin!)

I stopped for the last time, got stuff working, sent out messages that I was still alive, and cranked toward DC. I don’t know exactly what got me through this section. I wasn’t dozing off, really, but I know I was playing some ridiculous mind games to help my brain stay focused. I also owe a lot to the bluetooth speaker that I ran for hours, playing music that kept me company in the dark of the night.

I rolled into Georgetown at 6:30am and to my surprise, a greeting party was there to meet me. My Stupid Rides Ride Partner™ (Brad G, see other recent stories for more detail), had convinced a bunch of friends to ride down early in the morning and meet me at one of the bridges that crossed back over the C&O.

Photo Sep 27, 10 00 16 AM

Carrying your bike up and over a bridge after 330 miles is hard

I still had to get to the Zero Mile Marker to make it official, and the biggest challenge was not running over anyone on the narrow canal trail through Georgetown. At 6:38am, I made it to the end of the C&O Canal, completely destroyed. Finishing the challenge was one thing, but finishing it with a bunch of your riding buddies there to share the finish with you? One of the greatest feelings in the world.

Photo Sep 27, 11 28 52 AM (1)

This picture basically sums it up

After taking some celebratory pics, we headed over to Baked & Wired where I sat and ate and drank and contemplated what had just happened. That feeling right there – the feeling of exhausted accomplishment and bliss, is the reason I keep trying stuff like this. Few accomplishments can make you feel that way.

Unfortunately, all those good feelings were shortlived because I still had to ride 10 miles home and my ass was so incredibly sore that I had to stand up for the entire ride. Fortunately, I made it home in one piece and enjoyed the kind of blackout sleep that comes with riding 335 miles in 24 hours.

Post-Mortem

Most importantly, Cyndi and Bilsko did this too, with a VERY WISE 4 hour camping stop in the middle. Pete was once again foiled in his attempt, this time by a non-cooperative crank arm. It’ll happen for him, and soon I am sure. After all, he is the Godfather of Stupid Rides.

This was also the ride that injured me. My left knee was seriously messed up and got worse as the days went by (it was a little sore during the ride, but not so bad that I ever felt I needed to stop). I went to my ortho and was diagnosed with runner’s knee or something similar. Basically the back of my knee cap was inflamed and every bend of my leg made it worse.

I did stretches and drove my car and ate and ate and ate. I did not ride my bike. For the most part, I was off the bike for more than 2 months. I gained…wait for it…30 pounds.

I’m healed up and on the rebound now, but it really was the ride that almost killed me.

A few folks have asked for tips on this. I definitely think a million people could do it, and do it faster. My biggest recommendations would be:

  1. pick a time of year with long days;
  2. get a natural sleep cycle the day before (in other words don’t wake up at 4am to start);
  3. Don’t take the train up, try to rent a one way (unless the Amtrak schedule changes and you can get up there before midnight);
  4. Bring extra bottles;
  5. Don’t overpack – you will have opportunities along the way to stop and stock up.
  6. Learn to pee off your bike while it is moving 18 mph (ok, this isn’t really important, but I am still going to master it one day, although this was not one of those days).

Let me know if you are going to try to crank this out – would love to cheer you on (or, gulp, ride with you).

Here’s your time to beat: 23h 43m. Good luck!

Strava

10 thoughts on “Pittsburgh Express

  1. Thank God I only had to experience the celebratory conclusion of this epic journey. Well, that and all the stress of seeing your GPS tracker stuck in Big Pool and wondering how far down river NPS would find your body. ☠️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 👏👏👏 wow! Amazing! Such an entertaining read. Thank you for sharing your trial and tribulations. As someone who did this in 5 days, i can only imagine all the anguish you endured in those 24hrs. Wowie! Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thoroughly enjoy following your exploits and ride reports Chris! Having done a 3-day GAP-C&O in 2016 and 1-day C&O in 2017 (with the actually-fun-over-the-Paw Paw-tunnel detour), sticking to mostly daylight, avoiding the manual pumps and trying to avoid the sheetmetal chamois, I truly appreciate and respect what you do. I really can’t imagine this as a 1-day experience. Congrats! So when will you tackle Mauna Kea?

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words! Congrats on the one day on the C&O – and the three day Gap/C&O – those are really impressive! Would love to do Mauna Kea one day – once all the tuitions and what not are paid for 🙂

      Like

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