A bicycle tourist since 2010, I enjoy sharing my experiences and advocating for bicycle touring. My bicycle is a Surly Long Haul Trucker that I have owned since 2012. I have done both self-supported and supported tours.
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In the age of COVID-19 there are uncertainties in planning a bicycle tour. When planning for my most recent self-supported tour from Pittsburgh to Washington DC on the GAP and C&O trails, I was concerned about the availability of places to eat on the route. It was a seven day trip, beginning on 12 September. I decided to carry enough food to sustain me through one or two days in case I could not find a grocery store or restaurant. I had one pannier dedicated to food.
In that spirit, I carried two spare bottles of water. The water was not enough to go much beyond a day, but I reasoned that water would be more common and that I would find it easier to get. As a hedge I carried an ultraviolet water purifier since I would almost always be close to a river.
My size and the weight of my panniers drove my appetite significantly. I am 6′-4″ tall and weigh 225 pounds. The weight of all of my food and gear was about 55 pounds. My bicycle is a Surly Long Haul Trucker that is geared for touring, but me and my stuff needed to cover a lot of ground each day and burn a lot of calories.
When I started out my food pannier load consisted of
One pound of hard salami
Jar of peanut butter
Squeeze bottle of honey
About six four-packs of Nutter Butter cookies
Package of flour tortillas
Can of Hormel chili
Can of meat spread
Two cans of tuna
One package of pitted dates
Two packages of beef jerky
Ten packages of mayonnaise
Two 10-packs of Babybel cheese.
The hard salami was fine for my first dinner in camp. By the time I got to Williamsport I had enough of the salami and threw it away. It did not spoil, but the taste of it did not appeal to me any longer. I prefer a darker hard salami and if it had been Oscar Mayer salami, I might have kept it. The meat spread was also a bad idea and I threw it out as well. The Hormel corned beef hash would have been a better choice for another canned meat.
There were some food choices that were based on their ability to survive being in a pannier. Avocados are a great source of fats and vitamins. They do well in the pannier as long as they are not too ripe. I was able to eat them just before they turned soft. Oranges are very durable and apples would also work. The tortillas travel better than any kind of bread and provide the same kind of food value. Each piece of Babybel cheese is packaged in wax and lasted very well on the trip.
Along the way I was going to replenish my food supply. That turned out to be not necessary for breakfast and dinner because of other food sources that came up along the way. I did replenish my snack foods. At the end, I had most of my cheese, a can of tuna, a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs that I purchased along the way, and a few tortillas left over.
Planned camp sites were the Uniontown KOA near Connellsville, PA; Husky Haven Campground in Rockwood, PA; Little Orleans Campground, MD; Snug Harbor KOA, Williamsport, MD; and Brunswick Family Campground, MD. I ate both breakfast and dinner at the camp sites.
Two meals happened that were nice surprises. On my way to the KOA near Williamsport, I stopped at the Sheetz gas station in Williamsport. I opted to buy some food there rather than eat the food that I had in my pannier. The KOA also had a little diner that was preparing takeout and I ordered chicken wings. I had too much to eat, but the wings were good for breakfast the next morning.
In Brunswick at my final camp site, I was going to pitch camp, shower, and ride to a grocery store in town for some food. To my delight, the local pizza place delivered to the campground. The leftover pizza also made a good breakfast to start the next day.
I always tried to have both orange juice and a coffee drink in my food pannier for each breakfast. The Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino was great because it gave me my caffeine, it was a nice chaser for peanut butter, and there were some serious calories in each bottle.
On the trail, I stopped every hour for a carbohydrate hit. I liked to carry at least one bottle of chocolate milk for my mid-day stop. I varied my snack stops among Nutter Butter cookies, cheese cracker and peanut butter snacks, dates, Fig Newtons, Famous Amos cookies, and beef jerky.
There were opportunistic stops to replenish water and to have ice cream. I never had a problem finding a source for bottled water and I also used potable water from the camp sites. When I replenished water at a store, I would often find the orange juice and Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino at the same time.
My diet on this tour sustained my energy level better than I have experienced on previous tours. This was the first time that I used this particular daily regimen for nutrition on a tour. The regimen was breakfast, water every ten minutes of so, rest stops with carbo snacks every hour, and dinner at the end of the day.
It seems that I should have found this regimen much earlier in my bicycle touring career, but I did not for some reason. I was satisfied with less frequent rest stops and snacking. In the past I did not hydrate as much as I should. I placed too much emphasis on breakfast and dinner alone as sources for calories.
This time I did some research before I headed out and tried to emulate some of the advice by other bicycle tourists on the Internet. This is my experience and what I did worked well for me. I was able to sustain my energy levels through each day and many times felt that I could ride another ten or twenty miles. Give a lot of attention to your personal dietary needs when you plan your bicycle tours. It pays off.
12 September Breakfast
Orange Juice, breakfast sandwich, coffee from the hotel snack bar
12 September Dinner
Iced tea beverage, avocado, hard salami/tortilla wrap, Babybel cheese
On a recent tour from Pittsburgh to Washington DC I logged my 20,000th mile on my Surly Long Haul Trucker. I have trained and toured on my LHT since 2013. There are a lot of great memories connected with my bicycle.
What remains of the original bike reveals the durability of the stock build. The wheelset lasted until last year at about 17,000 miles. Other things that I consider major components are still on the bike. That includes the bottom bracket and cranks, the brake levers and calipers, the stem and fork, and, of course, the frame. After market equipment has also fared well, including the Tubus racks and Shimano clipless pedals.
At this point I have some bragging rights on my bike. There have been occasions for considering a new bike, but now I can’t possibly do that. People like to admire a new bicycle, but they also can’t help being drawn into a story about a bike with 20,000 miles on it. The bike is a continuing challenge for me to achieve the next milestone: 25,000 miles. There is really no reason for me to change from a bike that fits me very well to an unknown bike that is shiny and new.
Just before I began my latest self-supported tour from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, I decided it was time to replace the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires on my Surly Long Haul Trucker. After 5000 miles, the tires still had maybe 20% of the tread remaining. However, I did not want to take any chances with tire failure during my tour.
This is my fourth set of Marathon Plus tires and I got about 5000 miles from each pair. I have used tubes from both REI and Adventure Cycling Association and both have served their purpose. When I replace tires I always use new tubes. To me the chances of a flat due to deteriorating rubber are worse than the chance of a puncture. Between the tires and the tubes, I can’t remember the last time I got a flat tire.
This is another strong recommendation in favor of Schwalbe Marathon Plus bicycle tires from nearly 15,000 miles of use.
On Saturday, 19 September, I returned from another enjoyable trip on the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Washington DC. It was a seven day adventure that I really needed after two of my annual fully supported tours were cancelled because of COVID-19. I train throughout the year for long tours and needed the satisfaction of a tour after over 2000 miles of training in 2020.
There were uncertainties for travel on my tour route because of state restrictions. That was the rationale for waiting until just two weeks before my departure from home to make arrangements. After some quick research I found that my planned campgrounds were all open for business and the hotels were taking reservations. I made rental car and hotel reservations and I was eager to head out, although with some anxiety.
Since I hadn’t done any self-supported tours for five years I had some anxiety about how I would physically handle the load of the panniers. I am 74 years old and I am always concerned about a decrease in my physical abilities. There is no really good way to test that except to hit the road and give it a try. I reason that I could always bail out of the trip at any time. If I find it impossible to ride any further, I could quit and get transportation to someplace where I could rent a car to drive back home.
The first day on the trail resolved all of that and I was pleased with my performance. I knew that there would be some inclines in several places where I crossed the Monongahela River. There was also a short climb from McKeesport to the trail. After the first incline for the first bridge, I realized that I was fine since I geared down and cranked up with little difficulty.
My bicycle for the trip was my trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker that I have owned since 2012. My first tour on the bike was in 2013 and after this tour I have logged just over 20,000 miles on it. I have Tubus racks front and rear that carried four Ortlieb panniers for this tour. I strapped my tent to the rear rack.
The panniers were packed by function. One of the rear panniers was for clothes and personal gear and the other for camping equipment. One of the front panniers held food and the other miscellaneous maintenance gear and two filled spare water bottles. I had two water bottles on the frame as well.
I am embarrassed to admit that all of stuff that I carried, including the helmet on my head and the riding shoes on my feet, weighed 55 pounds. Some people have the strategy of minimizing weight by minimizing both the amount of stuff that they carry as well as the weight of individual items. My strategy has always been to load things that I think that I will need, eliminating some things along the way that do not have a strong justification for being hauled along, but mostly because they will not fit.
When I purchased many of my travel items I did consider weight and volume. My tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress fall into that category. My bicycle is what it is: a heavy steel frame with fenders and steel pannier racks. I didn’t revisit any of those past decisions since they had worked in the past during several long tours.
After a night in Pittsburgh I was on the road to my first camp at the Uniontown KOA near Connellsville, PA (60 miles). Out of Pittsburgh the trail follows the Monongahela River and in McKeesport the trail joins the Youghiogheny River. The Youghiogheny especially offers many pleasant views and the trail is close to the river.
As I approached Connellsville, I found a small trailside stand that offered refreshments. It had ice cream, frozen confections, and cold drinks. The refreshments were available outdoors beneath what turned out to be a guest house supported by posts. The owner, Jeff, came out and we talked.
The guest house and refreshment stand were built next to his house. The house had been a railroad station on the GAP, later turned into a church, and most recently into a home owned by his parents. He has been there since the mid-1980s. He and his wife Lisa call the place The South Yard Depot. I lingered for about thirty minutes before heading back to the trail.
My first camp tested my eating strategy. Most of my breakfasts and dinners were at camp. The first dinner was typical. I ate an avocado, a wrap made with a flour tortilla and hard salami, and some Babybel cheese. Breakfast was orange juice, a peanut butter and honey flour tortilla wrap, and some kind of Starbucks canned drink for my caffeine hit. I replenished the orange juice and Starbucks drink each day when I had an opportunity to stop at a convenience store.
I drank water on the go every ten minutes or so. Every hour I stopped for carbs and ate between 300 and 400 calories at each of those stops. During those stops I varied my intake among beef jerky, Nutter Butter cookies, Fig Newtons, and dried fruit such as pitted dates. I also tried to have a bottle of chocolate milk with me and sometimes that would be good for as many as two stops. If I happened to be at a location that had a food shop of some kind, I would get an ice cream and replenish my cookie and water supply.
My second day was Connellsville to Rockwood (52 miles). Ohiopyle is a nice stop on that leg. There is a little country store and restaurant just off the trail. The town is a tourist attraction during normal times. I rested a while with a snack at the historic railroad station on the trail.
At the town of Confluence, the trail leaves the Youghiogheny and begins to follow the Casselman River. The trail becomes a little tedious at that point because the Casselman is not as accessible as the Youghiogheny. The trees and the trail all look the same without the visual and audible relief that can be provided by a running river.
The weather was threatening most of the day and a few raindrops fell at times. Closer to Rockwood, however, it began to pour. I anticipated the rain and pulled my rain jacket out of one of my panniers. The rain jacket produced the usual result of causing me to get wet from the inside out from sweat.
When I arrived at the Husky Haven Campground in Rockwood my initial gambit was to try to get into the guest house. I thought that I would have a better chance of drying things out and get the sleeping comfort of a bed. That did not happen because the guest house had been occupied the night before and COVID-19 rules made it necessary to have it empty for a day before allowing another person to stay there. Husband and wife bicycle tourists had another problem: they needed to charge their e-bikes. I stayed at the Husky Haven tent site along with at least five other bicycle tourists. It rained that night, but cleared by morning. I was headed to my hotel in Cumberland and would be able to dry things there.
I headed to Cumberland (44 miles) after having a sandwich at the gas station in Rockwood. The Salisbury Viaduct and the Savage Tunnel are my favorite features on this leg of the trip. The viaduct was built in 1912, decommissioned in 1975, and repurposed as a hiking and biking trail in 1998. Just over the viaduct I like to stop at the historic railroad station in Meyersdale and it happens to be about the right timing for a snack stop. The Savage Tunnel was also built in 1912 and is just over a half mile long. Just past the Savage Tunnel there is an overlook with a beautiful view from high above the countryside and it is another good place for a refreshment stop.
In Cumberland I stayed at the Fairfield Inn. The hotel is a favorite among bicycle tourists because it is right on the trail where the GAP ends and the C&O begins. The hotel also found a way to serve the complimentary breakfast, working with COVID-19 restrictions.
From Cumberland to DC on the C&O, the character and quality of the trail changes significantly. Much of the C&O trail is very rough due to protruding rocks, tree roots, and muddy ruts. I think that those conditions bother me more than others because I have two bad shoulders. The constant jarring, even with the dampening load of the panniers, causes fatigue and some pain for me. The portion of the trail from Shepherdstown to White’s Ferry has been resurfaced and is a joy to ride. My average speed on that segment was much higher than on other sections of the trail and I was much more comfortable in the saddle. Most of the remainder of the trail is badly in need of resurfacing.
The leg of the trip from Cumberland to Little Orleans (47 miles) follows the Potomac closely until you get to the Paw Paw Tunnel. The tunnel famously almost bankrupted the canal company because it took fourteen years to build, opening in 1850. It is a marvel of ingenuity and persistence, nearly a half mile long, build totally using hand labor, and lined with millions of bricks.
The Little Orleans Campground was my first overnight on the C&O. It is reasonably close to the trail, but up a steep incline. It is difficult to ascend even on an unloaded bicycle. I pushed my loaded bike up the hill and sometimes resorted to zig-zagging to reduce the slope.
It was a little expensive at $35 when most other campgrounds charged me $15 for a tent site. The manager allowed me to camp in the grass near the pavilion. I kept all of my stuff under cover of the pavilion. That night the temperature dropped into the low 40s. I carried my down sleeping bag anticipating at least one cold night. I zipped into my cocoon and had the best sleep of the tour so far.
The next stop was Cushwa Basin and Williamsport (48 miles) where I would exit the trail for a ride north to the Snug Harbor KOA. On my way to Williamsport I met a fellow bicycle tourist, Rick Steeves, at Fort Frederick and we chatted for some time. I would classify him as an “expert” bicycle tourist, giving him due credit for significant European bicycle tours. I classify myself as an “advanced” bicycle tourist, not quite expert. He was carrying 22 pounds in four modestly sized panniers. He was riding in the opposite direction toward Cumberland where he would complete his tour. He wrote a very good review of his experiences on the C&O on his website.
I have camped at the Snug harbor KOA in the past, but it was on an Adventure Cycling Association tour and I had no idea what the cost would be. I rolled into the campground and headed to the office to register. The bill would be $55. The justification was that they did not have any tent sites, only RV sites with electric and water hookups. The place was not full and for good will I would have expected a significantly reduced fee for a tent camper on a bicycle who made the trek to the campground. I had a nice site right next to the creek and it is a nice campground, but the price was a bit steep.
Brunswick and the Brunswick Family Campground was my final camp (51 miles). The ride was great because most of that portion of the trail has been resurfaced. The ride along Big Slackwater shows one of the amazing features of the Potomac River. It is a long and wide area of the river where the current is attenuated by the size of the body of water. The water is held back by a dam that was built over 150 years ago. Homes and marinas dot the shoreline and the waters support fishing and other water recreation.
As I checked into my last camp at Brunswick Family Campground, the manager recommended food from a pizza place in town, Rasco NY Pizza, that would deliver to the campground. Pizza immediately struck a chord with me and I quickly developed a strong craving. After setting up camp and a shower, I ordered a 14″ cheese pizza with pepperoni, onions, green peppers, and mushrooms. I also ordered a side salad and that was almost too much food.
The pizza came and it was easily the best meal of the tour. My body must have been craving all of the things that make up a pizza, the fat, carbs, protein, and other stuff from the vegetables and seasonings. I ate three quarters of it and turned to the salad where I concentrated on the onions, cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes. I guess I was very hungry because I was able to eat most of it.
The next morning I had leftover pizza for breakfast and that gave me enough energy to make it all the way to DC on my longest day in terms of mileage (62 miles). The final leg has some interesting places, but my favorite is White’s Ferry. There is a building there that houses a small restaurant and sandwich shop. Over the years it has survived many floods on the Potomac that have submerged the building. The building has three high water marks on it well up on the second story, showing the depth of the Potomac during three recent flood events. I stopped there, enjoyed ice cream, and replenished some of my trail snacks.
Near DC I merged onto the Capital Crescent Trail to Virginia Avenue, taking a right on 23rd Street NW to the Lincoln Memorial. There I crossed the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Mt. Vernon Trail into Crystal City and my hotel, the Hilton Crystal City at Washington Reagan National Airport. I like the location of the hotel because it is a quick shuttle ride to the airport to pick up a rental car at Avis.
Completing the trip gave me a lot of satisfaction as bicycle tours always do for me. If I did it again self-supported I might not be so lazy and look for alternatives to Little Orleans and Snug Harbor campgrounds. The things I need most from campgrounds are showers and toilets. There must be other campgrounds that provide those comforts at a tent camping price.
In my opinion, Pittsburgh to DC is the correct direction for a fully loaded tour. The 1700 foot rise in elevation from Pittsburgh to the Eastern Continental Divide is almost negligible over the 130 miles compared with a similar rise from Cumberland to the Divide over 22 miles. The grade is 1% to 1.5%, but it will get to you over the distance of 22 miles when fully loaded. I would probably need a carb break every 15 minutes in that direction.
After a tour such as this one I feel a little letdown. The experiences on a tour are always unique and stimulating, even on routes that I have used before. The challenge of preparing and successfully riding 364 miles in seven days is rewarding. It is fun to meet local people and other bicycle tourists who are always eager to talk. If the country remains in some kind of lockdown state next year, I will do more than one tour on my own. Happily I still have the ability to accomplish a tour.
Heat maps can be a tool for planning tours since they show routes most often traveled by other cyclists. A Strava personal heat map can also display personal data. I just generated one for all of my rides since 2012. You can see my rides in Quebec and upstate New York as well as favorite rides on the Erie Canal, Great Allegheny Passage, and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The rides that I do the most often are my local training rides shown in red.
Since 2017 I have been running 700×35 Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires on my Surly Long Haul Trucker. I am a tall person and 225 pounds. I am on my second pair of the tires and I has just ordered my third.
Other tires that I have owned have suffered a number of problems. One is that the compounds deteriorate over time due to decomposition from exposure to air and the tires get brittle, developing cracks in the rubber. That resulted in a sidewall failure on a tour several years ago. Another is that for some reason other tires that I have used were much more susceptible to flats.
I have been getting 4,000 miles from my Schwalbes and have not had a flat since I began using them. The tires could go maybe another thousand miles before the rear tire gets bald, but I like to change them while they still have some tread. I suppose I could run the front another 4,000 miles because the tread is still in good condition after the first 4,000, but I don’t. That’s just a personal choice.
As far as comfort, who knows? I guess I am not as sensitive to that issue. I can say that the tires roll true and they are quiet on pavement. To me, quiet is an indicator that the rolling resistance is low. A tire that generates noise is expending energy to make noise. A good example is the knobby off-road tires used on mountain bikes and fat bikes. Those tires are not efficient on pavement or smooth trails.
The Schwalbe Marathon Plus does not have an aggressive tread, but they work well on pavement and packed trails. I can’t say how well they do on wet pavement because I don’t ride in the rain unless I get caught in an unexpected downpour. I do ride almost the entire year as long as there is no ice on the trail and the temperature is above 30 degrees F.
When I replace the tires I also replace the tubes because the tubes are more likely to fail than the tires. I can’t recommend a good brand of tubes to go along with your tires because they all seem to get brittle after a time, sometimes depending how long they have been on the store shelf. I date and throw away my spare tubes regularly because I feel I can’t rely on them as they age.
My opinion is that the Schwalbe Marathon Plus is a great tire for touring. I have confidence in the reliability of the tires. If I do get a flat, I always carry a spare tube with me. I have not needed my spare tube for the past 8,000 miles.
I have been riding my bicycle like a mad man this year, especially since my other three activities, part time work, travel, and street photography, have been suspended by COVID-19. Everybody must be going nuts by having their usual activities cut off. Of course, people who work for a living have it the worst. At least I have cycling, which means that I am doing it more often to fill in the voids left by other activities.
In a typical year, I train for about 2000 miles and tour for nearly 800 miles. There are two supported tours that I do every year and they are personal benchmarks for me. I do the Cycle the Erie Canal tour organized by Parks and Trails New York, a 400 mile ride from Buffalo, New York, to Albany. I do the C&O and GAP tour provided by the Adventure Cycling Association, a 380 mile ride from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. The CTEC ride draws up to 700 riders and the C&O and GAP up to 50.
I have registered for the 2020 CTEC since PTNY has committed to refunding the registration fees if the ride is cancelled. They are working with the health authorities in New York to determine whether or not the ride is feasible and it may be a while before that determination is made. The ride is scheduled to begin 12 July, so there is time for things to stabilize.
The C&O and GAP ride is scheduled to begin two months later in September. I have not registered for that one yet, but probably will, provided the ACA gives assurances concerning cancellation and refunds. ACA is very good about those things. They provided a refund for the ride in 2018 when rains and flooding on the Potomac River made the route and potential work-a rounds impossible.
Another factor for the organizers of those rides is that even if procedures are in place to ensure the safety of the riders and staff, people may be reluctant to participate. I will evaluate the risks when the decisions are made to hold the rides, but I will be inclined to ride. I would recommend registering if you have been planning to ride, but it is really dependent on everybody’s personal comfort level.
I have given some thought to going beck to self-supported touring this summer. The risk is that support services will not be open along the way, such as those that provide lodging, food, and water. My backup plan is to do day tours locally, such as Cape Cod and nearby states, including Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine. I can get to all of those places for a 50 to 70 mile self-contained day ride and not need lodging.
Those are my thoughts about bicycle touring in the current environment with COVID-19. Personally, I will continue training, especially since I have little else that will make me happy other than a return to normalcy and I believe that the risks are low. The tours are a great tradition for me and for many others, but we will need to wait for decisions to be made. Hopefully my backup plan can keep me sane until things get closer to normal.
In July 2019 I did my annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride with Parks and Trails New York. There was no need for me to hail “On your left” or “Passing” because my Brooks B17 was squeaking loudly with each pedal stroke. It sounded like a new pair of leather loafers. I was willing to endure the squeaking until maintenance unrelated to the saddle informed a different opinion.
That happened later in the year long after the Erie ride when I replaced my wheels and hubs because my rear hub bearings were gone. As a result I was very conscious of bearings and aware that I have never serviced my bottom bracket. On the test ride with my new hubs I heard another new sound, a metallic creaking noise that came from under my seat. Since it happened in rhythm with my pedal strokes my mind immediately turned to my bottom bracket.
I rationalized that it may be something that was easy to repair such as my pedals. That was quickly dismissed when I realized that the pedals spun easily and quietly. The bottom bracket also seemed smooth and quiet when operated on the rack. I was not going to take anything apart or spend any money until I confirmed a legitimate problem.
It was not long before I discovered the culprit. As I was riding a local trail I was experiencing the creaking noise. I stopped pedaling for a moment and adjusted my position on the saddle by moving slightly to one side. As I did the saddle made the creaking sound. I shifted back and forth and got creak-creak-creak-creak.
Now I am thinking that I may be done with this saddle. My son and I both experienced Brooks seat rail failures where the supporting rail cracked and broke, making it necessary to replace the saddle. Sending an email to Brooks only had the effect of getting me onto the Brooks email list.
I replaced my saddle with another Brooks and I have been riding it for about two years and about 6000 miles. It has been regularly treated with Neatsfoot Oil to condition the leather. It has always been covered as needed to protect it from moisture. Although I cared for the saddle, I now have the continuous sound effects that distract from hearing things that may actually be wrong.
It may be possible to fix the problem by taking it off the bike and doing some things to it. For example, I thought of soaking the underside of the leather with Neatsfoot Oil. Perhaps I could oil the mating metal parts. You know what? That is too much trouble to go through for a stinking saddle. Besides, I have never been convinced that it is the most comfortable saddle in the world.
My plan at this point is to leave the Brooks cult and go with the Terry Liberator. The shape of the Liberator is very similar to the Brooks B17. I have many stationary trainer miles on a Terry Liberator and I find it as comfortable as my Brooks B17 for long periods of time on the saddle. It will no longer be necessary to condition the leather or tighten the screw thingy. It will not be necessary to cover the the saddle religiously to protect it from rain or dew. Most importantly I will be able to ride in peace and quiet.
It was time to replace the chain on my Surly Long Haul Trucker. I replace the chain every 2000 miles based on personal chain wear data. The distance between chain changes is probably different for everybody based on riding and lubrication habits. For me this distance has extended the life of my cassette.
Since the cassette had 6000 miles on it I decided to inspect it carefully. From the side the cogs had nice square tops and the spaces in between the cogs were not worn. From the top, however, I thought that the cogs were worn thin. When shifting gears the chain slides up the sides of the cogs, causing wear after some time. In my opinion it was time to change the cassette to avoid potential cog breakage. That would be cogs snapping off due to the wear.
After removing the wheel I spun the axle with my fingers and to my surprise I found that the hub bearings felt rough and had significant drag. I was surprised because I had myself convinced that just spinning the wheel on the bike, observing the spin duration and smoothness, was good enough to test the bearings. The problem with that is the rim, tire, and tube have enough mass that the wheel will spin and look fine even with bad bearings. The best test is to remove the wheel from the bike and to turn the axle with your fingers so that you can feel any roughness or drag. The axle should turn freely and there should be no side play. Mine felt like they were grinding. It was time for new wheels and hubs.
I have been criticized for my lack of interest in periodically taking the hubs apart, cleaning them, and re-greasing. I have never done that. My approach is still defensible. I have 17,000 miles on my worn hubs. In addition, the rim walls are worn thin by the rim brakes after all this time. Rim failure due to this wear is possible and after a long period of use the wheels and hubs should be replaced anyway.
Servicing hubs regularly seems like a big waste of energy since they last a long time. The challenge is to find someone who was able to extend the life of their wheels and hubs to, say, 30,000 miles by taking them apart every few thousand miles. With rim brakes there is a very good chance of rim failure before reaching 30,000 miles.
Now my Surly LHT has new wheels and hubs. I purchased wheels with Shimano Deore hubs, which are the same Shimano product line that came as original equipment on my LHT. The initial ride with my new wheels was unremarkable. I could not feel any difference in performance. The real difference is that I will not need to worry about hub failure for some time to come.
This episode has me thinking that after 17,000 miles, maybe I should take my bottom bracket apart to inspect it in detail. Stay tuned.
This route is familiar to me since I have done it once from Pittsburgh to DC self-supported and three times from DC to Pittsburgh with Adventure Cycling. One of the tour staff asked my why I like the route. There are two answers. First, at 73 years old this ride is one of my benchmarks. From year to year I am able to complete the ride and my performance on the ride is similar each year. Performance is something that I measure each time that I ride, including average moving speed and elapsed time. Moving speed is the best performance measurement for me and I have been consistent year after year, averaging nearly 11 miles per hour. Decreasing elapsed times only indicate that I am less interested in the stops along the way and more interested in riding.
The second answer is that it is a beautiful route and is almost completely off-road on trails, even accounting for the poor quality of the C&O trail in many places. The route follows the Potomac, Casselman, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela rivers all the way to Pittsburgh. Most of the route is quiet and heavily wooded with the only sounds being the wind and the running water. The exception is the occasional sound of the CSX trains running on the tracks that parallel the trails. With Adventure cycling we also stay at some wonderful campgrounds, including the Brunswick Family Campground, Snug Harbor KOA, Little Orleans Campground, Husky Haven Campground, and the Uniontown KOA.
The Adventure Cycling tour began on Sunday and that left Saturday for me to accomplish something that I have tried and failed on previous trips. That is to ride the Mount Vernon Trail all the way to Mt. Vernon and back. One year the attempt was interrupted four miles into it by a call from my wife asking me to come home because we had a flood in the basement. Another attempt was interrupted within two miles of the objective by a heart arrhythmia event that I have since brought under control.
The Mount Vernon Trail is a mixed bag of features. Much of the ride is a lovely route along the Potomac. As many trails, however, this one is in disrepair along several long sections. Tree roots and frost heaves make it a very rough ride in spots. On the plus side, you go through Old Town Alexandria and end at Mt. Vernon. The ride through Old Town Alexandria is on road, but the distance is short and it is reasonably safe for bicycles. The end of the trail at Mt. Vernon has plenty of place to lock the bicycle while touring the park. I spent over an hour there walking the grounds and watching the people. The ride to Mt. Vernon from the Hilton in Crystal City and back was a little over thirty one miles.
The Adventure Cycling tour began on Sunday and the weather was beautiful all the way to Pittsburgh. There was one small detour on the first day due to the Potomac River and tributaries flooding the previous year. The detour was a short walk down to a creek bed, over the creek on a temporary wooden bridge, and back up the other side. In general, the C&O is in surprisingly good condition given the flooding last year.
The Western Maryland Rail trail was a welcomed stretch of paved trail parallel to the C&O that took us over 20 miles on the third day to our camp at Little Orleans. The trail has been extended about five miles since the last time I rode it. It is always a treat to get off the bumpy C&O for a few miles. I pushed my speed a little to hard on this stretch and needed to deal with some leg soreness for the next two days.
The worst part of the C&O in my opinion is the forty mile section from Little Orleans to Cumberland. While it didn’t deter my speed, it has many bumps from tree roots, muddy holes, and uncomfortable dips that are sometimes difficult to detect. For me it is a tedious stretch of bad trail. It is surprising that the National Parks Service has prioritized resurfacing on southern sections of trail. It is surprising because most bicycle tourists ride from Cumberland to DC rather than DC to Cumberland. Their first experience with the C&O is on that rough section of trail. It would be a better strategy to give riders a good experience for the first forty miles rather than a bad one.
Cumberland to the Continental Divide is a 1.4% grade for twenty two miles. Riders on the tour anticipate this grade with some anxiety, although that is unfounded. The advice is always to find a comfortable pace that you can maintain for that distance. Very few people actually struggle when they finally ride the grade. It is not that bad. The reward is that once past the summit it is mostly downhill to Pittsburgh.
The final fifty six miles from camp near Connellsville to Pittsburgh also gets people nervous, but nervous about the timeline rather than the grade. The goal for Adventure Cycling is to depart Pittsburgh at two in the afternoon for the trip back to Crystal City. Most people use Crystal City as the final end point for travel back to home. If you average ten miles per hour and leave Connellsville by 7:30 AM and if you do not stop along the way, you get to Pittsburgh at about 1:00 PM. You will probably want to stop at the two rest stops along the way for hydration and some food. Those stops begin to cut into your one hour margin.
Riders use a number of personal strategies to get to Pittsburgh in plenty of time. One of them is to get driven to or from one of the rest stops by the ride staff. The first time I did the ride with Adventure Cycling in 2015 this approach led to an interesting situation.
That year I left camp in Connellsville at about 7:45 AM and I thought that I left a few riders behind at camp. At the first rest stop I passed another rider or two. At the second rest stop I passed at least two more riders. When I was about ten miles from the end in Pittsburgh, Don, the Adventure Cycling sweep rider, caught up with me. I was the last rider on the trail!
This year I arrived in Pittsburgh at about 12:50 PM and when I arrived I noticed riders who were already there that I had left at camp. After changing clothes in the changing tent that was set up in the parking lot I called Uber for my ride to the airport to pick up my rental car ride home. I locked my bicycle to a guard rail in the parking lot, picked up my rental, and returned to get my bike.
For me, every multi-day tour that I complete is an achievement. My Surly Long Haul Trucker established another mileage milestone on this tour, passing 17,000 miles as I rode toward Pittsburgh. I have recorded every mile ridden on that bike since I began touring on it in 2013.
The familiarity that I have with this route from DC to Pittsburgh is somewhat satisfying. For that reason I have a feeling of loss when the tour comes to an end. It has repeatedly been a memorable experience for me and I highly recommend the route for bicycle touring.