My Therm-a-Rest NeoAir mattress lasted a long time. In 2012 I purchased it for my first self-supported tour on the Erie Canal trail. It probably inflated and de-inflated over one hundred times since then. During all of that it never sprung a leak or failed to keep me comfortable.
The Mattress Failure
This year, 2023, on about the fourth day of Cycle the Erie Canal, I noticed a bump as I lay down to sleep. At that time I thought nothing of it. The next morning I noticed that one of the pleats separated, causing the bump.
By the final camp, three or four adjacent pleats had separated. The bulge had grown. Apparently, every time it was inflated, another pleat would separate when I lay in it to go to bed. One time I heard the “pop” as I got onto it one evening. It looks like a pillow, but it is not a pillow. It is the look of failure.
Before I threw it away at our final camp site, I took the picture. When I got home I ordered a new Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite NXT. I also needed a new inflator.
The New Inflator Fits Better
The inflator is another success story in my opinion. For about eight years I have used a Microburst inflator for my NeoAir mattress. It inflates the mattress in about three minutes while I do other things to set up camp. I bought it after seeing a guy use one in camp during a tour in 2014. I did a review that I posted on YouTube. It works well on a mattress such as the NeoAir, but I do not recommend it for thick mattresses.
The Microburst does not fit the valve on my new mattress. It has a rubber cup that you stretch over the valve. The valve on the new mattress is much larger and the rubber cup will not fit. The solution was to buy a Therm-a-Rest inflator, which is pretty much the same internally. It is actually better since it snaps on the WingLock (TM) valve of the new mattress and inflates or de-inflates the mattress. The Therm-a-Rest inflator has a switch to turn it on and off, while the Microburst starts to run when you open the lid that covers the rubber cup.
The new inflator works just as well as the Mocroburst inflator. After twelve years of experience, I trust that my new Therm-a-Rest mattress will be as reliable and comfortable. I look forward to a few more years of bicycle touring with gear that I trust.
So far, after over 100 miles, I am impressed with my new Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 for touring. After eleven years and 25,000 miles on my Surly Long Haul Trucker, I decided that I wanted a lighter ride. The Checkpoint is 12 pounds lighter than my LHT. Weight is an important factor for me since I am 77 years old.
At this age you would think that an electric would be the ticket. Not so. To me, I get satisfaction from using pedal power. My training rides and tours are both opportunities to experience the feeling of accomplishment that I get from pedal power. I believe that people get a different kind of satisfaction from riding an electric bicycle.
The Pedal Power Bike and Ski shop in Acton, Massachusetts, was a great help in making this decision. They had many Trek models to compare. The process took me from mountain bikes (not a fan of straight handlebars), to road bikes (narrow handlebars and narrow tires), to gravel bikes. It was clear from looking at the Checkpoint that it could be adapted to my style of riding. Most of my riding is touring and training for touring.
Customizing My Trek Checkpoint ALR 5
My Checkpoint is the largest frame in the lineup, 61cm., to suit my 34″ inseam. It also has a 175mm crank, same as my LHT. My customization included replacing the stock stem with a 35 degree stem. With the saddle positioned comfortably for me, the top of the saddle aligns with the midpoint of the stem. I like to ride as upright as possible with drop bars.
Since I often carry a trunk pack, I added a Topeak rear rack. I like Topeak because of the rail mount for the bag. My son, Eric, has the same rack and I like that a trunk bag with panniers is available. It is not good for heavy loads, but nice for day trips. I will need to get one.
Comparison with My Older Touring Bicycle
Side by side, the Checkpoint is very close to the LHT in overall dimensions. The wheelbase is about the same. The saddle and handlebar height are comparable. When I ride the Checkpoint, it feels like I am on the LHT, except for the weight. The Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 is aluminum with a carbon fiber fork and the LHT is steel.
Eric mentioned that he thought twelve pounds was worth one drive gear. Based on my initial rides, I think that is a good guess. You would think that my weight at 225 pounds would override the bicycle weight as a factor. My take is that because of the dynamics of pedaling, it is easier to accelerate and to hold a cadence with a lighter bicycle.
The reason is that as you pedal the bicycle accelerates and decelerates under you. It is imperceptible, but recovering from a very slight deceleration with each stroke has an impact on your performance. It is most noticeable when I increase my cadence to climb hills.
The Checkpoint is not a bicycle for heavy touring with four panniers and fifty pounds of gear. At least not for me. That was a strength of the LHT, being all steel. The load limit of the Crosscheck, including bicycle, rider, and gear, is 275 pounds. Given my weight, that will limit me to a load of about thirty pounds. Lighter riders will be able to load it up more. I am doing exclusively day trips and fully supported tours at this point, so the load limit is not a problem.
Great Stock Equipment
Stock items on the Checkpoint are good quality. Though my initial impulse was to replace the saddle, after riding I am very happy with the stock saddle. It supports my sit bones and is padded well enough to be comfortable for long trips.
Pedals are another consideration for me. For several years, I used Shimano SPD pedals. Being clipped to my pedals, in my opinion, was the major reason that I broke my femur on a tour in September 2021. Since then, I have been using various types of platform pedals. Nothing compares with the comfort of being clipped to your pedals.
When clipped, you are always on the sweet spot for pedaling. With platform pedals, I am constantly searching for that spot. When I find it, the feeling only lasts a moment before my foot slips. My right leg has always been a problem, even before my accident. My foot wants to toe out, making it difficult to maintain a comfortable position on the pedals.
I have become a pedal agnostic. None of the platform pedals that I have tried satisfy me. Aggressive spikes do not help and only add the risk of leg scrapes. The stock pedals on my Checkpoint will do just fine.
The stock tires also seem fine, but it will be many more miles before I can say with certainty. It took me a few years to find tires for my LHT that I felt were comfortable and reliable. For now, the tires that came on the Checkpoint are reasonably quiet and low drag.
Lots of Places to Mount Accessories
As a bicycle tourist, the other things that I look for are places to mount stuff. There are plenty of M5 mounting points on the frame and fork. There are lugs for fenders as well although there is no chainstay bridge to fasten the leading edge of the rear fender. I forgive that because of all of the good things about this bicycle.
A Few More Features
The Checkpoint is equipped with the Shimano GRX 11-speed drivetrain designed for gravel bikes. The brakes are Shimano RX400 hydraulic disc brakes. Mechanical shifting and braking are both controlled at the brake levers. This is a big change from the rim brakes and bar-end shifters that I had on the LHT. Front and rear axles are both thru axle skewers., which is expected on a newer bicycle. There are many other specific items in the build, but I think that the drivetrain and brakes are the most important. During my first rides, everything played very well together.
Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 My Choice for Touring
A gravel bike was never before on my radar. My thought before this was that a gravel bike is for off-road racing. Other than that, I was not sure what made it a gravel bike. When I think of gravel, I think of the coarse rock chunks that they mix with cement to make concrete. Think of gravel instead as similar to stone dust, used on bicycle trails like the Great Allegheny Passage. It turns out that a gravel bike may be the closest that you can get to a touring bike. The Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 is my choice.
Cycle the Erie Canal 2023 was another memorable experience for me in many ways. This was my tenth ride with Parks and Trails New York, the tour organizer. Each time I found ways to enjoy it and as I grow older it is important to me that I am able to accomplish it.
This eight day, 400 mile ride from Buffalo to Albany began on July 9. There were about 650 riders and 100 volunteers. Many of the volunteers alternate work days with riding days and get to ride for free. The youngest rider was eight years old, the eldest 83, and the median age was 61. The number of electric bikes increased from a handful last year to about 60 this year. Personally I do not have a physical need to ride an e-bike.
Getting Ready to Tour
Last year I did the tour ten months after breaking my femur during a bicycle tour in September 2021. It was a traumatic injury that required partial hip replacement followed by months of rigorous physical therapy. In 2022 I was able to return to my training regimen on my bicycle in April and by July I was ready for Cycle the Erie Canal 2022.
In 2023 I have some lingering pain and a lot of lingering post traumatic stress. Added to that, spring and summer were not optimal for training. By the start of Cycle the Erie Canal I had 1000 training miles behind me for 2023. Yet, because of poor weather, I felt that I only had two or three quality training rides.
My son, Eric, was with me, his sixth time on the tour. Eric is much younger and a much stronger cyclist than me. We see each other in camp, but when he leaves camp in the morning he jets ahead. He is probably one of the stronger riders on the tour each year. Yet, his bicycle is older than mine, a 31-year old Bianchi mountain bike.
In Canajoharie on day six, he was cranking up the notoriously steep hill to the camp site. There was another strong rider in front of him doing the same exercise. Suddenly, a woman on an e-bike breezed past them. As she passed, loud enough for all to hear, she exclaimed, “I’ve been training for this!” Most people have a self-image and apparently hers is that of a finely tuned athlete.
Arrival in Buffalo
Eric and I arrived in Buffalo on Friday, July 7, in a one-way rental car. I leave my car in Albany. Saturday morning we were at the Buffalo camp site by mid-morning. After pitching our tents in our favorite spot, we went downtown to experience Taste of Buffalo, a festival of food tents and food trucks.
In camp later in the day, people we have known from previous years stopped by our tent site. They expect to find us at our spot. Lois, who runs the afternoon rest stops and whose husband Lance drives a luggage truck, said “Hi.” “Cape Cod” Mike arrived on an afternoon shuttle bus from Albany. John “Weck” came by a little later.
Mike and John
Mike is seventy two years old and on his ninth Cycle the Erie Canal tour. We like Mike a lot and shared a few meals with him during the tour. This year he was riding a Brompton folding bicycle. It has tiny 16″ wheels and folds into a small space envelope that would easily fit in an airline overhead bin. By comparison, my full-size bicycle has 27.5″ wheels. The bicycle appeared weird, but he easily rode the entire distance on it with no problems. Eric and I both tried it and found that despite the small wheels, it handled like a bicycle.
Another visitor to our tent site was John “Weck,” an eccentric who rides the least expensive bike on the tour each year. One year he rode a bicycle with one red tire and one green tire, colors from the Mexican flag, that was purchased at a bicycle dealer run by an Hispanic man. We nicknamed him “Weck” because of something that happened the first time we met him.
At that time, John was intent on finding a deli that served roast beef on weck, a Buffalo specialty. That year Eric and I walked to a deli near the Buffalo camp site and found that they served roast beef on weck. We decided to try it.
“Weck” is a hard roll and the top is coated with salt and sesame seeds. The weck was far too salty and we did not like it, but the beef was fine. It turned out that John had only heard about it, but never tried it. We have teased John about this incident ever since.
Our Daily Routine
Every morning, we arose at 5:45 AM. Breaking camp usually takes about thirty minutes. We eat breakfast in camp after loading our gear onto a luggage truck. The only exception is in Medina when we have breakfast at The Country Club. We both leave camp each morning at between 7:00 and 7:30 AM.
Eric arrives at our next camp in late morning or early afternoon. When he arrives, he finds a tent site for us and carries all of our stuff from the luggage truck. My arrival is one or two hours later. When I arrive, I pitch my tent and go to the shower truck to get clean.
The shower truck is a 53’ trailer that has shower stalls inside. There is a men’s side and a women’s side with about ten shower stalls in each side. It is quite a contraption and provides a good warm shower.
Dinner is in camp except in Seneca Falls on day three and in Rome on day five. In Syracuse we avoided hot dogs and hamburgers at camp and opted for dinner salads with chicken at a restaurant downtown. Eric, Mike, and I hopped an Uber that evening.
Rigors of Touring
A tour such as this one mixes touring with riding. The touring part includes stops at historic places and enjoyment of the beautiful scenery of central New York state. Local towns along the way are great places to stop to rest or to enjoy a meal. There are many places on the trail where a rider can stop and enjoy silence and scenery.
Most of the time on a tour is spent head down, cranking the pedals with a cadence that will get you to the next camp site. Riders must stay aware, calling to other cyclists and pedestrians when they pass. This custom is observed both for safety and courtesy. When you are not thinking about other trail traffic, you have plenty of time with your personal thoughts. If you are struggling, you spend you time counting the miles.
The First Three Days
On the first day of the tour we have a family tradition. The first camp site is in the town of Medina. We have lunch downtown at a place called “The Country Club,” a local diner. We also start day two with breakfast there the following morning.
On the first three days of the tour this year, I did not feel good about my performance and I reminded myself of the SAG option. Support and Gear drivers could take me from the trail to the camp site if I find that I cannot ride any more for some reason. It has been an option that I consider the last resort. Some of my riding energy during the first three days came from my desire to avoid that option.
As I rolled into Rochester on day three, someone called to me from behind. It was Bob, a cyclist that I met seven years earlier on the Cycle the Erie Canal tour. We follow each other on Strava, a social media site that caters to cyclists. Bob lives in the Rochester area and he noticed that I was posting my daily progress on Strava. He was determined to find me. It was nice that he remembered me and took the time to find me in Genesee Park near the afternoon rest stop. We talked a while at the rest stop in Rochester before he headed home.
Halfway in Syracuse
On the afternoon of the fourth day, I rode into Syracuse feeling very good about my performance. It was the best day of the tour for me so far. That day I happened to manage my nutrition and hydration best. At seventy seven years old, it is strange that I do not have a better handle on those things.
Part of the reason is that our needs change as we age. Another part is that on a tour, you need to establish a routine to follow that is more rigorous than it would be on a training ride. That includes drinking water even when you are not thirsty. Six to eight liters of water per day was adequate for me. Water is not enough and on that fourth day I began popping salt tablets several times during the day as electrolyte replacement.
Feeding My Cravings
Every ten to fifteen miles I stopped to drink water, pop some salt tablets, and eat something. Along the way I fed my cravings. Sometimes it was beef jerky or cookies or ice cream when available. Eating was sometimes situational, such as a pop-up hot dog stand at ten AM. After riding twenty or thirty miles, it is crazy that I can crave a hot dog with onions and mustard at 10:30 in the morning. People in the towns on the route often come out to offer refreshments like that and to raise money for local purposes. There are many opportunities for cyclists to feed their cravings.
Another personal performance rule that I have followed for some time is that I do not spend much time at the planned PTNY rest stops. Most days there are two rest stops that provide water, Gatorade, and snack food. Lingering too long at these places makes it physically more difficult to get back to a meaningful cadence on the trail. Heart rate and muscle activity start from a less optimal point if you linger too long. It is a temptation to linger because rest stops are very friendly places with lots of interesting people.
My Touring Milestone
Syracuse marked a milestone for me in my cycling career on day four. On that leg I recorded the 25,000th mile on my bicycle. The bicycle is a Surly Long Haul Trucker that I purchased in 2012 at the start of my bicycle touring career. I bought it at the once famous Harris Cyclery in Newton, Massachusetts, now permanently closed.
The LHT has many newer parts over the years. The frame, fork, rim brake system, headset, racks, and derailleurs are all original equipment. As the years progressed, I began to do all of the maintenance myself. The chain gets replaced every 2000 miles. Tires, believe it or not, can last over 4000 miles. That reminds me that I have not had a flat tire in years.
Last Half of the Tour
As we departed Syracuse in the morning on the fifth day, I had an unpleasant deja vu experience. Eric and I were crossing a street where we were stopped to wait for traffic. As we began to cross, I pushed off with my right leg once or twice. The front wheel hit the edge of the curb at a bad angle and down I went. It was not the best way to start the day.
The incident was discussed in camp with a number of other riders. The consensus was that if you ride a bicycle, you are going to fall once in a while. Some falls are more severe than others. During the ride, I saw three separate single-bicycle accidents.
The final three days were a joy because I found my groove. At the end of each day I still had energy remaining. I suppose I should write my regimen and save it in a place where I can recall it for a future tour.
Our final night was in Niskayuna, camped at the Jewish Community Center. Overnight it rained hard and the forecast for the day was ugly. Eric and I decided not to ride the final twenty seven miles into Albany on day eight of the tour. I took an Uber to get my car in Albany, returning to the camp site to pack and get Eric.
The Experience Comes to an End
These rides always leave me sad when they end. The achievement of riding nearly 400 miles is swept away by the ending of the tour experience. We leave people behind, like “Cape Cod” Mike, John “Weck”, Gordon from the Bronx, and Les from the Adirondacks. We have little in common with them other than the ride, but it is always nice to see them each year and to ride with them. They are nice people.
All of the camping gear is put away until next year. Cycle the Erie Canal is an annual event that has become a benchmark for my physical and mental health. I plan to be on the trail next year at seventy eight to relive the experience once again.
The Nashua River Rail Trail is a twelve mile, multi-use trail that runs from Ayer, Massachusetts, to Nashua, New Hampshire. It is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The NRRT management model is flawed.
Scope of Maintenance by DCR
The DCR web site states repairs were done to the NRRT in 2018. From experience, I can tell you that the repairs were not as extensive as they should have been at the time. The repairs themselves were poorly done, leaving significant bumps or uneven pavement between the old surfaces and the repairs.
The Lowell Sun had an editorial on trail maintenance on October 26, 2022. The towns that the trail cuts through, Ayer, Groton, Dunstable, and Pepperell, have all complained to the DCR about trail conditions. The go as far as calling the conditions dangerous.
In April 2023 I drove to the Ayer trail head to find the trail closed. On the Internet I found that the closure was due to planned maintenance. As a frequent user of the trail for bicycle riding, I was happy that there was maintenance happening. I was hopeful the the concerns of the towns were being heard. Later, I discovered that the scope of the maintenance was not nearly as large as I imagined or as needed.
2023 Maintenance by DCR Falls Short
Now in 2023 the DCR can claim victory once again since they completed about a dozen patches to the NRRT trail surface. It is not clear how they selected the areas to be patched. There are many areas that are in worse condition and they remain that way. Frost heaves and tree root heaves that existed last year have become worse this year. Major portions of the trail need complete resurfacing rather than just patches.
DCR can claim a safety modification to the NRRT. All of the bollards have been removed. The bollards were in the middle of the trail at each street crossing. They were there to keep motor vehicle traffic from entering the trail. The bollards had locks so that they could be removed for maintenance or emergency vehicles. Local safety official may have had a problem with that approach. I suppose the bollards were also an obstacle for bicycles. They were painted yellow, but cyclists may have run into them. Now safety vehicles can easily get to victims of the poor trail surface to rescue them.
C&O Model Similar, Similar Result
The condition of the NRRT reminds me of the condition of another trail under a similar management regime. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail from Washington DC to Pittsburgh is managed by the United States Park Service. Long sections of the trail have pot holes, protruding rocks, and tree roots that make the ride uncomfortable and dangerous. I broke my femur in September, 2021, on the C&O after hitting a tree root and falling to the ground. Mine was not the only accident on that trail: there have been hundreds.
Trail Management Models That Work
The best managed and maintained trails, in my opinion, are those with a local management model. The Great Allegheny Passage is one of those trails. The trail has always been in excellent condition and is mostly paved with packed stone dust. The surface is smooth and pleasant to ride. It is maintained by the localities that it passes through.
The trail in my town, the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, uses a similar model. The trail passes through Lowell, Chelmsford, Westford, Acton, and Concord. The towns agree to maintain the trail. When sections of the trail needed resurfacing in Chelmsford, the town took care that it was done. The also took care that the job was done well. The transitions between the new surfaces and the old are seamless and smooth.
It seems the best model is the local model. When the state or federal government are responsible, the priorities do not necessarily align with the local needs. There are too many constituencies to satisfy. They also engage in capital projects to build recreational facilities such as trails, but never plan for their maintenance and the cost that goes along with maintenance. The maintenance of the NRRT needs to be turned over to the towns.
This was my ninth consecutive Cycle The Erie Canal with Parks and Trails New York. This year the ride had a special significance. This was my first tour after my accident last Fall.
Having the Accident that I Dreaded
One September 15, 2021, I was four miles into the trail on the fourth day of a fully supported tour from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. That day was our final day on the Chesapeake and Ohio towpath trail. I hit an exposed tree root at a bad angle and my bicycle and I were thrown to the ground violently, breaking my femur. The details are documented in my blog post last year.
For years I thought about the possibility of such an accident and I dreaded the prospect. At 75 years old, recovery could be difficult or impossible. Bicycle riding is low risk, but the risk is there as with many sports. Although I consider myself a cautious rider, the accident happened nonetheless and I found myself in rigorous physical therapy to regain my ability to ride and to tour.
Getting to CTEC 2022
For weeks I did daily physical therapy for an hour and a half or more each day, encouraged by incremental improvements. By early October I transitioned from my walker to a cane. In late October I began to take hikes outdoors, working my way from a quarter mile to two miles daily. I was able to drive my car by November, went back to my twice weekly part-time job, and began to work out on the machines at the senior center in town.
In late December, I successfully made my first attempt to mount my stationary bicycle at home. I transitioned from workouts a the senior center to workouts on my stationary in January. On a mild day in February, I took my bicycle out for a very short ride in the neighborhood. When the trails became clear in March, I began my training rides. Soon I was up to my typical 25 mile training ride. By the time I began Cycle The Erie Canal I had over 1000 training miles.
Arriving in Buffalo
After signing up for the ride, I had some anxiety concerning camping and riding over fifty miles per day. My family, my son Eric who was on the tour with me, and friends were very encouraging. I needed to experience the first day of riding to overcome the angst.
Eric and I arrived at Nichols School in Buffalo early on registration day. The Taste of Buffalo event downtown was a nice way to spend the day before registration in the afternoon. In the afternoon, the camp grew to accommodate 650 riders and nearly 100 volunteers. It was great to see the resurgence of large numbers of people on the tour.
At dinner in Buffalo at Nichols School, a man approached me and said, “Ed, I never expected to see you here!”
It was John from Western Massachusetts, one of the people on the tour last Fall. He was one of the two physicians who stopped on the trail to offer aid after my accident. I was happy to see him and to have the difficulty of my recovery acknowledged. We met in camp several times during the Erie ride.
There were other people that we knew from previous CTEC tours and were happy to spend time with them again. They are Mike from Cape Cod; John from New Jersey; Gordon from New York City; Bob from Rochester; Les from the Adirondacks. It was good to see the familiar faces of the volunteers as well. These were comforting interactions with people before the ride and the people are one reason that the ride is great experience year after year.
Riding as a Personal Achievement
The first day went fine and I arrived in Medina, our first camp, early in the afternoon. Eric and I celebrated with our annual lunch at The Country Club Diner on Main Street. I set up camp following the habits formed by many similar experiences over the past ten years. I slept very well after that first day.
Every successive day I felt improved recovery from the previous day. Arriving in camp each day, I had energy remaining to set up camp, shower, and enjoy dinner. Every morning I rose without an alarm clock before 5:30, ready to break camp, eat breakfast, and hit the trail.
Looking Forward to Future Rides
By the time we ended the ride in Albany, I felt that I overcame my anxieties and my severe injury. During the early days of my rehabilitation, I cannot say that I was hopeless, but I needed affirmation that I could still enjoy riding and touring on my bicycle. Cycle The Erie Canal 2022 helped me to achieve that affirmation and the conviction that I will be able to ride for a few more years to come.
For several years, I have been using Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) shoes, pedals, and cleats. After thousands of miles, I was proficient at using them. However, being clipped to my pedals most probably contributed to the outcome of my bicycle accident. The outcome of my bicycle accident on September 15, 2021, was a broken femur that required partial hip replacement and months of physical therapy. Consider the risk of being clipped to your pedals.
The accident happened so fast that I have no memory of the trip to the ground. Since I do not exactly know how I broke my femur, I have developed a theory. Falling as I did, my saddle was in position to exert enough force on the neck of my femur to break it. A complicating factor was that my feet were clipped to the pedals.
During the accident, I fell toward the right. I hit the ground with significant force. The motion of the bike, as it continued the flipping motion, lifted my right foot and my right leg upward. Since my right leg was connected to the right pedal, it was being pulled upward. That same motion pressed the saddle against my femur with the force of impact as my right hip hit the ground. That is almost certainly what broke the ball off of my femur.
Of course, my pedals were not the cause of the accident. The cause of the accident was the unsafe condition of the C&O towpath where the accident occurred. Unfortunately, my SPD pedals affected the severity of my injury.
Personally, I can no longer take the risk of being clipped to my pedals. If you use SPD or some other clip system, be aware of the risk. You have no control of the outcome of an accident because things happen so fast. If you fall and your luck runs out as it did with me, you may have the same result or some other unpredictable bad outcome. Consider the risk of being clipped to your pedals.
This is my personal case for completing C&O towpath resurfacing. An annual case for funding the resurfacing is already being made by the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Trust. As I discuss later in this article, that funding is not sufficient to complete the resurfacing in a timely way. Yet, there are known safety concerns for the towpath.
The route is very popular among bicycle tourists. Arguably, the route is the longest off-road route in the country. Bicycle tourists often combine the 184 mile C&O towpath with the 150 mile Great Allegheny Passage. That is a total of 334 miles from Washington DC to Pittsburgh.
One reason that the route is desirable is that cyclists do not contend with motor vehicles. In particular, the C&O towpath is entirely within the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The park is well known for its historic sites and for the picturesque Potomac River that parallels the canal towpath.
The accident during my sixth tour on that route from DC to Pittsburgh is my motivation to advocate for completing C&O towpath resurfacing. The tour is an achievement that has always been personally satisfying to me. As I get older, tours such as this become more meaningful and this year I was doing it at seventy five years old.
Early on the fourth day of the tour, I was four miles into the C&O towpath trail when I hit a tree root. This was on the trail between Little Orleans and Cumberland at about milepost 144. The section of trail is well known for hazardous tree roots, rocks, and potholes.
The bicycle and I were flipped to the ground. The accident happened so fast that I have no memory of anything except my head and my helmet hitting the ground. After laying there for a moment and taking inventory, I tried to get up and felt intense pain in my right leg. I was not going to get up. I had a broken femur.
Emergency Medical Technicians arrived about twenty minutes after a fellow rider called 911. They hauled me out of the woods on an All Terrain Vehicle to a waiting ambulance. I was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Maryland in Cumberland, Maryland, on September 15, 2021. Partial hip replacement surgery repaired the damage on September 16. The hospital inpatient rehabilitation unit admitted me for physical and occupation therapy on September 18. I was discharged to return home and begin a long road to recovery on September 25.
The number of injuries sustained by cyclists on the C&O towpath each year is significant according to the Spencer article. “In the past six years [based on June 2018], over 200 towpath injuries were reported, 71 percent of which involved towpath defects such as root exposure.” By my calculation, that amounts to about 24 accidents per year caused by tree roots, rocks, and potholes. That translates to one accident every week during a six month peak riding season.
That accident rate is based on reported accidents. I take that to mean that since they are reported they are also the most severe. In my case, a National Park Service person came to me as I lay in the ambulance to collect my information. Emergency services report all of the most severe accidents to the National Park Service. Anecdotally, hospital staff told me of many patients admitted due to C&O towpath accidents.
Long Term Funding for Resurfacing is Needed
More aggressive funding of C&O towpath resurfacing can eliminate the exposed tree roots, rocks, and potholes that cause accidents more quickly. Funding for towpath resurfacing currently comes from three sources: the National Park Service, the State of Maryland Transportation Alternatives Program, and the C&O Canal Trust. Those sources have supported less than twenty miles of resurfacing per year during the past three years. Each of those segments was funded by separate grants with no commitment for continued support. Spencer also points out the shortcomings of this cyclical funding. Each new year and each new resurfacing phase requires that the C&O Canal National Historical Park request new funding.
If the accident rate was that high on a public highway or city street, there would certainly be a call for funding and corrective action. Instead, this is an off road trail with a small constituency and an appeal for added funding is difficult to support. Funding for the National Park Service or for the C&O Canal National Historical Park is not necessarily a priority for our Government. Still, I add my lone voice as a cyclist to those of the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Trust to appeal for more funding. I do that as one concerned cyclist of thousands who have toured the C&O and one unlucky enough to be seriously injured.
My Lone Voice as a Cyclist
Some day I may return to confront the trail that put me into the hospital and resulted in months of physical therapy. I would like to know that something has been done to fix this trail, one of the most popular in the country, to make it safe for everybody who uses it. What will it take to get needed C&O towpath resurfacing done? It will take more than my lone voice. In the meantime, when you ride the C&O towpath, be careful to avoid being one of the accident statistics.
I’m tracking my physical therapy using STRAVA. The path to recovery from my partial hip replacement is taking some rigorous exercise. For the first four weeks, I used an indoor exercise regimen that I learned when in the hospital inpatient rehabilitation unit. Yesterday I took a chance and tried something to push the envelop a little and used STRAVA to measure the result.
In fact, a lot of therapy involves pushing the envelop. As the pain of the surgery became less each day, I began to extend my range of motion. I advanced from lifting my foot to a stair tread to lifting myself up onto the stair.
Yesterday I walked to the mailbox and realized that I could walk a lot further than earlier in the week. After bringing the mail inside, I took a .8 mile walk. At the halfway point I realized that I was missing the opportunity to record my trek using the STRAVA app on my iPhone. Today when I started I began to record at my front door.
It is going to be fun and challenging to watch my performance week after week. At this time on the second day of walking outdoors I can do .8 mile and do it very slowly. Seeing my performance get better always motivates me and I prefer walking compared with the stationary exercises indoors. Walking is also better since it exercises the core muscles more and is an overall better workout.
Getting outside is an antidote for my depression as well. Being confined indoors has been torture for me and I miss all of the activities that usually keep me on my feet and moving. Today’s walk improved my attitude. My goal is to walk every day to get my right leg back into shape and record every walk to remind myself that I am making progress.
My C&O and GAP bicycle tour 2021 ended abruptly on September 15 when I had a serious bicycle accident. It happened on the fourth day of a seven day Adventure Cycling Association tour from Washington DC to Pittsburgh on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage. The day began with the dawn when most of us in our group of 48 riders emerged from our tents to pack up before breakfast. We were camped at the Little Orleans Campground, one of my favorite overnights on the trip because the tent sites are grassy and soft.
The C&O towpath is a little over a mile from the campground and I was eager to get there. Once I was on the C&O, I felt pretty good. On previous days I think that I started with a low hydration level and didn’t have much energy early in the morning. During those days I caught up on my hydration during the early hours and finished strong each day. This day was different and I started the morning ride cranking with good cadence and speed. I was cruising along at between 10 and 15 miles per hour and felt that I could sustain that for some time.
Almost four miles into the trail my front wheel hit a tree root that was wet with morning dew. It crossed the trail at an angle rather than perpendicular so that when my tire made contact it slid to the left, flipping me and my rig to the ground. The accident happened so fast that I do not remember flipping and falling to the ground. I only remember impact when my helmet hit the ground.
I blacked out for a fraction of a second before opening my eyes to see my bicycle on top of me on the ground. After a quick inventory I felt that everything above my waist was alright. The rider who was behind me to witness the event was talking to me and I think that she was advising me to stay still. My first act was to try to stand up. It was not possible since my right leg was not working and was very painful.
I dragged myself to a comfortable position at the side of the trail. Other riders began to arrive at the scene and one of them was trying to call 911. Cell phone connections on the C&O are very sparse, but she was able to get through. I could hear her state the mile marker and the state of the emergency to the operator. Help was on the way.
As I lay there I don’t think that I experienced shock. I was talking with others around me and even had grabbed my cell phone to end my STRAVA ride. Two physicians who were on the tour stopped to help, which I very much appreciated since they gave me some confidence that everything was going to be alright. One of them made the field diagnosis of a broken femur, which happened to be correct. He explained the potential range of medical alternatives.
The Emergency Medical Technicians arrived with a large All Terrain Vehicle. One on them asked if I wanted something for pain. I told him the very short version of how in my thirties I decided to have dental work done cold turkey. Since then I have never turned down pain medications.
They assembled a two-piece backboard under me. My leg was moved to a position where I felt the least pain. The backboard with me on it was strapped to a stretcher. They strapped the stretcher to the top of the ATV. We took the nearly four mile drive to the place where I entered the trail and where the ambulance was waiting.
In the ambulance as I lay there for a few minutes before we began the trip to the hospital, a National Parks Service person came on board to get my information. I am sure that she plans to send me a “get well” card. Actually, I understand their need to have the information. My thought process went further thinking that they have a lot of data on bicycle accidents on the C&O.
During the trip to the emergency room in the ambulance I was in a kind of fog because the pain medications were doing their thing. In the ER they did an x-ray of my hip. As I lay there I thought about doing a video of my experiences during the entire process. I took a selfie in the ER as a starter. I was admitted to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Maryland hospital and moved to the orthopedic wing to await surgery. The surgeon came in to tell me that I was going to get a partial hip replacement the next day. My hip replacement journey had begun.
It has been more than a week since my son and I completed the Cycle The Erie Canal bicycle ride produced by Parks and Trails New York and directed by April and Al. It was my eighth time on the ride and Eric’s fifth. Every ride has been different and each one full of great memories.
This year, there were several things that were especially memorable. In particular, the Storm at Seneca Falls and the Bike Corral at Fort Stanwix. We noticed one more very significant thing about the trail itself. During the time since our previous ride in 2019 and the hiatus of 2020, there have been significant additions to the trail.
There Are Many Trail Improvements
The ride through Syracuse, the ride into Little Falls, the ride out of Canajoharie, and the ride into Albany in particular featured new sections of trail that make the ride safer and more enjoyable. It takes years to negotiate rights of way and funding for these improvements. That is why I am a member and supporter of Parks and Trails New York, the advocacy organization that makes it happen.
The new riders have missed the transformation. The ride into Syracuse was all on-road as was the ride out of the city. The ride out of Syracuse also challenged riders with steep uphill grades. The same was true of the ride into Little Falls and the ride out of Canajoharie, featuring hills and roads. The trail additions make it much more feasible for less experienced riders to experience the trail and to succeed.
The outfall from the pandemic required some changes in camping venues. At Fairport, Seneca Falls, and Rome, we camped at unfamiliar places, but they were all excellent. The logistics at Rome were complex and well planned.
We Used Some New Campgrounds
Our usual campground in Rome at Fort Stanwix was closed and we were bused to Oneida Lake and Verona Beach State Park. Our bikes were kept safely within the gates of Fort Stanwix. There were shuttles from the camp site to Sylvan Beach where we enjoyed restaurants, ice cream, a car show, and the start of the annual Sylvan Beach Pirate Weekend, all enjoyable.
There was much more going on at the Rome stop. Box breakfasts were provided at Verona Beach so that we could eat during the bus ride back to Rome to fetch our bicycles. Our bicycles were organized into pods with catchy names so that it was easy to find them.
It Was A Memorable Ride
The ride itself was excellent. We were fortunate that we only rode in the rain in the morning on one day. The forecasts were for rain most of the week. Instead we had clouds and cooler weather that was perfect for riding. The sun made several appearances that were too brief, but that did not detract from the personal achievements of most of the riders in completing the nearly 400 mile ride.