I rode the Erie Canalway trail from Buffalo to Albany Friday, 27 July through Sunday 5 August 2012. The trip took ten days and covered 424 miles. I experienced a unique view of America and saw many great scenic and historic sites. On the bicycle I had many opportunities to stop whenever I wanted to appreciate a detail.
I made the trip because the challenges and adventure of a self-supported bicycle tour of this scope appealed to me. The successful planning, execution, and completion of my first bicycle tour would be an achievement. I’m retired and was sixty six years old at the time of this trip. I have the time and I am fortunate to be healthy enough.
When I originally wrote this the sport of bicycle touring was something new for me. This Day Zero story might be interesting to someone who is also a beginner. If you are already experienced with bicycle touring and don’t need to read about my planning for this trip, skip to Day One where I begin the trip with the ride out of the center of Buffalo. If you are contemplating your first trip, you will be interested in my planning process because you will go through many of the same things.
My initial plan was to camp all the way, but that turned out to be impractical. I stayed in motels for three of the nights. Most of my meals were in diners and restaurants along the way; this is New York State, which is civilized and has a reasonably dense population. I carried food, but only for “emergencies” where a diner or restaurant was too distant.
Day Zero was really a process that lasted several months. It began as I searched for a long bicycle trail the United States and close to home in the Boston area. I found the Erie Canalway Trail and Parks and Trails New York publishes a guide book for the trail, Cycling the Erie Canal, that is comprehensive.
The guide book does not provide turn-by-turn information. The trail is marked on the map by a colored line convention that is not precise. In some places, this makes it difficult to determine exactly where to turn, but the benefits far exceed the drawbacks. The book includes significant information from recommendations on personal preparation to descriptions of the services, lodging, and attractions along the trail.
The trail itself is not a dedicated bicycle trail in its entirety. Some portions share the road with cars and trucks. Often those were wide roads with generous shoulders that are a part of the New York bicycle route system. Sometimes the roads were country roads that were safe because they were not busy. I watched my rear view mirror constantly on these roads and sometimes slowed and bailed out to an unpaved shoulder to get out of the way. The dedicated trail is shared with hikers, walkers, and sometimes horses although I only encountered one horse on the trail.
The dedicated trail is either stone dust or black top pavement. The guide book states that seventy five percent of the trail is dedicated, but I didn’t measure it and it seemed a little less. On the dedicated trail I would say that the split between stone dust and pavement was about fifty-fifty.
After committing to bike the Canalway Trail, I made a list and I did research to prepare and to identify the equipment that I would need to buy. The list was my own combined with lists that I found on the Internet by people who had experience travelling and camping by bicycle . I was satisfied that the list was complete after thinking through all of the contingencies.
There were three parts to the list and the first was this list of personal care items:
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste
- String Floss
- Soap and Container
- Sleep clothes
- Can opener
- Eye care stuff
- Spare batteries
- Cell phone
- Hand held GPS
- Emergency food (peanut butter in a plastic jar, beans, sardines, honey)
- Reading material / books
- One pair of shoes for all occasions
- Off Bike Clothing (casual shirt, shorts, underwear, belt)
- Riding clothes (3 synthetic shirts,2 pairs of riding pants, 3 pairs of bike socks)
- Rain jacket and pants
I carried the “emergency food” in case I couldn’t find a restaurant or market nearby when it was time to eat. My thought was that I was travelling and camping in a civilized part of our country and would rarely need these items. As it turned out, I was happy to have these items because it was not always convenient to get to the nearest restaurant on a bicycle.
The second part of my list was camping gear:
- Tent, Fly, Poles, Stakes, Line, Line Clips
- Ground Cloth / Foot Print
- Sleeping Bag
- Air Mattress
- Knife, Fork, Spoon
- Water Bottles
- Duct tape
The third and final part of the list included things for my bike:
- Bike lock and key
- Two spare tubes
- Tire pump
- Multi-tool (screwdrivers, hex wrenches)
- Tire repair kit
Most of this gear, about fifty pounds of it, was loaded into two large panniers that were hung from the rear rack of my bike. The bike was a Halford Apollo that I bought when I was working in the London area. I paid about $300 for it and used it to tour the Grand Union Canal in the UK. It was not an optimal bicycle, but it was reliable and I was accustomed to it.
Before buying panniers to carry all of this I estimated the size that I needed by measuring a suitcase that I have used for travel: 10 x 14 x 22 inches per side. That’s slightly over 3000 cubic inches. While the analogy is not perfect, the approach at least allowed me to visualize the volume.
One pannier had the camp stuff in it, the food, and the bike things. The other pannier contained my personal care stuff and clothes. The tent roll was strapped to the top of the rear rack. I also had a handlebar bag that was removable. I kept my iPhone, handheld GPS, and camera in there. It was handy at stops because I could detach it and take it with me. The iPhone was very helpful at times to locate food and to get directions. The GPS recorded my track and gave me a dashboard that provided average speed and distance.
When I chose the camping gear I used reviews on the web extensively. The reviews helped, but many of the choices need to be personalized. For example, my tent needed to be sized for me at 6’ 4” tall yet light and easy to pitch. A pillow is a necessity for me and I found one that compresses and rolls up into a stuff sack. I settled on an air mattress against the recommendations of some campers because they can get punctured. However, the air mattress can be deflated and rolled up into a very small size. Finally, I found a sleeping bag that was suited for summer use. Rated at 55 degrees, it was that best choice and again rolled up into a stuff sack.
My stock bicycle needed some minor changes. I added a blinking red light at the rear. More importantly, I added extensions for additional handlebar positions. The extensions fit on the ends of the straight handlebars and project upward so that I could hold them sit up nearly straight while pedaling. I purchased new puncture resistant 700 mm x 35 mm tires with new tubes. The tire width is important because the road surface would vary from blacktop to stone dust. The tire pressure was rated at 85 PSI, which was good given the load, especially on the rear tire.
I needed to get to Buffalo to start the trip and would end the trip in Albany. The plan was to leave my van in Albany. The train turned out to be impractical. There was only one late train that had a baggage car. It arrived in Buffalo too late, making it necessary to ride from the station to the hotel in the dark of night.
Instead, I rented a car. It cost little more for the one-way rental than the train. As a bonus, the rental agencyin Albany was in the same complex as a parking lot where I left my van. I parked my van, picked up the rental, moved my stuff from one car to another, and was off to Buffalo.
The hotel in Buffalo was also close to the car rental agency. I arrived in Buffalo early evening, had a meal, and slept well for the start of my trip the next day.