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Cycle the Erie Canal 2023

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.

An example of one of the riding surfaces along the Erie Canal (Photo: Eric Wojtaszek)

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.

People in line to wash the dust from their bicycles with the shower truck in the background

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.

Eric and me during our annual visit to the Country Club in Medina, New York (Photo: Eric Wojtaszek)

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.

My Surly Long Haul Trucker in Syracuse after recording the 25,000th mile on it with my tent in the background

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.

On day six the Pattersonville Volunteer Fire Department hosts a fundraising cookout for the cyclists, featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream (Photo: Eric Wojtaszek)

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.

Cycle The Erie Canal 2021

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.

Shows Cycle The Erie Canal trail conditions near Syracuse
A section of trail east of Syracuse

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.

Find Your Next Bicycle Tour with Heat Maps

When I did my day tours in the Memphis area, Josh at the Peddler Electric Bike Shop on South Main Street introduced me to a useful Strava feature. I have been a Strava member for several years and long ago upgraded to a premium membership since I liked it so well. I was not aware of the heat map feature.

Heat maps are used to graphically display data as an aid to interpreting it and turning it into actionable information. The idea is simple. Large amounts of data are aggregated and plotted on a graph or a map as in the case of the Strava heat map. The places were the data density is low are shown in a cool color and as the density increases the colors get warmer. The the coolest color of the Strava heat map is blue and the colors get warmer through purple, red, yellow, and white, which is the hottest.

The Strava heat map carries a copyright, so I can’t show screen shots. You can follow along by going to https://www.strava.com/heatmap. To see only bicycle traffic, you need to use the Global Heatmap control panel to select the cycling icon as the Activity Type. You will see a dark outline of the United States with areas of heat map showing the density of bicycle traffic in every corner of the country. You can pan to see other countries and you can zoom to get more detail. The detail goes down to the street level, but only if you are a registered Strava member.

Josh showed the area around Memphis to me. It is clear that most of the bicycle traffic is east of downtown. I was hoping to ride into Mississippi, but Josh explained that there is no easy way to get there and that is indicated in the map. You can see some light activity going north, but the density of the traffic is much lighter.

As you pan toward the east coast, you can pick out the C&O and GAP trails going from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. The sharpness and the whiteness of the heat map trace validates my opinion that the route is one of the best in the country. If you pan up into Canada, you can see the route around Lac St-Jean, the Veloroute de Bleuets. Panning back to the center of the U.S., there are two routes across Iowa that pop out. Surprisingly, neither is the route of RAGBRAI ( The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa).

Of interest to me is the apparent route in Canada that runs from Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario and along the St. Lawrence to Quebec City. From there the route seems to cross the St. Lawrence and circle the Atlantic Ocean side of the Gaspe Peninsula. I have read about bicycle tours along that route and wondered about the viability. I may be planning a Canada tour this summer.

The Strava heat map is another tool for tour planning. For the Canada tour I would of course supplement the heat map information with detailed route planning, including camping and lodging along the way. The heat map is a good way to get started, identifying the best possibilities by studying the most popular choices of other cyclists.

Bicycle Riding in Memphis

My wife went to Memphis to play in a bridge tournament and I tagged along to bicycle and to do some street photography. During our week in Memphis I did three rides on a bicycle that I rented from the Peddler Electric Bike Shop located on south Main Street in Memphis. Josh at bike shop was very helpful in recommending routes. My rental was a Trek 7.3 FX hybrid. It is a decent low-end bicycle that is light and reliable enough for day trips.

My rides totaled about 120 miles. The first was a short 15 miles along the Mississippi River due to my needing to drive to the airport to pick up my lost luggage in the morning. My next was a 58 mile ride that took me east on Madison Street to pick up the Shelby Farms Greenline trail. I rode the trail and took an excursion through the park. I picked up the Germantown Greenway along the Wolf River and rode to the eastern trail head.

The most fun ride was the last one of about 48 miles that took me north toward the Meeman Shelby State Park. The Strava route was given to me by Josh at the bike shop. The route was helpful, but in the future I would use a phone mount on the handlebars. I was stopping frequently to check the route on my phone, keep my bearings and avoid missing a turn.

The route began at the hotel on Main Street and ran north along the river, using the same trail that I explored on my first day in Memphis. At the end of the trail I hopped onto a local road that took me past a small airport. The route wound through a poor residential neighborhood where I was  chased by a dog. Usually they go after your ankles, but this dummy decided to try to cut in front of me. He got a fine tire burn on his rear quarter before squealing and running away. He will either change his tactics in the future or stop chasing bicycles.

A little later down another block three children delighted in chasing me. I wasn’t going very fast and they had fun racing with me. We came to the imaginary line drawn by their parents and they suddenly dropped behind and stopped. I waved and said goodbye.

After leaving the neighborhood, I rode through countryside with a mix of farms and residences. Both varied significantly in quality. There were both shacks and gated estates. I wanted a grocery store or something where I could purchase a snack. I brought a package of cookies, but longed for something more. I passed two places that were closed and boarded, a possible testament to the economic heath of the Memphis area.

The ride was enjoyable and the rolling countryside was fun to ride. The roads were in great condition and the traffic was very light, especially since it was a Saturday in late March. I was watching the clock, the mileage, and the weather since rain was forecast for the late afternoon. After studying the route during one stop, I decided that it would be prudent to take an alternate route to cut my ride short by a few miles. A little later that turned out to be a good decision.

With about twenty miles to go I discovered the Shelby Forest General Store. The place was hopping and all of the guys wore baseball caps. Everybody was friendly in the nicest way and happy to strike a conversation if you looked at all interesting. Of course, my cycling gear including my bright green jacket made me stand out. After I ordered a hamburger and placed my name on the order, everybody who worked there remembered me as “Ed”.

Shelby Forest General Store

After my food stop I rode another five miles or so and had a flat tire. I was very happy that I carried a tire repair kit and necessary tools. The amber glass shard causing the flat was easy to find. I got the tube out of the tire and prepared it for the vulcanizing cement. My little tube of vulcanizing goop had never been opened before. I pierced the seal and began to squeeze. Nothing came out. I rolled up the tube and found it empty.

When I began to work on the bike I had noticed a truck pull into the driveway next to the patch of grass where I was working and drive to the barn about fifty yards from the entrance. I decided to walk down there and ask for some of the vulcanizing cement. The entrance to the barn was strewn with beer cans and cigarette butts. One guy was standing near the door smoking. Another guy came out and approached me. He was filthy and had greasy smudges on his face. We spent some time defining terms because I couldn’t remember what to call the vulcanizing cement.

“I need some of that glue stuff to repair a tire,” said I.

“What stuff? What are you gluing?”

“I have a flat tire and I’m trying to patch it.”

“Oh. Wait here.”

He disappeared inside for a while and came out with a can of vulcanizing cement.

“Don’t use much. Bring it back when you’re done.”

It worked fine and a got the tube patched. I walked back down to the barn to return the can. This time there was nobody outside. I called out something stupid like, “Sir? I brought your can back.” Reluctantly, I entered the barn to find the two of them “praying” over the engine of a beat up wreck of a car. I handed the can to the guy and left quickly.

Back on the road I pedaled for about five minutes and felt rain drops. I had ridden through a couple of passing squalls, but this rain felt different because the sky was much darker. I stopped and put on my rain jacket over my cycling jacket.

It rained heavily during the final fifteen miles of the ride. I didn’t care that it was raining. I was satisfied with myself since I was prepared to fix the tire and to protect myself from the rain.

This was the first test of my rain jacket and I found that it is the best rain jacket I have ever owned. It’s a Marmot jacket that cost a couple hundred dollars. It rained hard, but I was only getting soaked below the waist where the jacket didn’t cover me. To my good fortune, the wind had shifted and I was riding a brisk tailwind.

I dropped the bike at the shop and wasted no time getting out of there when I saw a trolley in front of the store. That is the spot where they turn around and head back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the trolley engineer was not ready to head back and I stood at the stop freezing before he finally started toward me. Thankfully, the trolley was heated and I found a seat right above one of the heaters.

At the hotel I found out how cold I was. I stripped down out of my wet gear and got into bed under the covers. After a while I realized that my fingers were numb and not responding quickly enough. I got up and wrapped my hands in a wet, warm towel. It didn’t take long for my fingers to begin to tingle as normal blood circulation returned. A warm show completed my recovery. I realized that if I didn’t have the rain jacket I might have suffered hypothermia.

Overall, I found Memphis to be a bicycle friendly city. My rides were all memorable. There are some crazy busy streets, but there are also alternatives with less traffic to get you where you are going on a bicycle. Josh at the bike shop gave me a Memphis & Shelby County Bike Map that is available for free online and from visitor centers around town.

These are some other great places that my wife and I enjoyed: Graceland, Sun Records, the Bass Pro Shops pyramid, the Peabody Hotel duck march, Huey’s for great hamburgers, Westy’s for great pub food, and B.B. King’s Blues Club for the best ribs that we had in Memphis. Be sure to ride the trolley on Main Street. Beale Street and Mud Island Park are great places to just hang out.

If you have the opportunity, try Memphis.