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.