Day three: Two wheels and a towpath, a trip down the C&O Canal
By Chris Muldrow / Fredericksburg Today
Part three: Home stretch
If you’re a completist, our third day of cycling the C&O would bother you.
We had stayed in Charles Town the night before (We stayed two nights of the trip on Tripp’s hotel rewards points from WAY too much travel for his business, but that put us outside of downtown Harpers Ferry and closer to the Applebee’s.)
With a little bit better breakfast plan, we seemed to be doing ok energy-wise. I took advantage of the Holiday Inn automatic pancake contraption and filled up before we started rolling.
Energy management was a theme the whole trip, and I think we all realized that the constant burning of calories meant we needed to snack as we rode. Nick halted us at White’s Ferry, a normally still-operating ferry crossing that connects the Maryland side of the river to Virginia near Leesburg, so we could eat.
The ferry was actually closed because flooding had filled the bottom of their main building. We saw people working on the ferry out in the mist in the middle of the river, with strong current tugging at its cable and the sound of a chainsaw hissing from time to time. We think a tree might have snagged on the cable or the boat somehow—there were huge trees floating down the river all weekend, and I’m sure they were creating hazardous conditions for people trying to get boats out.
Once we passed Riley’s Lock near Seneca, Md., we started running into two things we hadn’t seen all weekend: more solid trail conditions and people. The trail had been nearly empty most of our trip, except in brief stretches near towns. But as we started to get closer to Washington, we ran into more runners and cyclists out for the day. The arching canopy of trees that shaded us most of the trip was thinner, as well, as we got closer to Great Falls.
Once you get closer to the city, you catch glimpses of the huge number of cars, houses and people around you, but the canal corridor keeps you largely sheltered. We could hear cars on the Clara Barton Parkway but couldn’t see them, and we rolled under Chain Bridge. A little while later, Nick said, “Is that a paved trail?”
It was the Capital Crescent trail, which parallels the C&O into the city. We hopped over to it and rode the smooth surface into Georgetown. Right as we crossed under the Key Bridge, just a mile or so from the mile 0 marker of the trail, I looked down and saw a flat tire—the first one any of us had the entire trip.
I changed my tire at the corner of Georgetown Waterfront Park, then we began making our way up toward the Mall and Union Station. After 180ish miles of following one path through the woods, always marking the directions with the canal on our left, we got a little sideways dodging tourists and figuring out the best way to the station without ticking off a park ranger. We stopped for a picture at the Lincoln Memorial, then we headed back to the station, loaded our mud-caked bikes in the back of the truck and made our way to I-95.
With my HOV EZ Pass, we made it home to Fredericksburg in less time than it took us to do 10 miles in the mud on the trail.
Gear, tips, and such
If you’re thinking you’d like to do the trail, here are some thoughts:
We were each riding very different bikes, and all had their advantages and disadvantages.
Tripp rode an old hardtail Specialized Stumpjumper with 1.9 inch Kenda semislick tires that had knobby edges. We mounted a rack on the bike. He had the benefit of a front shock to soften out the ride. (My hands are suffering from something called handlebar palsy where two fingers are numb from ulnar nerve irritation from the jarring ride) His bike could’ve used a better checkup before the ride, though—his back spokes were too loose, which contributed to his wheel failure, and he rode with only one brake for most of the trip because his rear brake spring failed somehow that I was never able to fully diagnose.
Nick rode a brand new aluminum Giant “gravel bike.” His bike had the advantage of disc brakes, which meant he didn’t get mud jammed up between brake pads and his wheels. His road-style drop handlebars gave him lots of hand positions while riding. He did need to tweak his saddle position midway through the ride—it was a little bit low—and he had a bit of a shifting problem that may have just been a newly stretched cable.
I rode a steel Surly Travelers Check, a “cyclocross” bike with rim brakes that I had set up with an 8-speed Nexus internal hub. That meant I didn’t have to worry about gumming up or breaking derailleurs, and I had more than enough gears to climb on the detours we took. I also mounted fenders so I stayed cleaner than Tripp and Nick. I did have some mud problems jamming up my brakes from time to time.
Tripp used some old Bushwhacker panniers to carry gear on the back of his bike, and he rode with a Camelback and a frame-mounted water bottle. His panniers worked well as far as places to put gear, but they had to be sprayed with waterproofing, and we had to rig some Velcro cable ties to it on the second days because trail jarring kept bouncing the pannier hooks off his rack.
Nick and I both used waterproof Ortlieb panniers, which were awesome. They had hooks that locked them to the racks, but that easily came loose if we had to take the bags off. And they rolled up to close, creating a watertight seal. We could actually hose the mud off them without getting our gear dirty.
I also had an Ortlieb handlebar bag, which I mounted to a second stem on my bike after a suggestion from Wayne at thetouringstore.com. That let me mount a light and a bell and a camera to my bike. The handlebar bag put food, sunglasses and a raincoat within easy reach while riding.
You really need to bring a light because of the Paw Paw tunnel and also because you could end up on roads at night unintentionally. And you need a bell to warn people you’re passing when you get to populated areas.
Skinny road tires will NOT work on the trail. I rode 35 mm tires and got along fine. I also think that traditional road cantilever brakes would get too jammed with mud to stop you on the trail—V-brakes, discs or cantilevers are better to clear the goop.
There are long stretches on the trail where you can’t just stop and buy food, so you’ll need to carry it along with you. We had sports-type food like gels, gummies, power bars and stroopwafels as well as crackers, jerky, dried fruit and other easy-to-carry food.
I also bought individual packets of Gatorade (you can find them online) so we could mix electrolytes into our water.
There are pumps at hiker biker campsites all along the trail, but sometimes there are long stretches between pumps. We each carried three bottles full of water, and I had a water filter just in case we needed it (we didn’t). We filled water at stores along the way, too, because the pumps are treated with iodine and taste a little funny.
Read the trail guides carefully so you can understand where to get food and where you’ll go without.
The trail is actually set up well if you’d like to camp, but Nick told me his sleeping on the ground days were over. There are hiker biker campsites every few miles with pumps and porta potties.
We stayed at hotels or bed and breakfasts along the way. We stayed in Cumberland (the train gets there past 7), Hancock and Harpers Ferry. There is limited lodging in Little Orleans if you want to try to do shorter days, but we did 60-mile days to try to balance mileage with reasonable places to stay.