Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Riding the Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal: The Final Push to Pittsburgh

If you’ve ever wondered how far that bike path goes, last year, Cincinnati Cyclists Marty Sanders and Aaron Kent (AK) set out to cover 700 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal by bike.  Over the past few years, Marty has become a veteran of these rails to trails trips while Aaron, even though a long time cyclist, was new to the idea of a week-long self-supported adventure.  The story is presented in seven parts.

By Marty Sanders

Day 7 Cumberland to Pittsburgh

Other than the normal aches that come along with a 550-mile pedal session, I felt great when I woke up.  We were going to have to get off to an early start to make it to Pittsburgh by sundown.  I gave AK another hour before I sounded the trumpet at 6 a.m.

My stomach screamed.  I’ve been constantly hungry from the 2nd day of the trip.  With 140 miles ahead, I planned to destroy the Marriot buffet.  The place was busy already, virtually all cyclists.

We saw my buddy Larry having breakfast.  H told us about his previous day’s ride, a solo 25-hour ride from D.C. to Cumberland.  I put extra point on his man card for that. 

As I talked with Larry, AK got into a conversation with a few ladies sitting at a table just across the way.  They looked to be with a bicycle tour group.  I had no idea what they all were talking about, but it must have been funny as they all were laughing.  I invited Larry to ride with AK and I towards Pittsburgh.  He obliged and I passed on my phone number to call when he was packed and ready.

Even though he spun a mean tale with the ladies, AK wasn’t his normal self this morning.  He only ate fruit, yogurt, and granola while I smashed eggs, bacon, and whatever else I could stack on my plate.  I made a few trips up to the buffet, and stowed a few bagels and cream cheese for later.

Packed and ready, we waited for Larry's call and waited.  Maybe he was waiting out front.  Nope.  “Did he leave without us?” Then I realized, for some crazy reason, I gave him a phone number I hadn’t used in years.  I felt like an ass.  I searched for his number in emails, found it and called him. He was already few miles ahead of us, so we set off as well. 

We caught up with Larry a few minutes later.  He stopped to talk to the father and son team we knew from the overnight at the bunkhouse in Hancock.  Larry joined us and we joked and laughed our way up the climb to the Eastern Continental Divide stopping occasionally for photos.

It didn’t take long to reach Savage Tunnel.  After the tunnel, we hit the continental divide, parked our bikes and snapped more photos.  This was also the point where we said our goodbyes to Larry.  Even though we were riding in the same direction, our pace wasn’t the same.  If AK and I were to make Pittsburgh by dark, we had to push. 

We flew!  I glanced back and thought I saw someone drafting AK.  Was that Larry?  We rode several miles before we hit a small rest stop at an old railroad depot and I got my answer.  It wasn’t Larry, but some guy on a hybrid who had snuck into our slipstream.  As big and bulky as our bikes were, I wondered if he even had to pedal.  

Minutes later, Larry rolled up. He was going to find a post office and mail all his gear back home in order to ride to Pittsburgh with no load.  We said goodbye again.  This time, it was only the two of us.

It was sometime after lunch we rode a long stretch next to a popular rafting area.  We could see big groups of inflatables tied together as well as single canoes.  It looked like lots of fun.  A loud siren tore through the quiet of the afternoon.

An emergency vehicle rolled up behind us and passed.  I’m guessing the siren was for someone in the water who was in distress.  A few minutes later, we came up behind a truck with a flashing light and two people in the back.  We followed the truck about a mile and AK began asking questions. 

The guy flipped his boat and had to swim to shore.  He was ok, but his boat was out there somewhere.  The paramedic on the back asked us if we were racing.  We said “just the sun.  We're trying to get to Pittsburgh by dark.”  So, we did in fact pass an emergency vehicle with a patient in transit.  I felt a bit guilty, but he was ok.

We started passing groups of people heading the other way.  Then a group of ladies zipped past us and I heard one say “oh my goodness, that...” That’s all I heard, but I recognized them.  They were the ladies AK was joking with at breakfast.  They must have been on a bike tour which started with a bus ride out of town and a ride back to Cumberland.

We rolled into Ohiopyle and it was a mob scene, an unbelievable number of bicycles and canoes. We split up.  AK headed over to the same restaurant we ate at a few days ago and ordered us two more Nasty Burgers.  I went to the store for a gallon of water.  When I came out of the store, I almost had a heart attack.  My bike!  It wasn’t there.  Wait, wait…someone must have moved it.  There it is.

AK and I relaxed while we waited for our meals.  As soon as the burgers hit the table, we immediately asked for the check. Those burgers didn’t stand a chance.  With filled bellies we got back to the pedaling.  Pittsburgh by sundown would happen.

As I rolled off a bridge onto the dirt again, my rear tire felt soft.  It had been two days since I aired up my tires with a gauge.  I hit it with a CO2 cartridge and we moved on.  Lots of paintings lined the trail.  Then again, my rear tire went soft.  I wished that my tires could make up their damn minds!

We pulled over at a picnic table.  A sharp rock had worked its way through the rubber.  After riding on these tires for over two years commuting and touring on them, I only had two flats.  I’m guessing the casing of the tire was wearing out. For god sakes I thought, they only have 3500 miles on them! As I changed the flat.  AK watched the rafters unloading and floating downstream.

As we moved through small towns it was amazing the parties that were going on. Two different towns had bands playing music and people everywhere.  We passed at a giant RV party with their own security.  We wanted to stop, to party, but we had to press on.

Despite our good pace, darkness beat us.  We still had 10 miles to ride after the sun went down and switched on the headlights.  After almost 140 miles, with a 75-pound bicycle, I counted each little Pittsburgh riser as a climb.   As we rode into town in the dark, I thought to myself.  “It’s over, back to the real world.”

AK and I rolled up to the Tower where we had parked, I reached over and tagged him!  “Your it!” We had been playing “surprise bike tag” the whole trip.  I sprinted away to the lot entrance, and to the car.  AK was only a second behind. We dismounted and gave a high five.  “Great ride,” AK said.  I agreed.

The whole trip was pretty incredible.  I saw more cyclists than ever before on one trail.  AK and I passed hundreds of riders, some solo, some in groups, and some riding tandems.  The scenery was amazing at times, the whole experience unforgettable.  AK wasted no time and asked, “When we riding the Great Divide?”

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