Just this once–a roadie on the C & O

So, what’s it like actually riding the C & O, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath? For a committed roadie like me, who craves smooth roads and doesn’t worry much about cars, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, by which I mean that it’s worth doing once. A few annotated photos provide glimpses of what it’s like.

The photo above shows me and my bike at White’s Ferry where I went onto the path. The bike is designed for self-contained touring—long wheelbase, sturdy wheels with randonneur tires, and fenders. Most people rode heavier bikes with knobby tires and no fenders (and on rainy days the mud was flying!). All of my clothes and supplies for two weeks on the road and nights in motels are in the handlebar bag and saddle bag, about twenty pounds of gear.

Here’s what the trail looks like. The canal, overgrown with trees, is on the right. Dropping off twenty or thirty feet on the left is the bank down to the Potomac River, which often can be glimpsed through breaks in the trees. The dirt trail has many mud holes and when it rains, the surface becomes a muddy slurry that flies everywhere.

From Washington to Cumberland, MD, is 185 miles, and many people camp. In addition to these green boxes, the campsites provide hand-operated pumps, tables, and grassy areas that looked swampy to me. I like hot showers and beds.

Ruins of the canal’s mechanical features dot the course. This photo shows one of the locks and the lock keeper’s home.

In order for the canal to cross streams flowing into the Potomac, aqueducts like the one below were built. Even though these structures are in precarious condition, the stonework is beautiful and they are strong enough for cyclists.

In order to provide a steady supply of water for the canal, it was necessary to build diversion dams on the Potomac. Here’s one of them.

Although I was riding alone, I found myself in good company on the C & O. Many people ride only short distances, often using mountain bikes rented at trailheads. Others, like me, were riding alone or with a friend or family member.

And there were groups like “Friends of Ron,” eleven people from central Indiana, Michigan, and Pittsburgh who have become acquainted in other cycling trips and now coordinate their plans to cycle together a couple of times a year. Because FOR and I were traveling the same distance and stopping in the same towns, I found myself riding and enjoying time off with them.

Every now and then, it’s possible to leave the trail and visit small towns near by. I especially enjoyed Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Inside the Lost Dog, I discovered one of the most intense coffee shops that I have seen anywhere, complete with people using their MacBooks and a big sign: “Friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks.”

The guidebooks say that 60 miles a day is a good rule of thumb. No matter how strong a rider may be, the trail itself and the spacing of towns govern how far a person can go. 60 miles a day, on a practically flat dirt trail, was fine with me—just this once.

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