This blog entry wasn’t supposed to be here and I wasn’t supposed to be writing it. Not today (Monday), anyhow.
I was supposed to be pedaling my fixed gear Surly Cross Check down the C&O Canal right now, having finished up a nice breakfast in Williamsport. At this very moment, I should have been tooling around in Williamsport, working out a couple creaks in my legs, and getting ready to buzz down to Whites Ferry for lunch and a swim, and then an easy spin into Georgetown.
It didn’t work out that way. Mother nature, it seems, is in fact a real mother.
We had planned this trip for a couple months, and had been thinking about it since February or so. Jon, my LBS owner, and several of his friends who are mainly mountain bikers, but who hit the road with the LBS training rides, were going to ride fixed down the C&O Canal. It would be a two-day blitz from Cumberland, MD, roughly a century a day. It would be hard, but fun, with a bit of camping in the middle, lots of carb loading, and hours of peacefully spinning fixies down the Canal.
It didn’t happen that way at all.
On Saturday, Jon and I discussed the weather. We tried to figure out if we had a decision point lurking out there. For several days, the weather was forecast to be hideous, with thunderstorms, constant rain, basically apocalyptic weather, but nothing happened. The forecast was always wrong. So in spite of predictions of heavy rain, we decided to go.
We loaded up our gear – bikes, panniers full of camping gear and extra bike clothes, and minimal casual clothes – shorts, T-shirts, Tevas, and a swimsuit. This along with tents, bivvy bags, and tarps. We stopped in Laurel at Trevor’s place to pick up the bikes and the other guys on the ride. As we were driving up, it was pretty clear, but overcast. We stopped in Hancock for breakfast. John asked the waitress about the weather, and she told us that rain had been predicted for days, but basically had not shown up. “But it’s supposed to rain all day today.”
We sort of looked at each other after that, and everybody had that look on their face, where hope triumphs over reality and experience.
As we drove from Hancock to Cumberland, the rain started. At first it was heavy. Then it got really heavy. Then it became really, really heavy, and we got slammed with some fog too. It wasn’t the worst weather conditions I’ve ever seen, but you could easily slide into a guardrail, or spin out in it, or back-end the guy in front. Jonathan kept his truck on the road and safe, the guys in the other truck managed to do so as well, and we rolled into Cumberland around 9:30 or so. Jon and I talked and decided we’d mention our idea to leave the camping gear in the bikes and just stay at Tim’s hotel in Williamsport, since camping in heavy mud would be more agonizing than was really necessary.
After a mandatory bathroom break and filling hydration packs and loading the bikes, we set off in what had turned into a gentle to non-existent drizzle. The first few miles seemed pretty easy, the trail was packed gravel, and it was dry enough that it seemed the heavy stuff we had faced in the mountains might have been localized. There were a few puddles and the bikes were throwing a little muddy spray, but maybe it would be okay. Maybe we might dodge a bullet on the weather…
Or maybe not. Within 10 miles, the heavy rain started up, and as the trail moved away from civilization, it became a bit rougher and more potholed. We quickly got soaked in enough mud and grit to make the hardest cast iron Flahute proud. Most of the trail is two-track, as if a pickup truck or wagon had been driven up and down it for years – which is probably the case. So water pools in the wheel tracks, and anywhere there is a slightly soft spot, you get a puddle. We hit puddle after puddle as we tooled along in the rain, and eventually had to break up out of paceline and into pairs, two abreast with a substantial gap, since so much muck was getting thrown up at each puddle. Yea, verily, the bicyclists went two by two, up to the freakin’ ark.
Now a word about puddles. A calm puddle has mud at the bottom, but the water on top is clear, and you can estimate what lies beneath. Sometimes you can see rocks, or sticks, or deeper holes. But when puddles get stirred up, you can’t see to the bottom of them. The mud obscures what lies beneath the surface. When you roll into one an a bike, it’s a bit like Christmas morning. You simply don’t know what you’ll get.
Some puddles were fine to ride through. They were shallow, short, and had a firmly packed gravel base. These didn’t throw much muck, and they didn’t upset the bikes. This was important, because with full panniers and rain soaked gear, not to mention skinny cyclocross tires, the bikes weren’t exactly riding on rails and normal instabilities took on epic proportions, causing tank slappers, un-fix-able head shake, and slithery rear ends. Other puddles obscured deep potholes and mud pits. You hit them, and nearly go over the bars, with an amazing amount of shock being transmitted through the chainstays to your butt and back. Sometimes you could recognize the pothole puddles if you could spot the telltale circular patches of differently-colored muddy water in the middle of a larger puddle, but with mud-smeared sunglasses, and moving at 15-16 MPH, that wasn’t happening much. Other puddles obscured rocks, which was tough because a glancing blow from a rock would tend to wrench the handlebars partly out of your hands. By far the worst, however, were the puddles with soft, muddy bottoms. We would ride into these and lose all momentum. Rather than enjoying a smooth fixed gear spin through them, the puddle would instantly scrub 5 MPH off our speed, and we’d have to expend quite a bit of effort to regain the momentum, once we thrashed through the puddle.
If it sounds like this ride perspective focuses a lot on puddles, it is because we spent 5+ hours riding through puddles; perhaps 25% of the trail was covered in puddles, at least while it rained – which was 80% of the time.
It was a hell of a lot of work, and very depressing business after a while.
The guys were pretty game for it though. Timmy, who is a really powerful rider, was the only guy on a geared bike. He just kept cruising along, and seemed to be hanging tough. Trevor just gutted it out, probably cared about how bad it was, but you wouldn’t know it to talk to him. Jon, my LBS guy, was doing fine but seemed kinda of irritated by the whole thing, and the other John, who is about 10 years older than any of us, and with a very slight build, was struggling with a heavy load. The lack of size probably hurt him a lot, since the bikes scrubbed off so much momentum at each puddle.
So it went for about 45 or 50 miles. We stopped every 10 or 15 for a bite to eat and some drinks, and to wash the mud out of our eyes at the handy trailside water pumps. No, really, out of our eyes. I rode with one eye open for about ten miles at one point, so much mud was in my eye that it hurt badly to open it. Sure enough, when the mud cleared out of that eye, and I slowly started opening it, I took a blast of mud right in the other eye. Arrrrrgghhh! This all was quite a bit of hard work.
The PawPaw tunnel was a hell of a thing as well. It was dark as night, colder than a well digger’s ass, and the concrete sidewalk/bikeway was as lumpy as stale gravy. Bring a small bike light if you ride this portion of the trail. Just take my word on that – you wouldn’t want to experience the 30 foot dropoff, or ride into the guardrail. It was the highlight of the riding portion of the trip - an eerie cavern of a thing, and the trail smelled totally different on one side of it, compared to the other.
So grind on we did. Though we were only averaging around 14.5 MPH, it was hard to keep up that speed. It was basically like a low speed weightlifting exercise, grinding along at 80 RPM – wonderful stuff for a mountain biker, notso-hotso for a roadie who doesn’t train to work at that speed. This was compounded by my V-brakes, which were jammed with mud and dragging for perhaps 15 miles before I figured out what that grating noise was, and opened them up. My bike was geared a little too high, so I frequently took off from the front, spun out for a few minutes, then ambled along until the group caught up. The spinning at 100+ RPM took a lot of work, but it gave my legs some much needed rest for a few minutes.
About 15 miles before our first scheduled stop, Hancock, 64 miles into the ride, the skies really, really opened up and truly started to throw it down, monsoon style. It had been raining before, but now it got very bad. We went through a long patch of puddles, most of them quite deep. The bikes were throwing roostertails and actually had a wicked wake; you didn’t want to ride next to somebody, because the bike could throw a substantial wave 4 feet high, and I found it quite comical to splash Trevor up around the hip/ribcage that way, at least until Timmy passed me and returned the favor. My legs were already hurting a little and my knees were starting to get sore, and the new, deeper puddles didn’t help things. It felt like I was absorbing water as we rode. My words really can’t do it justice. Suffice to say, I’ve kept more dry while swimming, I've suffered less low grade pain in fistfights. Every ride is good for something, and this one was really only good for teaching me how to suffer in several dimensions at once.
The exact moment when I realized this ride had descended into the absurd occurred when I followed Timmy into a puddle. It didn’t look exceptional, just sort of long. By the time I was about 10 feet into it, I realized that the water was up over the bottom of my bottom bracket, and whichever foot was on the downstroke was completely submerged. I had to stand up and pedal through the puddle. Right then I decided (1) this was getting absurd, and we were probably going to be forced to quit; (2) this ride was going to leave me with some hard-to-recover-from damage if I wasn’t really careful; (3) I wasn’t going to be the first one to throw in the towel, but if somebody was throwing it, I would probably offer to help heave the damn thing.
When we got to a flat spot I spun off from the group again. I was really pissed because it seemed to me the weather was going to beat us, and I didn’t want anybody to see me melting down. I just went hard for quite a while, and when I looked down, I was doing a steady 22 MPH spin, and my Hr was approaching threshold. I eased it off and stopped at mile marker 125 or so, a few miles from Hancock. There I waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually the guys showed up, discussing something about a “vision break” – I think they had paused to get the mud out of their eyes. We rode in from that point without any further incident, albeit in a pretty heavy rain that only let up when we got into town.
Soon after they caught up, we rode into Hancock. Trevor and Timmy turned left off the trail to go up a small hill. They labored up it. Then John and Jonathan turned up it, and Jonathan stood up and pegged it to get up the hill. John just got off his bike to push. I realized my legs were toast, and I couldn’t go down here, so I dug in, and slow pedaled up, pulling myself downward on the bars to keep the pedals turning. I got to the top of the hill, and that’s when I heard Jonathan saying “That’s it.” We talked briefly and Jon, John and Timmy definitely wanted to quit. I kept my mouth shut because I felt as the nail chewing roadie among the bunch, I couldn’t be the one to let the team down. Okay, that’s not completely true. It was also because the other four guys are old riding buddies, and I didn’t think it was my place to unduly influence the outcome of the vote, so I resolved to gut it out, if that’s what it took, rather than interfere. Thankfully, the vote was 3:1 for abandoning, so my thoughts on the matter were irrelevant, my vote was moot.
We rode up and over another hill, pedaled down to Sheetz, and made the call of shame. Jonathan’s wife had dropped us off, and then got stuck in a 6 hour traffic jam behind some jacknifed tractor trailer on the way back. She volunteered to come back and get us. What a rock star, yes? But her father, who is a fair roadie himself and a real trooper, stepped up and came to get us. Standing and laughing and shivering a bit at Sheetz, we settled on a plan – ride across Hancock to the car wash, hose off, put on some clean clothes, then go sit in a bar and drink beer until our bailout ride showed up.
That’s what we did. It was pretty comical, in a lowbrow way. Five guys getting naked-to-mostly-naked in a completely open coin-op car wash, and hosing each other off with a high pressure washer like some demented prison shower, is beyond belief. It was like a Japanese game show. But that’s what we did, ignoring the traffic and curious passers-by.
Little details of that washup are pretty funny, actually. Jonathan and I were both dumping mud out of our shoes. Jon actually was suffering foot pain from the pile of mud inside his shoes, under his arches. My real capper was taking off my bibs, and finding a huge pile of mud in my shorts, covering the chamois. I guess that explains why my @55 hurt so much while I was riding – it looked like I’d eaten mud fiber cereal, and crapped mud poo. And Timmy went behind the car wash to take a whiz, and came back reporting that somebody had recently beaten him to it, as evidenced by a great big ol’ pile of real poo back there.
After blowing most of the impacted mud off ourselves and our bikes, we hopped back on them to ride to the bar – the Town Tavern, as I recall. Putting my shoes back on was deadly painful, and I mushed up the hill, but then took the shoes out and freewheeled down the hill toward the tavern. Mental note to self – do not take feet off the fixie pedals if dragging large panniers. It makes the head wobbly badly. What a relief to put on the dry Tevas to walk into the bar. Timmy, being Timmy, rode back up the hill barefoot. Yeah, he's a monster. I'd love to see him in crits.
When we got to the bar, it was pizzas and beer all around. All they had was Tombstone pizzas, which aren’t my favorite, but they were hot, and we ate seven between five riders. We also drank four or five pitchers of near beer, AKA Coors Light. Though it was a complete redneck townie bar, the folks there were pretty cool, friendly enough, and didn't bother us in spite of the mud falling out of our ears, and our wet clothes and funny smell. So it gets my total endorsement as a bailout bar, or just some place I'll stop for a beer next time I'm in Hancock.
It took a while to talk through all the bizarre details of the trip. Oddly, we remembered specific epic mud puddles, bits of trees in specific spots on the trail, and branches that whipped us particularly badly. We each remembered exactly where it was our eyes got plugged with mud, the exact point where the weather broke our resolve, and we each tried to rationalize away the fact that the ride was a failure in some way. The beer helped.
Eventually, Sara’s dad showed up and we packed into Jonathan’s truck. On the way back home, the rain was as bad as during any time on the ride, except now there was a lot of lightning. We found out that this had been the worst day of rain in roughly 25 years. That made us feel better about abandoning.
On the way back, the guys mostly talked about other epic rides they had been on together. I sort of checked out and sipped a little bourbon from a hip flask, while thinking the ride over. On a long, tough ride like that, I get within myself pretty good. That’s probably why if the group had decided to go on, I’d have been okay with it. I hadn’t vocalized thoughts of quitting because those thoughts are already there, and I find that while I can bitch endlessly, I can never voice thoughts of quitting because they become intoxicating, and too tempting. It’s better to keep quiet, grind along, and just not stop, and after a while you get some momentum going and the thoughts of quitting disappear, replaced by emptiness, and maybe some determination. It was a good thing for our heath’s sake that John and Jonathan had some good sense. Trevor and I probably would have kept going, and might have done some pretty good damage to ourselves in the mud, the thunderstorms, and the next day’s heavy rain.
So it was a disappointing trip on the one hand. We didn’t finish. Yet we were the only riders actually on the trail on Sunday, near as we could tell. It took a good deal of toughness to get out there and attempt the ride, and the fact that it took a 25 year storm to throw the brakes on the trip reflects well on John, Jon’s, Trevor’s and Timmy’s toughness.
Still, the gauntlet has been thrown. It may be later in this year, or it may be next year, but I think we’re going to ride that damn canal on fixed gear cross bikes. It would be a long ride, but not necessarily that tough in dry weather. In the wet, it was a humid, abrasive and damp, very small version of hell. The one thing I’ll probably do differently, is to wait for a weekend when the weather forecast is a little bit less rainy. Y’all are welcome to join me.