So the gauntlet was thrown.
We picked it up last weekend.
We left Crofton around 4:25 AM on Saturday. LBS owner Jon Seibold was the expedition captain. Pat Masler joined us. He would be the Designated Masler for this trip. Tom, the Cabin Boy, er, Tom the apprentice mechanic who works in Jon’s shop also joined us. This was his longest ride ever, by quite a bit. We picked up C&O Assault 1.0 vets Trevor, Timmy and John (“Bury my Bike at Wounded Knee”) in Columbia or Laurel or somewhere. I don't know. It was really dark. Trevor’s brother drove us up to Cumberland in a white passenger van that was rated for 15 passengers, 7 bikes, 350 pounds of camping gear and two bottles of booze.
Trevor’s bro drove us up to Cumberland for the first abortive Assault too. By driving us up again, he actually earned angel wings. He’s going to biker heaven for this. What is biker heaven? I’m guessing it involves a Sysyphean labor, getting to ride up Alpe d’Huez over and over again for all eternity, with crazed drunk Tifosi running alongside you, dousing you with water, patting your back and cheering as Charley Gaul leads you halfway up the hill before he blows up and you summit ahead of the pack. Meanwhile, Phil Ligget and Bob Roll are doing commentary on your fat butt’s ascent via team radio, and Bjarne Riis is handing you water bottles out the window of his Fiat. Unlike in the real world, your butt doesn’t hurt in Biker Heaven, your legs have a comfortable level of burn, the Tifosi never run out of booze or places to pee, and the censor has a slow trigger finger so you hear everything Bobke says. That’s Biker Heaven. Trevor’s bro gets to go there thanks to his acts of mercy. He gets to go as a happy, boozed out Tifoso of course – I wouldn’t ask any SOB other than my sick self to do hill repeats on Alpe d'Huez.
I also view the C&O on a nice day as the earthly wing of Biker Heaven.
Unlike the last time, we started this trip in good weather. We fueled up on the way at the excellent Park-n-Dine restaurant in Hancock, Maryland, where the creamed chipped beef on toast gave us a nifty 3,000 calories to burn. Get there early if you want fast service, as we did. It gets crowded.
It was cold and crisp as we loaded up the bikes in the parking lot in Cumberland. No matter how well you pre-pack, it’s always hard to get the bikes laden properly, and a few things made the return trip back to the D.C. area with the van. They just didn’t fit, or didn’t seem worth it to haul. We lightened the load with a few nips of bourbon and tequila. I’m sure that helped lighten our bags considerably.
Loading the Mules
We pulled out of Cumberland around 8:30 or so. The trail was in much better condition than the first trip, it was mostly solid with only sporadic mud puddles and standing mud spots. We set out at too fast of a pace, around 15.5 MPH, which doesn’t sound like much but it would prove too fast over 185 miles on wet, bumpy dirt, with 40-50 pounds of camping gear.
The first 15 or 20 miles passed really quickly, as the start of most long rides do. You aren’t sore, muscles loosen up which makes it easier to ride as you roll along, rather than harder, and your butt doesn’t hurt yet. You have plenty of food in your belly, you are well hydrated, and you are moving into a nice groove naturally, just breathing and pedaling and hearing the wet hiss of the tires on the gravel. And your friends' yapping. It’s the exact opposite of the end of a tough ride where every turn of the pedals is harder than the last and nobody has the energy to talk.
The monotony of the trail set in pretty quickly. The C&O Trail has great, awesome, amazing scenery every 20 miles or so. That means every two hours or so, counting rest breaks, you see something spectacular and mind blowing, like Point of Rocks, or some beautiful widewaters, or some ancient and stunning houses. In between, it’s merely mind-numbingly beautiful, with lush greenery and the leaves turning to amber and rust and finally mud color before falling from the trees. For long stretches, the trees arch over the trail like the long nave of a cathedral, as an ancient Druid might have imagined a cathedral ought to look.
The Nave of God & Man's Cathedral at Canterbury
The Nave of God's Own Cathedral, Somewhere on the C&O
What kept the beauty from becoming boring was the way the light played and dappled off the trees and the trail, casting long shadows across the trail, reflecting off the Potomac, and creating something like a magical color that danced at times. Fall is definitely my favorite time of year, mainly because the light paints everything in a color that promises life and liveliness, in spite of the fact that all the trees and greenery are dying. Maybe the light isn’t that wonderful at all; perhaps it is just like the light a fireplace gives off during the winter. That light isn’t terribly radiant or warm, but the cold and dreary dark outside makes the fire’s light and warmth seem disproportionately vibrant. If you don’t believe me, use your fireplace in mid July and tell me if it feels as romantic and warm, or looks as good, as it does in mid-December. If you’re pushing 40 or 50 or a little older, I am, the fall light is like that look you notice on your face once or maybe on your lady’s face once in a while when the light is right and you still see echoes of the twenty-something eyes you are looking into, combined with the wisdom that age & loss brings. It’s a sense of appreciation for the life that has been lived and the life that is still left. You can still see the possibility of life and vibrancy, a brief moment when you understand that you’ve found a way to hold your section of the trenchline in the war against time’s onslaught, and you don’t mind the battle. As Samuel Beckett put it in Krapp’s Last Tape, reminiscing about an earlier birthday:
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.With the failing of the days each fall, the seasonal light gives a glimpse of warming hope of Spring and Summer and we believe in it and believe it’s deceptive promise against the cold and dark, as we believe that if we can ride fast enough, that bastard the reaper won’t catch us, at least not today, not in this light. It's an illusion, as many of our beliefs our, but today, on this trail, it sustains us.
The Fall’s Warm Light: A Promise & Remembrance of Spring
So on we went down the trail, but after 20 or 30 miles we weren’t running from anything or heading to anywhere, we were just in the minute, that part of the ride where you are totally within yourself. The other guys were yapping quite a bit but I was riding off the front. A fixed gear goes at its own pace, based largely on its gearing. Mine was a tiny bit tall for the group's pace and I like to spin 90+ RPM, easier on the knees, you know, so I was frequently off the front and silent. (A rarity for me). Lacking the immediate and drastic physical challenge of foot-deep puddles with hidden rocks and sticks, this ride was more of a war of attrition against the trail, or some meditation training. I focused on efficiency, smoothing out my spin. On the fixed gear you can disappear into your bike and into the moment if you do that. It felt like my legs were moving in perfect circles and when everybody stopped talking after the first few hours, or when I stopped hearing them, I reached the fixie-induced Zen state, drops of sweat coming down my nose rhythmically and only the sound of breathing in my ears. I just camped out there for a while, in the Good Place. This is the best part of any ride, as I’m incapable of thought, good or bad. My mind is utterly empty, I simply enjoy the little pleasures of the moment. It makes up for the pain of riding, and is maybe made better by it; the pain forces a diversionary focus that seems to help draw the mind away from things unrelated to the ride. I like riding fixed because I can get to that place faster, and stay there longer, effortlessly.
I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft... As for me, give me a fixed gear! -- Henri DesgrangeNot that we lacked for challenges in the first bit. Trevor immediately hit a gate and had problems keeping his panniers on. Lord only knows how they rigged them up to stay in place – 440 cord, bubble gum and good wishes, apparently. Around the same time Timmy, who was riding a full suspension mountain bike, rode off a 3 foot drop, just to see what would happen. Predictably, he turned his rear wheel into an egg-shaped hoop. This came after 45 minutes of screwing around trying to get the tubeless MTB tire to hold air… Trevor broke a spoke along the way when he sucked a stick into the rear wheel, but miraculously did not break another over the next 150 miles, until after the ride when he was heading across D.C. to Jon's truck.
Orville Wright Works on Timmy's Egg-Wheeled Flying Machine
We stopped every 10 or 15 miles, to use the strategically placed porta-potties and hand pumps which pumped potable, if rusty, water. We ambled through the Paw-Paw tunnel with a couple ‘be seen’ bike headlights. In contrast to our June trip, the tunnel seemed warm and breeze-free – it was cooler and windy outside while the tunnel’s interior condition had changed little. Like so many things, it stays the same, but our perceptions of it evolve because we are in motion. We descended onto the boardwalk on the south side of the tunnel and then rolled down into the granite cut toward Hancock.
A little after mid-day, maybe 2:30, we rolled into Hancock. We’d dropped Pat and Tom, and about 10 miles from Hancock Trevor spotted a tarmac path that ran parallel to the trail. So we hopped onto that for a while and spun out fast, stopping at Hancock. That rail-to-trail paved path was a godsend – the last 10 miles or so up to it were maybe the most brutal part of the trip, I was so weary. In Hancock, the site of our earlier defeat, Trevor stopped in the bike shop to maybe get a spoke repaired and the rest of us went to Sheetz for some food, preparing to renew our attack. I got an amazing turkey sandwich there, and a bunch of munchies and some Gatorade and candy bars. Mmmmm. You can tell how close you are to a bonk by looking at your hands when you enter a convenience store. No, don’t look for shaking. Look for candy bars. If you are carrying three of the jumbo-sized candy bars up to the cash register without being aware of it, your body is crying out for carbs. Something I discovered on a 200 km randonee this spring was that on really really long rides, it pays to eat things other than sports food. Gu, Clif Bars and the like are great to keep you firing on all cylinders over a few hours. But if you want to go past 5 or 6, it helps to just eat plain old real food, and plenty of it, if your stomach can take it. Mine can, and I’m grateful for that. That turkey sandwich was like rocket fuel for me. I put two of the candy bars back and kept two, eating one with the turkey sandwich and some chips. It was good. Really, disproportionately good.
After a half hour or so in Hancock, with no sign of Tom and Pat, we rolled out for several more miles on the tarmac. I pulled a lot through this section as I did on the prior tarmac section. I am the Unholy Rouleur, and if there is anything I can do, it’s pull a paceline into a headwind on tar. Okay, let me clarify: it’s the only thing I can do. At one point we dropped Jon. Turns out he was falling asleep on his bicycle at 16-17 MPH. This is simply unimaginable; my butt was in agonizing pain at this point, and the only position that relieved it, an arched praying mantis humped back stance, crushed my family jewels really badly and I wasn’t about to spend any time slowing down to have a look behind me. As soon as we rolled back onto the gravel path, we stopped for a Butt Break, Jon told us he was falling asleep and laid down in the trail for a few minutes.
We've Got a Piper Down. I Repeat: a Piper is Down
We made it into a semi-improved (water pump, porta-john, fire ring) campsite near Williamsport around 5:30 PM, quickly got our bags unloaded, tents set up and a fire started. Pat and Tom rolled in maybe 45 minutes after we arrived. We got hot water going to cook up noodles and dehydrated camp meals, ate some grub, then sat around the fire in our camp clothes for an hour or so, sipping a little tequila and bourbon. And I mean sipping. Nobody got bombed, we were too tired. We all went to bed at 8:00, except for Tom, who wasn’t drinking and who went lights out at 7:00. Party animals, eh? I slept okay until about 5:00 AM, but woke up a lot during the night. My legs were restless. I also damn near choked when I got a whiff of myself in the morning after being zipped up tight in the heavy sleeping bag all night. Mmmmmmm… smells like… dead skunk's ass! I got up when I heard Trevor starting in on the fire. He’d have made a pretty good Paul Bunyan.
Dawn didn’t really break the next morning. It kind of plopped down on a big fat pillow of fog. It was impossible to see more than 10 feet with any clarity in the dark, and even when the sun came up visibility was limited to about 20 yards.
The Fog After Sunup
We started breaking camp around 6:15 or so, ate some breakfast around the campfire, packed the bikes, and were rolling sometime around 8:00. This part of the trip was pretty peaceful. We were gingerly sitting atop our saddles, wondering if the excruciating butt pain of the previous day had waned a bit: it had, helped by 'double bagging,' or wearing yesterday's shorts over this morning's tights. We were wondering if our legs would loosen up eventually: they did. We were wondering if the supply of Advil would hold up all day: it did, just. So on we rolled through the early morning, pleasantly surprised by a lot of things.
Along the way, the Designated Masler got in an argument with pretty much everybody about whether to wear his helmet. He didn’t want to, and some of the guys screwed with him mercilessly until he put it on. That was a good thing, though I rode off the front; I had no stomach for hearing people argue and bitch at that point. Later on in the day we hit a lot of little mud troughs in semi-dry puddles; with panniers on, these resulted in violent “tank slappers” and a number of near collisions, and I think Masler actually had a tipover and hit his head on something, though I might have been hallucinating at that point.
Eventually we rolled up on the short 6 mile road detour just past Williamsport. A portion of the Canal towpath had fallen into the Potomac during a flood, so the towpath is gone over a several mile long portion of the Potomac. The diversion was pleasant. I never thought I’d say this, but there were a couple hills to climb, and they were deeply enjoyable after 105 miles of dead flat gravel. There is a steep hill on the south side of the detour and I nearly slammed into Timmy when he stopped to turn onto the C&O again. There was a lot of mud in my brakes and they were completely ineffective, and my legs were shot and incapable of serious braking the fixie. But it was all good, we were soon back on the trail and suffering along at a decent pace, stopping every ten miles or so for butt breaks and food.
There was some drudgery. The winds south of Williamsport were significant in the places where tree cover was sparse. Somewhere along the way, I decided to ride over a downed tree. The front wheel wasn’t a problem, but the rear wheel – with an 80 PSI hybrid tire and mud packed into the weak treads, supporting 40 lbs of pannier – caused me to slide sideways and keel over on the tree. "Oh, the Humanity!" said Timmy. That hurt, as did a bruised up leg that bothered me for the rest of the day. Oh well. If you never crash, you aren’t riding hard enough. The suffering wasn't limited to crashing, however; the distance and lack of variation in the terrain made it a tough push all day:
John, Suffering Along the Potomac
About 10 miles from Harper’s Ferry, Pat’s derailer got sucked up into his wheel. He was very lucky that it didn’t tear out a bunch of spokes. Pat and Jon decided to stay on the side of the trail while Jon removed the derailer and the novel corkscrew derailer hanger, and attempted to rig it up into a single speed. The rest of us wheeled into Harper’s Ferry to load up on food for the group. We went to a sandwich shop and ordered grilled chicken sandwiches and cheeseburgers. I loaded up on a bacon cheeseburger and chips, and brought back a big peach & berry pie to share with the guys. You just can’t get enough calories on a ride like this. When we walked across the bridge onto the Maryland side, Jon and Pat wheeled in, and Jon started doing a bit more work on Pat’s rear drivetrain to get his newborn single speed in just the right gear, with a properly tensioned chain. Sixty miles on a newborn single speed is a long ride if you don’t have the right gearing, and is worse if you didn’t plan on riding single speed to begin with. The Designated Masler was okay with it though, and he hung in like a trooper.
Eventually, Jon got it fixed up. We ate the sandwiches and the pie, gave the leftover pie to some other guys who were making a shorter trip on the C&O, and then we started to roll south again. The headwind was brutal for several miles south of Harper’s Ferry, although the scenery was nice and it was sunny for a change. One odd feature was that a lot of people were out riding in just shorts and T-shirts or sweat shirts. It’s a testament to how hard we were riding that it seemed really cold to be in two or three layers plus tights – y’know how you get all shivery and cold when you’ve been riding hard? That was us.
I don’t remember a lot about the next 30 miles or so. We had another stop or two and then rolled into White’s Ferry, near Poolesville. The snack bar at the ferry ramp was mostly empty but I stocked up on a couple Gatorades, a water and some chips. Mmmmm… salty. We had about 35 miles to go, so we called home to let everybody know we’d be showing up in Georgetown around 6:30, and then started rolling. It seemed like this section of the trail was rougher than the others. Mainly our butts really hurt at this point, and our legs were tired. Pat talked a lot of smack about how he felt great and was ready to hammer it back into D.C., and after he set pace for a couple miles we were down to maybe 12 MPH. I drifted off the front a few times, tried to set pace, but it was hard. Everybody was struggling a bit, and I tend to crush a bit to keep my speed really steady, even if we’re going up an incline. It’s a roadie thing, right? Because I noticed our MTB racers just listen to their legs, and while I keep the speed steady, they kept their effort level steady. So I’d do 13.5 or 14 for a stretch, and wind up riding off the front every time we hit a little rise. Eventually I gave up and decided to just pace parallel with Trevor and let anybody who wanted to enjoy the luxury draft tuck in behind me.
After one more stop, we found ourselves at Great Falls. We got a good picture of the Falls:
The Upper Part of Great Falls
Some Guy With a Fat Head
And We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers
After that, we tried to pick our way through a fairly dense mass of fairly dense pedestrians. It was a real pain in the neck, imagine the usual travails of commuting on a multi-use trail, now add in heavily loaded bikes with large expedition panniers, very tired legs, cranky guys, and a sizable paceline. I took a long pull and then dropped to the back for a while. I started to get really impatient with the whiplash, however; slowing for peds then accelerating had a crit-like feel to it, and after 175 miles, I was not up for that. Our crew is mostly comprised of MTB’ers, strong ones at that. Yet although they train and commute road, they hold a pace in a different way than I’ve become accustomed to – they don’t seem to mind changes in pace as much. Me, I’m finicky as a French poodle with irritable bowel syndrome, and it got to me after a while. So when Jonathan sped off the front – pissed at the peds I found out later – I bridged up to him and we went 17.5 or so for 6 or 7 miles. It felt great to have that much left in the legs at the end of a brutal ride, and quite honestly, it makes it easier to do a long flat fixed gear ride like this if you mix up the effort level from time to time. Eventually we regrouped and his friends Mike and Brad (?) met up with us about 3 miles out from Georgetown. Tom had a little crash when a bush caught his drop bars, but the ride into Georgetown was otherwise uneventful.
We rendezvoused with our families at the excellent Pizzeria Paradiso, where we had some nice hoppy beers (Pliny) and some great pie. After an hour of that, it was off for home, a much needed shower, and some welcome sleep. It had been a good trip and we left it all out there on the trail. We were tested, and came through okay, even smiling a lot. It was one of the best rides I’ve ever been on, with a good group of guys. I’d do it again for sure. With a better saddle though. And maybe one of those articulated seatposts that Specialized sells. Man, my butt still hurts…
So why do this ride? Why did we do the ride, and for some of us, why inflict fixed gear rides on ourselves? There is only one possible answer. Because we did it. It's because it is who we are, it is what we do, and the C&O Trail is just what it is. A long ride teaches you to not analyze what it all means, to not worry about the meaning or everything else in your life. You have to take it one pedal stroke at a time, one bump in the trail at a time, one breath at a time. It's not about the fitness, about the challenge, about escape; it's not metaphor for life, if anything it'sjust a metaphor for a long bike ride. It has an intrinsic worth to it that is hard to define, but if you do a ride like this and understand it, believe in the ride beforehand and live it, you realize the journey's the thing. It's not about the externalities, it's simply about the journey - the suffering, the laughter, the massive quantities of food consumed, the busted up gears, the flat tires, the stiff headwinds, the damp clothes, and the stiff legs. This account of our trip then, isn't really for your pleasure. I'm setting it down and making a record of it to remember it for myself, and to help the guys remember how hard it was and how much fun it was. It's over now, we didn't prove anything or vindicate some larger purpose. Ultimately, we can only recall all the fun little moments that added up to a hell of a trip. We wanted to make a journey, and that's what we did.
There is something almost monkish about these cyclists, like pilgrims flagellating themselves on the long march to Santiago de Compostela or some such holy place.- George Vescey