On Sunday I fell in with bad company and rode the Tour de Patapsco, or half of it anyway, from the Eastern end of the park out to the Western end at the McKeldin Area, mostly on dirt. It was a hell of an adventure. The distance wasn't that long, only about 23 miles, but there was a lot packed into that mileage. The goal is to stick to dirt as much as possible, whether the dirt is an IMBA-spec, bench cut length of smooth flowing singletrack, or a muddy straight line bushwhack down a 60 degree grade, slipping and sliding and trying not to lose your footing as you roll your bike with your right hand and hold onto tree branches with the left.
Joe Whitehair has a pretty good discussion of the TdP here. It is fair to call it a Big Boy ride. You don't have to be a great rider or super fit to do it, but you probably need to be in pretty decent shape and have at decent, intermediate level skills, and perhaps most importantly good judgment about what you can, and can't do at any given level of exhaustion. The up and down is pretty much constant, there are a lot of steep hills, a lot of the downs are a little (to very) sketchy, and the rider has to make some tough judgment calls. There is quite a bit of hike-a-bike, even if you're strong and climb like a goat. You need to pack more food and water than you'd expect. A one-way trip is a solid 4 hours. Two ways, 7 if you're real strong and don't have any mechanicals, 8-9 for mortals.
What are the tough judgments? Here's a sample. "Do I ride down this super rocky, nasty grade that I think I could just about make, or take my lumps and walk (like those two guys who are super strong MTB racers). "Am I comfortable riding on this railroad bridge to get to the next trail section? There's no much bailout here." "That is one tall, slimy, off-camber log. Should I ride it or just do a quick dismount and hop?" "Hmmm... what's a good point to ford this river?" "Am I willing to cut across a piece of (maybe) private land to avoid a 200 yard bushwhack?" "Do I have enough food?" And, "I have a borderline mechanical failure here. I think I can make the bike last another 3 hours. Should I keep riding or bail out?"
In short, you have to be self reliant and understand that your actions have consequences that will stretch pretty far into the day. It is an adventure ride, not a loop around well groomed trails. Along with the downside risks, comes commensurate rewards.
We started the day by leaving my truck at McKeldin. A few of us were trying this for the first time and as intermediate level riders knew we were potentially weak links in a crew that included three very hot local expert MTB racers, and a few *extremely* strong guys who had made the trip a few times before. *Extremely* strong as in "ride up hills that are difficult to walk up." I think five of us were NooBs, with one of the NooBs also looking to be a super strong rider. So my worries set in early that I'd be a huge drag on the group. (Full disclosure: I am not known as a strong climber).
It wasn't bad from the start though. We headed out from the CCBC tennis courts with about 13 folks. Off we went on Santee, then down NuCharcoal. We had to stop for a brief tire valve-related mechanical, then continued on over to Hilltop via Sawmill, then out onto the road, turning right on the tarmac (instead of left down toward Buzzards) and making a left onto a disused looking stretch of singletrack. That took us down to the creek over a bunch of logs and through some terrain resembling the river below Nuns - but I'd never been here before though it was clearly in the Park. From there we came out into some fields with some nasty gravel up downs, thence into tall grass. We skirted a farm, pushing up and down through grass and a powerline-like climb, and onto some singletrack. From there we dropped down onto river, then quickly up Old Frederick and left into the woods again. There was a tough gravel climb, then some mushy bench cut trail that I kept sliding off, then down a steep rocky / slippery face, onto the Trolley Trail in Ellicott City. From there it was up the river a ways, across a little wood bridge, across a damn, then hike-a-bike up a log-strewn trail to Oella; then back into the woods and climbing again into some nice neighborhood double track, where kids had made some jumps.
One of our number split his frame at or prior to this point and had to abandon. From there... well, it gets hazy. I recall a long climb, a steep descent among powerlines, JN almost getting run over by a big doe, another long powerline climb, then a whole bunch of singletrack. After a bunch of up-down, we rode a long singletrack descent down to the river near Rt. 40, just East of the Hollofield Area. After making our way across the temporary bridge, we bushwhacked up to a small trail, then up from a river overlook up steep stairs, and a steep climb to a pavillion with running water. After a nice break, we took off down the park road, under 40, and onto a lot more single track climbing. Once on top, we traversed the ridge, and headed into a steeply wooded area. Everybody had to roll bikes with one hand, and grip trees with the other to get down to the railroad tracks area. We then rolled maybe a mile on the heavy rock fill adjacent to the tracks, before crossing and cutting upwards yet again.
This was pretty tough for me. I'd brought the geared bike, which was a good choice, because on some of the really long climbs when I was tired the near-granny gears offered a nice bailout, allowing me to keep moving and also recovered. I was generally - maybe 4/5ths of the time - the last guy into a rest point, but seemingly managed to blend hikes with riding well enough to not screw up the group. It was damned hard work; there were a lot of steep bits resembling the steepest bits in Patapsco/Avalon / Glen Artney, only a lot longer. The compensation is I could make up a lot of time on the downs (catching the middle of the group for sure, not JPoz or P. Miller... but still). It is a bit of a point of pride, that one of the other guys commented there weren't any weak links on the ride. I still received a lot of charity from the fast guys though, and to them I am duly grateful.
After we got through Hollofield we moved into the Daniels area and then the best part of the ride began. Daniels started unobtrusively, with a sort of mildly wet singletrack climb. It was the nice sort of climb that strikes you as a stretch of trail that would be a blast to ride in the other direction, on a bone dry day. After a long, long up, we cruised across a pleasant single and double track ridge for a while, then into a series of up-downs which could just about be rolled, with little hike-a-bike. At the end of that we hit a 5+ minute downhill run of the sweetest, most flowing single track, through what felt like a primordial forest filled with huge trees, ferns, and other ancient-looking undergrowth. This stretch was fairly quiet, fast flowing, and a sense of the magnificence of the old forest filled me. The trail wasn't perfectly smooth, there were some logs to be dodged or cross as appropriate, some drops, and some babyheads, but it was just right, it was magical. At the rail trail following that section we split up with the three seriously seriously fast guys taking off, and the rest of us boogieing down the trail toward McKeldin.
A bit further on, we forded the Patapsco, and then got into a nice flowing section of trail, the new White blazed through trail. Now some call the whole route the Thru Trail, but the park only recognizes the trail linking Daniels to McKeldin as the Through Trail. It's a nice trail with a lot of potential, a bit bumpy and a bit soft in spots, but it has huge potential because of the ribbony, flowing arcs it cuts into the hillside it traverses. It also has a couple of those long, flowing downhill sections on it, and a flowing roller coaster section that would be a blast to ride if your legs were even half fresh.
At this point I had settled into a comfortable pace with Carl and Baler, and we cruised on into McKeldin, eventually linking up with a couple guys who had gotten a few minutes ahead of us. There we parted ways, with the full TdP crew heading for the overlook and a water break, and five of us heading out, with 4.5 hours of ride time and maybe 4500 feet of climbing, and 23 miles, under our belts.
It doesn't sound impressive but it was as physically draining as a 4 hour enduro race, perhaps even more tiring as the hike-a-bike and bushwhacking added new layers of exhaustion into the mix. The guys who did the whole thing also had their share of adventures. I heard tales today about an impossible 400 meter bushwhack, and also about a tire (booted earlier in the ride) that blew out completely, necessitating an emergency visit from the rider's buddy, who also brought ice cold water and as importantly, ice cold beer. Those guys all finished the ride, with a bit over 50 hard miles behind them on the day.
In addition to opening my eyes to some new trails, the ride opened my eyes to some possibilities. The nice IMBA style trails I usually ride are wonderful, they are great basic skill builders. But an MTB can take you to a lot of places that aren't exactly groomed or couth or civilized. It can carry you on a trip to a destination, maybe even if you have to bushwhack or carry it a bit, or ride a bit of rail trail or even down a few hundred yards of railroad track to get to the next trailhead. I've always viewed a road bike as having that sort of touring utility, but it never really hit me that a mountain bike can be the same thing, only in the back woods. It's not just a toy, it's a vehicle that helps move you around to places. And along the way, there are probably some sweet trails to shred. This is like getting a free shot of Van Gogh with your tiramisu; dessert atop dessert. It's not just about the destination, it's about how you get there. And even as spinning around parks go, I think that a McKeldin / Daniels ride is going to be on my radar from now on. Those trails are too good to let alone, and definitely the equal of many of the trails in Avalon.
In sum, it was a great day, amazingly hard, amazingly fun, and something that will give me inspiration to be trained up and ready to go next summer, to ride the whole way. It's probably not everybody's cup of tea but if you are up for a hard day's riding, and something more rewarding than the typical engine test provided by spinning around the same 10 miles of groomed single track, it's worth hitting the MORE message board and asking around about routes, when people are going, and so on.