Day two: Two wheels and a towpath, a trip down the C&O Canal

by | Oct 3, 2018 | Chris Muldrow, Columns

By Chris Muldrow / Fredericksburg Today
See part one | See part three

Part 2: The Detours

As we were eating dinner in Hancock, the three of us came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to wait around until 7:30 for the innkeeper to start serving breakfast. There was a marathon starting in the town Sunday morning, and we didn’t want to get caught up, and we wanted to allow more than enough time to reach Harper’s Ferry to catch a shuttle van to our hotel that evening.

So we got permission to raid the fridge at the B and B, Nick made coffee for himself and for some of the runners prepping for their race, and we rolled out before the sun was fully up.

Our first 10 miles went super fast. We were still on the paved surface of the WMRT, and we were riding in a paceline where two riders could draft behind the third. We switched places every mile or so. With nobody on the trail in the early hours, it was easy to pick up speed.

We were even able to maintain the paceline for the first few miles of the trail. Then the lead rider started calling out “slick” or “limb” or “water” or “treeeee!” more frequently, and we had to maintain more distance between bikes to avert disaster. Even though we had all gotten better at riding the mud, it still caused abrupt changes in speed or even ground us to a halt from time to time, and if we were bunched up too close we’d pile up into a woodland fender bender.

It also became clear that everyone’s calories from breakfast had not fully kicked in. We had planned the night before to grab a second breakfast hobbit-style in Williamsport, Md., and it turns out that a trail washout caused our first detour of the day on the road right into Williamsport. We climbed a hill into town to the Desert Rose Café, which sells fresh baked goods as well as spare tubes, first aid gear and other emergency goods. They also fill up bottles for cyclists with fresh water.

We also ran into a group of cyclists from New Zealand who were starting in Williamsport on their way to DC. They asked if we had a shuttle to go around Dam 4, where they said the trail was apparently under 4 feet of water. Another person said there was an 8-mile detour that was, as he put it, “up and down and up and down.”

We had no shuttle, so we spent the next few miles dreading the Detour From Hell and slogging through some of the worst trail conditions we would see on the trip. Sure enough, when we reached the detour, we rolled onto a bit of pavement and immediately had to climb a hill that reminded us of our first day’s trek up to our hotel.

But then we got on a fairly empty, gently rolling road through the Maryland countryside. It was fast, it was not too steep and best of all, it wasn’t muddy. Except for the part that was covered with a foot and a half of water. When a family out walking the road said a truck had just driven through the water (it was marked as a closed road), we decided to take our chances and barrel through. The water washed off the bikes, at least temporarily, and we rolled on what ended up being a 7-mile detour to cover 5 miles of trail distance—not a bad tradeoff for the road’s kindness to our legs.

Our original plan was to stop in Shepherdstown, WV to eat, but as we crossed under the tall bridge to the town, we stopped and assessed our condition. We had food with us, we had eaten in Williamsport, and we didn’t have that far to go to reach Harpers Ferry.

We also ran into two women who were leaving the trail at the Shepherdstown bridge. They had been traveling from Cumberland, as well, but left the day before we did (and they were camping). They had gotten caught in a rainstorm on their first day, and they had also apparently forded the water at one of the detours we had gone around. They were towing big gear trailers, and one of them had broken her derailleur so was stuck with one gear. They were fed up and ready to go home, so they gave us two bottles of water and the best can of Coke I’ve ever had. With that fuel, we decided to skip Shepherdstown and keep rolling, including a little on-the-road stretch of 3 miles that I knew about that ran along the trail.

That last stretch to Harpers Ferry was tough on me. I think my brain had been planning for a big meal, and I was stuck with the snacks I had on me, and I also had been on that stretch of the towpath before so it had the uneasy “are we there yet” déjà vu around every curve. But we eventually rounded the curve and saw the town on the opposite side of the Potomac (which was still boiling and raging over its banks).

We had to carry our bikes and gear over a bridge into the city. We had arranged for a shuttle at 6 and had gotten there a little before 5, but everyone was too tired to do much sightseeing. We called the shuttle driver and got him to pick us up early (our hotel was in Charles Town, WV, down a freeway that we didn’t want to try to navigate on fully laden bikes). We loaded the bikes into the van, got to the hotel, and eventually discovered that the pool was heated and just right for sore muscles.

We had dinner that night, knew we’d get a hearty breakfast at the hotel in the morning, and prepared to get rest for one more day in the saddle.

See part one | See part three

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