The rail trail is my world. No cars, only cyclists and hikers.
I was an avid cyclist living in Denver Colorado and I rode at least once every day. We did long distance road rides and technical mountain biking. We would travel to Moab, Utah twice a year and I raced in the 24 hours of Moab. In 2004 a job opportunity moved me to Charlottesville, VA and my cycling experience changed. In Denver I could leave my house and safely bike 40 or more miles on paved trails connecting to mountain roads with big shoulders. The road outside of my neighborhood in Virginia has a 55 mph speed limit and no shoulders. From time to time I saw a few brave souls attempt it and one of my neighbors did get hit by a car. I would drive over near Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, early on Sunday mornings and ride through the back country roads when there were few cars to contend with. What I did contend with on those rides were lots of dogs including a Rottweiler that wasn’t at all happy that I entered his territory. With time I rode less and less and gained more and more weight.
I was sharing my frustration with both my weight gain and my lack of engagement in the sport I loved with my friend Scott from Colorado and we talked about a ride I saw from Pittsburgh to DC on a converted rail trail. About a week later I get a call from Scott saying, “get in shape, Mike and I are flying into Pittsburgh and we’re going to ride the rail trail from Pittsburgh to DC with you”. This was the goal I needed. I couldn’t let the guys down. I did some minor modifications to my hard tail mountain bike adding thinner tires, fenders, a rack and I raised the handlebars.
I started riding everyday on an 8 mile loop within my neighborhood building up from one lap to four. I was watching what I ate and dropped 40 pounds in 12 weeks. I wasn’t in peak condition but I was plenty ready for the ride. Details of my weight loss Bicycling for Weight Loss.
It didn’t take long at all for me to fall in love with the rail trails. After all, it was my world. No cars just people biking and walking and running. There wasn’t 4,000 pounds of steel heading for me with a texting driver. I could go as fast or as slow as I want to and everyone I see seems to have a great big smile on their face. I can relax, get into a rhythm and achieve that euphoric state where I don’t even feel like I’m pedaling, I’m just along for the ride.
Pennsylvania is a hilly place but railroads needed to have reasonable grades so while you’re climbing to the Eastern Continental Divide it’s a slight grade over a long distance
and the best part is that there are lots of bridges and tunnels. I don’t know what it is about riding over those narrow railroad bridges that is so much fun but we were grinning from ear to ear. I absolutely loved the tunnels. I’ve been in short tunnels to ride under highways but these were old, long narrow railroad tunnels. It was an experience I never had before and once again it was my world; no cars and I was riding through really long tunnels!
On the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD the old train stations were converted into bicycle rest stops. You could stop for a break, find food, water and other items and meet people from the local towns. Speaking of the towns, the revitalization of these small towns, driven by the traffic brought in by the bike trail was so wonderful to see. This was the rust belt, big industry was gone and so were the jobs. Now there were bike shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts and even kids with their lemonade / Gator Aid stands.
In Rookwood, PA we stayed in a Hostel that catered to cyclists and was an advocate and investor in maintaining the trail.
In Hancock, MD we stayed at a bike shop along the trail. For $10 you got a hot shower and a dry, bug free place to sleep. As it turned out, dry was very important as there were some unbelievable thunder storms that night.
We met some of the nicest people along the way both on the trail and in the towns. Everyone wanted to know where you’re from and how far you were riding. In West Newton, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, an older gentleman asked, “are yinz going all the way to DC?” with that true Western PA accent which I love hearing since it’s where I grew up. Because the railroads ran through small towns supplies and restaurants were easy to come by. The overall scenery was amazing. You were in the woods my most of the ride so it was shaded and cooler. You ran along rivers and canals and lots of history.
It did rain and there was mud in sections especially on the C&O canal trail so you need to be prepared for changing conditions. Amazingly we didn’t have a single technical issue with any of the bikes. Not even a flat tire. Given the Hostels and camping cabins you can get by with just a sleeping bag and sleep pad so you don’t need to carry much. Make sure you have your camera as you’ll find plenty of opportunity to take pictures. You’ll see more wild life being away from the road and if you’re lucky, you may even see a bear. We heard the bear story from another biker that was staying at the bike shop. She was riding the trail alone and felt perfectly safe doing it. We shot videos of the 6 day ride. Watch a few and you’ll be ready to put your ride together. Day 3 from Rockwood, PA to Cumberland, MD was my favorite. Did I mention no cars?