Cycling the Erie Canal – Q&A, Lessons Learned

Some people may be stumbling across this blog looking to ride the canal themselves, or perhaps they’re thinking of doing their first long-distance bike trip.  I’ll share some of my thoughts and experiences.

Also, I’ve received a lot of questions from people and some are common.  I’ll put a few brief answers together here.

If you’d like to contact me about other questions or comments on the ride, please feel free to do so.  You can reach me at: matt@coriale.org.

Q: “Why go all the way to New York for this ride?  Isn’t there something close you could have done?”

A: We live in Lexington, Kentucky, so New York is quite a distance away.  I was familiar with about 30 miles of the canal path near Rochester from when I used to ride during high school and college.  As I’ve gotten older, I now strongly prefer paths to “on-road” riding for safety reasons, so the idea of a path that largely took us across the whole state was very attractive.  Also, the scenery near the canal is excellent, and the history of the canal made for an interesting backdrop of the ride.

One other consideration is that I wanted to minimize the number of hills for this ride.  The canal path, like a rails-to-trails path, is fairly flat.

Q: “Where can I get information about riding the canal?”

A: There are several decent books out there.  I skimmed a couple but only bought one: the “Cycling the Erie Canal” guidebook.  It is available at: www.ptny.org/guidebook/index.html

This book is an excellent guidebook, with lots of information about great things to see and the canal path itself.  For a trail-map, it is all you’ll need.  Note: I would definitely NOT say that it is sufficient, however, as you get into the cities and on-road segments.

On our journey, we encountered several other bikers on the trail using this same guidebook.  Everyone I talked with agreed that the city-maps were insufficient to safely navigate your way through the cities.  I very strongly recommend that if you are riding by yourself, that you obtain very detailed street directions and maps for ANY part of the trail that goes through the towns and cities, even just a few blocks.  When you get to areas where the trail ends and resumes a few blocks or miles away, the signage and marking is not very clear at all.   I can’t stress this point enough.

Having your localized maps ready for the on-road segments is crucial to making your trip more enjoyable.  Otherwise, you may end up in one of the towns hoping to run across someone who can point you in the right direction, many times over.

To be fair, the guidebook does have blow-ups of the streets for the cities.  However, the maps don’t detail many of the street names, and in some cases, the street names change along the length of it.  You also don’t have a feel for how busy these streets are from looking at the map: a quiet country road looks the same as a busy four-lane highway without shoulders.  We learned that lesson the hard way.

Q: “I didn’t realize you were a serious biker.”

A: I’m not.  Until this year, I had not ridden a bike more than 3 miles in the last 15-20 years.  I am living proof that you can get in shape, if you’re willing to put in the effort.  In fact, when we started our training in March, after our first real three mile ride, I had to sit down on the grass because I was dizzy and out of breath.  My wife came over to ask me if I was ok.  Only three miles.  We had a long way to go.

Q: How did you train?”

A:  We began in March, once the weather started getting nicer.  We rode a couple of miles at a time to learn how to ride a tandem bike, and to get in shape slowly and carefully.

Over the next few weeks, we rode a couple of miles at a time, every other day.  Then the goal was five miles at a time, every other day.  We would mix in a fun goal, like riding to McDonalds to get an ice cream cone and then home.  Soon, we were easily able to do five miles and needed to bump up our training.  As soon as AM was out of school for the summer, we started riding ten miles every other day and twenty to forty on the weekend.  Progress was very slow at first, but with persistence, we finally got ready.

In the last few weeks before the ride, we tried to ride at least five mornings each week, even if we only had time for ten miles or so.  That sounds like a lot, but ten miles goes quickly.  We also tried to ride even when the weather was bad.  This turned out to be crucial to our success, since we had learned how to deal with rain and wind.  Our second day’s ride would have been much worse if we had not learned to ride in the rain.

On one of our training rides, we found ourselves in an unexpected and very serious storm still several miles from home, with no shelter in sight.  We were prepared with emergency rain gear and rode it out to get home.  Only as we approached home did we really grasp how bad the storm was – a tree had been blown over in our neighborhood due to the winds.  God was definitely watching over us that day.

Q: “Why ride a tandem (a bicycle built-for-two)?”

A: I knew that my physical condition and my daughter’s would not be matched to each other.  On a tandem, our abilities are tied together since the two sets of pedals are physically chained together.  That was one significant factor.  The other factor is that this was about spending time together and achieving a goal together.  The tandem was the perfect opportunity to do just that.  We bought a well-used tandem to try it out.

I had never ridden a tandem before, but I’m now a tandem nut.  I have loved what it has brought to this experience and I would definitely choose to use a tandem again.  I’ve been salivating at upgrading to a nicer bike as I look towards hopefully many more years of riding with both of my daughters.  (Epilogue: I’ve completed a full rebuild of the tandem and it rides like a new bike.  Pretty much every moving part has been replaced and/or rebuilt.  What a difference that made, I wish I had done the rebuild before our ride.)

One other note about our bike choice: for the canal path, I strongly recommend a hybrid bike (a cross between a mountain bike’s robustness with a street-bike’s design).  Some parts of the path are smooth, and some parts are like riding in the woods, complete with lots of debris that you’ll ride over.  The thru-Rochester segment is probably fine with a road-bike, but once you get closer to Newark and east, I would strongly recommend against using road-bike.

I also was very relieved to be riding on Kevlar tires.  One person we’d talked to had three flats in the span of one morning.  We were fortunate to avoid any flat tires on the entire duration of the ride.

Q: Why didn’t you camp along the way?”

A: Mostly due to the planning aspects.  It might have been more cost effective to do so, but I had my hands full just planning the on-bike segments.  We have never done a long-duration bike ride before, so there was enough to learn just about the bike riding.

If we do this again, I may try to solicit help from someone to help with camping details and/or have my wife meet us each night with a pop-up trailer.

There are plenty of places you can camp or “stealth camp” in the woods.  But packing the extra weight of a tent, sleeping-bags, and such, would have required us to probably be in even better shape than we were.

One other serious consideration: a shower might seem optional until you’ve been coated in sunblock all day, caked with dirt, and smell awful.  I think the price of the hotel room may have been worth it just to get clean!

Q: What would you do differently?”

A: Many things.  That is not to say that I don’t consider this trip very successful.  The biggest thing I would do is to try to have a better set of maps and a better plan for navigating around Utica and Rome.  If we do this again, I need to find an alternate way around those two cities and/or plan to arrive at different times of the day.

I would also see about trying to start earlier each day.  We typically were on-bike around 8-9AM each day.  We rode between 4 and 5 hours each day, which still left time for some sightseeing, but not enough.  Also, the midday heat was pretty tough some days and zaps the energy out of me.  Leaving earlier each day would have really helped that a lot.

The other thing I would do is to try to find a way to start training a month or two earlier.  If we do this again, I will probably try to engage in “spinning” classes during the winter before the trip.

The last big thing I would change is to try to work in a rest-day or two, especially with younger kids.  Our abbreviated day in Utica really helped my daughter’s fatigue level.

Q: Why didn’t you just join the annual ‘Cycling the Erie Canal’ ride put on by the New York Parks and Trails ?”

A:  This tour (see: http://www.ptny.org/canaltour/) looks fabulous.  I’ve talked with some riders from this tour and they always have a great time.  I am seriously considering it for the future.  But there are a couple of reasons we didn’t join this tour: 1) they go well over 50 miles on some days.  That’s a lot for a 13-year-old.  Our rides were typically between 40 and 48 miles each day.  2) we wanted the trip to focus on our time together, not so much on a group ride.  We had an extremely peaceful ride, with very few exceptions, and this gave us the time to enjoy each other and the scenery more.  Some days, we only saw as few as four other riders the whole day of our riding.  Being on our own pace made this a very relaxing trip.

Q: Would you do it again?”

A: In a word: absolutely!  I’m already thinking about it.  My younger daughter says that she wants to do something like this when she gets a little bigger and stronger.  I don’t know if we’ll do the Erie Canal, or some other multi-day bike trip.  I’m going to keep my eyes open for other great opportunities.  The Erie was really great, but there might be other experiences out there that could be just as nice.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog.  With this, I am done writing about this ride and looking forward to another adventure some time in the future.

Peace.

– Dc. Matt (& AMC)

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