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  1. #1
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    184 Miles on a dirt path -C&O Canal, anyone familiar?

    OK, I am usually a roadie, but I'm doing a charity ride for Alzhiemers Association.

    I was told that the whole path was mostly flat.

    I currently have a hardtail Mountain bike (Jamis Cross County 1.0) which I plan to put less knobby tires in hopes that I roll faster (26 X 1.75). But I am also contemplating a Hybrid (Giant Cypress or Trek 7000?). I was wondering if this can help with comfort and speed. I was told that 700c tires may make a difference in such a distance. Any info/tips will be helpful. My choices are to use my current Mt. Bike or trade it for a hybrid.

    I've been to sites about the C&O canal that were somewhat helpful (a yahoo group and bikewashington.org) but there was no real opinion or anything resembling an answer to my question.

    I'd like to add that I've gone on a trial run on part of the path and could barely go 12MPH - Most discussions I see mention averaging 13-14mph.
    Not sure if my computer is just off. I guess this is the reason I am contemplating 700cc tires. I cycle quite often (obviously Road bikes are faster) and average around 15-17mph on my rides(usually around 20 -30 miles). And that's with some hills.
    Thanks
    Last edited by afflatus; 07-28-06 at 09:50 PM.

  2. #2
    Approaching Nirvana megaman's Avatar
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    Check out www.traillink.com look under Maryland and read the reviews. Some of the reviewers leave their email address. When I review a trail, I do so people can email me questions.
    "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits."
    -- Albert Einstein

  3. #3
    Senior Member balto charlie's Avatar
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    Hey: Many use mnt bikes with knobbies but a road bike with 700x32s will work. Less tread is faster than a lot of knobbies. You don't want to max out the pressure in the tires. Less than maximum will give you a much better ride as the trail can have a few bumps/ruts. A road bike will be much faster than either a hybrid or mnt bike. I prefer to ride it on a touring bike with 700x35s, slick/semi slick tires. As far as comfort goes I think everyone has their preferences. I am much more comfortable on my touring bike than mnt bike for long rides. 12-15mph is considered normal speeds for this trail with many riders much lower. I wouldn't change my bike if it fits comfortably. I would change the tires to 1.50" insted of 1.75". If you have a road bike that can handle a thicker 700(say 32 or 35) then try that route.
    it's a nice trails, stop in Harpers Ferry for a custard ice cream(yum), don't worry about the speed. It's friggin hot there now, should hit 100F(38C) by Tuesday of this week.

  4. #4
    Lost in Boyce
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    I just rode about 10 miles of the C&O on Sunday morning, and I would not advise a road bike for that trail. Hybrids and mtn bikes would be much much better. I averaged about 10 mph comfortably, with stretches of a few miles at 13 - 15 on a mtn bike. It is tough in some places to ride fast, with other traffic and some narrow places. The humidity yesterday was a real monster, and I cannot imaging even trying to ride it today or tomorrow.

  5. #5
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    Afflatus -- I rode the entire canal over 4 days in July on a charity ride. I used a hybrid with 700x35 tires and found it very comfortable. Many others rode mountain bikes which might have been nicer in the muddy bits, but otherwise were a little slower. There is one on the road detour (since there is no towpath in that section) if that tips the scales against mountain bikes. Either a hybrid or a mountian bike would work quite reasonably, I would not suggest a road bike since trail conditions can vary a good bit.

    From Cumberland to G'town the canal has an unnoticable downhill slope. The only place you will see a hill is at the locks and those are only about 8-10 feet high. The on road detour has a few hills but nothing major. The only hills you are likely to encounter will be if you leave the canal for hotels or campsites where you have to climb out of the valley. Other websites will give you many more specifics on trail conditions, but generally I found the western end of the towpath to be fairly smooth and pleasant riding. The section from about mile 50 to mile 20 can be the muddiest, but obviously the whole towpath is affected by recent weather. From about mile 20 to G'town the trail sees a lot of wear and I found the surface to be some of the bumpiest and roughest. Some of that may have been caused by the flooding and huge rains at the end of June so that might not be an issue once reapairs are made.

    As you probably already know practice rides on dirt and gravel will make the towpath seem easier if you are used to the extra bumps and vibration. Enjoy your ride, it is certainly a pleasant tour to to for a good cause.
    God grant me the serenity to accept the hills and winds I cannot change;
    courage to challenge the cagers I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
    (with apologies to AA)
    24 mi. roundtrip -- Maryland suburbs to DC and back.

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    C&O Experience

    Be sure to bring a light for the Paw Paw tunnel. It's fairly dark inside. The hybrid/Mtn Bike suggestions are right on as the path is bumpy. I did the trail one year ago and it's a great ride. Enjoy!

  7. #7
    Senior Member balto charlie's Avatar
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    A road bike can handle the trail just like a hybrid if both run 700x35 tires. A road bike with 23s is a different story.

  8. #8
    Seņor Member USAZorro's Avatar
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    Walk the bike through Paw Paw tunnel. A hybrid would be ok - a tourer with wide tires would work. A couple years ago when we rode the trail, there was one stretch of about 2 miles across the river from a power plant where they used some stones that were too large on the path. That stretch (if it is still in that state) was challenging even on a mountain bike. I wouldn't try to ride that stretch one any sort of road bike - regardless of tire width.
    The search for inner peace continues...

  9. #9
    train safe buelito's Avatar
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    A few years ago, a friend and I did the whole canal, from Cumberland to DC in 13 1/2 hours (we left Cumberland at 5:00 am and rolled into Georgetown at 6:30 pm)-- on mountain bikes (time included stops). We averaged around 15 mph. The bikes were a (mine) rigid 1980's vintage mountain bike, with a 46 tooth chainring, and his (a dual suspension Litespeed). I wish I had had front suspension, as my arms were pretty tired from the bouncing around, but otherwise, the bikes worked really well. We were self-contained-- had a rack with a bag on it to carry our supplies. Wore camelbacks and had 2 bottles to minimize stops. We did fill up along the way, and kept our stops to a minimum.

    On the other hand, when my brother was a boy scout, back in the 70's, they rode the canal on 10 speed bikes. My guess is the tires were probably 27 inch x 1 1/4 inch (roughly like a 700x28 or 700x32) and they had no problems at all (and that was back in the days before mountain bikes were around).

    My advice-- use the bike you are most comfortable with, and enjoy it. The mountain bike can go fast--keep it in the higher gears and you should have no problem-- on the other hand, what has been mentioned above is true- the paved part will be better on a road bike -- but it isn't bad on the mountain bike.

    train safe-

  10. #10
    Senior Member balto charlie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by buelito
    A few years ago, a friend and I did the whole canal, from Cumberland to DC in 13 1/2 hours (we left Cumberland at 5:00 am and rolled into Georgetown at 6:30 pm)-- on mountain bikes (time included stops). We averaged around 15 mph. The bikes were a (mine) rigid 1980's vintage mountain bike, with a 46 tooth chainring, and his (a dual suspension Litespeed). I wish I had had front suspension, as my arms were pretty tired from the bouncing around, but otherwise, the bikes worked really well. We were self-contained-- had a rack with a bag on it to carry our supplies. Wore camelbacks and had 2 bottles to minimize stops. We did fill up along the way, and kept our stops to a minimum.

    On the other hand, when my brother was a boy scout, back in the 70's, they rode the canal on 10 speed bikes. My guess is the tires were probably 27 inch x 1 1/4 inch (roughly like a 700x28 or 700x32) and they had no problems at all (and that was back in the days before mountain bikes were around).

    My advice-- use the bike you are most comfortable with, and enjoy it. The mountain bike can go fast--keep it in the higher gears and you should have no problem-- on the other hand, what has been mentioned above is true- the paved part will be better on a road bike -- but it isn't bad on the mountain bike.

    train safe-

    Hey Buelito: This is what I am planning this year. I was gonna do it in June but family vacation stopped that, then July rolled around and got set again but the heat got nasty. I am running out of time to complete it in without lights. I know I can't maintain 15 mph for 186 miles. I'm thinking 13 mph. I was going to ride it on my tourer with 700x35 tires. It's my most comfortable bike. My a$$ starts to hurt on the mnt bike when I go over 100 miles. Any info you feel relevant please pass my way. Thanks Charlie

  11. #11
    train safe buelito's Avatar
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    Hi Charlie-
    Attached is the ride report I wrote in August 2002 for our ride down the C&O... if you need more info, let me know-

    enjoy the trip! (I would recommend you find someone to do it with--that's a long ride alone).

    train safe-


    Tony sent out a note asking who would be interested in riding the
    C&O Canal from end to end…in one day. I had done it over 3 days
    some 12 years ago, with a large group, where we spent nights in
    Hancock and Harper's Ferry, and saw a lot of Civil War re-enactors
    along route. That time it was more of a `tourist' ride; we stopped
    at every waterfall, stopped at most sights and rode easy. It was a
    lot of fun, and with only around 60-65 miles a day, it left a lot of
    time to check out the towns we spent the nights in. This would be
    decidedly different. I told Tony I was interested, but didn't
    confirm my `slot' until Thursday…we were leaving Friday night for
    Cumberland. No one else opted in. So it was just Tony and me. I
    have had several great rides with Tony, so I knew we were well
    suited for each other and that we could ride hard if necessary
    without fear of the other being dropped.

    Friday we left Reston around 7:30 pm for the drive to Cumberland.
    We pulled into the hotel around 10 and went in search of something
    to eat… Tony being British, we did the `fish and chips' routine, at
    Long John Silver. Not quite what he was used to, as they also
    included hushpuppies…that Southern specialty known for filling one
    up before one can order… Anyway, we left a wake-up call for 4:15
    am. We figured we would need about 13-14 hours to ride the length
    of the Canal, from Cumberland to Georgetown…advertised as 186
    miles. 4:15 came awfully early. We stumbled around, went into
    the lobby to get the free coffee and found their complimentary
    breakfast was served! What a surprise! We then drove back into
    Cumberland and parked in the Holiday Inn. At 5:35 am we left the
    car and were on our way.

    I should mention a little bit of trivia—we were both riding top-of –
    the-line bikes. Tony with a LiteSpeed, circa 2001, and I with
    a "Performance Aspen", circa 1987. Tony with full suspension…mine
    with (what is suspension and what would you use it for?)...well,
    let's say mine with `no fancy stuff'. I understand where the term
    hardtail comes from. Also mangled wrists and sore elbows, but that
    is for later.

    Tony had a headlamp, and I had a battery-powered light on my
    handlebars (which of course refused to turn on…). We rode by the
    light of Tony's light for the first hour or so, until the sun came
    out. When we stopped, it was only to put the light away, go to the
    bathroom, and get back on the bikes. Two hours after starting, at
    7:30 we were at the Paw-Paw tunnel. The tunnel is about a kilometer
    long, and pitch black inside. Tony started first, without lights,
    and about a third of the way in decided he was going to fish his
    light out of his camelback. I decided to see if my light would
    decide to cooperate, and pushed the button…there was light! I
    pulled ahead of Tony and led the way through the brick-lined tunnel
    to the finish. It was remarkable. To think how they built that
    thing, and then pulled barges through it… tough life back then.

    We rode most of the day side-by side, as the terrain really didn't
    lend itself to drafting. Too many bumps, roots, rocks, holes...you
    name it, it was there. I realize now why mountain bikes have front
    suspensions. My arms shook all the way down the path. The biggest
    hazard we faced was the deer. There were hundreds of them. I'm
    sure we saw over a hundred in the first 30 miles alone. That and
    the blue heron, the hawk, the countless squirrels (even a black
    one), the odd raccoon and other nameless rodents. Not too many
    bikers, at least in the first half of the trip. We literally had
    the canal to ourselves.

    We maintained a steady pace and were averaging over 15 miles an
    hour, including stops, for the first 120 miles or so. Then our
    stops grew a little longer (we had to refill camelbacks and `make'
    Gatorade from the powder we carried). Also, we would stop to savor
    some `real food' (in this case fig newtons, which were the only
    thing we had that didn't start with the word `power').

    At around mile 100, we had to take a 5-mile detour to get around a
    short section where there was a lot of flood damage. We went up a
    hill (really, a HILL), then decided we better go back and read the
    directions for the detour…so we did HILL REPEATS! (Well, we ended up
    doing the hill twice). Ironically the detour brought us to the
    final 8-½ miles of the JFK50 course…the part on Dam #4 Road. We did
    about 4 miles of the course before dropping back into the canal for
    the next 26 miles into Harper's Ferry. I have done the JFK50 twice,
    and never has that stretch felt so long…I realize that all of us who
    do that race are truly a little over the bend…

    To make a long story short, despite the detours, where we actually
    had to walk our bikes up some steps and go around stretches of the
    Canal, and the fact that you really can't get speed on the canal (I
    think the fastest we rode consistently was around 17 or so miles per
    hour). Our top speeds were around 25, but they were short down some
    of the locks. We finished the ride 13 hours and 25 minutes after we
    started it…averaging just under 15 miles per hour including stops.
    I figure we spent about a total of an hour off the bikes, so our
    rolling average was around 15.2 or so.

    (Tony went back to Cumberland on the train to pick up the car-- they don't let bikes on the train-- hopefully you can arrange for a ride to Cumberland, as going back is a pain).

  12. #12
    Senior Member balto charlie's Avatar
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    Hey buelito: Quite a ride. What seat do you think might be best. I am really comfortable on my Brooks BUT don't know how comfortable it will be on a bumpy road. I was thinking about shock seat post or a Brooks with springs. Thanks Charlie

  13. #13
    train safe buelito's Avatar
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    I have since ridden quite a bit of off road on mountain bikes, and feel that the front suspension is well worth it... I am not convinced about the suspension seatpost-- I would probably stay rigid. As far as saddle-- well, it's a personal choice. I have never ridden a Brooks (although I had a "Wrights" saddle in the early 70's-- it was basically a Brooks with a different label-- Use a saddle you are comfortable with. I really can't make any recommendations there-

    I look forward to reading your ride report-

    train safe-

  14. #14
    Crawlin' up, flyin' down bikingshearer's Avatar
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    I did the C&O from Cumberland to D.C. 26 years ago as the final part of a a cross-country loaded tour. I was on it for two and a half days, including a fair amount of one day spent tooling around the Antietam battlefield, (I'm a low-grade Civil War buff, too.) Obviously, I can't give you any meaningful current condition info, but perhaps some general observations and recollections might help.

    My recollection is that the general trend is that the trail becomes better maintained and faster the closer you get to Washington. The last 20 or so miles to DC was dirt/gravel, but smooth, hard-packed, and as fast as any equally flat paved road. Upstream, there were quite a few sections with exposed rocks and tree roots to contend with. Nothing insurmountable, but enough to slow you down regardless of what kind of bike you are one.

    As for slope, the entire tow path is about as dead flat as you could ask for. As someone said, the only real elevation changes are at the locks.

    As far as tires go, anything 700cx28 or wider ought to suffice. 700cx32 or wider would serve you better if you are carrying much gear, but even then 28's would probably see you through unless you are well into Clydesdale size. If you are on a road bike, check any rack or fender bolts regularly. The path as a whole is bumpier than any road - not enough to spoil the fun, but enough so that you are far more likely to rattle a bolt loose or out than you are used to on the road. (That's the reason I ended up doing the last 40 miles of my cross-country jaunt with a spoke twisted like a twist-tie attaching the left leg of my rear rack or the frame. It was worth lugging that pair of pliers the entire length to the US of A just to be able to salvage those last few miles.)

    Basicall, the C&O is a 184 mile long fire road that ranges from okay to glass-smooth for about 95% of its length, with occassional patches of not-so-great-but-doable. If you are on a hybrid or mtb, any tires will work, smooth tires will probably work better - there is pretty much no sand and usually not enough mud to make knobbies worth the extra rolling resistance, especially since you are flat-landing it) and the real issue is long-distance body comfort, not traction. If you are comfortable on your current machine for the distances you are anticipating doing, I wouldn't worry about making major changes to your equipment except possibly tires. (Of course, I am a strong advocate of not using anything on a major ride that you have used several times before - a century ride is not the place to break in a new pair of shoes, for example.)

    As you ride, ask people going the other way for info on trail conditions ahead. By doing that, I avoided a major problem (long-since repaired, I'm sure) somewhere near Williamsport, which allowed me to plan ahead and avoid having to back-track.

    Unless someone has done some serious brush and tree clearing in the last 26 years, be prepared to see less in the way of sweeping, panoramic scenery than you might expect. My recollection is that there is usually a layer of foliage between you and the Potomac and another layer between you and whatever is to the north. There are plenty of exceptions, and I am not complaining - a lot of that riding leaves you feeling like you are in a very pleasant alternate universe where there is no one to bother you or spoil your fun. Just don't expect to have non-stop breath-taking views along the C&O.

    Bring bug repellent. Gnats and mosquitoes love the C&O also.
    "I'm in shape -- round is a shape." Andy Rooney

  15. #15
    Because I thought I could ks1g's Avatar
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    I'm assuming this is the Tour de Canal organized by the DC area chapter of the Alzheimers Association. If I recall, some of their qualifying rides are on the towpath, so you'll have 1st-hand experience with the trail conditions. You can get current info and search for ride reports on the coTowpath yahoo group athttp://groups.yahoo.com/group/coTowpath/messages .

    The trail is non-technical flat, sometimes muddy (VERY muddy if raining - fenders came in handy!) sometimes gravel (most in pretty good shape). Because of the soft surface, it's hard to get over 15 mph (which is the towpath "speed limit"). I rode it end-to end last year on a hard tail MTB with recessed-knob 1.75" tires; my son rode it on 700x30s. A hybrid, MTB, or cross bike will do fine, maybe a tourer with wider tires. There is a lot of vibration from the trail surface - anything lose WILL break or fall off. There are hiker-biker campsites with hand-pump water and chemical toilets about every 10 miles; bring a drink mix as while the water is safe, it sometimes looks or tastes a bit, ahem, wierd. Bring bug repellant (more for when stopped than when riding), expect to get muddy if it rains, enjoy the cooler (hopefully) September weather, the scenery and history (the canal & PawPaw tunnel was dug by hand and black powder). Most of all, kudos for supporting a fine organization and charity.

  16. #16
    Unholy Rouleur
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    Don't go in the rain. Attempted it with some friends, mostly fixed gear cyclocross bikes (cross bikes are a great choice, BTW, durable but fast) during the recent deluge in late June. Seven inches of rain later, 75 miles, we made the call of shame. I imagine it's a bit easier if you aren't caught up in something resembling hurricane level rains. We will re-attempt it in the fall or next spring. The trail wasn't hard riding at all - bumpy like going down a rough road shoulder - and if not for the torrential rains would not have been a problem. I was running 44:17 and might run 44:18 or :19 if I had to do it again, and take it easier. Good luck with it, bet you'll do fine.

  17. #17
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    Thanks for all the replies!!!

    This is all great info. I thank everyone for taking the time!

    I took some training rides that were around 50 milers. Decent pace of 12mph. Was using the mountain bike. All was good until I saw a group of guys in hybrids just pass me so effortlessly. Maybe it's just my ego, but it really looked like I was peddaling at the same RPM rate. Bottom line, I'll probably stick to my mountain bike since I am not doing this to race. But do 700cc tires really make that much of a difference?

  18. #18
    Senior Member balto charlie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by afflatus
    This is all great info. I thank everyone for taking the time!

    I took some training rides that were around 50 milers. Decent pace of 12mph. Was using the mountain bike. All was good until I saw a group of guys in hybrids just pass me so effortlessly. Maybe it's just my ego, but it really looked like I was peddaling at the same RPM rate. Bottom line, I'll probably stick to my mountain bike since I am not doing this to race. But do 700cc tires really make that much of a difference?
    What really helps is tire width and tread. If you can get by with 1.5 x 26 semi slicks on your mnt bike I would go that way. Way less rolling and wind resistance with a narrower, less treaded tire. Folks say that wind resistance is more significant than rolling resistance??? I don't know if this is true.

  19. #19
    ...into the blue...
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    I'd worry about the butt more than the speed....

    A buddy and I did this (+ 30-mile lead-in) last year in 2 1/2 days. I was using 26x1.5 armadillos. You can get up to 15 mph or so on some of the path, but it gets very painful after a while. We left the path in the middle section in an effort to find smooth road.

    I don't remember any of the street names, but if you look at a map there is a big bend of road that comes near the towpath, say 80 miles (give or take 20) from cumberland. The smooth road was much appreciated, but we ended up doing some hills, which we handn't prepared for (my buddy was riding a road bike 700x28 w/ corncob gearing). However, there was one beautiful 10-mile stretch where we averaged >20mph, despite my MTB, camping gear etc. It just felt so good....

    Bottom line was that it was beautiful, but in retrospect I would have either taken more time, or put on fatter tires, because it took more than a week before I could sit a bike w/o pain.

    The highlights of the trip were the evenings, where we sat in the potomac (careful of the current), drinking beer.

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