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GAP and C&O trails

Old 04-20-24, 08:22 PM
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GAP and C&O trails

Pittsburg, PA to Washington, DC.
Looking for some suggestion from people that rode this before. This summer I m planning to ride from Pittsburg, PA on GAP trai - C&O canal trail to Washington DC, about 320-345 miles, no camping, staying in hotels. I m thinking to ride at a slow touring pace about 60-75 miles a day. Most online suggestions recommend riding 40-50 miles a day. That seems too short for me, since I m used to riding brevets, that is why I m posting it in a long distance forum. At the same time I do not want to overexhaust myself. Any suggestions are welcome.
The plan is:
Pittsburg ~75 miles to Ohiopyle,`
Ohiopyle ~70 miles to Cumberland,
Cumberland ~60 miles to Hancock,
Hancock ~60 miles to Harpers Ferry,
Harpers Ferry ~70 miles to Washington, DC

Last edited by Andrey; 04-20-24 at 08:29 PM.
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Old 04-20-24, 08:31 PM
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The shorter distance is likely due to a slower pace on gravel. 65-70 makes for a long day. Only you know what kind of pace you can maintain.
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Old 04-21-24, 01:08 AM
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Originally Posted by Andrey
Pittsburg, PA to Washington, DC.
Looking for some suggestion from people that rode this before. This summer I m planning to ride from Pittsburg, PA on GAP trai - C&O canal trail to Washington DC, about 320-345 miles, no camping, staying in hotels. I m thinking to ride at a slow touring pace about 60-75 miles a day. Most online suggestions recommend riding 40-50 miles a day. That seems too short for me, since I m used to riding brevets, that is why I m posting it in a long distance forum. ...
Until I saw that last sentance, I was going to suggest you post this on the touring forum. Now I see why it is here.

Originally Posted by Andrey
... Any suggestions are welcome.
The plan is:
Pittsburg ~75 miles to Ohiopyle,`
Ohiopyle ~70 miles to Cumberland,
Cumberland ~60 miles to Hancock,
Hancock ~60 miles to Harpers Ferry,
Harpers Ferry ~70 miles to Washington, DC
I did it in 2013 with two friends, we were camping. Some meals were restaurant, some made in the campsites.

I am glad you posted the elevation profile, as that helps a lot. About 50 miles out of Pittsburgh, it starts getting steeper. It is shallow enough that it does not look like a hill, but you find you are in a gear or two lower than you would normally expect and you just feel like things are slow as you slowly grind up a shallow hill. And once you hit the peak, it is a nice downhill run to Cumberland when you are in your highest gear. Thus, your second day could be a bit of a chore because the first 50 miles will be a bit slow, that might be your hardest day.

To put the distances into perspective, I am trying to get ready for a brevet at the end of this month or in May. I have been building up my distances. This past Monday I rode 90.1 miles, of that 20 miles was on pavement and 70 miles was on rail trail gravel with intermittent mud. I rode my heavy touring bike with 57mm wide tires, Rohloff hub, etc. My point is that if I could ride 90 miles of a local rail trail with a heavy bike while trying to get ready for a brevet, I think you should have no difficulty doing the 70 miles to Cumberland on Day 2.

Somewhere in Cumberland, I saw a sign that said the GAP was one way, the C&O was the other way. Most people think of them as the same trail, but they have different organizations maintaining them, the C&O is mostly flat and level tow paths along canal where the GAP is rail trail with shallow grades. Even the soil types are different on the two trails.

For us, the GAP trail was probably softer, we rode it in early May, thus seasonally wetter. But the C&O trail felt quite firm.

My memory is a bit faint on this because it was over a decade ago when I rode it, but I clearly remember walking my bike through a tunnel that was very dark and very long with low batteries in my light. Be ready for walking a bike through such a tunnel, a battery light would work better at that speed than a dyno powered one.

I used 50mm wide tires, my friends had 35 and 47mm wide tires. Each of us thought that we had the perfect tires. We had several days of rain, trail was wet, but I was pleasantly surprised how solid the trail was under the puddles. But we were carrying food and cooking gear, etc. And we did it in six days.

I am sure you can ride it faster and longer distances than we did, you are used to longer distance riding. I did my first brevet several years after I rode GAP and C&O. The two friends that I rode it with have never done a brevet.

We were doing it at touring speed, meaning leisurely setting up tents, maybe having a beer while cooking supper, etc. No time cutoff to worry about.

My photos are 11 years old, it may look different now. When I got home, I was wondering why I had so few photos. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to keep my camera dry. This was the last tour I did without a waterproof camera.












Since you are in NY, I am not commenting on how hot summer can get, I am sure you are familiar with similar weather. That was why we picked early May instead of summer. It was our bad luck that for us that meant a very wet trip.

Have a great trip.
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Old 04-21-24, 08:59 AM
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GAP trail impressions
In July 2018, I did a couple of out-and-back day rides on the trail. No panniers, of course. I stopped a lot to take pictures, and wasn't in any hurry to finish -- the weather was great and the scenery was very interesting. I had my gravel bike with 38mm smooth tread tires. That worked great--the wide tires just floated on top of the hard packed crushed stone surface. Narrower ones would be good, too. I haven't ridden the canal trail, which can be muddier. The crushed stone on the GAP trail had two very hard packed lanes, packed down by bike tires. The center could sometimes be a bit softer, and there were occasional conventional gravel patched spots. But most of the surface was very hard and smooth, with a quarter inch of loose fine rock particles on the surface.

Day 1: Rockwood to the PA state line and back, then some extra miles in the other direction to the Pinkerton Tunnel and back. I could tell the difference in grade when I rode the opposite direction, but my average speeds are quite similar.
66 miles, 1600 feet. 12.6 mph, moving time 5:15, stopped time 2:21. My local road rides are 40-60 miles, 50 feet per mile, around 14 mph average. Your plan sounds good since you are used to long rides.
My strava title: GAP trail, tunnels and viaducts.
(Both were amazing)

Day 2: Connellsville to Confluence and back.
56 miles, 850 feet. 12.9 mph, 4:20 ride time, 2:30 stopped time.
The few miles near Ohiopyle park were fairly busy with walkers and some cyclists, so I cruised that at an easy pace. The trail wasn't busy otherwise. Walkers within a mile of the town trailheads, and cyclists every couple of minutes on the rest of the trail.
My notes on Strava:
Titled: Gap trail, forest and river
Shaded trail all day. Could be the best part of the GAP trail.
Stopping for photos today -- segment times don't matter, just take in the experience.
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Old 04-21-24, 02:33 PM
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I don't know how active the touring forum is, but this still seems like a touring post to me. If you were going to do it crush the commonwealth style, maybe not. I know some people have done the whole GAP/C&O in a single ride. Doesn't sound like a lot of fun. I think for most people used to randonneuring distances, 60-75 miles would be fine, particularly staying in hotels. It's not like you are proposing to do 100 miles and then camping.

I DNF'd a brevet and rode back to the start partially using the C&O. My understanding is that they don't believe in maintaining the surface to be ridable because of some purity of essence problems. I didn't enjoy it. I don't know if that has changed or not. I was riding my road bike with 32mm tires, and the roots really got to me. I suggest wider tires than that, if possible. I think it still would have been annoying with 40mm tires, but not nearly as much.

Last edited by unterhausen; 04-21-24 at 02:38 PM.
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Old 04-22-24, 05:04 PM
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Last October wife and I, early 70+ year old, but strong like bull, rode the GAP in 2 days. One night at hotel In ohiopyle. Then to Cumberland and train back to Pitt.

We have done the whole thing twice. We preferred the 7 day relaxed approach but I expect 5 days would work.

It would be wise to prearrange hotels.
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Old 04-22-24, 11:50 PM
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I've done this twice. Pittsburg to DC in 6 days. That seemed like rushing it as there is a lot to do along the trails.

First time with 3 others. We drove to Pittsburg. I found a hotel right next to the trail that let us leave the auto in their lot for free as long as we stayed at least 1 night. We stopped more often to sight see and do other things along the trail. A side trip to Falling Water for example. I did notice the trail grade a bit. Fenders are a must on the C&O. I learned it's better to ride through the puddles than to go around them. The bottom of the puddles is solid, the ground next to them is very mushy. I nearly went into the Potomac at one point trying to avoid a puddle. I rode a Gary Fisher mtb with 2" Kenda Komfort tires. Motels every night. That really cuts down on the gear to haul. We stayed extra days in DC as tourists. The one downside was we got to DC when congress was in session so everything is booked and packed with lobbyists, etc. We had to stay in a seedy place in Arlington. DC is a huge tourist destination as well at all times. We took Amtrak back to Pittsburg. The train arrives there at 12:30 AM! We had to box the bikes in DC. The walk on bike racks are booked many months in advance by the local commuters. The day we left DC, there was no baggage car so the bikes were shipped the next day via Amtrak to Colorado and back to Mt Pleasant Iowa before I could retrieve them about 5 days later. The prick running the Mt Pleasant station only works when the train is scheduled to arrive and if it's late, he locks the place up and leaves. No one to unload baggage so it just bounces between Denver and Chicago until a train is on time.

Second time I did the trails solo finishing up a cross USA ride. I had a slight tail wind all the time so I never noticed the grade going up. Hum, or maybe it was because I was in shape after riding 3000 miles. The grade map makes it look ominous but it isn't. No issues taking Amtrak from DC to Chicago.

I do recommend reserving motels a day in advance or more. One place I stayed at in Hancock should be condemned if it hasn't been already. The super 8 is a palace by comparison. The motel in Cumberland is excellent, right on the trail and elevators big enough for a couple bikes. All the motels were quite welcoming to cyclists. Bring good battery lights for the tunnels. The one is only rideable if you have very good skills and don't meet up with facing walkers or riders. It's the 3000 foot long PawPaw tunnel. A raised wood side walk in a tunnel that now houses a creek. Very damp and water constantly dripping down. Dissolved rock re solidified on the narrow surface makes it rather lumpy and slick at times. Be sure to bring a light rain jacket, better yet, one with a hoodie. Walking means you get even more cold water dripping down your neck. I met up with a tourist pushing her kids in a baby stroller in the middle of that tunnel, in heels and no lights. Yikes. I always take a battery headlight as a backup for the generator light anyhow. The rest of the tunnels are no problem. Big, airy, some are even lit.

This is a great pair of trails. I wouldn't mind riding them again. Long enough to be worth the travel time to get there and back. Much more interesting than the many rail trails in the middle of corn fields.
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Old 04-23-24, 05:25 AM
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When I did it in 2013, when we got to DC, stayed there three nights so we could sightsee. I spent two full days in Smithsonian.

I have no idea if hostels in the post-covid era are still the same as they used to be, but staying at the HI Hostel in DC was very affordable.

But we were camping on the trail, so staying at a hostel was an upgrade for us. Those that always sleep indoors might not appreciate the hostel lifestyle.
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Old 04-23-24, 12:11 PM
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Originally Posted by Tourist in MSN
Until I saw that last sentance, I was going to suggest you post this on the touring forum. Now I see why it is here.
This subforum still isn’t the best place to ask. The plan doesn’t entail brevet riding at all. It’s not like 70 mile days require brevet riding experience. And it seems most brevet riders would prefer doing more miles per day than that.

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Old 04-23-24, 12:20 PM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
The shorter distance is likely due to a slower pace on gravel. 65-70 makes for a long day. Only you know what kind of pace you can maintain.
The suggestion of shorter distances are more likely to appeal to people with less experience (and how well services are spaced out).

If the weather is good, 70 miles per day aren’t going to make much of a “long day” if one has some experience.

The GAP was graded (when I did it) and isn’t really “gravel” riding.
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Old 04-23-24, 02:34 PM
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Originally Posted by njkayaker

The GAP was graded (when I did it) and isn’t really “gravel” riding.
To each his own. I watched a series of cross country (U.S.) and cross France YT's where they seemed perfectly happy with 35-45 miles per day, on trails of varied surfaces, sometimes they did longer 60 or so. They also liked to get up late. I too would think a fit and experienced rider would be fine on 60 'ish.


And I'm curious what you call the GAP if not "gravel'. The website refers to it as "evenly-topped with crushed limestone". That sounds to me like gravel.
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Old 04-23-24, 04:50 PM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
And I'm curious what you call the GAP if not "gravel'. The website refers to it as "evenly-topped with crushed limestone". That sounds to me like gravel.
It's quite smooth. Almost smooth as good pavement. You can ride it comfortably and without incident on 25mm tires. So, I wouldn't categorize it as gravel either.
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Old 04-23-24, 09:40 PM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
And I'm curious what you call the GAP if not "gravel'. The website refers to it as "evenly-topped with crushed limestone". That sounds to me like gravel.
"gravel" is such a broad term. Gravel comes in many sizes and materials and mixes.

The GAP is "Pea Gravel" because it's the size of peas. Limestone is relatively soft so vehicles (bikes included) grind it down and the dust helps hold it together and it drains well which is good for trails but the kicked up dust isn't so good for bike drive lines.

If you want real gravel, try Iowa farm roads and leave your 25mm tires, slicks or fine treads at home. Each mile is maintained on each county's own schedule and each county has a different idea of what an acceptable road surface is for farm equipment and not bikes. Most road departments use what is cheap and available nearby. In some area's it's "river gravel", a mix of rounded rocks and sand. Usually quarried next to rivers. Others use crushed limestone ranging in size from walnuts to baseballs. In the Loess hills, the roads are a mix of sand, rounded hard river rock and Loess hills wind blown dust which acts like a lubricant to prevent the rock & sand from getting firm. Pretty much impossible to ride up a hill when your wheels sink in a few inches and the surface is so loose you can't get traction with any kind of tire/bike.

There is also pea granite. The George Mikelson trail in South Dakota is all pea sized granite as there is no limestone in the Black Hills. It is much harder material that does not grind down to dust, compact or ever 'set up'. But it is clean. 109 miles (x2 for a round trip) and the bikes were dust free. Being loose, you definitely feel the extra effort to ride.
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Old 04-24-24, 04:04 AM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
To each his own. I watched a series of cross country (U.S.) and cross France YT's where they seemed perfectly happy with 35-45 miles per day, on trails of varied surfaces, sometimes they did longer 60 or so. They also liked to get up late.
??? This isn’t the OP. They want to do 60-75 mile days and are asking the question in a subforum where it’s (fairly) normal to do 250 mile days.

Originally Posted by Steve B.
And I'm curious what you call the GAP if not "gravel'. The website refers to it as "evenly-topped with crushed limestone". That sounds to me like gravel.
You could use a road bike on it.

“Gravel” suggests being rough enough to need a “gravel bike”.

Originally Posted by Steve B.
I too would think a fit and experienced rider would be fine on 60 'ish.
This was the thing missing from your first reply.

Originally Posted by Steve B.
The shorter distance is likely due to a slower pace on gravel. 65-70 makes for a long day. Only you know what kind of pace you can maintain.
People might get an impression from this that it’s “difficult to ride on” such that it wouldn’t be reasonable to do 60-75 mile days on it.

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Old 04-24-24, 05:14 AM
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Originally Posted by Steamer
It's quite smooth. Almost smooth as good pavement. You can ride it comfortably and without incident on 25mm tires. So, I wouldn't categorize it as gravel either.
When I did it in early May 2013, that was not long after spring thaw and the GAP was not solid like concrete, it felt a bit soft. I was glad I had 50mm tires, but as I noted in my previous post, others in my group had 35 and 47mm tires, they were both happy with their tire choices too. We had camping gear loads on our bikes, thus more weight on the tires.

Later in summer I would expect it to get much harder.

Trails like that often have varying conditions over the hundreds of miles. And maintenance over that distance will vary too.
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Old 04-24-24, 06:28 AM
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Originally Posted by njkayaker
??? This isn’t the OP. They want to do 60-75 mile days and are asking the question in a subforum where it’s (fairly) normal to do 250 mile days.



You could use a road bike on it.

“Gravel” suggests being rough enough to need a “gravel bike”.


This was the thing missing from your first reply.


People might get an impression from this that it’s “difficult to ride on” such that it wouldn’t be reasonable to do 60-75 mile days on it.
Originally Posted by rickpaulos
"gravel" is such a broad term. Gravel comes in many sizes and materials and mixes.

The GAP is "Pea Gravel" because it's the size of peas. Limestone is relatively soft so vehicles (bikes included) grind it down and the dust helps hold it together and it drains well which is good for trails but the kicked up dust isn't so good for bike drive lines.

If you want real gravel, try Iowa farm roads and leave your 25mm tires, slicks or fine treads at home. Each mile is maintained on each county's own schedule and each county has a different idea of what an acceptable road surface is for farm equipment and not bikes. Most road departments use what is cheap and available nearby. In some area's it's "river gravel", a mix of rounded rocks and sand. Usually quarried next to rivers. Others use crushed limestone ranging in size from walnuts to baseballs. In the Loess hills, the roads are a mix of sand, rounded hard river rock and Loess hills wind blown dust which acts like a lubricant to prevent the rock & sand from getting firm. Pretty much impossible to ride up a hill when your wheels sink in a few inches and the surface is so loose you can't get traction with any kind of tire/bike.

There is also pea granite. The George Mikelson trail in South Dakota is all pea sized granite as there is no limestone in the Black Hills. It is much harder material that does not grind down to dust, compact or ever 'set up'. But it is clean. 109 miles (x2 for a round trip) and the bikes were dust free. Being loose, you definitely feel the extra effort to ride.
"Gravel" can be mostly larger pieces that aren't packed into the surface when laid down and spread out.
"Crushed stone" is a mix of sizes from much smaller than sand to whatever the largest particle size is allowed in the mix. These are crushed from rock, with angular edges, not like rounded beach sand. So it packs down into a hard surface. All the different particle sizes pack down and interlock.

From my August 2018 trip:
A thin layer of tiny loose rock over a smooth, packed surface.



~~~
And at the Mason-Dixon Line monument.

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Old 04-24-24, 10:28 AM
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Gravel particles range from 2mm to 63 or 64mm in size.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grain_size

But I am a geological engineer (retired), thus I am obligated to use the correct technical terms.

Everyone else, I do not care what you call it.
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Old 04-26-24, 01:08 AM
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Originally Posted by Andrey
Pittsburg, PA to Washington, DC.
Looking for some suggestion from people that rode this before. This summer I m planning to ride from Pittsburg, PA on GAP trai - C&O canal trail to Washington DC, about 320-345 miles, no camping, staying in hotels.
I believe ‘no camping’ is a key factor

if you are camping you will often need to tailor the length of the ride (on a particular day) to coincide with available camping spots … and will also need time to set up camp … prepare food … etc (many prefer to get a relatively early start for these activities … before dark if not dusk)

( plus added weight due to camping gear, food, etc )

so this can impact the number of miles you ride on a particular day

of course - available lodging / hotels can also be a challenge and figure into the length of rides

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Old 04-26-24, 01:18 AM
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Steve B makes a good point about the bike trail surface - regardless of the various interpretations of the labels of the surfaces

the rolling resistance is higher on the smooth crushed limestone bike trails - compared to paved trails and roads
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Old 04-26-24, 06:55 AM
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Originally Posted by t2p
Steve B makes a good point about the bike trail surface - regardless of the various interpretations of the labels of the surfaces

the rolling resistance is higher on the smooth crushed limestone bike trails - compared to paved trails and roads
Steve’s point is mostly irrelevant to the OP and gives the impression that the paths are more difficult than they are.

The OP does brevets, which entail riding 125 to 250 miles in a day.

As far as “gravel” goes (or even not), the GAP is an easy surface to ride on. Some people do it on road bikes. The C&O surface isn’t difficult either but it’s narrower and worse in rain than the GAP

And they are also flat as hell (*). That is an aspect of the “difficulty” people are just passing by. The GAP does have a long uphill but it’s very gradual. It also has a long downhill.

The OP should have no issue at all doing 70 mile days on these.

———————————

It appears that some people:
  • aren’t aware of what this subforum is about.
  • haven’t done the sort of riding this subforum is about.
  • are not considering the experience/conditioning needed to do those rides.
  • have never actually have ridden on the GAP and C&O.
———————————

* there are a few places were one has to go off the GAP onto roads. Those can be fairly hilly but the distances aren’t very long.

Last edited by njkayaker; 04-29-24 at 01:42 PM.
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Old 04-26-24, 07:34 AM
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Originally Posted by njkayaker
Steve’s point is mostly irrelevant to the OP and gives the impression that they are more difficult than they are.
g.
My response was completely relevant. The OP was pondering why some recommendations are for shorter days. My response simply stated that riding a trail, that I consider gravel (I don't really care what you call it), often times shows you riding at a slower pace than riding on asphalt. Thus more time required to cover 60 miles. That is completely relevant to the OP.
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Old 04-26-24, 07:44 AM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
My response was completely relevant. The OP was pondering why some recommendations are for shorter days. My response simply stated that riding a trail, that I consider gravel (I don't really care what you call it), often times shows you riding at a slower pace than riding on asphalt. Thus more time required to cover 60 miles. That is completely relevant to the OP.
Seems almost certain you’ve never rode it.

Again, a big part of “recommending” shorter days is because that advice is for much less experienced and more casual and slower riders.

Which is a thing you and others keep ignoring.

Another important aspect of “recommending” shorter days is how much time is spent off the bike. If the OP plans on riding more of a brevet style, he’s not likely to be spending much time off the bike.

And, while it’s is a slower surface, it’s not enough slower to not do 60-75 mile days. Especially, for an experienced rider used to doing much longer days.

———————————————

Searches suggest that typical average speeds are 8-12 mph. For 75 miles: at 8 mph, that’s 9.4 hours riding; at 12 mph, it’s 6.3 hours riding.

Unless the OP is on the slow side, that the surface is slower doesn’t seem relevant to his plans at all.

https://www.greateskape.com/blog/fktthegapco

Last edited by njkayaker; 04-26-24 at 08:19 AM.
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Old 04-26-24, 08:17 AM
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Andrey - as a randonneur, you will find 70 miles a day on the GAP pretty easy. The C&O slightly harder, but only slightly, unless it is wet, as the mud holes can be gigantic during wet weather in certain areas. Make sure you have fenders if you tackle the C&O.

By way of example (for several of the issued being discussed), the first day of the Pittsburgh 600K last year concluded with the stretch from Rockwood to Homestead (97 miles). The GAP was a bit mind-numbing as a lot of it was done at night, and you feel like you are riding in a tunnel, but it was, by far, the physically easiest part of the ride. https://ridewithgps.com/trips/122602741 The GAP is more entertaining during the day but still quite low on "stimulation", relative to riding on a road. It can be meditative. Not a bad thing.
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Old 04-29-24, 09:03 AM
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Thank you, all.

Thank you everybody with your suggestions and opinions. I have decided to ride the GAP in two days and the C&O Canal in 3 days, total 5 days of riding. That will be about-75-75-60-60 and 60 miles daily staying in hotels. I was concerned about the unpaved "gravel" trails would slow me down considerably in comparison to riding paved brevets. Also I want to ride slower than we usually ride brevets, to enjoy the scenery more. If I leave about 8-9 am it probably would take me 5-6 hours of easy riding and 2-3 hours for stops. It means I would finish the day about 5 -6 pm , just enough time to have a nice dinner with beer/wine and relax at the hotel Thanks again.
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Old 04-29-24, 09:17 AM
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sounds like a plan !

found this (and other related videos) :


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